By thinking about things you could understand them.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


I come from a scientific family – my father was a geologist, one brother is a geologist, the other brother a biologist. My mother also has a master’s degree in geology. I alone seemed to have inherited no gift for "science"; math reduced me to tears, and the details of physical processes held only a limited interest for me. On the other hand I was making verses at age seven. My parents both had some feeling for poetry, due to ancestral memory and their early education. Nevertheless, I soon became conscious of having inherited a trait that seemed no longer functional in the world my father was helping to construct.

I remember my first contact with the scientific mind. My father had given me a small mineral collection for my fifth birthday. Beautiful specimens, the names of which – garnet, pyrite, sphalerite, galena and so forth – I recall to this day. One day he took me down a mine with him. It was a shallow vertical shaft dug in white rock, fragments of which lay scattered on the floor. I picked up one of these, pleased by its silken surface and a vein of pink, and showed it delightedly to my father. He looked at it, frowned: "That? That’s just feldspar." I kept it anyway, put it in the blue tin on the cotton batting with the other specimens, making them move over for it, though my parents objected it was too big. I called it my "candy rock," after a favorite song – "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." Through the intervening years I can still feel (though of course such memories are not reliable) my father’s disappointment, and my own obscure defiance.

Of course that little story illustrates the classic split between poetic and scientific thinking. The scientist categorizes, generalizes. The poet personalizes. An object is first of all itself, not a specimen of anything. If it acquires meaning beyond itself it does so through an allusive resonance that appears quite unsystematic. And never the twain shall meet.

And yet, through the years my father’s scientific approach to things has also been a challenge and an influence. I could not help wishing for some of the scientist’s power; but also, I could not help being impressed by the scientist’s objectivity, his thoroughness, his humility in the face of evidence, and by the relationships among scientific colleagues, as companions in a single complex quest for the truth about the universe – all the things which my father’s students and colleagues have talked about, with affection as well as respect, in their tributes to him over the years. They also often mentioned his moral integrity, which seemed inseparable from his character as a scientist. He didn’t talk much about conduct which he could not regard as the path to happiness, any more than about theories that the earth is flat. The early exposure to these attitudes was as fundamental an experience as the reading of Shakespeare.

The atmosphere in the literary world, as I encountered it in college, was very different. During my college years I had several fine teachers, people who loved poetry and knew a lot about what goes on in a poem. But too often I often found myself in a realm of shibboleth rather than principle, of one-upsmanship rather than conscientious inquiry.

This was brought home to me especially through the treatment of Millay. I liked (and like) Millay very much; she taught me to write sonnets, and I have returned to her again and again for refreshment and inspiration. But during my college years she was literally unmentionable except in a tone of disparagement. This was not a scientific conclusion, as if she had been the proponent of some demonstrably false theory, like the theory (discussed in the geology class I took to fulfill the science requirement) that the fossils in the earth were left over from Noah’s flood. This was a judgment that someone had pronounced without proof, but in a tone that implied that whoever could not see the reasons for it must be unworthy of a position in the intellectual world. ("Not only were the colors and patterns unusually fine, but the clothes that were made of this cloth had the peculiar quality of becoming invisible to every person who was not fit for the office he held, or who was impossibly dull." – Anderson, "The Emperor’s New Clothes.") I spent my undergraduate years, now succumbing to this anonymous intellectual reign of terror, now fighting it – not daring to reread Millay, but refusing to give up Chopin, whose "stock," as someone said to me of Shelley, was likewise "down."

And yet, although many judgments in the field of literature did not strike me as objective, they seemed to have been influenced by science in one respect: they reflected a distrust of human subjectivity and human emotion. In one highly-regarded critical work I read that "the literary work, rightly read, should not arouse emotion." One also was not supposed to have a moral response to literature (e.g. we were expected to read with equanimity a novel in which the "hero" pushed an old man off a train), and this too, I think, stemmed at least partly from some perception that human emotional responses are irrelevant to the truth of things. There seemed to be an aspiration toward an art that would be "without human meaning, without human feeling," as Wallace Stevens put it The literary work was supposed to have a value in itself without serving any human purposes. And yet the criteria for such value were anything but clear.

Years later, while studying in Germany, I encountered the term "Literaturwissenschaft" (literary science!). A tutor I had been assigned to would pronounce this term in a tone that implied that it settled everything. In particular, it served to dismiss any expression of identification with the poet; the poet’s heart, as presented to us in the poem, was an object for dissection, nothing more. The fact that at the time we were operating on a still-living poet (Paul Celan) gave my tutor not the slightest pause. He did not seem to have much insight into Celan’s poetry; the authority he asserted for "Literaturwissenschaft" consisted purely in this denial of emotional response. In my sophomore year I did hear of one instructor who held that the aim of literary criticism was to lead us back to the moment of the poem’s creation, allow us to grasp the creator’s state of mind. In that atmosphere the notion seemed downright eccentric, and I paid no attention to it at the time.

