Eliot & the lingua franca

"Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be a return to common speech. That is the revolution which Wordsworth announced in his prefaces, and he was right; but the same revolution had been carried out a century before by Oldham, Waller, Denham and Dryden; and the same revolution was due again something over a century later. The followers of a revolution develop the new poetic idiom in one direction or another; they polish or perfect it; meanwhile the spoken language goes on changing, and the poetic idiom goes out of date... No poetry of course is ever exactly the same speech that the poet talks or hears : but it has to be in such a relation to the speech of his time that the listener or reader can say 'that is how I should talk if I could talk poetry.' This is the reason why the best contemporary poetry can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfillment different form any sentiment aroused by even very much greater poetry of a past age.
"The music of poetry, then, must be a music latent in the common speech of its time..."
- T.S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry" (1942)

Speech, Gesture, Situation

Pretty eloquent statement by poet/critic Martin Earl, over at Harriet blog, which seems to have some affinities with Plumbline concerns. The problem he mentions at the end, about how the art of poetry survives in a "post-literate" world, is interesting, & seems related to something I've been (vaguely) pondering about lately, from a slightly different angle (may try to elaborate on this further later) -

that is, I've started to wonder about the "figure" or "gesture" a poem or poet makes - the implied or unspoken situation, setting, or framework within which the poems (as texts) exist. The context within which we actually enjoy, appreciate, or understand particular poems.

Have been thinking about this, actually, in relation to an unpublished manuscript I have, which combines a (semi)fictional memoir with a group of poems. & also in connection with Gabriel Gudding's book, Rhode Island Notebook, which, it seems to me, is a piece of writing nested in an extremely dramatic kind of personal gesture (autobiographical, documentary, & theatrical - ie. the actual writing of it while driving alone, cross-country - at the wheel of his car).

Underlying poetry-making is a powerful drive to communicate. But these days, machines can communicate; language is depersonalized. The "Romantic" foregrounding of the Poet and the poet's personality started to go out of fashion in the late 19th century, & the trend intensified, coming to a kind of climax in late-20th-cent. postmodern philosophy (deconstruction, etc.) & related poetry movements (Language Poetry, etc.).

Not sure how this relates, as yet, to particular "Plumbline" concerns. Except one could look at these issues through some kind of lens drawn from rhetoric. There have been investigations (starting with ancient philosophers & literary theorists) into the relation between a speaker's "ethos", and the persuasive force of a speech-act. "Your word is your bond"; "talk the talk, walk the walk" : that kind of thing. So in terms of poetry : can we discern some kind of "balancing act" between the poet's personal testimony - the witness of individual experience - and the poem itself as an independent, free-standing literary text (or work of art)?

How large a factor, in the persuasive power & effect of poetry, lies with the context, the atmosphere, the "unwritten" dramatic gestures which frame the text itself?

Does the dramatic gesture a poet makes, with & around the actual poems, have some bearing on the issues Earl raises (post-literacy, marginalization of poetry, etc.)? & how does this relate to a previous topic raised here (& yet to be explored further) - ie., what, today, is the nature/value of dramatic poetry & verse drama per se?

(some more personal thoughts on this over at my own blog today)


The Turn

Greetings, All,

Though acquainted with the general principles of the Plumbline School, I am still acquainting myself with, tonight, the thread of the conversation that's begun on this blog. Therefore, I will not enter with any grand declarations (give me a day or two), but will say simply that I look forward to being a part of this ongoing conversation, the study group of this school.

Additionally, to offer a sense of where I'm coming from, I'd like to point anyone interested to my own blog:


There, you'll see that I'm very interested in the turn in poetry. Simply put, I think 1) turns are vital parts of poems (and I'm not the only one; T.S. Eliot calls the turn "the most important means of poetic effect since Homer"), 2) turns tend, when mentioned at all, tend to get severely downplayed in the ways we talk about poems, and 3) we should think and talk more about turns.

I have a feeling that thinking about the turn will illuminate (or add further light to) some of the conversations started here... Now, let me see...

Mike Theune

Plumbline Valentine


Is poetry like the economy
full of sub-prime mortgage lenders
off-shore tax delinquents
needing balancing out
great wealth (read greed)
the height of self-absorption
or what needing regulating where would
the architectonic get to in cabaret music
next we’re going to be marrying the unborn
still not sure we care about one another
enough to suffer any intolerance
to our virtue in the icy rice paddies
of discursive thought far from poetry’s crib.
No, poetry is not like the economy, stupid
and no you’re not stupid
but what the economy must even out
forcing us to share as brothers and sisters
the baying bitch wolf of poetry must point to
still the losing of it all.

Can the Lyric be Political?

I want to point to an exchange of comments between myself and Robert Bernard Hass at my personal weblog, Sharp Sand. The original post dealt with Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Praise Song for the Day," which she read at President Obama's inauguration. The post, but particularly the comments, bear on issues central to the Plumbline School.


R.S. Crane & "imitative poetry"

Part of the complex of topics out of which the "Plumbline" has started to emerge has to do with the relation between poetry and drama. (This emergence was actually triggered by an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln reading Macbeth.)

