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Jordan Stempleman

Still, Life Supports a Tending

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‘And I forgot the way back, forgot the back of the story, perhaps for the better, since I was refreshed and could remember nothing,’
— John Ashbery


I become bored by my own cleanliness, my neatness, my knowingness. I was never made to enjoy living too long within any sense of an obtainable order. I am now aware I’m only borrowing this concept, that it’s a basic return to Germanic ideas of the Romantic, such that, “the early Romantics presented a challenge to any attempt of totalizing reason in the interest of validating an existing order of things” (Riou 19).


I believe in a stability that knows not its center or its balance, that truly believes in the vision of only a few steps ahead of where it is, and a hindsight much weaker than the eye.


My poetry lives somewhere in that Heraclitian realm where, “man is estranged from that which he is most familiar” (qtd. in Saffo). When I begin a poem, everything that I know vanishes. The hard road is to accept that no idea will ever be completed, no moment entirely captured, no understanding compounded into truth, and no earthy replacement left to represent the strong emotional undercurrent that insists upon the poem as its form.


All knowledge is eternally displaced. By knowledge, I refer to what is supposedly learned, what is passed off as truths, and essentially, all that I’ve encountered and all that I’ve loved. I feel as if I nearly forget how to communicate once the upsurge that marks a poem begins working towards some unknown connectivness, some otherworldly order. I never force this absentmindedness, this stuttering stammer, I don’t have to. I am “reclouded” the moment I step away from the poem, left to surely reenter the darkened mine I call my own, never knowing what I’m looking for. “I find being a poet something that must start again all the time” (Notley 159). I find writing in this state of mind means I must circle the elusive complex of sensation until, not the “right words” are left to define the exploration that is the poem, but the many words, the many attempts to explain the “naïve and sentimental” (Schiller) enter into a “complex unity” (Whitehead) of a rendered consciousness; a life one day left behind. The intent is for the body of work to accumulate, to one day be there to map a balance between consciousness and unconsciousness — that as a whole, may capture all those years of processing all concern.


The purpose is not to name what it is I go back for, but to keep on going back. My intent while writing a poem, is to come out of the depths of sensations with something to discuss, thus a return, a limited knowingness, fully marked by attentiveness: the basis for a life’s work: Spicer’s last words: “My vocabulary did this to me” (qtd in Semansky). The Sysiphean notion of acknowledging the unknown struggle to, in the end, (or hopefully, now!) find pleasure in the process. And I do, I do! The poem will never be a stand in for the impulse to rebuild and reinvestigate the language of experience. It is a marker of: You know, that was a good thing you thought you thought yesterday, that was close to getting at something, yesterday, and today, well, that’s an entirely different matter. “The full ‘meaning’ or (better) the full actualization of the poem is realized only in the writing of it or some other poem, never in a reading. Even the poet, after the poem is written, cannot ever again fully actualize the poem” (Barone 122). The guts of the poem’s reason ‘to be written’ drops through the floor immediately after the poem is completed. It’s the reprisal for reaching a stasis. The poem I’ve just written is there to remind me: You now have me, and you wouldn’t if you allowed for a finality or a stab at understanding to settle in. The mind smears away all certainty so the poem can re-enter the mind as, “what’s not found / at once, but lies / within something of another nature” (Levertov 17).


My project, as I see it, is to always “associate ideas in a state of excitement” (Wordsworth 5). My concern isn’t to complete an idea through a single poem into a display of public philosophy. The aim is to trustfully listen for all ideas to travel through feelings and indeterminations, creatures in the midst of passing through some evolutionary stage, where limbs are lengthened or limbs fall off. A body of work will one day stand in for the mind that left it — ecstatically renovating the narrowly opened spaces between the poet’s heavenly blind promises to move forward, and sensations that appear without warning.


Here, I will admit to writing poems constructed of a complex of sensations and, simply, uncompleted ideas.