Amid this confusion, unable to write much poetry nor feel enthusiastic about a scholarly future, I was sustained by a quasi-scientific fantasy – the fantasy of discovering some universal principle of poetry. I felt a kind of wonder at this universal human phenomenon, about which no one seemed to be saying anything very coherent. What was it really about? I planned to sneak up on the phenomenon by studying first linguistics, then comparative literature.

I only half believed in this plan (it sounded a bit like the "key to all mythologies" which poor Casaubon in Middlemarch wanted to find), and did not pursue it very far. I did major in linguistics and take Chinese, hoping to study the poetry of this very different language. But I found linguistics prosaic, and Chinese turned out to be newspaper Mandarin (now entirely forgotten). By the end of undergraduate study, Comparative Literature began to look like too much work, and I decided to study one literature intensively, perhaps branch out later. I chose German, for several unrelated reasons. By that time the ‘60's were well under way, and I was drawn to Berkeley, where a large proportion of my studies was extracurricular, conducted in the spiritual cyclotron of the counterculture. I began writing poetry again – and at the same time to question the value of the academic study thereof.

But the culminating assignment of my academic studies brought me back, in an urgent and terrible way, to the project I had half forgotten. One of my teachers, the late Heinz Politzer, himself a poet, introduced me to the poetry of Paul Celan, as a possible dissertation topic. I became immediately drawn into the world of these poems – "possession" wouldn’t be too strong a term. Celan’s suicide, which occurred while I was still struggling to find a way of talking about his work, was very nearly the death of me as well. To go on I had to understand what had happened – and that meant pursuing the questions about the nature of poetry.

Celan’s work itself has at times almost the air of a scientific experiment. It is a poetry in which words are used with the utmost economy and with extreme care. In one of his few prose statements, there is the following sentence:

In this language... I have tried to write poems: in order to speak, in order to orient myself, in order to find out where I was and where it wanted to go with me, in order to project for myself reality.

It seems, from this and related utterances, that the poem represents one point on a personal map of reality, one station on a life-journey which has a starting-point and will have an end-point. If considered in this light poetry does, after all, have something of the scientific quest for truth.

Moreover, Celan implies and assumes that there are others writing poetry with the same intention. He writes "Poetry is solitary and on the way," but he also writes, "Poetry is dialogical." He addresses the reader: "You too, speak." The next step, clearly, is to say, "All right, let’s put our personal maps together and construct a larger map." Few, I’m afraid, have understood him in this sense, due partly to a style that seems at first obscure (it took me nearly four years to feel that I was beginning to understand). But that this was meant, I have no doubt. Celan’s second-to-last poem is as follows:

Crocus, seen
from the hospitable table:
tiny, sign-
sensitive exile
of a common (gemeinsamer) truth,
you need
each grassblade.

This poem was published posthumously; I did not read it until 1976. In 1975, I had written a poem called "Invitation" – of all my poems the one I have shown most often – which talks about seeking "a sanctuary for the common mind" and concludes: "How many years? How many lives? We do not know,/ But each shall bring a thread." There are confirmations.

But during the years when he was writing his mature work, Celan’s poetic practice seemed about as far from this collegial vision as it is possible to get. I think of a poem by Emily Dickinson: "Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed..." Although he knew many writers and literary scholars, he seemed, especially in the later years, to stand alone in the literary landscape, as the sole survivor of a community that no longer existed. There is no one, as far as I know, with whom he discussed this hope for the future ("the heart-bright future," as he did say in one poem). Thus isolated and perhaps (as had happened to me) not quite daring to believe in his aim, he succumbed to despair; and as a reader who happened to have noticed, I was left alone to make of it what I could.

A couple of years later, in the spring of 1973, I received another assignment that helped me to clarify and expand my understanding of the problem. I was offered, at short notice, the job of teaching an undergraduate summer course on the modern novel. Being only a reader of novels, not an expert on the genre, I at first had no idea how to organize such a course. Thereupon it occurred to me that I might just pick one novel as a centerpiece, so to speak, and then, relying on aesthetic intuition, choose others that seem to "go with" that one. In the course of discussion, coherencies would doubtless appear. Knowing of Celan’s predilection for Rilke’s one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I started with that. Then it seemed appropriate to discuss Kafka’s The Castle rather than The Trial, to be content with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rather than attempt Ulysses. I wanted to talk about Dostoevsky, but which novel would fit in this configuration? The question stirred a dim memory of A Raw Youth (or The Adolescent), a relatively obscure work written between his last two masterpieces. In the end I discussed Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; The Adolescent; Portrait; Malte; The Castle; Proust’s Combray; and Joyce Carol Oates’ Them, which a friend had recommended to me a year before, and which got itself included through a telling reference to Madame Bovary. A student brought in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. In the class discussions, my hope that connections would appear was confirmed.: the novels were connected by a complex of imagery that made them seem like different versions of a recurring dream.

