Friday, April 2, 2010


It’s a bit of a paradox: an idea that has influenced the writing of poetry for the better part of a century that shuns the idea of ideas. “No ideas but in things” invoked by William Carlos Williams held that poets should reject preconceived ideas and inherited “literariness” in the construction of their poems and use instead, as their exclusive, primary material, the objects they find locally. Three decades later Charles Olson would re-shape Williams’ line as “not in ideas, but in things”, a dictum which Bruce Elder tells us is actually pretty straightforward: “Language doesn’t constitute meanings on its own. Only the objects of the real world make up its meaning”. Still, “things” get a little tricky when you confer, as Olson does, the status of object upon the inner workings of the poem itself:

“(E)very element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality...these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world.”

What neither Olson nor Williams explains is how a new aesthetic should emerge around the notion of “objects” when what actually constitutes an object or thing remains in dispute after several millennia of some very smart people trying. A very old view and one to which many poets still subscribe is the commonsense view of physical objects, i.e. that they exist independent of our perception of them. Why is this important? Because whole generations of poets have largely turned away from ideas to locating just the “right word”, the “right image” to capture the “essence” of things or at the very least those essential characteristics of objects that become important to the poem.

The results have been mixed. Uninteresting or very bad poets behave as if there really is a strict demarcation between themselves and the objects that make up the world around them, at which point the job of the poem becomes simply to ensure that it mirrors the “real” world. Other poets recognize an interrelationship between themselves and objects. They understand implicitly that we have no way of knowing objects except by way of our several senses and that far from being an unreliable source of information, our experience, our senses are a primary and continual source for the variety and ambiguity and richness that makes up the real world of object and subject and the making of poems.

This “representational” view of the world is derived from a long line of philosophic enquiry that began with Plato and culminated in the speculative work of Rene Descartes. What intrigued Descartes, and later Immanuel Kant, is the place that ideas or concepts play in this representational construction of the universe. For his part, Kant gave ideas equal place in our understanding of the world: “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.”

But don’t take Kant’s word for it; simply observe a child charmed by the light of Christmas tree lights who later reaches out and touches what appears to be identical in shape and intent – a burning candle flame - only to recoil in pain when her idea of a thing fails to match her experience. It’s a way of understanding (or misunderstanding) the world that stays with us, adjudicated by how the ideas we have about the world and our experience of it converge or diverge. When what we believe is validated by our experience we have that wonderful sensation of “getting it right”. When our experience confounds what we’ve been led to believe though our education, our parents etc we’re momentarily deflated and must start back at the beginning - but not by dismissing ideas but by adjusting them or looking for better ones.

Ultimately, all our ideas coalesce into a large schema of the world that is continually being tested – not in university classrooms, but in our daily experience, ideas filtered and synthesized through experience and ultimately providing a coherent picture of the world.

So why have so many poets failed to appreciate this fact or worse still turned their back on the enormous richness and variety of ideas that are available to them and that might be useful in the one experience that matters most to them – the writing of poetry? Why have they focussed with such enormous strain upon the image of things at the expense of what they think and feel about those things and what all this might mean for their work and for their readers?

The answer is that we’ve been hoodwinked into believing ideas, however broadly you define them, are off limits to poets.

Even Williams and Olson understood that their aesthetic could not survive without ideas. As Olson said in the quote above, “every element” - and that includes sense - must be “taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality.” Speech and the words from which speech is derived are “prior to all you are, and more necessary to you...than your toes, or your opposable thumb.” The question remains then of what this speech and these words comprise. Answer to the first question, says Olson: the spoken unit of speech, the syllable. Answer to the second: the head, the intellect, ideas.

“I am dogmatic, that the head shows in the syllable. The dance of the intellect is there, among them, prose or verse. Consider the best minds you know in this here business: where does the head show, is it not, precise, here, in the swift currents of the syllable?”

