To write or read a poem is often to think in distinctively poetic waysguided by metaphors, sound, rhythms, associative movement, and more. Poetry’s stance toward language creates a particular intelligence of thought and feeling, a compressed articulation that expands inner experience, imagining with words what cannot always be imagined without them. Through translation, poetry has diversified poetic traditions, and some of poetry’s ways of thinking begin in the ancient world and remain potent even now. In How Poems Think, Reginald Gibbons presents a rich gallery of poetic inventiveness and continuity drawn from a wide range of poetsSappho, Pindar, Shakespeare, Keats, William Carlos Williams, Marina Tsvetaeva, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others. Gibbons explores poetic temperament, rhyme, metonymy, etymology, and other elements of poetry as modes of thinking and feeling. In celebration and homage, Gibbons attunes us to the possibilities of poetic thinking.
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About the Author
Reginald Gibbons is the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. His most recent poetry collections are Creatures of a Day, a finalist for the National Book Award; and Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories.
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How Poems Think
By Reginald Gibbons
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
This Working against the Grain
In California around 1970, when in my early twenties I was living about fifteen miles inland from the shore of that "peaceful ocean" that was both a body of water and an idea, I was often trying to imagine how to write a poem that would be better, more interesting, than what I had written so far. I can still remember — because I have experienced it since — the mental sensation of pushing against a transparent barrier. So I went naming things and sensations, and extending sentences out to greater length on the wave-beaten New World west coast, where syntax too seemed a wave to be caught, ridden, an "articulate energy," in the transatlantic world of Donald Davie, with whom I was studying at Stanford. I was reading Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, and Theodore Roethke; Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Antonio Machado; Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and other poets. Poetic culture on the Pacific Rim included American and Latin American and Chinese poets I hadn't yet encountered on the East Coast, where I had been an undergraduate, nor on the Gulf Coast, where I had been too young and too provincial to become aware of what I might read either in English or in the Spanish I had already learned well. At Stanford I would write about the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda and translate his poems, under Davie's demanding eye, as my PhD dissertation and then first book. Doing so, in that cultural moment, and under that eye, meant becoming keenly aware of a particular and defining aspect of writing poetry in English: "the literary conscience — exact fidelity in language to the recognizable contours and spatial dispositions of the physical world" (Davie [2004, 137] on Pound). My new exemplars were not only E.P. but also the Poundian of that very region, Gary Snyder, who had been remaking Pound's Euro-poetics by thinking along a timeline that went all the way back to cave paintings, and thinking into the western American wilderness, and further west into Asia. And I was reading Denise Levertov's 1960s poems of a sensuous apprehending of the physical world and the body, W. S. Merwin's The Lice and The Carrier of Ladders, James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, and his translations with Robert Bly of Neruda and Vallejo, and Bly's image work in Silence in the Snowy Fields. In Adrienne Rich's Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974, a reader could see how, over those years, the images in the poems floated free of the formality with which she had begun and the thinking speeded up. At the same time, I was reading translations of classical Chinese poetry and field guides to western birds and trees in the mild-clime splendor of the landscapes of coastal Northern California and the magnificence of the mountains and the air in Sierra Nevada parks. For the first time, I was reading Aristotle's Poetics closely and the treatise on awe by Longinus, On the Sublime. Near the end of my road trip west to California, before the interstate highways had been completed, through and toward places I had never before seen, my meandering route had led down into Gilroy on Highway 152 — as it was then. From above, I had seen and then had begun to enter a valley of farm fields and orchards, old trucks carrying crates of picked fruit and vegetables, migrant workers standing and bending in the fields under a Pacific Helios: plenty, beauty, and hardship. That too had been an encounter with a kind of sublimity but not frightening or incomprehensible: the human scale of it would compel me to respond. I had entered landscape with awareness for the first time; my medium of response would be language; I was twenty-two.
Meanwhile in that part of the world: protest (and many poems, good and bad) against the war; political fistfights among competing radical proselytizers; revolutionaries unarmed and armed; a surrounding para-academic community that included dropouts, stoners and hippies, and unaffiliated poets and writers. A charming friend I had known in the East was already an ex-grad student; after a semester he had dropped out of physics and was subsisting by making house calls on ailing Volkswagens. Among English and writing graduate students there were group dinners for appetites enhanced by the intensity of intellectual discovery, poems completed, or weed; ramblings and wanderings on hiking trails and in conversation; weekend games of volleyball and softball; and disputes about the war and resistance and demonstrations, about poetic meter and free verse, metaphor and style. Amid frustration with deaf officials and anxiety about the war, anger at police departments, and the laughable or threatening intensity of enthusiasm for Mao among a few in my generation, there would come the occasional exclamation of an old-time Californian, growing two kinds of figs on her grafted garden tree or offering flowers from her beds, "You should have seen all this even ten years ago, when there were still orchards on El Camino Real!"