Again, one of the further motivating impulses has been a reaction, on our part, against various kinds of stylistic excess or extremism, which tend to inhibit the range of poetry's representations - that is, poetry's ability to marshall its medium (language) in the cause of presenting some recognizable scene, character, or action from nature or experience.

Finally, a third impulse or direction taking shape here has to do with the relation between criticism & poetry, theory & practice. This is a question we have to ask ourselves : how do we frame a critical approach which is actually useful and relevant, both to our own writing, and to the way we read & evaluate the poetry of others? The "plumbline", running down the center, is a kind of symbol for analysis : the discovery & application of some kind of measure (an analytical tool), which would help us distinguish the different parts of a good poem, and how they work together.

All three of these concerns come together in the work of the mid-20th-cent. scholar R.S. Crane, a member of the so-called Chicago School of literary critics. If I were to choose one book to serve as a guide to the "plumbline", it would be Crane's The language of criticism and the structure of poetry (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1953). Sad to say, this book is out of print & not so easy to come by. And his thinking is so meticulous, judicious, & rich, that it will be a real challenge for me to try to summarize and adapt it to our use.

For now, anyway (I'm at work!) - here is a very quick sketch of some aspects of Crane's approach that seem especially relevant:

1. Crane tries very hard to defuse the polemical power of competing critical approaches. He calls for a kind of critical "relativism". It's not that there is no such thing as the truth : rather, there is no such thing as a single right method of criticism, since poets, critics & readers all come with a great diversity of interests, motives, needs & approaches.

2. Aligned with #1 is Crane's allegiance to Aristotle. Much of the book is an investigation and adaptation of Aristotle's empirical, analytical approach in the Poetics. Aristotle's own careful definitions of his "lines of inquiry" limit a priori generalizations, theoretical abstractions : he starts from the particular object at hand, and develops a language and method of analysis specifically drawn from that object itself. Thus the Poetics is a practical criticism, in that Aristotle is asking, "what is a good poem? & how do poets make them?"

3. The results of such a method of empirical, differential analysis are very striking. Crane, following Aristotle, finds that poems are "concrete wholes". That poems are formal shapes, or structures, whose holistic or organic design is not reducible to the analysis of their grammar or rhetoric. That the fundamental, distinguishing characteristic of the specific kinds of poems which Aristotle discusses - that is, "imitative" or mimetic poems - is just that : they are representations of persons, actions or things as we know them in life, from nature. Crane makes it clear : this is not the only kind of poem there is. In fact, many great poems (such as Dante's Divina Commedia, Spenser's Faerie Queene) are of a different kind altogether. They are not mimetic : rather, they are didactic, based not in imitation, but in argument and persuasive rhetoric.

4. The mimetic poet shapes all the elements of the work - including setting, character, plot, thought, style - in order to effect an integral or holistic impression. This is the goal of the "shaping process" which is composition.

One can see immediately how Crane's Aristotelian distinction of basic kinds of poetry (mimetic, didactic) relates to issues we have been discussing. For example, the distinction between the metaphysical & the Restoration poets, as abstracted by Johnson & Eliot, may be seen to hinge on this distinction between mimetic & didactic. The question of finding a "happy medium" folds into Crane's description of the shaping process of a mimetic whole.


Here's a brief quote from Crane, which bears on another area of interest : the issue of beauty as proportion - as the finding of a point of mediation, which allows for a synthesis of distinctive parts, the composition of an integral whole. This is from a passage where Crane is talking about the critical process as a comparison between the hypothetical aims and intentions of the poet, and the "necessities and possibilities" inherent in the hypothetical form of that particular kind of work. (I emphasize "hypothetical" because, as Crane points out, we can never know for certain about the poet's intentions, or about the exact structure or form she/he is attempting to compose.)

"There is nothing unfair to the writer in such an approach, inasmuch as we are not engaged in a judicial process of bringing the work under a previously formulated general theory of literary value, but in a free inquiry whose aim is simply the discovery of those values in [his/her] work - among them, we always hope, unprecedented values - which [she/he] has been able to put there. They will always be values incident to the form of the work and its matter at all of its structural levels; and it will be appropriate to interpret what we find in terms of a distinction between three classes of works considered from this point of view : works that are well conceived as wholes but contain few parts the formal excellence of which remains in our memory or invites us to another reading; works that are rich in local virtues but have only a loose or tenuous overall form; and works that satisfy Coleridge's criterion for a poem, that it aims at 'the production of as much immediate pleasure in parts, as is compatible with the largest sum of pleasure in the whole.' These last are the few relatively perfect productions in the various literary kinds, and as between the other two we shall naturally prefer the second to the first." [pp. 182-183]

Taken out of context, this sounds like the dullest & driest kind of study outside of Economics. But in the context of an investigation of actual poems, along "lines of inquiry" such as Aristotle (& Crane) suggest, this passage has a lot of useful implications.

There is the notion that a beautiful or "perfect" work will naturally remain in memory, & be something to which we want to return. & this in turn is related to the Aristotelian concept of imitation, that a (mimetic) poem presents an image from experience which we recognize, which we can possibly identify with on some level, and which therefore moves & pleases us by its truthful mirroring.

