One by one objects are defined-Imagism got its second breath in this book, and the poem under that rubric was now longer, more fluid and supple than it had been under its original innovators, Pound and Hilda Doolittle. The Imagist poem was no longer tied to the breathless compression of the haiku, or even the Ideogram; it was open, prospective (as Olson would later say), a discursive medium for exploring the tacitly unified world.
Oppen's opening stanza in Discrete Series declared a new sense of purpose in '30s Imagism when he makes Maude Blessingbourne, his Henry James-like protagonist, embody all the corruptions of egotism from the last half-century:
having risen,The prose is low-grade fin-de-siècle romanticism (the "really" gives it away), which Oppen cites as the alien metaphysic against which new poetry must oppose itself to regain Pound's world. Note the "as if to see," a calculated slight against symbolist poetry. More interesting is the semi-colon breaking off the quote. It is Pound's semi- colon from "In a Station of the Metro," the notorious half-stop Pound used as the splice between rhyming phenomena in his inaugural Imagist poem.
H.D.'s "Oread," historically the first Imagist poem, looks for a similar resistance through which the "form" of wave can pass from sea to fir trees - but finds it only in the opening dash of line one:
Whirl up, sea -Everything that follows is made to flow with commas until the final stop, a period. No innovation here, since Emily Dickinson had used this same dash to nuance a lot of her hesitations and shifts of thought.
Pound's semi-colon invents a curious new membrane between data, a porous boundary in the world of natural events where form, in this case the radial pattern of flowers, passes from a subway commuter crowd into the "petals on a wet black bough." Not a period, not a colon - a semi-colon shall stand for the gap between objects in living nature, over which form flows freely. "All things are aflowing, sage Heraclitus says," to quote from "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly." "Oread" and "Metro" are the first discrete series, and all Imagist poetry written since is composed of lists of objects through which form is flowing through. Regarding Wave (1970) is Gary Snyder's summing up of a century of wave and particle imagism.
Oppen's semi-colon marks the customs shed where creative consciousness slips through dead Victorian language and a decaying literary vision back to an organic world of fluid spiritual form, which Maude ignores in only seeing herself in the window:
And saw rain falling, in the distanceThe narrator leaps in to "see" the rain, and breaks through the solipsistic prose by letting the eye travel outward to note such things as rain "in the distance," how it falls "more slowly." The slight ambiguity of "past" is intended to suggest that past "her" the "weather-swept" world becomes clear again, accessible now that the eye is liberated from "self," which we can now share together.
Oppen's title butts Newton's world of absolute "things" against Einstein's relativity, where opposites are no longer alienated but bound together by an invisible river of spirit or formal energy. The paradox of mathematics is that a series, composed of discrete numbers, can at the same time represent a kind of seamless flow of progressions and accumulations, a pathway of enlargement from some penetrating and transforming principle.
The direction of American poetry thereafter was toward opposite goals: a vision of almost pure psychological continuity in symbolist lyric, where the self flowed back out of the reflected surface of the natural world, and a lesser mode of poetry that broke things up into their parts and particles, to test a faith that among their separated grains and distinctions flowed an invisible, inherently natural connectedness - part spirit, part natural affinity, part perceptual power of the human mind to sense out and articulate the webbings of the universe. You can feel these same opposing modes of vision in film, from Griffith's symbolist modality in Birth of a Nation, a narrative romanticism that dominates Hollywood to this day, and the Russian Eisenstein's mosaic, multi-angled documentary style in Potemkin, which staked out Europe's cinematic eyes. Only in Citizen Kane was a marriage of styles achieved, from which film noir derived its peculiar stylistic energy.
Immediate vision of opening doorThese three stanzas create cinematic units with the observer stationed at a particular angle of vision, from which selective detail is observed. Unity is inherent in the scene itself, what the eye can reach and no more. Within the scene are certain consonant objects from which to draw a modest conclusion. The first stanza of this poem is in fact a reconfiguration of Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow." The "So much depends" becomes "Immediate vision," and the immediate here is intended literally, the unmediated sight of dead animals, followed by the sort of moral perception Williams would not have permitted himself, "Died to feed me." Whalen wants to put himself personally into the scene, and not be an Emersonian transparent eye, something that carries over into Williams and even Oppen. By 1970, poets drop the convention of being disembodied; Whalen leaps in as a kind of boisterous Orson Welles doing a talkover as he pans around - drawing an intimate, self-revealing attitude usually demoting his human importance to the scene. These conclusions are mainly rhetorical intrusions to deflate any humanistic importance his persona might convey to a scene. It is more important to be the receiver of pleasure than to be the privileged observer.
