back toJacket2

   |    C O N T E N T S    |    H O M E P A G E    |   
J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Paul Christensen

"To hunt for words under the stones"


Something magical occurred in poetry when George Oppen wrote Discrete Series (1934). It was the dark trough of the Depression and everyone on Pound's side of the poetry wars was switching to a kind of bare winter poetry to match the times. Wallace Stevens' Harmonium (1923) is such a longing for warmth and blooming that it invents a new landscape of the imagination located somewhere between Panama and Florida, an escapist world of palm trees and bougainvillea, but not the real summer that grows out of the ground. Williams' Spring and All (1930) is the rebuttal to all that, a desire to find consolation within the wastelands of New Jersey. It was intended as a counter to widespread cynicism and despair; the new Imagism would be an esthetic of pleasure, not pain or illness. As Williams' title suggests, the "all," i.e., the world, is activated, energized by the fertility of a season of renewal.

One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance - Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.
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,
[she] "approached the window as if to see
what really was going on";
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 distance
          more slowly,
The road clear from her past the window-
          glass -
Of the world, weather-swept, with which
          one shares the century.
The 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.

Charles Olson changed the nomenclature of imagism to represent not objects so much or their relations in nature as the perception of objects and the relation among the perceptions as they grew into argument. Something is lost in the process of creating projectivism out of the original materials of Pound / Williams / Oppen, a movement away from the world as such to the mind's arithmetic about the world. Something critics like Robert Bly noted early and complained about loudly; so did James Dickey, but then, Dickey's late period is given over to copying Olson's projective mode, if not his values and attitudes.

Philip Whalen understood the poetry of a discrete natural world when he was at Reed College with Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. All three writers developed ways of breaking up the subject, which William Carlos Williams himself admired back in 1950 when he was given poems by all three. His Autobiography spends a few sentences expressing that appreciation of these talented guys. The difficulty was rewording the discretionary world in a new way for the second half of the century. Whalen and Snyder both were listening carefully to Olson, reading his early essays and applying what he said, even if at times the New Englander's rocky fields were not their fir tree mountains and black creeks.

Separation and discontinuity were tools for escaping the emotional illusion of a merely reflective nature. Break things up, like a Russian filmaker, and you are stuck having to piece things together by rhyming morphologies, piecing together the Gondwanaland of everyday objects. Everything an edge locking into another edge, or if not fitting like puzzle pieces, then remaining discontinuous on one plane and linked and vibrating in unison on another - the plane of verbal play, the gymnastics of perception in which things become momentarily linked by sensuous enjoyment. Whalen's poetry is the ultimate expression of pleasure in a world of separate entities, among which moves this appreciative and laughing Buddhist - a kind of American Han Shan content with a world that is non-reflective, non-humanist.

The base of Whalen's poetry is not so much the perception or even the object itself, the historic grounds of Imagist esthetics, but the phrase in which a sensation enters the language function of mind. That point of impact marks a transformation of outer to inner realm, a cross-over into the yielding human imagination which doesn't seek to translate or manipulate the experience, but enjoy it in a felicitous wording of the encounter. That can only be by flashes and intuitive leaps, so the phrase is necessarily like its antecedent, the image, a discrete entity lacking in emotional or psychological connections to anything else. The phrase or sentence in Whalen is in itself a complete occasion, bounded by the input of an experience which the words embed in a lucid perception. And Whalen's poems are lattices of momentary flashes of insight or joyful response:

Immediate vision of opening door
Long rows of dead animals ducks and chickens
Eyes closed feet in the air
Died to feed me

          * * *
Red severed pig's head beside the dirt road
Rose quartz pebbles poke up through the ground
Magpie shuttles among the leaves
White black feathered snake

          * * *
Prickly pear's tiny bristles
Lodge under finger skin
Tree limb's bright edge
Crow cry crow fly cold

"New Mexico, after Many Years, 1. Mornings at Ranchos de Taos" Heavy Breathing: Poems 1967-1980. San Francisco, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980, p. 121.
These 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):

A bird                 vase de nuit
        a necessary vessel
The 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.
"Tiger Whispers: Interview with Ann Waldman," Off the Wall: Interviews with Philip Whalen. ed. Donald Allen. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978, p. 35.
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: Yeah, I look through the notebooks I've been doing and sometimes, like that thing, it seems like it's all completed but then other times there are just stray lines and if I look through it and see that some stray line connects it reminds me of some other lines that are in another notebook and I look at that and it may all go together or it may not and the very longest poems that are in the Memoirs of an Interglacial Age or the real long poems that are in On Boar's Head were done that way. It took years to do and to get the material all there to work from and then it was a matter of extensive cutting and so on.

. . . The only secret that I know about poetry that I tell all the students I've had - at a writing workshop I taught at the University of California Extension in San Francisco for one semester, or seminars and other things I've had in other places - the only secret that I know about poetry that I tell all the students is that you have to have all these ideas or words written down on paper and then go on from there.
"Tiger Whispers," pp. 13-14.
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 right
Of the center of the preceding page. Nothing can be done about
That. The line was ruined. OK.
Belt Hair. A bend is funnier. Bar Kochba. Do something
About it like animal factory mayhem.
The master said, "You shouldn't have put yourself into such a
Position in the first place." Nevertheless, it all looks different,
Right to left.
Another master said, "Well, you can always take more, you know."
The 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-hole
Springs, passing, -
Compare 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.


J A C K E T  # 11 
Contents page 
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog |
 Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice
-- Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose  | about Jacket |
This material is copyright © Paul Christensen and Jacket magazine 2000
The URL address of this page is