Further, there is the assertion, in the quotation from Coleridge, that a good poem will exhibit a harmony betwen whole and part, such that distinct parts give pleasure, but do not detract from the pleasure of the whole. This is exactly where we were tending, in the discussions of the plumbline as "golden mean", & etc.

Finally, there is the implication that - through a careful, empirical investigation of particular poems, looking toward what aims the poet had in composing its particular features in just that way, and asking if the overall form or dynamic of the work has achieved those aims - we can come to a fair critical estimate or understanding of a poem's import and achievement. In other words, a kind of conscious or reflective intellectual sanction for our initial, instinctive responses. (We like a poem : now we can say why.) This seems to be a process which we would try to approximate in the kind of aesthetic measuring that a "plumbline' suggests.


Third Way Poetics

An instructive discussion from Mark Wallace on "third way poetics" that draws on a review by Michael Theune of Reginald Shepherd's recent anthology. Brief reference is made to the forthcoming American Hybrid anthology as well. Basically, more poetic geography.

Interesting post at Samizdat Blog

Robert Archambeau over at Samizdat Blog has an interesting post that might be relevant to our discussions.

Recap : response to JD

Joseph Duemer, in his post just previous, outlines his own sense of the Plumbline cadre. My view of what we're doing chimes pretty closely with his. & I too am eager to have newcomers join our project.

The term "school", in poetryland, has two different meanings, corresponding roughly to theory and practice. First, there is school in the sense of a site of learning, for offering knowledge & useful resources. Second, school can mean a practical collaboration of poets who share traditions, literary models, style, technique, worldview.

Often there's also a latent third meaning (or sceptical characterization) - a product of the in-house poetry wars : school as clique, as marketing brand, as exclusive cabal for mutual support & self-advancement.

My own wish for the Plumbline School is for a project which balances the first two of these meanings. First, it would be an open symposium for poets, coming with different backgrounds, interests, and experience, who have an abiding curiosity about the mysteries of poetry-making. Second, because these poets share an allegiance to the basic, orienting principles of the "plumbline" (that is, in a nutshell, an awareness of a distinction between style/substance, medium/representation, and a resulting desire to bring them into some kind of harmonic balance), they would, eventually, become a school in the practical sense - as a nexus for shared practice and stylistic affinities.

This would hopefully be an improvisational, transparent process, and as such, prove to be a little different from some of the other schools with which we are familiar. It's probably an unfair simplification, but the movements of the past often seem to combine the second and third meanings of the term as outlined above. That is, they unite practical collaboration with cliquish exclusivity. Schools develop in a natural, ad hoc way, a matter of personal friendships & connections rather than clear principles. The outcome is an atmosphere not so much divided along the lines outlined by Ron Silliman - between "quietude" and experiment - but divided between "professional" poets and "amateur" movements. The professionals for the most part abjure explicit statements of poetics, and work as individuals to advance their careers through teaching and publication. The movements work through "unofficial" (yet often nevertheless academic) dissemination, word-of-mouth, internet polemics, and self-publicity. One result of this curiously binary situation is a somewhat fragmentary discursive environment, with many of the most prestigious and established poets remaining essentially silent on open matters of contemporary poetics, while the "movements" are a constant, febrile, ever-revolving merry-go-round of theoretical and pseudo-theoretical jostling.

So, by forming an open "talk-symposium", we might, with the Plumbline School, discover a happy medium between those two ("professional" & "amateur") extremes.



A couple of people have emailed me asking for my take on the Plumbline and I wrote a post for my own blog that begins a little differently, but is pretty much identical to this one. This project has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which I think has been undergoing a few modifications behind the scenes, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he's reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called "School of Quietude" and the so called "Post Avant." I'm already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson's ecology of current poetry as a starting point. One of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I've said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry - our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice, modesty, and the golden mean. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that's how I read -- and continue to read -- the intentions of the Plumbline. I suspect Henry will soon be supplementing these remarks with his own take on the show so far, but I know I can speak for all of the Plumbline contributors in inviting other poets into the conversation.




We shape clay into a pot
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

          —Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching

Less is less
than emptiness
holds within its hollows,
less than what follows
between is and is not,
less than sharp shots
of harsh words,
less than what's heard
when an ear turns
against itself to learn
the lessons of a closed door,
a cold heart, a barren floor;
sometimes less is less,
yes, but sometimes less is more.

originally published in the Lawrence Journal-World

Just thought it was germane to the conversation at this point.

Less is More

You get older, you just want to simplify... (when you're not trying to escape). I'm thinking about the "less is more" theory of poetry.

The person standing in front of other people, offering a kind of song... & yet even simpler, more stripped-down. Sometimes "through clenched teeth" (as Montale, I think, put it).

A spoken song, a kind of modulated speaking-chant. It's only words. It's not "an experiment". It's not high-falutin' bells & whistles. It's not "conceptual". It's not a "movement". It's not a speech, it's not a play (though it can be like a soliloquy). It's not a comedy routine. It's not a joke.