To say that Olson suppresses the importance of the intellect and ideas is not to say that he rejects them outright. And why would you want to? After all, there’s a reason you’re bored to tears as someone drones on at so many poetry readings. It’s because an important part of you is not being engaged.
One reason David Zieroth won the Governor General’s Award for poetry last year is his courage in tackling ideas. A case in point: his poem “Man in the Ice Fog” where the speaker “tries to believe that somewhere sun/shines hard on beaches, hot dog buns/scrambling children, waves, a seaside town/laughing at its own leisure”. The effort here is not to assemble an inventory of objects as a way to conjure up feelings of longing or loss, but to test their reality, to question the substance of things and of existence itself:

…The man in the fog scuffs
his shoe against the cold unforgiving
stones; their grey blank layers don’t change,
he knows, for even in day-bright they’re strange

unremarkable chunks – like him today
earthbound, unable to walk beyond this mist

It’s clear that Zieroth’s poems emerge as a result of both ideas and images. Some ideas are very complex, like the nature of reality and existence explored here and elsewhere in his work. Other ideas are less so and as Zieroth explained in my recent interview with him (Speaking of Poems January 29) can result “from snatches of conversation. The people around me—at coffee shops, on buses, in conversation—are natural suppliers of ideas and lines and titles.” After a reading a few years ago Ken Babstock also talked about how “an idea would come to him” before he begins to write a poem.
What William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson really opposed was not so much ideas as unwarranted abstraction. Both pursued their objections to abstraction in their famous long poems about cities, Paterson and The Maximus Poems. It reminded me that I have agreed to stand up in front of Victoria City Council on May 13 and read a poem and also that nowhere do abstractions occur more frequently than in the political and administrative arms of large political bureaucracies. So what should a poem before city hall do but remind politicians and bureaucrats of the lives lived out beyond the confines of city hall and the policies on parkland, poverty and down town beautification.

I want to say to them that reading poems helps bring all that back to us and then read a poem to illustrate the fact, not to read a poem about cities necessarily, but about life. So that’s where you come in. Suggest a poem that reminds us about life, in whatever form it takes, the ground of our being or of our landscape, and I’ll read it May 13.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


you've raised so many points I don't know where to begin. I'll look at the idea-bashing of Olson and Williams.

(a)as you say I think they were warning us against 'abstractions',enjoining us to take real world stuff over the usual schmaltzy lyricism of traditional verse. But ideas can't be taken out of poetry any more than mathematics out of the motion of celestial bodies. It's forgotten that Olson, for all his materialism, was a big reader of Whitehead, particularly the celebrated "Process and Reality", a work whose key ideas derive from theism, Eastern spiritualism and Heraclitean metaphysics. I guess it's pretty hard to stay thoroughly object-centered in poetry: sooner or later 'ideas', if only about the nature of poetic 'processes', are bound to creep in, making the whole thing look pretty mystical.

I give you the case of Christian Bök who "foresee[s] that,as poetry adapts to the millenial condition of such innovative technology,a poem might soon resemble a weird genre of science-fiction, and a poet the xenotext experiment might become a breed of technician working in a linguistic laboratory." (from "The Xenotext Experiment") Can it get any weirder than that?

How deep into the DNA of material things do you have to get before the idea/thing distinction begins to wither away, leaving us in the end with a purely imaginative will-to-create far removed from reality? How many academic borders do you transgress before it becomes apparent that, even as Bök rightly admits, the whole experiment really only amounts to a whimsical aesthetics & an opportunity to discuss the scope and limits of artistic expression in general.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Another excellent post!

Suggest a poem, you say. It's impossible to suggest just one.

Since you mention him, "Suddenly the Rain Comes..." or "The New Pier" by David Zieroth would be great.

Or "Mountain Deeps", "Mountain Worker" or "Mountain Lotus" by Peter Van Toorn from his amazing book Mountain Tea.

Good luck to you!

David Kosub said...

Thanks for your kind remarks, Brenda, and for the poems. I'll take a peek.


John Pass said...

Yikes! Williams and Olson and any modernist worth his materials would be horrified to have his “ materialism” so thoroughly misunderstood. My recollection is that Williams said “no ideas but in things” not “no ideas in things” and was attempting the same healing of the West’s dualistic obsession that prompted stream of consciousness in fiction and drama, the “thinking’ in jazz, and just about any development in secular humanism since the reformation. No ideas but in things would hardly have been considered revolutionary to 18th cent. Rationalists. It’s almost a rewording of the essential tenet of the scientific method, that worthy thought and ideas depend upon our experience and articulation of observable phenomena. Good ideas are grounded. (And, for poets, inhabited, fully experienced subjectively rather than merely “observed” objectively. That is, the subjective and objective are melded in a taut balance. See George Oppen’s, The Materials, for example.) The best of the Romantics, that tribe so often maligned for high-blown sentiment and aerie fantasy, knew the distinction too. Coleridge thought “fancy’ a lesser order of thought than “imagination” and unworthy of poets. Williams’s notion that everything that exists must first be imagined and Olson’s thoughts re proprioception are extensions of C’s understanding of the poet’s immense task and responsibility; ie. if we “imagine” badly, if as a culture we allow the degradation of our imaginations, hive them off from the “things” of the world or the “ideas” generated in that adjacency, fail to talk the world we’re walking, we suffer big time.

