A Little Primer on What & How
by Thom Ward
Editor/Development Director, BOA Editions

Ego-Free, The Poem Aloft (Part Two of Two)
by Maureen Holm
Senior Essayist and Articles Editor

A Little Primer on What & How
by Thom Ward

Let us acknowledge this much: we are all attached to our personal what’s, those myriad particulars we collect, cherish and enjoy throughout our lives. We like stuff and covet more. This admission clears the way for us to entertain the notion that it might be invigorating to emerge now and again from our seductive What-clutter, and look closely at the How, overshadowed half-sister of the garrulous What, namely, the aesthetic strategies which keep our What-stuff in motion. If we believe our poems must work and play in the service of love, helping us abide one another while illuminating the hard-fought ambivalences and ambiguities that make us human, we do well to remember the seminal lines from Wallace Stevens:

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven")
Stevens’s claim challenges poets to let the presiding impulse be how the events (our occasions) enter language, and not just the events themselves. Anyone can write about the actual, transcribe the literal to text like an earnest cub reporter, but poetry that produces frisson, that speaks to the heart/mind/body of others, demands that we go further than merely the What. In its moments of highest achievement, poetry should give others "not some objective truth about the world, but rather, the nature of the mind experiencing that world, the nature, if you like, of cortical response." (W. D. Snodgrass, To Sound Like Yourself)

This dynamic is perhaps analogous to how a wave flips a shell over, again and again, a rhythm or an unfamiliar pulse, curiosity propelled by the thrust of syllabic or syntactical pattern, combined with the nudge of imagination. Formed as a bodily integrity of words, sounds and silences, an accomplished poem, like a child, is from us, but not of us. We do well sometimes to stand up and get out of its way. Moreover, poems that draw only from memory and avoid imagination often suffocate surprise. This is so because their occasions overwhelm the as-yet-undiscovered possibilities of the cry. In our best efforts, those "crying" possibilities enrich our poems with philosophical and psychological opportunities without a loss of emotional intensity. Simply put, the language finds a locus from whose vantage it can think and sing, sing and think.

Relationship between What and How

What else about How? Stevens insists that cry and occasion are symbiotic, often nearly identical, but not quite. According to him, it is this dynamic interaction between jumeaux manqués, the not-quiteness" relationship between the act of the poem vs. the event of the poem, which produces the dramatic tension that is characteristic of compelling work. Its achievement marks the poet who understands the How's function as aorta for the imagination, who understands the beauty and forcefulness of "sounds passing through sudden rightnesses." (Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry") A poem which lacks this "not-quiteness" interaction remains flaccid and mundane, and thus does the art little service. Powerful verse brings us new wine in old wineskins.

Here, then, is another apt metaphor for the How. Ripened on the vine, aged in oak barrels, then bottled and turned, the grape becomes wine. No matter the quality of the vintage or of the vinestock, be it Cabernet, Shiraz or Riesling, when wine is sipped leisurely from Riedel crystal, the fruit’s flavor and bouquet reward the drinker. The same vintage chugged from a styrofoam cup obscures the experience. Summon the sommelier! The How is being abused.

So, after we’ve groped in half-light for the tenuous hemp that may become a poem, why not twist or shake that hemp once we grab hold? It is the act of poem-making -- the syntactical maneuvers, pacing, tone and music which comprise the cry -- that is often the means by which naked ideas and resistance to those ideas arrive. We demand that contemporary film and music discover and surprise from start to finish, keep us so enthralled in their dreamscapes that we can find no excuse to leave. Why should poems not do the same? Arguably, the history of Western literature devolves on just two stories, two What’s: the hero’s journey out and the hero’s return journey home.

Temperament Acts on Things

Obviously, we can’t escape subject matter, the What-stuff of our lives--nor do we want to. William Carlos Williams championed the notion that "things" are laden with intellectual opportunities and emotional intensities. We must be careful how we take Williams’s long-standing aesthetic creed. We’ve always understood that his two famous short poems aren’t merely about their central What-stuff, a wheelbarrow and plums. Williams’s subjects are developed, maneuvered and altered so effortlessly (undoubtedly the nimblest line-breaker of the 20th Century) that his poems cease to be about X or Y and end up providing the reader with another expression of human consciousness confronting and being challenged by itself and the world.

