The Life of Poetry: A Commitment to Change

The Life of Poetry: A Commitment to Change

By William O’Daly

Lecture Presented at
Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference
September 18, 2009

For Ray and Barbara March —
for all they do and make happen
that sustains the horse and the sky,
breathing life into the delicate playa,
herding the stones migrated in winter,
bringing together over mountain passes
neighbors who weave their lives in song,
who compose a human place among sage
and fill the quiet streets with poetry…

[The following text is a partial, somewhat revised transcript of a talk given on September 18,
2009, at the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference, in the Community Hall of Cedarville, CA.
Among the absent material are introductory remarks and transitions delivered without the
benefit of notes. In one place, that material has been summarized. The author owes a debt of
gratitude to Adrienne Rich and her essay “Poetry and Commitment” (W. W. Norton, 2007),
from where several of the quotations herein were taken.]

Now, at three o’clock in the afternoon, in this beautiful and unforgiving land caught
between two wildly diverse mountain ranges; between older and younger generations,
all of us subject to tectonic cultural shifts; and, yes, seemingly so far from everywhere
else, I would like to talk about the role of change in the life of poetry and in the lives
dedicated to writing and translating it.

Change, particularly transformative change, is an enduring and energizing force in
poetry. The experience of it, whether it makes its way to a cave wall or a blank page,
passes from our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives through our art to the outside,
where it can be a catalyst for change. Key to this phenomenal process, which we know
first in our blood and bones, is our perception of change, what change is. Some claim
that poetry changes nothing, while others believe that poetry is subject to the laws of
physics (i.e., gravity), and thus cannot help but affect the world of which it is a part,
which in turn effects poetry…

I am here
be ready to teach me
I am almost ready to learn
— W. S. Merwin, from “The Piper.” The Carrier of Ladders, 1970

[Here the speaker related information about the birth and life of his Late and Posthumous Pablo
Neruda Series, published by Copper Canyon Press. With the publication of
World’s End and
the series reaching an end, the speaker has been thinking about the changes in his life and in his
artistic practice, and reflecting on those past. He has also been looking again at changes Neruda
experienced throughout his life, those changes emerging as the natural articulation of his public
and private lives and as a result of his artistic volition. Book by book, Neruda learned how to
compose an evolving poetry and how to keep it evolving. At times it’s difficult to separate life
from art, especially in those moments when life and art flow easily together, seemingly without
inner or outer impediment. In the case of the translation of poetry, the currents are all the more
entangled because the poet as translator is, well, not alone. An “other” is involved, in a big way.
The speaker often felt swept along in that river, where his life, sensibility, ear and eye, and more,
mixed with Neruda’s in a new incarnation, the translations.]

Having been swept along by that particular river, I either have entered the flowing of
another river or am swimming with the changing currents in the same river. Which it is
really doesn’t matter. I have made decisions and choices without realizing it; I’ve been
steered by the visible and the invisible forces that prepare us to make what we make
and become whoever we become. Sometimes there is contemplation, at other times
intuitive movement, not unlike a song, where I find myself engaged not only in work I
didn’t purposefully intend but, in fact, in that age-old sense of receiving what I did not
know existed. In those times, the concept of decision making seems ludicrous, and I
feel both on the edge and somehow at home amid what Denise Levertov calls the
“unknowing flowing,” that river we are a part of and that is a part of us.

Of Rivers

Rivers remember
in the pulse of their springs,
in curl and slide and onrush
lakeward and seaward
a touch
shuddering them forth,
a voice
intoning them into
their ebbing and flood:
fingertip, breath
of god or goddess in whom
their fealty rests
rendered by being unceasingly
the pilgrim conversation of waterflesh.
That remembrance,
gives them their way
to know, in unknowing flowing,
the God of the gods, whom the gods
themselves have not imagined.
— Denise Levertov, first published in and here copied from Willow Springs #13, 1983