At the center of this complex was the relationship – more or less distanced, more or less conscious – between the writer and a figure whom Freud would certainly call a mother imago, but who also has long literary roots, going back through the Divine Comedy to the Wisdom figure of Proverbs and to Pallas Athene. Black Elk’s lady in white buckskins is another avatar. She stands for wisdom, for community, sometimes for the memory of the actual mother – but also for the reader, as a consciousness potentially capable of understanding the writer and relating what he (or she) says to a larger context. In "The Meridian" Celan writes that the poem regards every thing and every person as a form of the Other whom the poem is seeking. This Other is, finally, not only the answer to one’s personal need but a hope for humanity. But in these modern novels, the relation between the writer and this figure is always broken in some way, and the Wisdom figure is either lost sight of in the end or else pulled apart by the actions of other characters, who remain unaware of how their individual choices affect the whole.

Often the myth has environmental overtones – Emma Bovary, for instance, grows into a symbol of a degraded natural world. But above all, I thought, this myth reflected the fact that Western literature is often not conscious of itself as a dialogue. Just before giving the course I had read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, which describes the strategies poets may use to avoid the appearance of being connected. Where connections are perceived, an unfavorable construction is often placed on them. Celan was accused of plagiarism – openly on one occasion, at other times by insinuation – perhaps precisely because in his work he is so often responding to others’ words. Of course, his ancestral background was the Talmudic tradition of dialogue and analysis, the "infinite conversation," to borrow the title of a book by Maurice Blanchot (whom Celan recommended to me). In the Talmud there is no clear demarcation between one oeuvre and another; it is all one great work. The works which I put together in this course – later I recorded the configuration in a manuscript entitled The Web of What Is Written – were of course distinct creations, but nonetheless they now seemed to me to be combined into a larger unity.

That the association and interpretation of these works was not arbitrary, was confirmed by many details. In an early version of the Web, I wrote that The Castle bears a "physiognomic resemblence" to The Adolescent; later I read that Kafka was particularly fond of that work. The mythic pattern which I had first discerned in Madame Bovary, I later recognized in a Gnostic text, The Gospel of Helen, and later still realized that Flaubert knew that text; he alludes to it in The Temptation of St. Anthony. Flaubert seems to have believed that his work had a quasi-scientific exactitude: "After a certain point, one is no longer guessing." He exulted at finding, in a newspaper account of an agricultural fair, a sentence identical to one he had just written. The title The Web of What is Written, chosen in 1974 with its abbreviation WWW, is itself "uncannily" prescient. (It doesn’t seem as if the Internet has greatly advanced the cause of Wisdom so far, but I haven’t given up hope that we could learn to use it wisely, so as to make it a true instrument of our interconnectedness.)

Let me give just one more example of the kind of exactitude that there is in these things: In 1972, while I was still in the first turbulent stages of "processing" all this, I often played Satie’s "Gnossiennes" on the piano. One day my geologist brother heard me playing it from another room and sat down at the typewriter and wrote quite a fine poem.. It is about waking up in his favorite place – the lookout on a bluff where he liked to camp – and feeling "man’s loneliness and daybreak’s invitation." For one moment, then, that wistful, otherworldly music had caught him up out of his determined practicality. Years later, a young woman in Israel, the daughter of a man who had known Paul Celan personally and had a deep affection for him, put together a brief program on Celan for the radio. As background music she chose – Satie’s "Gnossiennes."

These confirmations cannot (unlike experiments in science) be produced at will; they can only be waited for with that "attention" which, as Celan said quoting Malebranche, "is the natural prayer of the soul." Nor are such results obtained through the impersonal detachment on which science prides itself, whereby the matter under study is contemplated as an object from without. On the contrary, poetic results are obtained through personal involvement, through something like the shaman’s trance or Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. To write the "true" poem ("only true hands write true poems," Celan wrote in a letter), you have to let yourself personally undergo the fate of the world, for good and ill. In his last public speech Celan described the quality of "great poetry" as "a onceonliness open to the world." Similarly, to understand a poem it is necessary – just as that little-heeded instructor had said – to have gone with the poet on his journey, to have allowed one’s own journey to be deflected, by however small an angle. Unlike most scientific research, the poet’s quest can be dangerous, as the fate of too many poets exemplifies. It is possible to get stuck in the underworld and not come back. And the reader’s quest too, as Madame Bovary warns us, is not without peril..