Everything is concentrated in the flow of speech, the diction, the statement, the image.

All this seems wonderfully figured in Mandelstam's comparison of poetry to a modest, unremarkable gray pebble - which contains, hidden within, a "terrifying density".

I used to think by this he meant all the baroque architecture of allusion and echoing of past poets & poems, the dense subtlety. That may have been part of it. But I think he was also trying simply to characterize the medium of poetry in general : how (unlike more complex media, like music, painting, architecture) poetry rests on this razor-thin, almost-insensible impression of verbal sound/meaning. Poetry inhabits that very thin ledge between the material (of art) & the intellectual (of thought).


Such may offer another angle on the "plumbline" bent (can plumblines bend?) toward modesty, simplicity, restraint. Intensity.

complicating the issue

what are the qualities of poetry that make it essential? as opposed to visual arts? to dance and music? to the novel? the play?

mnemonics—poetry is (historically) the form of art with the express purpose of memorization, and is related then to lyre-ic and muse-ic (memorization is daemonic, egotistic). with the exception of drama, which is memorized in a collective, incomplete effort only for presentation, while the poem is to be memorized by the audience or the reader. this seems to me to be one of the sad derelictions of contemporary poetry, that nor poets nor their readers find poems worth knowing by heart.
this is where many techniques derive from—rhyme, consonance, meter, refrain, etc.

logic—logoi or semiotics, the relationship between referent and symbol that allows for (1) representation and (2) displacement. this is related to memory—the ability to have the poem, and not the thing, the erotic compensation striving toward possessing what we cannot have (memory is past, reality is at a perceptual remove), and striving against dependence on reality by severance (through invention and imagination).
only the word is ideally suited to conveying thought, rather than image, and poetry is the form of ordered thought, of process, as logic.

and cetera.

the greatest damage of the technological age is to our psyches—we are losing the ability to empathize, to think (and read) slowly, to exercise our memory. communities have grown beyond our ability to comprehend them, and we have become less superstitious, more democratic, alienated, less responsive to poetry (which is at its worst a tool of closed community and mysticism, and at its best a means for private contemplation and psychic connection).
should we jump at the chance to kill poetry? most poetry certainly isn’t worth saving. in its neglect, a lot of conmen have come along, claiming incomprehensibility as their territory and forcing us to read more crap more carefully, making it harder to discern between difficult genius and meaningless narcissism (disguised, usually, as selfless). in this age, every art deserves its atrophied audience. it’s very hard to find good contemporary poetry, and too easy to find old genius. it’s disheartening. if we are sisyphuses, then we can only hope to hear some orphic echoes over the hills once in a while, and if we find more than that it’s an embarrassment of riches. for all the problems with canons, we can be thankful that they preserved pockets of true genius against all the historic odds (and, in a real way, canons are only possible when we voice out what we love and ignore what we don’t care for).
this is a parallel argument to the justification for life, which is an impossible argument to make, and constantly in need of tipping the scales to the depleted past in compensation for the infinite future, where we have to live--in confusion and fear ex filter--and find hope ex nihilo.

TSE on Metaphysical Wit

This week I re-read TS Eliot's early essay, "The Metaphysical Poets". Tremendously influential, the essay helped set the course for the New Critical era to come, & more. Here Eliot coined the phrase "dissociation of sensibility" - the idea that with the coming of Enlightenment rationalism, the former unity of sensibility - the mutual interpenetration of thought & emotion - fell apart. The new rationalist order had a name and a place for every thing under the sun - an order - but with order came emotional detachment and perceptual laziness. Milton & Dryden were very great writers, but they set the pattern : they pondered, they reflected, they discoursed with great wisdom... but they were not engaged - dramatically, emotionally - with their own perceptual discoveries in life.

Eliot was countering an almost-equally influential position of Restoration poet-critic Samuel Johnson, who chided the "metaphysical" poetry of the early 17th century - Donne, Cowley, King & others - as a kind of quaint, eccentric, arcane, belabored mannerism. Metaphysical "wit" was a "violent yoking together" (rather than a reasonable synthesis) of absurdly disparate things : and as such, it was out of touch with the ordinary, the everyday, the real as it is. For Eliot, on the other hand, these poets - Donne, King, Crashaw, Herbert, Marvell, & others - represent the "main stream" of English poetry. Their "wit" was an expression of a vivid, lively engagement with experience - a dramatic grasp, an exploratory perception - which is of the essence of poetry. Whereas the discursiveness of Enlightenment poetry was a stylistic falling-away - an emotional & perceptual blindness - leading to windy, anemic, sentimental, boring poetizing... & which continued on into the Victorian age, with Tennyson's bland generalizations (Eliot conveniently skips over the Romantic era).

One of the lines of interest here for the "plumbline", is the connection Eliot makes between a healthy, unified "sensibility" and a sense of drama. The excerpts he quotes from the Metaphysicals emphasize the poet's personal gusto & nervous excitement - they are, to repeat, engaged : and thus the resulting poems are to some extent mini-dramas. They are not lectures, sermons, or long stories - they are dramatic moments of pain, joy, perception, insight. (Perhaps this quality was an inheritance from the glory days of Elizabethan theater.)

