Posts Tagged ‘form

02
Oct
15

Quick Notes on Donald Justice

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Donald JusticeDonald Justice (1925 – 2004) is an American poet who was a master of poetic form and technique. The Summer Anniversaries (1960) won the Lamont Poetry Prize, and Selected Poems (1979) won the Pulitzer Prize.

I am not sure how to approach writing about Donald Justice, as “his overall career denies easy categorization” (“Biography”). So I will trace his approach to the personal, and then provide a brief hypothesis based on that trace. Looking back on what I just read in Donald Justice: New and Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), especially the poems from 1960 (The Summer Anniversaries) through 1975 (Departures) is that reading Justice is like reading an outline of 20th century poetry through the 1970s, in style, form, and experimentation. In The Summer of Anniversaries, a 35-year-old Justice writes mostly metrical and formal poems, but it is hard to find Justice in these poems, except for a few poems that seem based on his life or from his life, such as “Sonnet to My Father,” “The Poet at Seven,” or “The Summer Anniversaries.” Most of the poems, however, are not like the more trendy personal poems of his time, where the poet inserts himself or herself more directly into the poem. Justice’s poems in this collection tend to observe, comment on, and/or inhabit another. In addition, his language is tight, but sometimes with inversions and some ornamentation, like poetry at the beginning of the 20th century.

In Night Light (1967), there is shift. In these poems, we more clearly encounter Justice’s larger themes of loneliness, despair, and lovelessness, which are all good material for Confessional poems that we might find in the poetry of his contemporaries, but his poems aren’t confessional. They aren’t confessional because, again, we don’t really see Justice in these poems, as he is still observing others, though less formally but with more humor. It is in this book that Justice appears like a Modernist poet and/or a New Critic poet. His language is controlled, tight, and straight forward. His images are grounded in the real and less ornamental, and the images are not acting as metaphors or allegories. The image is the image. In doing so, Justice gives us a depiction of a lonely person or a despairing person or some other person, which enables the reader to inhabit those spaces. Where a Confessional poet is personal and private, Justice gets into the personal and private of another, whether he should or should not. In addition, while he averts the personal and private, his language becomes more familiar. He uses less meter and form. His language and free verse poetry (though very precise) more closely aligns with his contemporaries. His language is more everyday and plainer. He abandons ornament, it seems, to present a real rendering over the “poetic” rendering. This enables Justice to get closer to the truth of his subject and/or sympathize and empathize more intimately with his subject. With all of that said, “Heart” might be a confessional poem.

     Heart, let us this once reason together.
     Thou art a child no longer. Only think
     What sport the neighbors have from us, not without cause.
     These nightly sulks, these clamorous demonstrations!
     Already they tell us thee a famous story.
     An antique, balding spectacle such as thou art,
     Affecting still that childish, engaging stammer
     With all the seedy innocence of an overripe pomegranate!
     Henceforth, let us conduct ourselves more becomingly!

     And still I hear thee, beating thy little fist
     Against the walls. My dear, have I not led thee,
     Dawn after streaky dawn, besotted, home?
     And still these threats to have off as before?
     From thee, how wouldst lose thyself in the next street?
     Go the, O my inseparable, this once more.
     Afterwards we will take thought for our good name.    (68)

A humorous confessional poem at that, with the antiquated language, apostrophes, and exclamation points. Perhaps it’s a parody.

Departures (1975) is another turning in Justice’s poetry, as these poems depart from the not very personal to the personal. And the final poem (at least the final poem in the selection from Departures), “Absences,” feels Deep Image personal, as it uses language, tone, and images that seem to come directly from Robert Bly’s poems.

     It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
     There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
     Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
     Of a childhood piano – outside the window, palms!
     And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
     Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

     Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
     Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . .
     So much has fallen.
     And I, who have listened for a step
     All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
     Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
     On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.    (115)

When I finish this section of selected poems, I wonder if Justice always wanted to write the personal poem. If in fact he wasn’t a personal poet but doing it covertly and quietly through personae, such as in the poems “Men at Forty” (Night Light (1967), 76) – where he might be writing about himself at 40 through the third-person “they” – or “The Thin Man” (Night Light (1967), 78) – which uses the first-person “I,” which on first reading seems more like an objective “I,” but in reflection may be the personal “I” – or in “The Man Closing Up” ((Night Light (1967), 79-81), a poem that examines an isolated man without desire, who is depressed, and filled with anxiety and loneliness. The poem also uses metaphors and symbols which suggest emotions, unlike his typical realistic imagery.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from Justice’s poetry is his ever varying style. As Dana Gioia says about the Selected Poems:

[It] reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry [. . .] There are sestinas, villanelles, and ballads rubbing shoulders with aleatory poems [composed using chance methods], surreal odes, and . . . free verse . . . A new technique is often developed, mastered, and exhausted in one unprecedented and unrepeatable poem. (“Biography”)

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Works Cited

Biography: Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. N.d. Web. 2 Oct. 10.

