AN ESSAY ON POETIC ORGANIZATION

          

            To be whole is to be part.

            True voyage is return.

                       -- Ursula Leguin, The Dispossessed

Preface: Letter to a Neoformalist Poetry Journal

Dear Editors,

                     I write this in response

to certain things I read in your last issue,

to statements of a formalist poetics

and a conservative politics. I hope

you will allow my writing this in verse,

which I adopt because it helps me see

the contour of my thought, and gives me hope

the reader, too, will see it. That verse can

be, inter alia, a tool of thought

is not without some bearing on the case.

First of all, letís start with formalism,

since poetry I think is at the center

of your reviewís and also my concern.

If I must choose between two monolithic

establishments, holding respectively

that formal and free verse alone can count,

Iíll go with formalism, for the reasons

youíve mentioned; but I do not want that choice;

nor do the fruits of the "new formalism,"

so far, persuade me that the outward forms

alone will get us back to the tradition.

Form in some recent poets is a hedge

bordering a neat suburban lawn,

the declaration of a territory

on which the reader is not really welcome,

only summoned to admire and envy

the air and apparatus of success.

Whereas in the tradition, formís a shell

that holds the voice of the abyss, a boat

in which the poet, and the reader with him,

put forth together on that face of that

same abyss, and not without some risk.

Nor is form always nameable in meter

and rhyme. There is the work of Paul Celan

-- here and there, scattered in the world, youíll find

readers who have the half of it by heart.

And there is Stephen Crane, whose rhymeless poems

are graven on my mind like numerals

of an invisible clock-dial, which the hour-hand

of my experience sweeps at intervals

for which I have no calculus. In short,

there is no formula for poetry.

It is the unexpected. It occurs;

to hail it you must step out of the frameworks

in which you tried to make yourself secure.

Thatís frightening (except to the extent

that one is suicidal) and perhaps

not possible, unless we have beneath us

some ultimate security, not formed

by right opinions and alliances

nor by deserving and accomplishment,

but what was given to Frostís dying tramp --

"something you somehow havenít to deserve."

Home. Mother. Human solidarity.

Which brings me to the second item on

the agenda of this letter. I must style

myself a communist -- with a small c:

I hold no brief for Lenin, Stalin, Mao,

nor for the academics you deride

(deacons of decon, parlor Marxists, builders

of intellectual ghettoes -- take Ďem all).

But nonetheless. I once began to read

The Wealth of Nations. Hadnít time to finish

but felt Iíd got the point, which thoroughly

appalled and scared me, namely the belief

that through the aggregate acts of selfishness

the common good arises. Thatís the premise

of much that calls itself conservatism

today; but I think it is not true.

The common good arises from concern

and through concerted action from concern.

Concern has its temptations, this I know.

They are painted large upon this centuryís canvas.

They all come down to the promptings of impatience,

which grasps for means that undercut the ends.

The wrongs that come in consequence are plain;

but so are those that come from substitution

of the appeal to selfishness for that

to conscience, which is consciousness of other

needs, besides oneís own immediate urge.

"A world of made is not a world of born,"

Cummings said truly; and a culture bought

and sold, is not a culture of true hearts.

Come let us reason: have you ever known

a salesman who attempted to instill

wisdom, humility, a reverent wonder

at the G-d-given world, a willingness

to sacrifice, a sense that some things are

quite irreplaceable? Such traits are not

useful to the marketer, who must

plant heedlessness, and unappeasable

hunger for what can never satisfy,

and arrogance, and envy of oneís neighbor,

to sell more things, things, things, till we are drowning

in things, and cannot see each otherís faces,

and home is wrecked by ever-tickled itches

and anger over what we cannot get,

and the body politic gives up the ghost

of wisdom. In this scheme of things there is

no place for poets -- save the one they have

at present, in the universities,

where they are schooled to draw the teeth of sense,

to play with silly ideologies

that make a travesty of good intentions --

which travesty conservatives then duly

defoliate with a certain brand of wit

compounded well to kill the pangs of conscience

and to expunge the trace of any truth

the victim had ineptly represented.