This nexus of engagement, drama, and history - the social web of mutuality - would seem to be an influencing factor, as we "weigh in the balance" (O Plumbline) our own poetry & that of others. Is the writing, as Joseph alludes to some tendencies, merely "about" writing itself - a self-enclosed word-game? Is it merely imitative of a current popular idiom? Or has something truly happened to the poet - & the poem? (Even if the event is just a striking perception of some heretofore-unseen relation, some new aspect of things.)


What if the Unabomber was right?

Some plagiarized and bastardized thoughts after reading tech writer Kevin Kelly's The Unabomber Was Right:

  1. Personal aesthetics are constrained by poetic movements.

  2. The more that poetic movements control an aesthetic the less freedom the individual poet possesses.

  3. Poetic movements destroy a poet's natural tendencies, which strengthens the poetic movement further.

  4. This ratchet of a movement's self-amplification is stronger when backed by a canon.

  5. Any attempt to use poetry or establish a canon to tame or change the poetic system only strengthens the poetic system.

  6. Therefore poetic movements and the canon must be destroyed, rather than reformed.

  7. Since poetic movements cannot be destroyed by poetry or a canon itself, poets must push poetry towards its inevitable end of self-collapse.

  8. Then pounce on poetry when it is down and kill it before it rises again.

So, the question is, is poetry worth saving?

Our consumer culture says no. Flarf, as a reaction to and/or embrace of consumer culture, says no.

I'm still mulling this over. It's a fragment of a thought, ill-formed, stillborn.

We're now 5 Musketeers

Very pleased to welcome poet & critic Michael Theune to the Plumbline School. Check out his own blog here.

p.s. & here's how to join, if you are interested.


Both sides against the Middle

& here's another interesting post on "the middle". See also Michael Theune's comments in the comments field - he mentions a lot of contemporary poets & books that might be useful for what we're up to here.

Joseph Hutchinson Nails the Plumbline to the Doorframe and Lets it Swing

I just want to recommend this thoughtful pre-plumbline post from Joseph Hutchinson (from earlier this month). Ironically, since Silliman linked to it, everyone has probably already read it. Don't know if he's a joiner, but maybe we ought to see if JH wants to join us here.

Playful Restraint

For those of us wired to the internet, it's so easy to spin out the discourse. The trouble is, this can hinder real communication sometimes. There is a problem with the overwhelming avalanche of chit-chat out there. The 24/7 poetickal news cycle can encourage all kinds of breezy nothings. I'm sure I'm one of the prime offenders.

But there's something in this image of the plumbline - especially after Joseph vivified it in his post before last - that possibly could act as a sort of counterweight to all that. This image, or symbol, comprehends (for me, anyway) a lot of things & behavior which come under the heading of "slow, modest, prudent, restrained" (maybe restraint is the most apt here).

The plumbline seems to bring together two notions : gravity and balance. And if we do another thought experiment, & set this symbol beside the concept of mediation - as outlined in previous posts - I think what results, in terms of poetry & criticism, is an orientation toward restraint and care.

How so? Well, as we said, the suspension of a plumbline, from some (physical, intellectual) point on high, produces a sense of gravity united with measured balance. "Gravity", to my mind, evokes a cluster of ideas involving actuality, necessity, nature, the earth, weight... - which, in a sense, trigger a need for balance or equilibrium. Gravity is serious, cautionary (as well as something to be defied or played with, sometimes). And this necessity (for balance) in turn triggers an awareness of differences : a making of distinctions. This is where the concept of mediation, "the golden mean", the synthesis of contraries, comes into play. A recognition of differences demands an establishment of relationship between them.

So where am I going with this, in terms of poetry? I think perhaps the conceptual center of the "Plumbline School" might hover around a notion that has been raised here repeatedly, in different ways : this idea of finding a balance between the style and the subject; writing and the real; the verbal and the non-verbal; what can be said and what cannot be said; representation and actuality. I think Joseph put it very pointedly, in one of his comments, here :

"I've long had the sense that language yearns toward the real without every being able to reach it. This is the paradox of representation, which some sorts of contemporary poetry collapse by focusing on the "materiality of language," turning out poems that aspire not to be representations but things in themselves. That's a move I tend not to trust even when it produces interesting results."

Although I would not want to oversimplify, and reduce poetry & the current scene to yet another binary, still, I think this is a useful distinction - and it helps me, anyway, to imagine what we are about here. For me, it's a both/and situation : poetry does aspire to be a thing-in-itself - yet also, somehow, to be rooted in that which it is not. So if I were to put it in more of a nutshell, I might say that the Plumbline School is about (1) recognizing - & acknowledging - what is beyond poetry : and (2) attempting to orient both poetry-making & criticism toward that chastening (or inspiring, depending how you take it) recognition.

In other words, we of the Plumbline School are going to register an awareness of these differences, these differential realities - and seek ways to balance them. Because poetry that (whether due to style, ideology, professional place-seeking, or some other reason) turns its back on what is non-poetry, eventually dries up & withers away.