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07
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Charles Olson

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Charles Olson

Charles Olson (1910 – 1970) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Black Mountain poets. He is influenced by Ezra Pound, whom he spent time with when Pound was in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but he was also influenced by W. C. Williams, who was also influenced by Olson enough to include Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. Olson’s first significant text was Call Me Ishmael (1947), his free flowing interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His primary texts include the highly influential essay “Projective Verse,” which I will focus on, and The Maximus Poems, a long poem spread across a thick book of 8.5″ x 11″ pages, where he maps Gloucester, Massachusetts, both geographically and temporarily. He uses Gloucester as a focal point from which to understand his universe. Its central character is Maximus, who according to David Perkins “is Olson, but also Olson composing poems” (502). Olson’s poetry explores the use of the page and the use of breath. He has an interest in the “primitive,” by which Olson means “‘primary, as how one finds anything, pick it up as one does new – fresh/first” (“Letter to Elaine Feinstein” 28). He is concerned with getting at the origins of things, before the habits of language interfere with their original uniqueness, that time when the Mayans “cut [hieroglyphs (words)] in stone, they [the hieroglyphs] retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (“Human Universe” 58).

On re-reading “Projective Verse” (1950) for the first time since the mid-90s, I realized I missed quite a bit of what Olson was getting at. He, of course, is concerned with the idea of breath in its relation to poetry, its lines, and its involvement with the body. This time, however, I noticed something more interesting, or at least, different. It begins with his use of scientific terminology (mainly terms from Newtonian physics and electromagnetics), such as “kinetics,” “energy,” “propelled,” “forces,” “principle,” “process,” “speed,” “particles,” “field,” and even in his letter to Elaine Feinstein (1959) he uses “vector” and a mathematical fraction to portray the double nature of the image. This creates the feel of Olson as scientist of poetry, which may be the essence of Projective Verse, which is the removing of the ego.

A scientist, at his/her best, is without ego when interacting with the physical world. The scientist’s prejudices and assumptions (ego) are withdrawn in the act of observation. For Olson, this act of observation is two-fold, and both folds lack ego (though not necessarily the self). Fold one involves poetic form and fold two involves “objectism,” which is different than “objectivism.”

Olson writes in “Projective Verse,” “It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter [. . .] were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable” (18). This is similar to what I mentioned about form with Creeley. Form constrains perception and limits content. Here, Olson is saying a little more when he says, “were less in the forefront of the mind,” which I take to mean ego. The ego is bending, manipulating, encouraging in what it wants to see, as well as the clever truth it wants to present in its poem. The ego does this not only with the form but also with the “elements and minims of language [. . . the] logical” (18). So the ego uses all these forms, techniques, rhetorics, and literary devices to shape reality. But as Creeley says, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Typically, we understand this to mean that content dictates form, and that is partially correct. However, there is the key word “extension.” Form extends from the content, which is the reality the poet is experiencing. Form is an extension of reality, and this reality has two modes of experience. One side is the ego-less or language-less experience, and the other is the experience of composition, and both find themselves in “objectism,” the second fold of Olson’s observational method, or as he might call it in “Human Universe,” a “threshold of reception” (60).

Olson says, “Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego [. . .] that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature [. . .] and those other creations of nature which we may [. . .] call objects. For man is himself an object” (“Projective Verse” 24). Now here’s the tricky part, Olson then says if man “sprawl”s himself across, he “shall find little to sing but himself” (25). That’s the ego interference, which seems counterintuitive. Also counterintuitive is that “if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participating in the larger force [nature], he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share” (25). In other words, he is advising the poet to keep her hands in her pockets, don’t touch anything with her assumptions and prejudices, and just observe. When one observes without ego-interference, nature will present its secrets in ways the poet could not experience or create with language constructs, logic, and preconceptions. This same idea holds true on the field of composition, which I take to mean to mean the page when it is being actively inscribed. Just as there shouldn’t be ego-interference in observing reality, there shouldn’t be ego interference in writing the poem, for “[f]rom the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION – he put himself in the open – he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself” (16). Even though the poem seems in the submissive position (“under hand”), the poem provides the track for composition, and the poet must listen to and follow where the poem wants to go. And the:

objects [in the poem . . .] must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being. (20)

In other words, I think, a tension is created when the poem moves from one object to the next, or as “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (17).

I’m not sure Olson achieves his goals. He may, and I may not be keen enough to notice it, but at least in “The Kingfishers” he gives directions on how to do it:

     When the attentions change / the jungle
     leaps in
                even the stones are split
                                                they rive     (169)

The poet needs to keep changing to immerse him/herself into the world different each time in order to experience the universe anew and fresh. In other words:

     What does not change / is the will to change    (167)

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Works Cited

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966. Print.

Perkins, David. “Charles Olson.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. 497-505. Print.

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