To bet on returns
before the force comes along and helps one to forget.
           The mind works, it works,
but for others it longs to remain    (Stempleman 35).


What I’ve written is important, but how it’s used by the reader (and this includes myself) is imperative to building on the promises left by sensation. The poet’s construction of “a few words create together one word” (Kane and Howe 71) is always in wait for the poet to come along and add to the developing sentence, to give a little more with each return — to build upon intersections of innovation and common sense — between what is made in the poem’s unknown image, and the material of what we’ve been left, and what we leave behind.  


Nothing should be difficult in my work but the willingness to give away all fixed representation. “Man is a god when he dreams, a beggar when he reflects” (Hölderlin 23). The mind does best when entered as an oral space — white sheets flapping in the wind. The intent of the poem is not to improve an existing system of tablets, as is the case with other forms of writing (De Certeau discusses the concept of the “oral word” as containing the earliest messages from the gods, in his wonderful text, The Practice of Everyday Life). The poem that is created and lives in the realm of discovery, is the poem that is listened to, fought for, stripped from the mind whose impulse is to never release any private or vulnerable thought into the world of efficient modes of communication. My poems reveal everything (although I am struck dumb) in the mind. Their light begins to darken as they begin their descent onto the page. Once on the page though, the poem is faced with the world’s conventions — of language, of economics, of instability, and of order.


Singular sensations and singular ideas should never stray too far alone, lest they begin to consider themselves the one and only love — the lone recognition of the mind.


“A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry,’ for the mind in creation is as a fading coal[...]and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet” (Shelley 758). The venture of the poem is always the same: to stay writing in the wake of the unavoidable: the most familiar and the most unknown. The difficulty will always be to write about what’s elusive: the sensationally unmemorable that’s out looking for a language to say what it is. “Perception of an object means losing and losing it” (Howe 23). Pessoa marks all returns to the intangible with the allegorical — the moment when Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor while composing “Kubla Khan” and was therefore forced out of all epiphanic elucidation — the dream forgotten — the poem flushed back into a darkness made up of beautifully important remains.


All of us compose our works in a dream, even if we compose them while awake[...] All that we truly think or feel, all that we truly are — as soon as we try to express it, even if only to ourselves — suffers the fatal interruption of that visitor who we also are, that person from the outside who is inside us all[...] between the beginning and the end of a poem, composed in its entirety but not allowed by us to be written. And all that really survives, whether we be great or small artists, are fragments of what we don’t know what but which would have been, if realized, the very expression of our soul.   (Pessoa 55)


The ‘which would have been,’ is so fitting a place for the poem to end. Forget about fragments. I never write in fragments. I write with the unfinished: that which is developing — the slow growth — never involved in the force of destruction. And as long as the days are left to stand as they do, built of a developing temporality, there is the form of the poem. We wake from partial notions, and give way to sleep, leaving half-ideas to fade away throughout the night.


It is after the point of contact, after poems have lingered in sensations and weathered the onslaught of reason, the ‘poems of return’ rather than the ‘poems of sentiment’ begin to take effect. “Let us transform our sensations into ideas, but do not let us jump all at once from the objects of sense to objects of thought” (Rousseau 108). The poet is never in a state of awakening, but in a state of recovery. The memories and ideas one can sense, but that require an entirely new formation and use of language, are raft-like, traveling beneath us to wherever it is we must go.


I’m reminded of Koch’s request of waiting for one train to pass before crossing the tracks, or else be prepared to get reamed by the hidden and oncoming object, the stubborn and habitual idea.


In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line —
Then it is safe to go on reading.    (Koch 441)


It is the “being within our being” (Shelley 760) that asks us to avoid the tendency to think of the “there” as “all there is”. It is the hushed voice of the inner-being that is in wait, holding many of the (in)sights that account for our awakenings. And I truly believe the more active and deafening the outside world is, conversely, the inner-chambers that house our ever-developing inner-phenomenal-side ask to be separated from the cacophonous threads into one light and luminous pitch. It is this pitch that becomes the poem. It’s the sound that most resembles my own.