The idea that an artist’s temperament dictates how he exercises his imagination is a central component of Stevens’s aesthetic project. In his essay, "Effects of Analogy," Stevens asserts that subject matter is never a static thing, a particular What, but rather, the poet’ s inexhaustible and ever-fluctuating sense of the world, a sense that balances a deepening understanding of reality with the possibilities of the imagination. He writes, "The measure of the poet is the measure of his sense of the world and of the extent to which it involves the sense of other people."

In sum, Williams and Stevens both call us to be mindful of the dynamic process of how the surface and sub-surface events of a poem enter language, propelled by a poet’s imagination and modulated by personal temperament. Thus, we owe a great debt to the Jersey doctor and to the Connecticut insurance lawyer.

Surprised by the Cry’s Possibilities

Let us go proceed, strengthened by the belief that the dynamic interaction between cry and occasion provide myriad possibilities. Let us not rehearse the poem before we write, but rather, allow it to startle us with process -- rhythm and pulse, syllable and silence. Even if we think we know where we are in our initial drafts and subsequent revisions, the poem is better served when we proceed as though we did not. Those of us who call ourselves poets should strive to be attentive, receptive and brilliantly naïve in writing these brief yet vital offerings. We should entertain all perspectives, including irony, wit and humor. Moreover, when our impulses fly toward metaphor, we do well to consider how those metaphors string together, how they listen to each other, how they, as little engines, drive the poem beyond mere figurative ornamentation. We should afford the reader opportunities to make full contact with the language by crafting patterns of intelligent and visceral metaphor with which he can identify.

In other words, we may have to push away from ourselves, distrust our What-stuff and our own best thinking, and welcome resistances to the queries and claims in our poems. Such resistances might engender a surprise-stocked dialectic -- yes - no - maybe - perhaps - then again - but -- which keeps us aesthetically nimble, safe from the torpor of a calcified aesthetic.

We are not alone in this enterprise. Emily Dickinson championed a spry poetics, seldom interested in merely strapping her poems to the topical details of her life, its particular What-incidents. Instead, aided by liturgical forms lifted from Protestant hymns, disjunctions of grammar within phrases, and those crucial dashes, her language leaps to the psychological effects these incidents produce. She thus enabled the energy which was pulsing through her poems to span the whole range of human feelings, from irony to sincerity, from "a perfect - paralyzing Bliss" to that "White Sustenance - /Despair." In her work language becomes a river through which the reader passes to "finish" the poem. Because she allied herself aesthetically to the powerful fluidity of the How, Dickinson’s poems continue to reverberate in us now, more than a century later.

In our most successful work the language moves effortlessly from surprise to surprise, engages and delights the reader, and, perhaps, even compels him to utter the words aloud. We should hope our poems advance some sense of unexpected inevitability that will get us, if only momentarily, to where aesthetics leap to encounter the metaphysical question or concern, whether latent or conspicuous.

I conclude with a short poem, one in which the triggering occasion is rhythm-and memory-driven. In the revision process and in the time away from the poem, that particular memory was reshuffled by my imagination, which I hope permitted innocence and experiential consciousness to collide, and language to loose itself from itself. Figuratively speaking, I entered the school with my son and came out with my nephew, swapped a male teacher for a female administrator, all the while pursuing some happy fiction bouncing this way and that.

Well Through the Test

for entrance into kindergarten
the administrator places a ball

in my nephew’s restive hands.
Alex, please describe this ball,

its shape and color, how you
play with it, those kinds of things.

After a pause he looks up and says,
Rainbow eye. If you get hungry

lollipops make a parade.
She bites her lip and scratches notes

on lined paper fastened to a board.
No Alex, describe the ball, she says

a little more emphatically.
Lots of things are good to watch,

he says. Her forehead crimps
then releases. Tell me about the ball

in your hands, sweetheart. Can you do that?
Another pause, this one longer.

What ball? he says.

© 2000 Thom Ward

(Thom Ward's poetry books are Small Boat with Oars of Different Size (Carnegie
Mellon) and Tumblekid (University of South Carolina-Aiken).He is the editor
and development director of BOA Editions. BOA's title, Blessing the Boats:
New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000, by Lucille Clifton, recently won the
National Book Award.)

* * *


Ego-Free, The Poem Aloft (Part Two of Two*)
by Maureen Holm
Senior Essayist and Articles Editor

[*Part One, appearing here in abridged form, appears in its entirety in the
January issue. See Archives. Ed.]

[Part One, abridged.]

. . . the lovers of literature
Paid you the tribute of their almost total
Inattention . . .