In Berkeley, on weekends spent in a poetic culture of more obscure, looser, improvisational, consciousness-annotating poems, there were stands on streets against cops, and on hillsides there were fragrant stands of laurel; the temptations were used books and LPs, winery outlets to which you took your own bottles, odd and improbable dwelling places, curious (long before they were licensed and bureaucratized) vendors of the handmade sitting cross-legged on the sidewalks. In San Francisco: music and cheap good food, more bookstores, the Vedanta Temple, the long-running festival of heedlessness in the park and the streets, and hippies. Along unsettled roads above low-lying towns, invasive eucalyptus trees had long flourished, and forests of native trees were thick with shadow. An abandoned apricot orchard still occupied a slope not so far from Stanford. In Half Moon Bay, broad silent fields of glowing pumpkins lay in thin fog; herons nested in treetops; on empty beaches, avocets were striding slowly, beaking through each wave's last thin rushing, and terns repeatedly dove with tucked wings and spear-point plunge. Sea otters lay in kelp beds close to shore, and dolphins arced across Monterey Bay. In the university library's copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), shown to one of my classes by a professor, the printer's colophon was the image of a dolphin curved around the stem of a massive anchor. Even though poetry's powers of making meaning fully can be turned to any purpose, those powers seemed in that time inherently and sometimes courageously opposed, simply because of their complexity and subtlety and the sheer pleasures of them, to the realities of insistent war making and the continuing opposition to civil rights. Yet those same powers were seen as superfluous by makers of war and some activist poets, too.
There was more than sufficient blossoming in yards, woods, fields, flower gardens, bedrooms, minds, and poems, and also misery and unheard despair of many kinds, in many kinds of people; trash-fire smoke and shouting in some streets blended with incense and singing. Some of the PhD students were especially hungry for careers and competitive; many of the poets had no idea what might come next. A usually barefoot fellow graduate student in a seminar on poetry translation led by Davie had checked out the library's copy of Nicanor Parra's Antipoems, and when I asked him if he would give it to me when he was finished so I could take it to the library and check it out in my own name, he said he'd only taken Parra at his printed word, in the poem "I Take Back Everything I've Said," and had done what the poem said: to burn the book. He had thrown it into the easy-going fireplace of the house he rented with several other students. Two or three students concealed themselves in the university library one night and then came out of hiding in the empty building and with lucid wrongheadedness poured honey into the card catalogue drawers to protest the war machine. It was hard to draw clear lines concerning persons and issues, but it was easy to draw hard ones. Sitting at the head of the seminar table was the English poet who wanted stability and order in society and orderly imaginative accomplishment in poems; around the table, some of the student poets wanted to disrupt our society but were not very imaginative. It was a supremely interesting, dire, baffling time.
What is the grain of such thick, crowding experience as it grows and hardens in one's being?
* * *
The moment was one of reckoning for me. I was restless, hopeful, but anxious that I would not find my way, writing poems. With its permissions and prohibitions, the intricate weave of the times wove me into itself. Fortunately so, and perhaps not. Call no poet's work happy until it is completed (whenever that may be).
I don't mean I wished to improve myself. And I don't mean that a moment of self-reckoning as a writer brings with it any question of salvation — secular, artistic, or religious — as it did so famously for Dante, who made it the occasion not only of astonishing artistic will and mastery but also of spiritual resolve and change. (And made one of the greatest poetic structures — and with some of the most beautiful music of words — that has ever been created.) I still find myself reckoning with how to situate poetry among artistic alternatives, among poetic and human wrongs and rights. How to write. The decisions poets make may seem to be about the craft of writing — whether to solve an artistic problem this way or that. But there's existential work going on within the very craft of the poem, too. In the conscious and unconscious working out, say, of a line. Was Keats's poetic line simply a technical achievement? William Carlos Williams' earliest poems include many awkwardly Keatsian lines without Keatsian fusion of sound and sense, without existential weight in the luxuriousness of the language — and without much luxuriousness of language, either. Was Williams' new poetic line only a technical innovation? Didn't he have to go against the grain of that early work in order to mature into a different personal ethos in response to ordinary, everyday people and language? Artistic and personal permission to make such a change is itself a late benefit of Romantic ideas about poetry. To judge from the sequencing of Williams' Collected Poems, his shift was accomplished with suddenness and poetic certainty, even though for decades afterward he himself still felt uncertain about his work.