What’s so new about this particular spot where I’ve stepped into the river? It’s different
in the exact set of circumstances and magnitudes, but its really that same old constancy
of small changes that composes daily life, its beginnings and endings, subtle shifts and
non-identical repetitions, transitions and transformations, and imperceptible differences
that support the illusion of having lived this experience before or having had the same
exact thought or having felt exactly the same way. Lately I have been aware of viewing
the world differently than I used to, before I translated Neruda for all those years. In
fact, having translated him and written my own poetry, having collaborated on an
historical novel with a writer from a very different culture, having written essays and
more, I cannot help but consider how much of our preparation and study as writers
involves learning how to make things out of constant flux, out of polarities we identify
as being between the rational and the irrational or between science and art, between
oppression and revolution or between silence and truth, all of these distinctions being
somewhat arbitrary (or oversimplified) and ever-changing.

To make things out of the “pilgrimage conversation of waterflesh,” we learn to ask
questions and to listen to the echo, we learn how to listen to the river and to see; with
attentiveness and intuition, engaged in a lifelong struggle with our evolving sense of
proportion and relationship to the unknown, we learn and learn again how to work
with ourselves and the blank page.

One icy night in March 1979, my books of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry went up in
flames along with the cabin I was renting, which burned to the ground along Rock
Creek in western Montana. I hadn’t seen this wonderful poem since that shifting time,
until I found it handily excerpted in a powerful essay by Adrienne Rich, titled “Poetry
and Commitment,” an expanded version of a speech she first delivered in 2006 at
Stirling University in Scotland.

The Kind of Poetry I Want (excerpts)

A poetry the quality of which
Is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
Its material founded, like Gray’s, on difficult knowledge
And its metres those of a poet
Who has studied Pindar and Welsh poetry,
But, more than that, its words coming from a mind
Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers
Of human lives—aware of the innumerable dead
And the innumerable to-be-born …

A speech, a poetry, to bring to bear upon life
The concentrated strength of all our being …

Is not this what we require?— …
A fineness and profundity of organization
which is the condition of a variety enough
To express all the world’s …

In photographic language, “wide-angle” poems …
A poetry like an operating theatre
Sparking with a swift, deft energy,
Energy quiet and contained and fearfully alert.
In which the poet exists only as a nurse during an operation …

A poetry in which the images
Work up on each other’s shoulders like Zouave acrobats,
Or strange and fascinating as the Javanese dancer,
Retna Mohini, or profound and complicated
Like all the work of Ram Gopal and his company …

Poetry of such an integration as cannot be effected
Until a new and conscious organization of society
Generates a new view
Of the world as a whole …

—A learned poetry wholly free
of the brutal love of ignorance;
And the poetry of a poet with no use
for any of the simpler forms of personal success.
– Hugh MacDiarmid, as excerpted in Adrienne Rich’s “Poetry and Commitment,” 2007

“Difficult knowledge” is acquired in the posture of being “fearfully alert.” It energizes
and clarifies our awareness of the living relationship between the world and the poem.
MacDiarmid was a mathematician, a proponent of the sciences, a national poet and
essayist of Scotland. His work is a clear-minded, passionate engagement with the
world and exhorts us to sort experience into what I would call “organic categories,”
borrowing the term from Ezra Pound’s translation of The Great Learning of Kung Fu-tzu
(Confucius). Organic categories stand in opposition to codified values existing along
traditional emotional and intellectual polarities. In his essay, “Poetry and Science,” Mr.
MacDiarmid praises James Joyce and his work by saying that Joyce was willing and
able to “let himself be born into the new situation, not subduing his experience to his
established personality.” This is what MacDiarmid seeks to do himself, in his poetry,
and it seems he lived this way, willing and able to view the world through lenses as
demanding and seemingly opposed as poetry and mathematics, rather than limiting his
experience of the world either to numbers and their underlying concepts or to poetry
and its traditions. He preferred a poetry imbued with science rather than ignorant of it,
and a science that witnesses what Levertov calls the “unknowing flowing,” aware of the
mysteries within and along the edges. In such circumstances, the poem’s mystery exists
in the same realm as the mystery of science, beyond both disciplines’ ways and means
of knowing. This is more legitimate, more useful and honest, and certainly more lasting
than a poetry whose “mystery” arises from a selective or contrived lack of knowledge,
or from angst, or from glibness. All are still way too popular. Some of MacDiarmid’s
poetry is discursive, it is argumentation of a high order, rooted in the intelligible even
as it walks the rim of the abstract, but it never loses focus. It is often strangely musical,
almost surreptitiously so, among cadenced syllables and lines within which breathe
layered or interlocking ideas, a strong moral and ethical sense, and a belief in the role of
the poet in society. The tonal properties and the rhythms are organic to his poetry,
sometimes sounding constrained or even prosaic, sometimes as flat as the Carse of
Stirling…, until one listens closely. Then the music, intimately related to his poems’
intellectual passion and emotional scope, may be described as being “synchronous /
consequence of the motion of the whole world.”