Dream, Prayer, Chart

I'm still getting my bearings in this discussion so I'm going to indulge in just a bit more terminological meandering before I get down to looking at some actual poems.

In Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form, there is an otherwise unremarkable essay on using Freud as a guide to interpreting poetry, in which Burke deploys three terms, each naming an aspect of a poetic text on which the critic might want to focus. By implication, it's possible to suggest that different poets might display more interest in one or another of these aspects, or modes.

Burke writes that the critic can look at the dream, the prayer, and the chart aspects of any particular poem. Dream corresponds roughly to the Freudian unconscious presented more or less raw. In my earlier discussion of amateur and professional poets, the amateurs would exhibit a predominance of dream discourse: self-expression. In Burke's telling, prayer stands for the desire to communicate and brings in technique: rhetoric, rhyme, meter, all the canons of "professionalism" I was talking about earlier. In prayer, then, the poet turns toward the audience. Chart is the term Burke develops the least in this system and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I had assumed, based on my previous reading of this essay (years ago), that the chart aspect of the poem embodied the reality-testing function, that it aspired to describe states of affairs; but going back to the essay yesterday, it appears that Burke may have something more linguistic in mind: "As to the poem as chart: the Freudian emphasis upon the pun brings it about that something can only be in so far as it is something else. But aside from ambiguities, there is also a statement's value as being exactly what it is. Perhaps we would best indicate what we mean by speaking of the poem as char if we called it the poet's contribution to an informal dictionary. Burke goes on to describe what has been variously called by others the poet's personal "mythmaking," or perhaps even the poet's "voice." It ammounts to the creation of an idiosyncratic constellation of meanings more or less unique to a particular poet--his or her "vision" of the world, if you will.

In writing this up just now I began to wonder whether Burke's terms can be mapped onto Seth Abramson's pragmatic, syntactic, and cognitive-symantic types of poetry. On second thought, I'm not sure that the exercise would lead anywhere productive.

Hippies, Fascists and a State of Play

Years ago, walking across a beautiful wooded college campus in the Northwest, I had a conversation with a friend about Yeats' notions of will and imagination. My friend suggested that imagination was a middle term and that will represented one extreme, which left us missing a term. (This was long enough ago that one might make structuralist arguments, not post-structuralist ones!) We came up with a sort of jokey formulation: will we represented in our system as a "fascist" for whom control was paramount and the opposite of will as a "hippie," for whom any control was anathema. In the middle, we decided, there was playfulness--what Yeats called "imagination."

The plumbline, even when it is perfectly still, only does its job because it is free to move; conversely, it is constrained by the laws of physics to come to rest over a point of equilibrium, drawing a line straight through the center of the earth. In a physical or mechanical system, we say there is "play" if there is a bit of slack or looseness, enough to allow some unpredictable motion without becoming completely random; if there is no play in the system, it locks up. So this is just one more metaphor for the middle way, but a useful one for me. At my best, such an approach governs my approach to daily life, as well as to poetry. The state of play is akin to what a Buddhist might simply call being awake.


1.6180339887... (an Irrational Number)

Have been puzzling inconclusively all morning about how this concept of mediation and proportion applies practically to poetry, & what we do with that.

There's something there, but I haven't quite got at it yet.

Thinking about "dynamic symmetry", a term introduced about a hundred years ago to refer to artistic applications of the Golden Section. The Golden Section, or Golden Ratio : pervasive in ancient/classical art and architecture, due to its comparable pervasiveness in nature (geometry of seashells, sunflowers, the human body, etc.), and also to its curious "dynamic" spatial applications. (It's the mathematical ratio derived when you divide any space into two unequal parts, such that the ratio or proportion of the smaller part to the larger part, equals the ratio of the larger part to the space as a whole. See Wikipedia entry for details.)

What if we imagined some kind of equivalent ratio of symmetry/design in poetry. Not necessarily numerical (such as applying the Fibonacci series to line-counts, etc. - which has been done...). Rather a more abstract concept, some kind of harmonic synthesis. What would be a "ratio of equilibrium" between, say, the medium & the message - such that both medium & message interpenetrate in a dynamic, expansive, resonant way?

Again, I think about this notion of a convergence of opposites. Say the poem is the offspring (& the poet the midwife) of the union of nature & art. So we have these relatively free-standing, integral objects (each with its own internal gyroscope). They are not necessary, in the sense of utilitarian, functional : but they are necessary (if literature is necessary at all) in the sense of invitations to wholeness, awareness, growth, joy, freedom...

A. Pushkin, in a line addressed to his fellow poets, cries : "Ye Sons of Harmony!" (Let's revise that to : Sons & Daughters.) Resonance...

One could gaze Pythagoras-like for a long time into this abyss of harmonic ratios, of mediating proportions. In a cosmos of binary pairs, what is it, exactly, that binds together black/white, night/day, up/down, near/far, joy/sorrow...? The logos or ratio finds affinities : brings unexpected, contrary, seemingly incommensurate things into relationship (harmony). We think of this as the essential process of reason, the intellect itself. What is a metaphor, but the discovery of a previously unseen perceptual or cognitive "rhyme"?