I feel a primary concern of the poet is to wait for sensations to begin working themselves into a frenzy, while concurrently, the attention of the mind is distracted by the sounds of the living. It is in this space where I write the poem. By this space, I mean in the pause, that disruption of the mind’s habitual pace and reach. “We learn in the retreating” (Dickinson 226). Well, possibly not in how we recoil, but in where we return to, and how often, and with all the attention one can care for. Let the television roar while I’m writing. Let the children speak of what can’t possibly be seen: monsters affixed to the backs of ghosts, riding along the floorboards. Let dinner boil over on the stove, since it marks that time — the time for the poem. Does this not mimic the activity found within the poem itself — a thousand decisions of what to attend to first? “Always welcome distraction. Remember Baucis and Philemon. They were eternally rewarded” (Revell, Invisible Green 186). All the insane decisions of where to listen, what to listen to, and for how long, are pulled from the sounds of the world and the clamor of the mind. But what about following that recent appearance of an old houseboat that somehow slipped loose, and the lone woman inside that looks out from the kitchen window, terrified and waving a spatula at someone other than me? Of course Ashbery helps:


[...] The mind
Is so hospitable, taking in everything
Like boarders, and you don’t see until
It’s all over how little there was to learn
Once the stench of knowledge has dissipated[...]    (Ashbery, Houseboat Days 38)


The pleasure of waiting for the poem means we can let all ideas go as they may: unfinished and remarkably there: if one travels light, they can always hope to see what they once left shining brightly behind a window — the likes of which they’ve never seen before. Rather than pushing towards ideas, the ideas will begin to preserve themselves into a complete essence of all our concern, always there on the periphery of the mind.


When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg (Kane and Ashbery 32).


We are left to the shadows, lucky enough to be given those also blinding moments that warm the body but that close the eyes. “Compulsion thrives on stillness, and light is never still” (Revell, Art of Attention 108). It would seem that in a poem what I look at, or more aptly termed, what I see, is actually its opposite. Perhaps this is where Ted Berrigan provides us with one of his best lines of advice, “...if I don’t like a word, I only know how to change it to the opposite of what it means (Berrigan 13). This technique often works wonders, unless, of course, the word you’re trying to change is one of the most poetic words in the English language, “black” (blaek), and whose etymological foundations are as follows:


7. In ME. it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blake, means ‘black, dark,’ or ‘pale, colourless, wan, livid’ = OE. blác; see farther under BLAKE.    (OED).


I love that! “see farther under BLAKE.” What better advice to give a poet or anyone for that matter, sending one to look under the voice that insisted, “speak silence with thy glimmering eyes” (Blake, Evening Star 15) and “I stained the water clear” (Blake, Innocence 19). Just as Blake was intent on removing the notion of inexperience lessening with age, and understanding absent in youth, so too, in the act of the poem, that which we intend to know, or, what we intend to mean, is often found in the concept we last consider. Thoughts look into their own darkness or their own light, depending on where they are born. To briefly unite antonymic notions that enter the poem may be to elicit the underlying unanimity found in the greatest of poems.


The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put into action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects[...]the manner to the matter.    (Coleridge 649)


The poem, as I see it, must never overvalue any single aspect of its construction. The sound, the image, the dreadful ideas, the needy and persistent memories that ask to be eternally recognized, thus substantiated, all must support the totalized, and equivocally measured percentage that establishes the whole creation. Again, I listen to Coleridge’s definition of the poem when he says,


A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth, and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distant gratification from each component part    (Coleridge 648).


The poem, in its entirety, comes from the slow growth of a delightful forgetfulness and a reaching out towards a hopeful, developing future.


Because when darkness does come we’ll need advice, and the only way we’ll get it is by looking at what we’ve wrote down a long time ago, thinking it of no importance and laying it in a shallow box or drawer (Ashbery, Flowchart 95).