I donít wish to be seen as "anti-business."

The business of the world has to get done.

Trade and manufacture have their place,

and so has marketing -- the marketplace,

not the home, the school, or any commons;

they have their time -- the six days of the week --

days, and not nights; and not the Sabbath day.

Iím only saying: They are too much with us.

They have been suffered to encroach not only

upon the space of council, where a common

vision should have power to override

the voices of self-interest on occasion,

but on the love of friends, the inner life,

upon the very memory of the sacred.

Of course, it isnít that the borderline

of sacred and profane was ever fixed;

but like the line between the land and sea

upheaval, deposition and erosion

incessantly redraw, that line has shifted

from place to place, from time to time. Itís just

that industry has lately tipped the balance,

as Marx appears to have understood. Increase

in the complexity of process calls

for greater organization in pursuit

of profit, at the expense of older, simpler

structures that once held kin and friends together

and made the individual feel secure

enough for generosity and vision.

We, the people, need somehow to gather

the strength and vision to redraw the line,

and I would like to think that poets could

assume a leading role in such an effort

(indeed, I do not see who else could lead it),

if we could summon courage to dig in

our heels, make a stand -- ORGANIZE, in short.

If formís our forte, it seems to me we ought

to manage that, since form is just another

name for organization.

                                  But enough

for now. If you have heard me to this point

and will hear further, in another letter

Iíll speculate how we might go about it.

 

I.

This started with the word "organization,"

an uneuphonious word, which many think

ought to be farthest from a poetís usage,

pledged as we are to render faithfully

the sightings of the individual eye,

the motions of the individual mind,

wary of any call to march in step

or get involved in social machination.

Yet what is organization if not form,

and whose is form if not a poetís business?

Too, in this time the individual mind,

and soul, are under pressure from two quarters:

from the suggestions of commercialism

which purposely degrades and undermines

the will, and stuns the mind; and from the assault

of mere fanaticism, which denies

the mind, and equally perverts the will

by deifying its own will-to-power --

and both put out the individual eye.

Therefore I have undertaken to envision

how poets might get organized to stand

with more confederate minds, concerted voices

for truth and beauty and the good, to sound

a clearer note through a surrounding culture

where chaos daily seems to gain on order.

 

II.

As a foundation, let me first review

in broadest outline the concrete devices

in which the craft of poetry consists,

lest I be classified with those whoíd press

the Muse into an alien servitude.

Whereas that which I see before me is

the Museís proper home, although truncated

by the ignorance of an obscuring age.

Whatís left are the foundations -- barely those --

with here and there a scattered shattered block

from fallen wall, obliterated lintel.

Muse! fiction or projection of the mind

that wants to make a whole of what it sees,

Thee I invoke, as did the ancient bards

whose skill and wisdom far exceeded mine.

O stand me and the Reader in good stead:

aid me in setting forth your deep design

and aid the reader likewise to perceive it!

 

III.

I will consider rhythmic pattern first,

as grounded deepest in the human body,

the substrate of all poetry except

"free verse," that aberration of this time,

that oxymoron, planted like a virus

in poetsí brains by musephobic culture

to make them self-destruct. For when a body

lacks pulse and respiration, we declare

it dead, and draw the sheet across its eyes. thus proves the rule I seek to reaffirm.

Indeed the regular beat -- iamb or trochee,

dactyl or anapaest -- appears to mime

the pulse, as length of line the respiration,

and thence comes that the poem seems to issue

from the makerís and the readerís heart and soul.

Rhythm! great principle, not of the body

alone, but of the universe entire,

periodicities of sun and moon,

pulses of sound, of light, and those most subtle

wavelets to which the deepest sight resolves

all matter: who, except the modern poet,

disputes your sway, which the maternal heartbeat

to the fetus floating in the womb declared?