My geographic restlessness belongs to my late teens and my twenties: eagerly I left Texas for summer study of math in Flagstaff, Arizona, then again to attend Princeton, about which I knew nothing; and then I drove from New Jersey back through Texas on the way to Northern California, where, in the midst of graduate school, I had a Fulbright grant and for more than a year was abroad — a month in Turkey and an academic year in Spain — my first experience outside the USA, and decisive in many ways for me, although it was not the only experience that was so altering. However, in the years since those travels, since the view from a height above Gilroy, also, my artistic restlessness has only increased. For a long while I have been thinking about how it is that we evoke (from Latin vocare, "to call") in ourselves a new artistic impulse, in order to begin again. Where does it come from? Do we indeed call it into us as something truly new? Do we know somehow that it's there already as a possibility and we give ourselves the permission we need in order to become the writer who will pursue it? How often is it the result of chance experience and encounter with a place, a person, a book? How much power of will must be summoned in order to carry intuition — which is already the outcome of unconscious trains of thought colliding on our inner tracks — further, to at least a provisional artistic fruition? The struggle can be between forcefully opposed aspects of one's self. In the short story "The Horse and the Day Moth," William Goyen wrote, "There is the constant, gentle and steadfast urging of the small, loyal friendliness, the pure benevolence of some little Beginningness that lies waiting in us all to be taken up like a rescued lover and lead us to a human courage and a human meaning. The rest is death: murder (self or other), betrayal, violence and cruelty, vengeance and crimes of fear. But the little Beginningness is in all of us, waiting" (1975, 212). Yet in the experience of some, such Beginningness may itself be more difficult than friendly, more dangerous than benevolent.
Reading poems, we seek at least sometimes to be led through the inner experience of a sequence of stages of feeling, new trains of thought. We read in order to enact within ourselves a new articulation given to us on the page, to follow a movement of mind through which we are led by the poem. Many writers and artists have said in different ways (especially since the beginning of what we call — and the poets themselves did not call — the Romantic era) that they have tried to renovate or sweep away old habits of perception, thinking, and feeling; old language; old poetics. The evidence is in many books of poems. We seek reinvention of the art and at least in some sense, even if not wholly, reinvention of ourselves as users of poetry. (Yeats: "Whenever I remake a song / [...] It is myself that I remake" [1997, 557].) As readers and as poets we seek techniques for "defamiliarizing" in poetry, which can become techniques of making our own thinking-with-poetry fruitfully unfamiliar, even productively alien (from Latin alius, "other"). One artistic goal I inherited from the poetic generations before me, going all the way back to Rimbaud and before him to Coleridge and Wordsworth and Blake, was to make apparent in its real strangeness all that is.
We do all our perceiving and saying and self-scrutinizing at the site of our own psychic intensifyings and occultings. Outside us, the public sphere of image, sound, and thought is always changing and forever adding to our collective mental landfill. It is the inescapable American environment of what is said and shown and also of the perceptible absence of what is neither shown nor said. Our inner mental environment, no less than the outer one, contains, however much we might like to avoid acknowledging it, lots of garbage. Some of it is neither biodegradable nor psychically reducible. There is tangible trash at the top of the highest peaks on the planet — no surprise — and in the remotest waters of the Pacific, and intangible trash in our own heights and depths. ("Intensidad y altura" [Intensity and heights] a sonnet by César Vallejo, I first encountered in my early twenties; I translated it several times over the years. It begins: "Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma, / quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo; / no hay cifra habalda que no sea suma, / no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo" [Vallejo 1988, 400; I want to write, but only a frothing comes out, / I have so much to say, and I'm stuck in mud; / there is no spoken number that's not supreme, / and without some core, no written pyramid].)
* * *
Near the force field of Donald Davie's demanding certainties and uncertainties, I studied how to read and how to write from 1969 to 1974. He did not teach one how to do this; he lived out his way of doing it. The difficulty of pleasing Davie with a poem or a translation was the tonic I needed. I had studied the piano; I had listened to my teacher's recordings of my imperfect performances in her studio, sitting side by side with her and reading along in the score, marking it. Davie's responses to the readings in poetry that he assigned to us, or that we discussed with him outside the syllabus, were not always so easy to grasp. The range of his sympathies as a reader of poetry was greater than that of his affinities as a writer of poems. He seemed to contradict himself; I was young and wanted clarity. I have never forgotten reading an endnote to his Collected Poems, 1950–1970. It's not that I have remembered it word for word, and in fact, without my awareness, its thrust has been somewhat transmuted in memory, I am sure, to conform to what I want that note to say because of my own needs emotional and literary. I felt it was the gesture of a poet who worked very hard to open up his own work to himself, or to try to know capabilities in himself that he didn't feel were the most natural to him but which he wanted to have and to use.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: How Poems Think 1 This Working against the Grain 2 Fortunately, the Marks on the Page Are Alien 3 On Rhyme 4 On Apophatic Poetics (I): “Teach Me That Nothing” 5 On Apophatic Poetics (II): Varieties of Absence 6 The Curious Persistence: Techne 7 Simultaneities: The Bow, the Lyre, the Loom 8 Onyx-Eyed Odalisques 9 “Had I a Hundred Mouths, a Hundred Tongues” Afterword: A Demonstration Acknowledgments References Index