Our ideas and concerns come back to us. They, as we do, become frustrated when surmised in one sitting, since they rely on all we have yet to consider:


You know there are always messages we find
— in bed, on the street or anywhere, and the mind
invents a translation almost plausible;
but it hasn’t any knowledge of the language at all    (Bronk 135).


The delay of seconds passing, a chute for the familiar ease in which we tend to call on sense. But sense, in poetry, is in the layers below the ongoing conflicts that are at work to seek some resolve to our dailyness.


It is the restored imagination of plainness, of the always returning concerns that seep upward into speech to build themselves in the frightening place where, “one thing doesn’t lead to another” (Bronk 84) but instead, returns to the indefinitely unfinished, we may began, as we have, so many times as before.


A Problem
Let none resemble another; let each resemble the highest!
How can that happen? let each be all complete in itself    (Schiller, Poemhunter).


Completeness. This would be such a wonderful place to be! So what then of memory, since it is memory that disrupts the originality of the experience, suggests to us that, use us enough, and you’ll find some dedicated and gifted hound that will follow you to your stink. Each thought, each return to memory, then must be regarded as an archetypal creation, unique to the moment it is used. I equate memory with a tireless sieve that protects the past from becoming entirely reproduced. It’s why there’s no containing the past, and why the poet John Weiners dubbed it as “a vapor that escapes / from the mind in impatience” (Weiners 156). The more often we return to the past, the more removed we are from the original place: the present occasion separated from all reflection. My intent, whenever I use memory, is to guide it into becoming a new form, a new construct, that proceeds into the present without dragging along wit it the impulse of a trusted old sight. It’s not the original man, but an original man. Keats believed that poetry “works out its own salvation” insisting we listen closely when he writes, “that which is creative must create itself.” (Keats, Letters 207)


If I am to accept Susan Howe’s notion that “Identity and memory are crucial for anyone writing poetry,” I must equate memory with the sense to build anew, and not with the original construct itself.


That I might drink and leave the world unseen,
  And with thee fade away in the forest dim

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known,    (Keats, “Nightingale” 539)


Nostalgia for the image is noxious, if the image is not re-envisioned and spoken of as arriving fundamentally transformed. If asked to return, the image must be taken as yet another unknown, an archetype unable to ever reproduce itself in the same way again, and therefore, remain always exact and forever alone.


Memory seems entirely dangerous when equated with a certain rendering of nostalgia — a desire to retell it as it was. Let each image, each memory go at it alone without needing us or the other, or that silence each has been provided. They will, as they have always been capable, transform all preciousness into some unfamiliar circumstance once timely associations are well forgotten.   


I deeply believe in Bergson’s conviction that “memory must be, in principle, a power absolutely independent of matter.” (qtd. in Russell 718) Therefore, when I begin a poem, many feel like the one that came before them. We are again speaking of returns. Although memory is never fixed, it is filled with disappearing items and the momentarily possessed. In the poem, I transmogrify memories from needy recollections into the de-privatized rub that escapes throughout our lives.


I think the sound of ideas; the sound of trudging through the mind for a language to match a state of mind, is what I’m most interested in. It’s the landscape that William Bronk felt could initiate a response of heightened sensation:


We are so little discernible as such
in so much nothing, it is our privacy
sometimes that startles us[...]    (Bronk 65)


What then is more private than the mind? Is there anything that shifts as suddenly, or completes a turn by thinking it may someday revisit the instant of its awakening?


Our concerns are so persistent. They stay with my poems long after I’ve moved on, repeating themselves again with newer urgency, repeating myself the only way I know how, which is essentially with the urgency of a poet’s mind to avoid  a calculated arrangement, since that would just be stuffing a living form with unlikely truths, merely a form of poetic deadening, what Donald Revell might deem a form of “taxidermy”.