Galway Kinnell
"For William Carlos Williams"
What a Kingdom It Was (1960)

Poetry lies the more shallow-exposed in another’s speech
the deeper it lies in one’s own.

The deterioration of active linguistic faculties in favor of the passive visual, which at once marginalizes and proliferates poetry among non-poets, is a cultural paradox which has been ably addressed elsewhere.[1] Justly held to stricter account, the poet deaf to his fellows is a self-made cripple.

Disabled by false ideas of singular personality from ceding to the poem its ego-free will and time-neutral consciousness (phenomena most non-artists experience only in dream), he thwarts and ladens it with pedestrian needs and notions of his own. Distrustful of the results, and prone to suspect peers of like substitution, he responds, not to the particularity of the poem as entity, but rather, to the personality of its nominative author, an attitude that mistakes cargo for vehicle, rider for horse, and diverts all onto the by-way of competitive mediocrity.

This essay proceeds from the conviction that extreme deference to the poem during the compositional dialogue (Part One) and unobtrusive service during delivery (Part Two) are indispensable to its retrieval from the non-verbal nether into the speech-illumined world. It follows that, as the attitude which distorts one poet’s hearing of another corrupts a priori the dialogue between poet and poem, correction must begin there.

Non-Verbal Disintegration

One February dawn in Vienna, I jolted awake, panting, but limbs intact, and knew the Austrian segment of my life was over. The dream sign was a ballroom chandelier become ceiling sprinkler, light source become fountain. I watched its graceful sparkle-spray arc and fall, spatter my left arm and dissolve it with a soundless, effervescent hiss.

as if I (I so nothinged) [2]

Fifteen years later, that image had abstracted and migrated. Daniel, my fictive French comatose, is formless, egoless, stripped of every image but that of a wet splotch on a beach. He identifies with it, groping out his new, ontological perimeter in the sand.

But I began in a word & I ended in a word &
I know that word better
Than any knows me or knows that word, . . .

Non-Verbal Assimilation

"The poet is occupied with the frontiers of consciousness where words fail, but meanings still exist.[3] This is the zone we inhabit when we enter into dialogue with the poem to transliterate our non-verbal exchange onto the page. Within it, poet accounts to poem as the final arbiter of its completion; poem scrutinizes and challenges poet.

Only by engagement in the dialogue can we produce authentic work of lasting value. "The cure of poetry is the achievement of the poem’s rescue from an accumulation of prosaic impulses that stanch the spring of feeling and idea."[4] When we try to override the poem’s ego-free will by force of intellect -- syntactical pushing and shoving or recalcitrant insistence on clever purport -- it refuses to debate, flees or, worse, squats impassive on the page. Triteness is the revenge of the poem bullied, misquoted or ignored.

Language is the sequence of telling, but consciousness the order of it. We must let the poem reconstitute itself -- unprovoked by our prosaic impulses -- or end, just marring the shore, sinkholes of banal.

[Part Two]

Non-Verbal Dissemination

We are but faces phrased in voices,
lost vowels in the drift of innuendo
of a city’s dream. [5]

Deep-speech: heard, read with prickles of recognition. The novice’s deliberate appeal to a collective consciousness presumed invariably falls short of art: Vague remonstrations against injustice, lamentable muses, technologic alienation, are among the typical excursions into trite. The poem has not been consulted. The poet has not owned his splotch on the beach. Well-intentioned, he has witnessed a sunset there, but is still telling it based on hearsay.

Open mics are the karaoke of the spoken word. -- Jonathan Galassi [6]

A damning assertion, to grant it means to acknowledge that the lip-syncher poet, earnest, if inartful, has been upstaged by the no more artful, studiedly cynical compounds that provoked it. Tuneless, marginal even on their own terms as entertainment, that genre of pandering, pun-laden, self-conscious mockery is to detractors the run-off become mainstream debased as "spoetry."

Poetry is a bodily art. -- Dana Gioia [7]

Even before the first utterance, whether stammered or ranted, conversational or declamatory, each reader divulges by bearing and gesture his attitude -- furtive, proprietary, reverent -- toward the piece, whereby the audience preliminarily intuits the level and source of consciousness at work in it: that of un/reconstituted poet/poem.