A company of marching men approaching

a bridge, fall out, to keep their tread from starting

a tremor in the steel or stone increasing

till like a catgut string the span could snap.

With rhythmic soothing hypnotists can draw

the subject down to trance, to live again

through scenes long sunk from memory, or perhaps

never enacted on the actual stage.

Those images that rise in meditation

when murmured mantrams first attune the mind

are known to each apprentice in the spirit;

and what is meditation but another

remnant and fragment of lost bardic skill?

On rhythm, then, the other elements

of poetry are based, by it aligned.

Rhyme comes to shadow respirationís contour,

alliteration underscores the pulse;

these tempos passion and mimesis vary,

inflect, as winds mildly or roughly sway

the rooted tree, but leave it in its place;

bow down the flame, but must not blow it out.

Into the mind thus calmed and thus awakened

to contemplation, epithet and name

can summon images, and visions rise.

 

III.

But here the rhythmic principleís domain

is tangent to another, equally

as great, likewise ubiquitous: I mean

Association, which at every point

(most at the points of rhyme, when it is used)

the waves of rhythm touch, the way the sea

touches the sky, as long as song is made

with words. For while each word discretely names

some thing or act, quality or relation,

the named rises in memory, not alone,

but with what was contiguous and akin:

context, resemblance, origin. So that

with every word we take upon our tongues

a token of the language as a whole,

of all that world to which the tongue refers.

And as things are related in the world

in different ways (as bird and tree, as bird

and egg, as bird and reptile, bird and oboe),

so names too have their different relations

through derivation and coincidence:

dead metaphor, analogous formation,

remnant of ancient customary link,

sheer puns, that link the discontinuous

as pranksters knock unwary heads together.

We speak of metaphor and simile,

metonymy and symbol, but in truth

there is no speech that is not figurative.

True that in all this there appears no system,

no Law the names invariably obey,

but local regularities alone:

grammars one language follows -- usually,

paths that association often takes,

trends of phonetic change that mostly hold;

and -osophies and -ologies and -isms

that keep the world in order for a few,

some, a majority -- but never all.

Thereís no commutability of tongues,

nor necessary link of word and thing,

only the jumbled works of time and change --

in short, confusion, chaos, nothing like

the lucid stringencies of mathematics,

those scientific laws whose demonstration

is true and certain and controllable,

implying if not altogether showing

an order indescribably complex

but yet in principle predictable,

because it is consistent and persistent,

everywhere the same and for all time;

that must somewhere account for everything

that words can name, including words themselves,

in which that order never could be summed.

-- So think at least those Scientists whose virtue

is that they stand before the Universe

stripped of all will except the will to know

the Object: seeking merely to determine

what It is in itself, without regard

for those concerns that form our words, our things --

only to learn that mind canít comprehend

said whole, for it exceeds our cogitation,

but just some parts, that yield a partial knowledge

useful to those who hold the power to use it,

though keeping, like the fabled Monkeyís Paw,

an after-kick of disutility

for others, and for that configuration

of nature within which the human species

took shape, against which it has taken arms.

Perhaps one day computers will know all

when, instrumental to our instruments,

we humans beings have vanished like the fairies

or the proletarian dictatorship

(although, since knowing is a human thing,

the computers will not know but only mirror,

without the gaze which must complete reflection).

But Poets, though they cannot choose but hear

what science may relate, must first and last

measure the universe with human stature.

Their units are not meters, centimeters

(unhandy cuts the carpenter still gripes at)

nor light-years, microns, but the ell, the cubit,

the span, the inch, the hairbreadth and the mile --

or, literally, the foot, the step-and-pulse,

the measure given by the organism,

by this one life-form seeking to maintain

its life against a universe where all

falls to indifference.

                            Against it -- yet

concomitantly, by its leave and favor.