I’VE seen a dying eye
Run round and round a room
In search of something, as it seemed,
Then cloudier become;
And then, obscure with fog,
And then be soldered down,
Without disclosing what it be,
‘T were blessed to have seen    (Dickinson 188)


Is Dickinson releasing the image of its symbology — that which has accumulated before our births and that we now inherit as far as we can see? It may do more good to think of sight as the light that passes though the eyes. The nutrient that the mind needs to begin speaking within the terms of darkness. “Compulsion thrives on stillness, and light is never still” (Revell, Attention). I propose to follow the image that burns brightest — the image that resists a heavy lidded gaze, instead turning our heads away from the mania of capturing it in memory’s leaky jar. If I’m to believe that light is never still, I must contend there is a furious activity in the darkness, a darting of purposeful materials flying about in all directions. What interests me most about how the darkness enters us is its state of silence, its bacterial presence — the everywhere unseen. It enters into us without our knowing it or sensing it. It seems that we all know of those poems that sit and bake like rotating wieners at the 7—11, waiting to be seen in their abundant and florescent light, waiting for their sole purpose — digestion.  


To leave the poem with the ideas uncapped — to return to the poem, dumping back into it all the collected sensations and partial thoughts — is the only way to fend off a poetry of stasis. As a poet, I seek to disrupt the poem of sadness and decay — the poem of one time use. The German Romantics: Schlegel, Tieck, Solger, Novalis, and the British poets that followed, all knew this. “In all [these] cases, the poem is about the impossibility of a pure poetic naming; the poem will always be other than its subject, and this is because language is the form given to the world and not the world itself” (Colebrook).


It is possible that to seem — it is to be    (Stevens 339)


“To seem” is all I can trust of reality, assured that what passes though the veil that waters the eyes, are the same materials that will age with my pace, and hopefully, that I’ll find the remedial language to one day say, ‘hello’. As singular as the voice that moves the mind ahead may sound, it never determines where “the least, minor, vital metaphor, content,” (Stevens) replaces what it reaches to say. That is, the poem should forever be pervasive enough to reach the silenced facing where the voice dims, and where we, “salute and pass without a hint — / And there the matter ends.” (Dickinson 205)


The “dash” (Dickinson’s and my own) is always off to where the mind “sees” years ahead of the language — it’s the mind’s depths, that after the enlightened source of sensing the important thought, where reality’s mainstay interrupts, reveals our imperfect systems of reason and control, “Since the imperfect is so hot in us, / Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds” (Stevens 194). Yes, but without failings and persistence, I would reenter the mine, only to find a cavern of polished nothing, the walls slick and affixed to a frictionless interior that has no earthly equivalent.


I now begin to wonder of the terrible position I’d be in if Sappho’s nine books were to one day show up complete — the ends and starts, the blessed unknown demolished, the spaces our minds once filled, replaced with the unbearable bareness of knowing. Would we have much faith in the ongoing universe? Would we expect an end to uncertainty? What need would there be to measure the distance between bodies in photographs, and the look for the coming embrace? Ashbery may be my living Romantic. I almost considered writing him, asking, “Is it okay to live in the shadow of post-structuralism, but to exhume Jacobi’s highly useful and astute statement: ‘There is a light in my heart, but when I seek to bring it into my head, it is extinguished’?


Love thinks in lovely sounds,
For thoughts are too remote;
In sound alone she would express
What she would beautify    (Tieck 124).


Ashbery’s thought that, “Only love stays on the brain” (Ashbery, Houseboat 69) where sensations remain forceful and loyal, while ideas become fatigued and conclude, isn’t revelatory to our age:


The view that ideas are weaker or less vivid than sense impressions is not, of course, initiated in the West by Hume. It is at least as early as 269 B.C., having been held by Strato of Lampsacus schlorch of the Lyceaum (288?-269 B.C.). Strato believes the soul to be a material pneuma, and thought, residing in the base of the forehead, a weakened sensation requiring a new corporeal impression to restore it’s original liveliness[...]    (Riepe 64)


It’s so wonderful that Tieck fully removes love from the brain, while Ashbery removes it from the heart and places it directly in the poem. This means to really get at love or the fervor it leaves behind, all one must do is listen — consistently listen, despite wanting to use our all-powerful eyes, not to preserve love, but to fuel its life-force and our yearning for it. Love is well aware that when we write of it, we are sadly using a device love itself has never known, never had a use for, to bring itself out from the shadows. Our ideas of it, and love itself, are found in the union of unspoken actions and radiant sensations.