Gestural meaning is less conveyed to than seized upon by the onlooker, as if the doer’s intent inhabited the body of the other, bringing bits of the shared, perceptible world to his notice and inviting concurrence in them. His response irreducible to anything else, the onlooker concurs unquestioningly in a recognition which precedes, even foregoes intellectual analysis. Communication is readily achieved because gesture reflects the organizational contours of the world it describes. [8]

Speech as an institution with ready-made meanings
arouses only second-order thoughts in a linguistic world
undistinguished from the world itself. [9]

Speech delineates its own meaning; a linquistic gesture made to an ‘intersubjective’ world not common to all, its peculiarity demands communicative ingenuity. [10] Too little appreciative of the contingent element in expression, we see man only superficially unless and until we descend beneath the world-conscious ‘chatter in words’ to the first-order breaking of silence [11]-- aided at that depth by the free-agent consciousness of the poem. [12]

Verbal Reintegration

Aesthetic expression lends autonomous existence to the expressed, positing it in nature as a thing perceivable, rid of its empirical signs. [13] Like the notes of Proust’s metaphoric sonata, musical symbol is engulfed by musical meaning, inseparable from, yet transported beyond, the vehicle of sound. No intellectual analysis prepares us fully for the experience of its effects. [14]

From dawning, through dialogue, to delivery, we are tempted by illusions of creation to overconduct the poem into the organic world -- while utterly neglecting the instrument on which it will self-manifest.

Speech issues from man as incandescence from the lamp. [15]

Speech is surplus, the plenitude of being that impels an infant’s gurgle, a writer’s wave of language, the crest eager to surpass its own limits. [16] Through speech, we signify beyond symbol and reintegrate thought into the phenomenal world, not as vestment, but as body, [17] a transformation no less wondrous than love bred from desire. [18]

The deeper the water of consciousness, the more vibrant the glow. Loft a poem into vocal trajectory and see it catch hold, dangle a long moment from center ceiling, revolving protean overhead, then burst into bits, light as confetti, sprinkling everyone in the room. [19]

Since language can disintegrate into fragments,
we must conclude that it is constructed
from independent contributions. [20]

When the poem has contributed its consciousness to the dialogue and reconstituted in the work, we must lend it ear and respect or else we do violence to its self-chosen embodiment in speech. If the would-be poet has bullied, misquoted or ignored it, may the next high tide repair the shore.

Delivery as Instrument, not Goods

"What I wanted to convey in this poem was my sense of . . . "


Stop your ears. Here come the second-order thoughts achattering, boxed and jouncing over the rutted by-way of cargo/conveyance confusion. No. Poet retrieves poem from the depths where it has bidden him, accepts its guidance during transliteration, and reconveys it through the mechanics of (less ambiguous, if less organized) sound: speech.

Poem cannot provide poet with a melographic transcription of how it hears itself, and thus achieve true accordatura, but rather, is at the mercy of his vocal instrument to reproduce its timbre and pitch. By further analogy, a cellistic poem may have to play on the reedy equivalent of a penny whistle. Such tonal disparity is unnecessary and unfair, the fault of the speaker unsure how to relax his voice down to its natural position and how to breathe. Is there a correlation between the depth of consciousness evinced in the poem and the depth of breath drawn to speak it? Projection onto the vocal trajectory -- without strain or stridency -- is a basic skill easily acquired. Too many poets fail at the launch; they do not allow the audience to have the poem. [21] Clear enunciation, of course, is the least of it, though too rarely a given.

To deliver well, first get out of the way of the poem.

A Broadway theatre recently offered a one-woman performance of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. An Off-Off-Broadway theatre offered "Writers in Performance": actors performing poetry -- and fiction. A non-academic program currently offers a ten-week, overcome-your-fear-of-public-speaking-style performance workshop for non-performance poets. Eliot wrote many stageworks, each anticipating actor interpretation: Arguably, The Waste Land was not one of them.

This trend toward theatricality -- if it is one -- has culled advocates and alarmists. The nervous actor renders Lear’s gentle "Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are" speech pitch-indistinguishable from his angry "[D]ie for adultery! No: The wren goes to ‘t . . . fie, fie, fie!"[22]; many poets deliver each piece in the identical drone or shriek. If the poem is reasonably expressive on the page and its nominative author cannot duplicate that expressiveness without coaching, it is a sign he hogged the dialogue during composition. In that case, rehearsed vocal modulations and gestural ornament will distract speaker and audience, obstructing, rather than enhancing delivery.