The poetís mind, conscious of self and world,

goes gathering and ordering the names

of things that make the world that holds the poet,

setting them so that they are held in place

by the force we moderns call Association;

others, at other times, have called it Love.

Love -- that is, not just the poetís love

for some particular thing, but the perception

that in the world among affinities

a current of attraction and delight

circulates, which by the Museís grace

poets are sometimes privileged to feel;

and it is just this touch of grace that makes

poetry, that mysterious thing so many

try otherwise to capture and define.

 

IV.

The vision which a Poet puts together

is, of course, always individual:

the gatherings of a given set of senses

arranged in patterns by one heartís desire.

And yet it is not and could never be

the expression of the person as a monad

to whom the Other is a volume sealed.

For words are common, and there is no poet

who is not an ear for other poetsí tongues.

Whatever sense a poet makes is made

of meanings that were made by predecessors,

as well as by todayís need and invention.

There may be sibling rivalry -- each one

would like to be the Museís only child --

but there is also kindred love, the seeing

of self in other, and the sheer delight

of point and counterpoint in their resemblings.

Likewise "anxiety of influence"

(the need to find oneís own self-definition)

is balanced by the piety and awe

the poet feels (the best have felt it most)

when contemplating their own origins --

original enough, if they keep faith

and render faithful answers to the questions

which time and place so changefully propound.

Moreover: though each poem is a world

rounded in itself, a separate planet,

there is a world beyond them which they show,

though no one poem shows it forth completely.

This is, on the one hand, the world "as is,"

as it affects or, as we nowadays

say, "impacts" the poet. At the same time,

on the As-is there falls the light and shadow

of a world that must at some time have existed

to have shaped the bardic brain. Nothing evolves,

weíre told, unless there is a function for it;

so our existence proves a former world,

a phantom world, known through our missing of it,

where words were heeded more than they are now.

That also was a world where natureís books

still balanced, and its body had not yet

given itself the grievous wound and discord

it got through and in us, the human creature.

The poetís brain, which had that world as template,

is now the template of its reprojection

into the poemís form, the readerís mind.

 

V.

If all of this be so, there is yet a form

to find or make. As words build to a line,

lines to a stanza, stanzas to a poem,

the poem too is part as well as whole:

part of a great continuum of song,

of a millennial colloquy among those

best gifted to perceive and to express

in great and small things, in detail and outline,

the fate of humankind and of the planet.

Without a time, without a meeting-place,

the makers are perpetually assembled

in the hearing of the understanding heart,

the Ideal Reader, say, of all the poets.

What is to fashion is the form, the vessel

in which that Understanding can appear,

loom up, amid the whirlwinds of the present,

as a Presence, if not palpable still sensed

and capable of magnetizing thoughts,

aligning them so that they can be read

as a topography informed by one

projection, where "the roads

that go from poem to poem" (Bloomís word) are clear;

-- in short, behaving in the space between

the works, as individual mind within

the compass of its own creation:

assorting and arranging like with like,

setting each opposition in just light,

and giving to the whole, at last, a heartbeat,

a breath, of larger Being than the atoms

of humankind when scattered can believe --

"the life of all our lives," as Black Elk said.

This is a fiction; yet a fiction can

be dramatized, be given space to be.

How then is such a space to be constructed? --

Go call the movers of the earth to level

a plot of ground close to the cityís heart,

engage the pourers of cement, the masons,

the carpenters, to build a stately house,

with many rooms, where poets of each ward

meet every second Sabbath, let us say,

to tell in measure what theyíve seen and learned

in whatsoever circles they may move,

and one great hall, where all convene at seasons --

say full and new moon, equinox and solstice --

to hear the summary of all their numbers

recited by the skillfullest among them.

Let in this place the works of every bard

who joins that company, be treasured up,

and let it be each day from dawn to curfew

a place for study and for conversation.

Each city should have such -- call it a public

utility, the same as light and power,

as needful as the courts and the police force,

if ever we hope to counter the momentum

of social forces making for decline,

and live in fairness, amity, and wisdom.