Maybe we start to get a glimpse of the underlying, formative process of poetic making - always devising new wholes (works of art) out of these harmonic discoveries (of things brought into proportionate relationship).

These ideas seem again awfully vague & abstract. But I'm thinking about how they might somehow apply in more specific evaluations. The difference, say, between an indifferent jumble of words, anecdotes, statements, emotions, catch phrases, cliches or undigested imitations, on the one hand - & an integrated whole : a real synthesis of working parts, a new discovery, an intense and unforgettable summation.


Random Thoughts & Two Poems

Some random thoughts:

1. The debate about Flarf is one that focuses on the question of whether Flarf is a technique or a form. Flarf itself is not an aesthetic; Flarf is the subject of aesthetic debate.

2. Plumbline poetry is not an intentionally written poem; it is not a technique or a form, but a classification. Plumbline poems preserve the poet's temporal experiences in such a way that the reader can intellectually and emotionally reconstruct the epiphanies the poet has encoded within the text based upon the contextual cultural knowledge encoded within the text.

3. The dramatic persona is a rhetorical construct. It is a situational meme addressing a particular message at a particular audience at a particular point in time. Thus, it is tied to the cultural moment in which it was created. The aesthetics of the poet and the techniques used to create the poem are not as important as the work itself as a language artifact which can transcend the cultural constraints of its creation.

4. Plumbline poetry is poetry concerned with the aesthetics of the poem itself, but plumbline poetry also rejects the notion of the "Affective Fallacy." Plumbline poems ignite a change, however slight, in the reader's perception of the world.

5. Language is an incomplete communication of image, and the closer a poem comes to reliance upon image as its main syncretic device, the better.

6. Two poems which exhibit these features, the first from "canon", the second not yet:

Richard Hugo's "Death of the Kapowsin Tavern"

Reb Livingston's "Finite and Fortnight"

7. Discuss amongst yourselves.

A Rather Awkward Introduction

In Terry Gilliam's dystopian retrofuturistic movie Brazil, one of the subplots involves the efforts of a renegade air conditioner repairman, Henry Tuttle, played by Robert DeNiro, who calls himself “a plumber."

Working outside the accepted bounds of the bureaucratic public works department, Tuttle keeps the system running for the benefit of the little guy, working around the system to do the work of the system while simultaneously attempting to upend the system. For this, he is labeled a terrorist, and the main plot of the movie depends upon the system’s view of insiders-turned-outsiders.

I prefer to think like Tuttle; the system, as it is, has failed. The only way to revive the system is to work around the system in an attempt to replace the system with our own parts, regenerating the system in our own image. This choice depends not on dismantling the system, but improving it from without; it is not a radical reaction to the system, but it is a different way, a way that chooses a middle path, or a way that is newly blazed.

By way of introduction, I should say that I am not a classicist. My knowledge of the Greek poets, the Elizabethans, the Metaphysical poets, etcetera, is based on what I gleaned in undergraduate literature seminars when I was either a) extremely hung over or b) too tired from working the night shift. I come to this discussion not with a background in literary theory and knowledge, but from hours grappling with a pen in my hand both on the job, in the classroom, and at my desk in the wee hours of the morning.

Anything I say about writing and reading poetry is based on my understanding and reading and practice of poetry. I can't memorize and quote on demand and I am constantly flipping to my books, The Google, and Wikipedia to understand the references my fellow Plumbers are making. For me, this conversation is an education as much as it is a discussion. If I put my foot in my mouth, so be it. Perhaps I will come to like the taste of toes.

Yet at the same time, this position allows me to play the fool. And it is the fool that can speak truth to power. It is the fool that can point out the system's flaws.


Plumbline Table Talk

On NPR this morning, the host interviewed short-story writer Antonya Nelson. When asked why she wrote stories rather than novels, she said she thought short stories were a little like poetry, because they tend to focus on small scenes, small dramatic moments - that she wasn't so interested in managing large-scale plots, all the machinery of the novel, but rather the little dramas which sometimes fall under the radar.

I pricked up my ears. Nelson was talking about poetry as a species of drama. This "struck a chord" with something mentioned recently here : Eliot's notion of drama as a summation of the "voices" of poetry; the idea that we might consider the values of drama, rather than lyric, as the standard of critical measure & interpretation.

In all modesty, I feel like we've suggested enough germs of ideas, in our early days here at Plumbline School, to keep a dozen AWP conferences busy. But a laundry basket of inchoate ideas is one thing - how to give them some useful relevance & coherence (& starch), is quite another. We're just getting started.

With that in mind, I'd like to recap a few of those ideas. I say "we" - but for now, I'm talking only about my own ideas. I'm not ready to paraphrase Joseph's or J.H.'s just yet. Any "grand synthesis" is yet to come, far in the future of the Plumbline School... & there will be other, new voices joining us too (I hope).