The musical analogy with poet as self-playing instrument is preferable to the theatrical in that it poses fewer obstacles for the poem, though, of course, a deep-speech, incandescent poem can overcome considerable ineptitude. The analogy also underscores his role as servant, not master of the poem. Moreover, all but the truly tone-deaf can track a melody ("a coherent succession of pitches"[23]) and even these are not insentient to rhythm. Melody in the poetry context may be simple contour, thus, repetition, texture, phonetic affinities,[24] though, of course, speech may border on song [25] -- or burst into it: the surplus of being. [26] Rhythm, some maintain, is the irreducible line-in-the-sand demarcation between poetry and prose. [27]

Ultimately, the best assurance of successful delivery is artistic integrity, that is, a genuine dialogue with the poem.

‘I sell myself nothing.’ -- Pablo Picasso

[1] See, e.g., Can Poetry Matter? (Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn., 1991).
[2] From "Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice". Selected Poems of Alice Notley (Talisman House, Hoboken, NJ, 1993).
[3] T.S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, "The Music of Poetry", (Faber and Faber, 1957), at 30.
[4] Mary Kinzie, Ph.D. (Director, Creative Writing Program, Northwestern Univ.), writes on the scrutiny of artist by artwork, using Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," in The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993). A poem is "at once a contract with self-scrutiny, and a state of being illuminated or seen through by it. The poem you are writing sees you, sees (in both senses) through you: It shows you up, and it requires your humble cooperation." (at xi, emphasis added) "Because the service of poetry magisterially summons the writer, makes demands, and designates the ways of approach to itself, it is appropriate to speak of the poet’s calling." Kinzie, Id. (second emphasis in original).
[5] From James Ragan’s "Purgatorio, c. WATTS", The Hunger Wall (Grove 1995). Ragan’s work has been translated into twelve European and Asian languages. For an in-depth interview, see Rattle, Issue No. 12. For a recent critical study, see "Stages of Man and Earth: James Ragan, the Poet Behind The Hunger Wall" (Maureen Holm, Lagniappe, SUNY Buffalo).
[6] Editor-in-Chief, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and President, Academy of American Poets.
[7] Lecture, June 8, 2000, Conference on Form & Narrative, West Chester University (Pa.). "We are capable each one of creating the culture we want to live in." Id.
[8] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, Chap. 6: The Body as Expression, and Speech (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1962, hereinafter, "M-P") at 185-6. Author’s note: Language from Colin Wilson’s translation is frequently abridged or edited in this essay.
[9] M-P, at 184.
[10] "It is illusion that one possesses, through command of a language, what it takes to understand a given literary text." (M-P, at 179.) "If consciousness could find in its experience only what it has itself put there, communication would be an illusion." On the question of how consciousness discovers the new, Merleau-Ponty rejects out of hand the notion that consciousness knows everything in advance, yet confirms that we have the power to understand more than we have spontaneously thought, and even that another’s words awaken in us thoughts that were ours beforehand (at178).
[11] M-P, at 184.
[12] "With these poems, I sought to capture what is lived in between the moments that poetry has traditionally highlighted. They’re very still in the air, very fragile; difficult to read aloud, they fall. It seemed to me a desirable aesthetic if it was possible to make that kind of poem." (Author’s 1995 Paris interview with Alice Notley, published in Paris/Atlantic (Winter 2000) and in modified form in The Poetry Calendar (NY, Feb 2000, Vol. 24, No. 6).
[13] M-P, at 183.
[14] Id. at 182-3.
[15] Id. at 175.
[16] Id. at 197.
[17] Id. at 182.
[18] Id. at 194.
[19] It becomes a thing newly re-examined by the poet as well. In the best case, "[a]s if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime . . . filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard." From On the Sublime, traditionally ascribed to Longinus and quoted in Simpson, Louis, An Introduction to Poetry (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 3rd Ed., 1986) at 628 (emphasis supplied).
[20] M-P at 175.
[21]Obviously, memorization frees the speaker to greater interaction with his audience. If a poet has very few pieces of his own work committed to memory, he may be writing too much and/or revising too little, memorization occurring quite involuntarily in the course of multiple revisitations.
[22] King Lear, III, iv and IV, vi.
[23] Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986), entry on "melody".
[24] "The two primary engines of musical gesture are bodily motion and the voice. . . . The Sprechstimme of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire has melodic contour while avoiding clear pitches." Id.
[25] Id.
[26] See text accompanying notes 15-18, supra.
[27] See, e.g., Simpson, Louis, An Introduction to Poetry, supra.