All we must do is get folks to believe it,

and that may well be possible if poets

can will this thing and work toward it together.

To have and hold in thought this citadel

of heart and mind, this Homely House, as goal

and grail, as central symbol of our hope,

would give that hope a substance, though a long

road may wind between us and that goal,

strewn with obstacles and cleft across

by chasms with no bridge or ground to walk.

(For instance, who can speak of meeting-times

in a society that keeps no Sabbath?)

But the House of Possibility requires

no probable foundation, after all;

the New Age folks do say that imaging

oneís wish can be a step toward getting it;

and once again, we are supposedly

the experts on imagination.

 

VII.

Holding this hope for poets, and for all,

we also can envision a poetics

consistent with this hope, eloquent of it.

One premise is already grounded here --

a preference for those traditional measures,

in which our physical and mental being

mirrors itself most constantly and truly,

and which (we see now) also have the advantage

of aiding bards to synchronize their breathing

-- con-spiracy: the rebels of the Ď60's

found the pun, but not its application --

and see each otherís visions.

                                          To the same

end, we ought to labor to restore,

as among poets, that which makes words mean,

by virtue of which words are sometimes things:

to wit, good faith and trust. For Relaxation,

the bringer of good visions, cannot enter

where folk feel insecure and on their guard,

when theyíre afraid of blows, or sneers. They tense

themselves, and if they dream, their dreams are bad.

Let us be courteous to one another

as the attentive reader each desires,

grateful for any drop of the true nectar,

fain to deserve the gift of understanding

and slow to look the poem in the mouth;

treating with reverence the marks of sorrow,

the seals of honest intellectual labor;

each eager to shine with and through the other,

rather than at the other bardís expense.

There should be (come to think of it) a rule

that any criticism of a poem

has to be framed in verse, that all may see

whether it rise from comparable depth.

In short, the bardic discipline includes

just the same exercise of charity,

the same attention to each word of Nature,

the same commitment to examination

of oneís own motives toward a fellow-being,

which spiritual teachers everywhere

have urged on those who seek enlightenment.

This is not new; it is only long forgotten.

Consider these four lines from the Rig-Veda:

"He who deserts a companion in knowledge

Has no way left of sharing the Word.

Indeed, whatever he hears he hears in vain.

He is not disposed to be magnanimous."

See what a shiny world of faith is mirrored

on this stray bubble from a vanished stream!

(Perhaps a few conjunctions we have heard of --

the Acmeists, and those who roamed the Lakes --

still help us guess the strength of those so bound.)

I do not know the original, but guess

the word "magnanimous" is meant exactly,

as the great breath of a life more than mine

which the true poets of the past still felt,

which is not felt in the low-ceilinged cells

to which we have somehow become committed.

But if we summon up the resolution --

breathe deeply, Reader -- we shall overcome.

All causes that depend upon compassion

and upon wisdom, are bound up in ours,

and we shall find the words to drive it home.

 

VII.

Is this concrete enough? If not, well then,

I think that we should sign a Manifesto --

take this, dear Poet-Reader, as a draft.

Signed, it will be the first fruit of our purpose,

opening chord of a symphony whose themes

our voices will then severally develop

in various situations, reconverging

to share the Museís gifts and to report

(always in measured speech, thatís understood)

upon our efforts and our observations.

Let us accept the helps technology

can tender us: computers that will store

our volumes on the compass of a leaf;

the Internet, that working metaphor

(Muse, may we have the wisdom so to use it)

of the No-Place, the imaginary locus

where we have heard that parallels converge

and the couriers "see each other in the Word."

So, dear Reader -- fellow-Poet -- Comrade!

What do you say now? shall this be a Work?

My soloís ended, and I listen for

your voice, your entrance, hopefully restating

that it would be great fun, whatever the odds,

amid whatever breakings, to pursue

the making of our once and future world. 

                                            -- Esther Cameron