Prefix (to Finding the Measure)

Finding the measure is finding the mantrum,
is the finding the moon, as index of measure,
is finding the moon’s source;

if that source
is Sun, finding the measure is finding
the natural articulation of ideas.

The organism
of the macrocosm, the organism of language,
the organism of I combine in ceaseless naturing
to propagate a fourth,
the poem,
from their trinity.

Style is death. Finding the measure is finding
a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement

Finding the measure is finding the
specific music of the hour,

the synchronous
consequence of the motion of the whole world.
– Robert Kelly, from the cover of Spectrum magazine, #14, 1972

In this poem, American poet Robert Kelly sheds light on the transformative process of
living an inner life that, through the practice of poetry, regenerates itself as it listens for
“the specific music of the hour.” It’s a life that has tuned itself to unceasing movement
and the unknown, one that gives birth to the new and dies and is born out of creative
collisions, from the imperceptible to the cataclysmic, thus creating the conditions that
generate and sustain life, as was the case with the earth herself.

Those collisions spark the collective imagination. My friend, Lois P. Jones, and I have
an ongoing conversation about motors and poetry. In an essay, Allen Ginsberg
addresses the gap between two visual images found in any simile or other form of
metaphor, which the lightning of the imagination illuminates. It is like a spark plug
gap, perhaps even more precise, and would aspire to be as proportional in relation to
life as the gap between Adam’s and God’s fingers on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Of course, that lightning differs from person to person; cultural, religious, and political
differences too often divide us; and we all inexorably grow to become individuals, our
changing selves; but as Ginsberg says, that lightning is what makes us human. It binds
us in shared experience, even as that experience is made into poetry, and all the more
when the poem is translated from one language to another. If true to the experience of
the “original,” if true to itself, a new poem emerges from the process, blood twin of the
original. The original and the translation are poems intimately, inextricably, deeply
linked in their DNA, and yet they are their own beings, breathe their own cadences,
lead their own and separate lives.

The poet and activist Thomas McGrath rightly points out that when the flow of history
intersects our personal lives, we each, at some or many points, live as an individual and
as a representative woman or man. We participate in the making of history, we become
history, and we are part and parcel of those inimitable, if often all too similar, patterns
of changes. We are poets and writers whose inner lives have the potential to effect
change, just as do the inner lives of ranchers, waiters, plumbers, and cooks. Change
could arrive in the form of a quiet, positive interaction between two people, or at the
sociopolitical level, as has happened in many places, particularly under conditions of
oppression where poetry has strengthened awareness and solidarity among the many.
The remarkable South African poet Dennis Brutus, who was imprisoned for dissident
activities and whose work was suppressed, says that “…the poet—as a poet—has no
obligation to be committed, but the man—as a man—has an obligation to be committed.
What I’m saying is that I think everybody ought to be committed and the poet is just
one of the many ‘everybodies.’”