It’s not at all a question of ideas versus things but a matter of our responsibility to our best sense of the Real, which, given our human sensory apparatus, must be physically grounded, as difficult as it might be to resist the beguilements of avatars, advertisers, angels and my little ponies.

I like Wendell Berry’s sense of the Real, that it must be informed by the Ideal to be fully whole, and vice versa. But Williams and Olson and most mid-twentieth century Modernists were out well beyond even his softened Christian humanist (and somewhat dualistic) construct in their thinking. They believed materialism held the seeds not only of the wasteland it was busy creating, but of the New World, the promised America of Whitman and Emerson. That slim vision got lost in the drug fantasies of the sixties and consequent New Age blather and is now almost entirely beyond embodiment. One poet who keeps to it exquisitely, who is consistently and astonishingly new and humane in her grasp of the immediate, her particular sensory responsibility/territory is Jorie Graham. Read her and weep (and rejoice!).

David Kosub said...

Thanks for picking up the omission, John. Yes, of course, Williams' dictum must have a "but" in it or the sense of the line is distorted.

But mostly thanks for the cogent response. Interestingly, I've just finished re-reading Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, wondering about their connection between Williams and Olson and you help us understand that. It seems right to centre that connection on the Imagination (though I must now go back and re-read with that in mind).

I should point out that my intent was never to pit “ideas against things”, but to address the prejudice against ideas and to show how ideas and our immediate sensation of objects work together. This is undermined by that widely shared misunderstanding about our relation to the physical world that I talked about early on. You provide a broader historical/literary context that helps us better understand and appreciate the argument – and much more besides. So again, much thanks.

Hey. Nice to see your appreciation of Jorie Graham, too.


John Pass said...

Yes David, you're right to identify that simple-minded bias against ideas in much contemp. verse. Part of the poetry is easy school!

And I'll confess that those modernists (Olson especially) too often get uncomfortably cerebral and abstract against their own dictums.

My favourite of Olson's, the one that stays truest, is "people never change, they just stand more
revealed" which is characterizes all of us thinking and responding to your postings. Thanks for them! Such furtherance is heartening.

Chris Banks said...

Wow! Great discussion guys. John, have you read Wendell Berry's new collection of essays "Imagination in Place"? It is well worth your while. And I have been enjoying your thoughts on poetry posted regularly here David. Keep it up.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Chris.

As promised I went back to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and found sections that support John’s comments about the grounding of the physical world and ideas in the imagination and how this has remained important for Williams and others since the Romantic period. Coleridge says, for example, that he was finally persuaded of Wordworths's genius not solely by his technique or his "freedom from false taste", but by something more elemental:

"It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed..."

This and other sections support both the argument for imagination and intellect - not the stuffy academic notions of intellect or of imagination as any fanciful association that might happen to come to the mind of the poet, but as thought and imagination emerging from the ground of our being and an awakened attention to the world around us. Coleridge adds that the prime task of genius is "to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and a freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than bodily, convalescence."


John Pass said...

No, I haven't seen that collection of Berry's Chris. I'll look for it. He such a humane, intelligent writer I can forgive his sometimes too Christian colouring. Thanks.
Wow, Coleridge was something wasn't he! I love that sense he has of a world in common, that we speak through, rather than the pop notion of infinite multiplicities of valid(ating) voices. Not that each voice hasn't its distinction and authority, but that each might be measured within/against shared elements to test its mettle.

David Cavanagh said...

David and others,

Wonderful discussion. Thank you. It seems to me that Williams and Olson eventually come to around to this: that poetry lies in the TENSION between thing and idea, between object and ego, between the perceived and the perceiver -- the charged thrumming that occurs when the line between thing and idea grows taut. Call it magic.

David: thank you so much for your weekly commentary. It's rich.


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