Monday, November 28, 2005


Laura, you mentioned (in your first post) that Duncan believed his poems could be used as "battle strategies" in Vietnam! This is a rather striking statement that deserves attention: it raises questions of poetic ontology that have long been swept aside in favor of epistemological and social-critical concerns. As we know, Duncan identified war in its highest form -- as the Heraclitean Father of All -- with the poetic principle itself. The language-field of the poem thus becomes a battle-field, an arena for the contest of creative and destructive cosmic forces. (This aspect of Duncan’s poetics is thoroughly examined in Nate Mackey’s "Gassire’s Lute," Talisman 5 - 8.)

For Duncan, the poetic Word is composed in the same way that the World is composed, through the irresolvable struggle of elemental opposites. We don’t need to adopt Duncan’s program of Zoroastrian dualism to realize that poetic making differs from conventionalized discourse in the way that, say, a weather pattern differs from a street map. But Duncan’s example gives us the opportunity to understand poetic activity as an open-ended, nonlinear system of "forms melting into one another" (as Laura put it in her first post), transforming meaning in ways that cannot be anticipated by, or confined to, categories of social value or intentionality. (The famous debate between Duncan and Levertov, of course, hinges on the degree to which poetry ought to be motivated by socially determined aims and values.)

As Duncan wrote in a notebook from the fifties: "Only the most fanatic researcher upon cancer could share with the poet the concept that cancer is a flower, an adventure, an intrigue with life." Here, Duncan is proposing a synthesis of objective coldness and imaginative fire. This agonistic embrace of opposites occurs at all levels of being, from the cosmic to the poetic. The relation may appear to be dialectical -- inasmuch as cosmic opposites mutually condition and give rise to one another -- yet Duncan rejected the Hegelian-Marxist model of dialectical progression. His ontology is cyclical rather than progressive: the struggle of good and evil is an "eternal sentence."

I am interested in following up on Duncan’s ontological turn, yet I am discomfited by its mythopoeic cast and its residual anthropomorphism. In spite of its internal dynamism, the schema possesses an ultimately static circularity that, in my mind, approaches ideological closure. An alternative, yet obviously related model of poetic ontology is provided by Olson’s definition of the poem as an "energy-construct." Olson thought he had discovered, in the Mayan glyph, a symbol for the "field of force" underlying both natural processes and the making of language. Similarly, Pound supported Fenollosa’s conviction that the Chinese ideogram was a "vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature." These operations were held to be complex and nonlinear; the ideogram clearly showed that the figuration of truth, whether scientific or poetic, "consists in following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things."

Such "entangled" systems increasingly have become the object of scientific inquiry: the theory of complex systems (see Bak’s HOW NATURE WORKS and Prigogine’s ORDER OUT OF CHAOS) presents a picture of natural ontology as an open-ended, non-mechanical, and nonlinear process susceptible to revolutionary transmutation. I see a strong affinity between this new model of nature and the attempts of modernist poets (not only Duncan and Olson, but also the Surrealists) to articulate an ontology of poetic making. In the terminology of complexity theory, poetry is an "emergent" property of language, in the way that life is an emergent property of nonliving systems ("emergence" amounts to an ontological emergency in which the system in question undergoes a "phase transition" to a new, unprecedented state of being).

"Following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things," while serving as a means of poetic revelation, ultimately militates against anthropocentric values. (Duncan’s intriguing cancer-flower becomes visible only from an interstellar vantage.) Nonetheless, modes of complexification that exceed social determination, especially at the language level, may contain an immanent politics. In "Gassire’s Lute," Mackey observes of Duncan’s Vietnam-era poems that "however ambiguous their status as anti-war poems, the poems are decidedly anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, and anti-government."

According to RAND Corporation researchers John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, terrorist networks also are characterized by nonhierarchical modes of connectivity (see "How to fight the terror networks," ). The book-length study (published as NETWORKS AND NETWARS in 2001) additionally describes various non-terrorist organizations, such as the anarchist bikers’ group Critical Mass and the Zapatistas in Mexico, as possessing such leaderless, adaptable, "swarming" capability. Clearly, nonlinear connectivity, whether poetic or political, offers an alternative structure -- a structure of resistance -- to monolithic, totalizing modes of language and power. (Obviously, the ideology of the terrorist network in question, namely Al-Qaida, is retrogressive and totalizing; nonetheless, Al-Qaida’s system of organization, which has effectively defeated the frontal battle strategies of imperialism, can be defined as a complex adaptive system of networked nodes.)

In a universe that is not equal to itself, organizations of matter-energy undergo sudden, spontaneous phase transitions toward unprecedented modes of being. Such transitions may be described as ontological ruptures. Locally, we can observe six large-scale ruptures of this kind: namely, the transitions from physical to chemical to biological to social to linguistic to poetic modes of interaction. In this dissonantly harmonic series (A Tonalism in action?), poetic lines of force also delineate a glyph of sociopolitical resistance, the prefiguration of another world that is waiting to be born.

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.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

by Norma Cole