Take this moment from "Occasional Dilemmas" (Heavy Breathing, p. 120):
NIGHTJARThe speaker has just pressed a doorbell and hears the sound echoing in the empty house, which resembles the cry of the nightjar. He doesn't say so, he merely jumps to this capitalized word to suggest how loud the doorbell sounded. But with this word before him, he gives both the standard definition, a bird, and its French equivalent, which splits the term into two possible meanings: bird and chamber pot; typical of Whalen's humor, the third line maximizes the second meaning, "a necessary vessel." The sound of the bell has sprung a forked path of verbal response, which the poem reenacts with a kind of Joycean deflation of human dignity at the end of it.
To think through the ear, this is Whalen's way. The sound initiates the sense, a precise formulation of Olson's "by way of the ear" to the brain. Whalen, talking to Ann Waldman:
Over there by the mirror there's that little sign that says "Fucked Picabia," etc. Well looking at those words I can hear them in my head and pick up on the sound; it's a kind of synesthesia I suppose, but then quite often I hear, I'll just get-a line will occur to me or a single word or what not will come on and get me going. Quite often if I am writing letters to people, I'll be sitting writing and finish the letters and pretty soon I'll be writing in a notebook or something like that, continue writing for a while-that's one of the things that happens.This is Imagism gone to Vaudeville, gag lines thrown in with a rimshot on the punchlines. Ginsberg couldn't understand the method; he missed the humorous intent of the line in Whalen. Everything in nature is holy, Whalen might say, but the observer is a merry old fool enjoying this power of mind to follow the world text - but only if it could give him a glass of wine and a few cheese crumbs in his beard. The world was there, plentiful, manifold, sacred, but also a candybar to lick, a fat ripe banana to gobble. Ginsberg kept looking for the sense to zero in to conscience, or to a core of persecuted self - which is never there in Whalen. So, as Waldman tells him in her interview, Allen didn't "get it" when he read Whalen. What there is to get is the sovereign line itself, which contains a kind of monad of biological content - a phenomenological total in which human ear, brain, emotion center, and world come together to freeze into a unit of words.
You can't write whole poems in this way, but you can write notebooks in which you accumulate a vast body of such units of articulated response. That is the function of Whalen's notebooks, and Waldman draws him out well on the method he uses to cull from them to make his poems:
Waldman: Is that how you put together poems?Whalen's objects are his own words, his phrasings, where the object is clarified in a human dimension, passed through the head. They are his equivalent of the dally rushes a director must scan with his editor; the task to "go on from there" is the matter of pasting up, splicing, juxtaposing, in other words find the ideal path through which form glides and connects the momentary high pitches of Whalen's concentration. Film and poetry are no better linked than in Whalen's method - where some principle of maximal clarity of sight is then placed within a continuum of form - in film, the light piercing through the flickering shadows, and in Whalen, a Buddhist hedonism in love with the world as it is.
To read Whalen is to enter into the evolution of Pound's Image at some ultimate reach of the idea - Whalen takes the formulation of an instant of intellection, Pound's unit of epiphany when imagination (the unique faculty empowered to do so) witnesses form easing from one medium into another across a gap of Cartesian reality, and surrounds it with a highly pebbled surface of other reality. You hardly know you are entering into the liquid world of spirit, where objects are familiar but now elevated into speech.
Or as Whalen says in Scenes of Life at the Capital (1970), "Loosen up. Festoon." [Scenes at the Capital, Maya Quarto Ten published by David Meltzer and Jack Shoemaker, 1970.] That could well stand as the next sentence in Pound's "A Few Don'ts," his instructions to Poetry contributors whose work has been rejected. "Direct treatment of the thing," Pound wrote. Whalen adds, but for god's sake, "Loosen up. Festoon." Can the two ideals coexist? The Cantos is a considerable loosening up, but always around the "beak of the ego," to quote Olson's critique of Pound; Whalen's gain is to "festoon" without self as the necessary subject. The self is there, of course, as the means by which direct sight is turned to speech, the mid-century solution to a problem about brevity.
And festooning is Whalen's signature in poetry; he is a gabber, a brilliant Dizzie Gillespie riff artist on almost any core relation where form is passing through. Take this bit of gifted palaver at the start of his Kyoto sketches in Scenes:
An enormous drop of pure water suddenly appeared to the rightThe unifying thread is the unintended drop of pure water, which is not a mistake but a source of liberating disequilibrium, bracketed by the contrary advice of two masters establishing that the error is itself a "loosening up." After all, it was only water, and pure at that. Water - that magical distortion of the so-called real, which Oppen devoted an entire series of poems to, one transparent medium on another, glass, which culminates in the image of the sea through a yacht's window:
Wave in the round of the port-holeCompare this image with "Ply over ply, thin glitter of water," in Canto IV, and "paw-flap, wave-tap," the "wave" ideogram in Canto CX and you have a history of fluidness in poetry, which Whalen captures with a single drop of water. But then, that's Whalen, and he is looking for moisture where he can find it - under stones.
Paul Christensen is the author of Call Him Ishmael (Olson), Minding the Underworld, and other works of poetry and criticism. He teaches at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.