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.
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