I was thinking about change in relation to an examined life and to the expression of that
life in art, when this fragment found its way:

Poetry thrives on the passion
for mobility, a love of dynamic parts—
in this journey, we move forward
with no direction, reality is a ring,
and our transformation the tail
of a wild salmon that propels us
upward, in the sideways wake
of our intention, in our cause
hopeless for its beauty. We craft
with breath, moon, and stone,
the edges of the invisible wave,
wave that the brave cannot see
until they become the brave, we
who abandon all hope of certainty.

The ability to change direction in our work makes possible the integrity of the poetic
process, and to do so Mr. MacDiarmid admonishes us to live “fearfully alert” and seek
out “difficult knowledge.”

Perhaps living in a state of fearful alertness helps to ensure that the changes we witness
in the outer world will live within us in ways that generate understanding, such that the
changes occurring inside us and the energy released by those changes help to generate
positive changes beyond us, in an imperfect but ardent ripple effect. Poetry itself may
not change anything, other than by creating a condition or a place “unspeakable where,
perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides”
(Américo Ferrari, as quoted in “Poetry and Commitment”). Charles Olson, poet and
eloquent proponent of organic form, believed that the poem gathers and releases energy
at all points, as perception upon perception it attains its shape and shapes itself in the
ear and the eye. Muriel Rukeyser, too, believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy,”
which by changing consciousness can effect “changes in existing conditions.” Poetry,
and those possessed of a nature sufficiently open to be moved by it, generates change
via metaphors integral to the creation of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an
instant of time,” as Ezra Pound described the poem. That poem contains and sustains
the music constellated in the poet’s imagination and voice, in her hands and her feet.

If indeed the poem possesses an ability to adapt to changes codified in its DNA, what is
common among us binds poetry to our lives. The poem’s DNA is of the earth, and, just
as with the earth, change is what breathes life cyclically into and through the poem.
Moreover, engaged in what James Scully calls its “social practice,” poetry strengthens
the community’s ability to address the need for change and to stimulate or instigate
change, with a focused lens and the cadence of perception, the precision of metaphor
and a sense of continuity. Taken together, these qualities are the hallmark of evolving
languages and cultures. (Hallmark: all this applies, in my mind, even to the poetry of
greeting cards!) In fact, distinguishing it from “protest poetry,” Mr. Scully describes
this kind of poetry as “dissident,” a poetry that “does not respect boundaries between
private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries, it breaks silences, speaking
for, or better yet, with the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of
life…It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a
mirror of it” (again as quoted by Ms. Rich). Or, as Czeslaw Milosz elaborates in one of
his essays, “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one
word of truth sounds like a pistol crack.”

Certainly much of Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry fits Scully’s description and shares this
aspect of Milosz’s sensibility, even as it celebrates the boundaries and the silences that
speak against oppression and on behalf of rituals and arts that bind us and our waking
dreams to the committed life.

A Letter to William Carlos Williams (excerpt)

Now in a recent poem you say,
“I who am about to die.”
Maybe this is just a tag
From the classics, but it sends
A shudder over me. Where
Do you get that stuff, Williams?
Look at here. The day will come
when a young woman will walk
By the lucid Williams River,
Where it flows through an idyllic
News from Nowhere sort of landscape,
And she will say to her children,
“Isn’t it beautiful? It
Is named after a man who
Walked here once when it was called
The Passaic, and was filthy
With the poisonous excrements
Of sick men and factories.
He was a great man. He knew
It was beautiful then, although
Nobody else did, back there
In the Dark Ages. And the
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it, and part of him.
That, children, is what is called
A sacramental relationship.
And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
Sacramental relationships
That last always.”
With love and admiration,
Kenneth Rexroth.
– Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, 2003

