Wednesday, November 09, 2005


By way of preface

Dear Laura

I've been turning your Tonalist's questions over in my mind for a fortnight now, feeling I could say this or that, but until now I've written nothing. Your 'Martian' bothers me -- how pleasant, I keep thinking, if a real Martian did turn up and could see at once what your or my poetry is up to, without explanation! Maybe she will and would. The more immediate question is nevertheless how we might explain it to our fellow earthlings, for we've met very many of them and are familiar with their misunderstandings about what poetry is and isn't. And I know that whatever I might say now I can think of something else I might say against the same at another time. Which reminds me of things I've said in the past and wonder how these stand up now, if at all. A few months ago Tony Lopez reminded me of a piece I wrote in the early eighties which arose out of a long correspendence with Robert Sheppard and which Robert published in his magazine Rock Drill. My first reaction when Tony mentioned this was oh God -- some things are best forgotten -- but he tried to assure me that at least some of it still seems sound and to an extent reflects my practice over the years. And so it occurs to me to re-offer it here. I now find it unwarrantably gnomic, stylistically in Wittgenstein's shadow and much too bound by the philosophical terminology of logico-linguistic analysis. It also reflects some local quarrels in English poetry criticism which quite possibly rumble on in quarters I now rarely visit. It is much too severe, fuelled by the certainties of a youngish acolyte -- more than twenty years later I feel much more relaxed about the whole matter. It does however attempt to define a specific use of language and a mode of thought, 'Poetic', as distinct in kind from any other use of language and in particular from naturalism and the descriptive on the one hand and the merely arbitrary placement and displacement of words on the other; such modes seem so often to masquerade as 'poetry', a poetry which at root has no relation whatever to 'Poetic' as I did and do understand it. Enough preface and apology: here's the piece, unedited, for a Tonalist to play ball or hell with, if she wishes.

On Poetic (1980-82)

Poetic is language compressed to the maximum degree. (Poetic is in-turning of the language.)

Therefore poetic is thought compressed to the maximum degree.

Denial of intellect in poetry denies the possibility of poetic.

With compression comes: precision & concision.

Emotion in poetic is created by precision. Poetic is not 'translation of feelings into words'.

Poetic is thought at the maximum degree ... & yet clearly & essentially different from logical analysis: is in fact a weapon against the reductive tendency of logical analysis. The extent to which the poetic is different in kind from scientific thought (vs. procedure) is less clear -- both are synthetic in the sense opposed to 'analytic'; are both means of inquiry.

Poetic is 'synthetic' in this sense: its aim is the drawing together & bonding of ideas objects & emotions which have no obvious connection. In terms of 'the word' this means the synthesis of sense, shape & sound. It is the pressure of shape & sound on the sense which makes paraphrase impossible.

If we could speak of a final aim it would be to reveal the interior relations of the (human) world; to see the 'world' as entire. (And what else should 'world' mean? -- The aim might be stated as: to recover the world -- for the anti-poetic tendency of 300 years has been to see the 'world' as so many fragments.)

Synthesis, again, of: thinking, sensing, feeling. 'Poetic inspiration' (intuition), this fusion.

To reveal, whereas science aims to explain. The way in which poetic might make a difference to the world is altogether other than the way science does.

... is altogether other than the way logic does; is a weapon against. The poetic does not search for those connections ... yet too much poetry dwells & dwindles in the obvious. And in vacuum, as if there were present detail only.

Yet the connections made in poetic have an inner coherence, are in that sense 'necessary'. They always surprise (vs. logic), and therefore cannot be defined. They are never alike.

The demand for precision is too easily presented as reductive, a mere paring-down. 'One thing at a time' -- whereas poetic always says two-things-at-once.

'Poetry with messages' is the trap. The demand for 'political' or 'committed' poetry is betrayal of poetic as mode, as a distinct kind of thought. Yet it is true that poetic can not fail to be political, in the sense that Celan's most gnomic, most 'personal' poems are political: the Political completely embedded in the Word.

Thought at the maximum degree -- Imagination, in Blake's sense, the opposite of Fancy. And this comes down to the merest technicalities: e.g. the rightful precedence of noun over adjective -- that adjectives are the tools of Fancy, their abundance a blur --
whereas poetic risks with its precision the rough-edge of meaning, turns that pressure on the word: appears to pass into nonsense and pass back. In-turns, and proceeds out of language; creating what it means; meaning just what it creates.



Hi. Your words on Blake are very interesting. I am beginning researching victorian art and literature and am interested in the notion of both being an equally intellectual and perceptual persuit. The romantics seem to sometimes think otherwise - that emotion is everything, but how can you separate body from mind? Do you know of where I could go to look into all this a little further?

5:25 PM  

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