In the reckoning which followed Celan’s suicide, it appeared to me that these dangers must be confronted, and some strategy for countering them devised, if we were to continue writing poetry with some hope for the poetic and human future. This could be compared to the procedures that are used in a laboratory, in order to ensure both the safety of the experimenter and the integrity of the experiment.

For me this strategy has several aspects. The recourse to traditional form (Celan used a rhythmic free verse) is one aspect. While continuing to honor the openness of good free verse, I’ve found that traditional form can be, as Adrienne Rich has noted, a kind of "armor," or asbestos gloves, which can be helpful in handling the difficult matter of human destiny. In recent years traditional form has made something of a comeback, and I believe this is a good sign.

Second, I’ve made various attempts, which I hope will one day bear fruit when the idea is taken up by someone with greater executive skill, to found an organization to which I’ve given many names, but let me here call it the "Planetary Poetical Survey" (after the U.S. Geological Survey, for which my father used to work). For the purpose of their sharing results, poets would sort themselves into some kind of hierarchy of groups (see Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18; think "cells," "demes"). Various interesting methods of grouping could be devised. For instance, poets could be asked to list their influences in order of importance, and then assigned to tribes and kinships on the basis of these affinities. The poems of all members of the Survey would be archived systematically, thereby preserving everything for possible future retrieval. (Here, clearly, computer technology could be helpful.) It seems to me that the poems written in a given city on a given day should be at least as well worth preserving as the record of the weather.

Third, I’d like to see us construct a teaching canon, based on insight into the relationship between the literary culture and the social and natural environment. The Web of What Is Written is meant as a start. To have read and pondered the works it connects would, I believe, help the members of the Poetical Survey to orient themselves with respect to the earth and one another.

Fourth, I believe that poets and poetry have much to gain by contemplating of poetry’s role and function in the light of evolution and sociobiology – and vice versa. Here, the pioneering work has been done by Frederick Turner and Ernst Poppel in their extremely important essay "The Neural Lyre," which may be found on the Web at Because of poetry’s apparent insignificance in modern life, it has scarcely been considered that poetry may have played a key role in human evolution. The making of the human mind, as Steve Mithen conjectures in The Prehistory of the Mind, entailed the integration of many different skills – and a poem is nothing if not a sign of integration. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, suggests that memory is one key to the development of altruistic behavior – and poetry was once widely employed as a mnemonic, the only available method of information storage until the invention of writing. But again, Turner and Poppel have given a brilliant and thorough exposition of points I can only touch on here. Poets need to take up these findings and use them to make a case, to society at large, for attention to and support of our work. The opposite of a poetic culture is the famous shrinking sound-bite, which bodes no good to the body politic.

Finally, and in connection with the preceding point, I would like to see a revival of didactic poetry, the abandonment of which was surely a great mistake precisely in the 20th century, with so many new ideas to be integrated! For concentration, integration, and clarity, there’s really nothing like blank verse. I’d also like to put in (you may envision me shielding my head with my arms) a small word for "moralistic" poetry. The modernist objection – that the reader does not like to be "preached to" – misses the point that any good moralistic poem (e.g. Chaucer’s lovely "Balade de Bon Conseyl") is first of all self-addressed. In a world of rapid transformation, what is right and wrong does not always go without saying. If one can’t use verse to discover morality, one in effect abandons it to fundamentalism, or to the crudities of "political correctness" and its opposite.

Just lately, in Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, I came across the following sentence:

The facts that I have so briefly recounted are the product of many man-years of meticulous and ingenious work: work that deserves the accolade ‘scientific’, not because it employed elaborate or expensive apparatus but because it was disciplined by a certain attitude of mind.

What is there here that could not apply to poetry? True, the poet cannot follow the scientist in the matter of detachment; neither poet nor reader can or should deny their vital connection to the subject matter. But it is possible to think about poetry consequentially, to develop a discipline that won’t interfere with the spontaneity of creation, but that will draw poets together and help us to make our voices heard in the community at large. There are things which the human community cannot find out through any other discipline. Computer scientists admit that writing poetry is likely to be the last attainment of artificial intelligence; and I would note that to generate poetry – the real stuff – it would not be enough to replicate the complexity of the human brain; one would also have to provide the computer with a human destiny, which would mean "simulating" the entire world! Pending such advances, humanity needs to make use of the instrument it has. Amid the whirlwind of technological change, poetry is the one thing that says (again in Celan’s words), "Gather yourself,/ stand." To respond to and amplify that call, is to claim a place for poetry in the family of science.

First Published in Bellowing Ark