The poet creates “sacramental relationships / that last always.” Such relationships lend
grace to life and bring us together in the imagination and often in physical places, such
as here in Cedarville, CA, where we’ve come to learn, contribute, energize, re-energize,
breathe and be inspired, to join others in contemplation and the posing of questions, as
well as to weave together ways of knowing and the cadence of perception. We have
arrived here to reaffirm and embrace the individual struggle to transform “difficult
knowledge” into something shared and lasting. How we all do this, just as how we
conduct our own lives, differs at every level, and yet those variations, musical and
otherwise, help to maintain a deep well of cultural health. Adrienne Rich expresses
something similar: “If there is a line to be drawn, it’s not so much between secularism
and belief as between those for whom language has metaphoric density and those for
whom it is merely formulaic….” But perhaps what ultimately unites us, us for whom
language has metaphoric density—we who have made many things and we who have
made nothing—is the lasting desire to make something, as Antonio Porchia says in
Voices. That something represents not so much who we are as who we are becoming.

For Kenneth Rexroth, making poems and working together to effect positive change,
mixed with the camaraderie he shared with the other individuals in his
communities—literary, political, laborer, and combinations of same—gave life its
meaning. In fact, he referred to literature is a “social defense mechanism,” such that
with the composing of poems and the gathering around to read and listen to them, we
defend ourselves and one another against the forces that would be unleashed by those
for whom language is formulaic, a medium to be manipulated for the purpose of
creating a contrived reality the viewer is intended to see. As Rexroth recounts in his
essay, “The Reality of Henry Miller”:

Remember again when you were a child. You thought that some day you would
grow up and find a world of real adults—the people who really made things
run—and understand how and why things ran…. Then, as the years went on,
you learned, through more or less bitter experience, that there aren’t, and never
have been, any such people, anywhere. Life is just a mess, full of tall children,
grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go—as
a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells.
From “The Reality of Henry Miller,” The Bird in the Bush (1959)

And in the flux that is life and work, in all that trying and failing and succeeding to
whatever degree, Rexroth paid homage to his comrades in the struggle and the joy of it.
The real power was in working together to effect positive change, doing whatever and
only what they could do, and it is movingly expressed in the final line of his poem, “For
Eli Jacobson.”

For Eli Jacobsen
December 1952

There are few of us now, soon
There will be none. We were comrades
Together, we believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.
In our young days we believed
That as we grew old and fell
out of rank, new recruits, young
And with the wisdom of youth,
Would take our places and they
Surely would grow old in the
Golden Age. They have not come.
They will not come. There are not
Many of us left. Once we
Marched in closed ranks, today each
Of us fights off the enemy,
A lonely isolated guerrilla.
All this has happened before,
Many times. It does not matter.
We were comrades together,
Life was good for us. It is
Good to be brave – nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer
For the brave – for the brave and
Happy comrades and for the
Lonely brave retreating warriors.
You had a good life. Even all
Its sorrows and defeats and
Disillusionments were good,
Met with courage and a gay heart.
You are gone and we are that
Much more alone. We are one fewer,
Soon we shall be none. We know now
We have failed for a long time.
And we do not care. We few will
Remember as long as we can,
Our children may remember,
Some day the world will remember.
Then they will say, “They lived in
The days of the good comrades.
It must have been wonderful
To have been alive then, though it
is very beautiful now.”
We will be remembered, all
Of us, always, by all men,
In the good days now so far away.
If the good days never come,
We will not know. We will not care.
Our lives were the best. We were the
Happiest men alive in our day.
Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, 2003

I’ll close with a brief poem of my own, as its perspective on the cyclic processes inherent
within its imagery is shared among most, if not all, of the poets and writers referenced
in this talk. I wrote “New Year Manifesto” as a promise that I would remember always
that I am a beneficiary of their struggles, of the poetry and the prose that were and are
yet to be born of those struggles, and of their doing what they had to do, what they
could, to be, as Gandhi urged, the change they want to see.

New Year Manifesto

Here, and hear words unite,
as the sun’s lance comes to rest
on the precise spot, verbally. Though
it’s a winter sun, with commitment and love
change will come…and the seasons
will once again speak freely.

Thank you all for filling the streets with poetry!

© William O’Daly
All rights reserved
September 2009