Language has not the power to speak what love indites:
The soul lies buried in the ink that writes    (Clare).


But is there no way to avoid the impulse to listen to, seek out, and trust our hard working ideas? It appears more reasonable to insist we give ideas the space to pass on, and we remain patient to listen for the “original liveliness”. The understanding we must reach is, we may have to continually rewrite our language to allow for us to discuss what is passing though us, and know, it’s the same presence that has passed though us before.


Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time    (Keats, OGU 541)


We are here with our own history to consider, not that of what we’ve been left to examine by those that came before us. If Keats goes on to note the urge to recreate what impressions are left, they are only explorative in nature, remindful that it’s the unknown that provides the ultimate impulse to create, replace, imagine, rely, assume, invoke, recant, and return. To begin the poem with what has escaped, is to write though the leanings of capture and control. What I saw and heard isn’t what I’m envisioning now. Is it not the sensual that’s consistently tolerant of entering into darkness? There is a beauty that waits throughout our lives, essentially open to be seen again without asking for priority.


There is a faith that believes in the itinerant mind of the poet. Keats amazes me in his garish recreation, how he buries himself neck-deep in “silken flanks” and trees that are eternally topped with green, yet these sights still do nothing to say what will become of the unknown. They are temporary sensations applied to a fixed image. The image itself is about as unrepresentative of a life lived, or, better stated, a life in the midst of living, as one could find. “Keats may have been influenced in his idea of Negative Capability by Coleridge’s notion of ‘negative faith’, ‘which simply permits the images presented to work by their own force, without either denial or affirmation of their real existence by the judgment’” (qtd. in Bridgewater). The investigation isn’t to supplant anthropomorphic curiosities to the inanimate, but to show the lost investigations of the minds’ of those figures who are wrapped around the urn. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (Keats, OGU 541).


I am after the active, pursuant of a “catch and release” process of creation, as opposed to a mummification of the moment the unconscious and conscious minds meet to generate a poem. The sensations, ideas, sentiments, and emotions are all left spirited, alive enough to go back under the surface — the candle dipped back into the wax to prolong its flame. The momentary and glorious steam the poems leave behind is enough. It is proof all capacities of epicurean particles have cleaved outside of the mind, and will go on living there just long enough to be alleged.


The streaking lights across one’s closed eyes that one can never make out or know where they originally set forth, are always rendered across a complete darkness — the one who comes forward to discuss this passing, is the poet. If I attempt to speak again of these otherworldly happenings with the intention of capturing a demand for precise meaning, it will only leave me reducing the poem down to those things I hope it could never be. One poem builds upon the one that came before. One poem enters the world to move awareness closer to our words.

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——— .  Houseboat Days. New York: Penguin Books, 1978

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——— .  “Ode to a Nightingale.” Romantic Poetry and Prose. Eds. Harold Bloom

and Lionel Trilling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973

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——— .  The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2007

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Wordsworth. William. “‘Preface’ to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads.Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800—1950. Ed. Melissa Kwasny. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Jordan Stempleman

Jordan Stempleman

Jordan Stempleman is the author of Their Fields (Moria, 2005), What’s the Matter (Otoliths, 2007), Facings (Otoliths, 2007), The Travels (Otoliths, 2008), and the forthcoming collection, String Parade (BlaxeVOX, 2008). He lives in Prairie Village, Kansas, and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute.

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