We've talked about forwarding certain literary values in our writing, and searching for them in the literature around us. These values involve a nexus of equilibrium : a point of balance and mediation, capable of serving as a kind of catalyst, fusing styles/subjects, matter/manner. We described how this notion has ancient roots in the concept of proportion - the "golden mean" - a synthesis, a mediation between contraries, which, on the one hand, brings them into balance, and on the other, reinforces their unique integrity (the whole more than the sum of its parts; yet the integrity of part not dissolved in the whole). This disinterested, objective midpoint of expression - the plumbline - makes possible a balance between form & content, medium & message, artifice & representation.

We've talked about the values of dramatic poetry (for Shakespeare, Eliot) as involved with the interpenetration of poetry and experience. The objectivity of situation & character represented by Shakespeare's Macbeth was shown to bear fruit, be justified, by actual occasions - for example, Lincoln's reading of passages of the play to his cabinet : so the intensity of actual historical situations, and the intensity of poetic drama, mutually mirror one other. Today's contribution to this topic, by a fiction writer on NPR, might further clarify this notion. Drama, in poetry, is not always explicitly historical, at least in the narrow sense of the term - ie., grand symbolic events of famous people & powerful forces. More compact forms (poetry, short story) can zero in on smaller dramas - find significance in the "insignificant". (On the other hand, I think it's worth keeping in mind the hypothesis that world history itself might be, essentially, drama.)

Finally, we started to talk about how these issues of aesthetic balance, rightness, proportion, have their background in past literary battles over appropriate style. The conflict between the Elizabethan/Baroque concept of "wit" (as forging a new metaphor, a new vision or insight, by fusing seemingly-discordant elements) and the Enlightenment/Restoration approach (of discursive elegance, reasonableness, clarity) has its counterpart in contemporary debates over what are the most valid forms of poetic expression, the most valuable ranges of representation. If we are still seeking for that point of balance from which proportion emerges - that "conjunction of opposites", where disparate, discordant things find their unforeseen affinities, and where poetic speech discovers its adequate means (the "happy medium") - then these old issues of style & rhetoric (the rugged vision of the Metaphysicals, the genial discourse of the Restoration) will surface again, in new ways.

Obviously these notions are still pretty theoretical, abstract, dry - have yet to prove relevant. Specific examples have yet to appear. It seems unlikely there will ever be an identifiable "plumbline style", for example (though anything is possible). Instead, what we might be building is a general framework for measurement : the "plumbline" (as we are beginning to define it) a basic aesthetic "rule" (like a metric system, or the cubit, or the furlong), applicable to a wide variety of distinct modes of poetry-making.



i think, so far, there hasn't been enough...poetry.

i have no desire
to remember the year
the ugly inventions
that remind us who we really are

if only time could kill all the fools
inside my head
if only history, discerning,
could make today as dead
as yesterday, like poetry


the girls and rapists and saints
are all around me
all passed through the same milk and blood

each the acid seed in our stomach
eating us out from inside

we all should have died young
before we were rotten entire


chimera says
you have your mother’s eyes
you have the eyes of a nation

and that is why we can all tell
you’re not from around here
don’t blend in


Discordia Concors - Metaphysical Wit

I may be getting ahead of myself, & of the School, here. If so, please bear with me, &/or set me right.

But it seems that there may be a potential contradiction in the general principles (or preliminaries) as sketched out in the early posts of the Plumbline School.

If on the one hand we are looking for a "middling", understated, modest style - which, hypothetically, would allow for a disinterested representation of real things/experience/subject-matter - in other words, if the "golden mean" is to be found primarily in a smooth presentation, a modest manner fitting ordinary matters -

well, this seems, very approximately, to correspond to a Johnsonian/Augustan sort of "decorum". "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express't" (Pope), or however it goes.

Whereas, on the other hand, the idea of a conjunction of opposites - the electric, exciting, risky Discordia Concors (a "concord of discordance") -

well, this corresponds to Johnson's much-maligned "Metaphysical School", its elaborate, stilted, artificial Conceits. Doesn't it?

I'm just throwing this out there - off the top of my head. As WC Williams put it, "dissonance leads to discovery". So maybe we can find some middle path along here somewhere, even between these contraries : some sort of new rich & rugged style, which encompasses both ends of the spectrum.

Just thinking out loud here.


Perhaps one way to resolve this conundrum would be to say that "discordant" poetics describes the current reigning style - manifest in all the different groups & tendencies. Here jarring juxtapositions - "elliptical" and "dissonant" poetics - are the equivalent of Augustan/Restoration smoothness, clarity, and didacticism. How so? Because dissonance is understood as realism : our present world is, precisely, dissonant, discordant. Flarf is the new realism.

All the more need, then, for a plumbline.



My disorganized speculations here are sort of embarrassing... all this needs more study & thought. But I sense there's something worth pursuing in it. So I will try to clarify a little, & maybe others will jump in & help out.

We have been talking about mediation, proportion, the "golden mean" as aspects of aesthetics and style which might have some bearing on our own work & that of our contemporaries. We suggested a kind of stylistic transparency and understatement as a way to find a balance between the poem and its subject-matter, so that neither side outweighs the other, and so that the form or manner of the poem is in proportion to its theme.

The issue of mediation as a process which both balances and distinguishes between opposing contraries - in the geometric sense of finding the midpoint between 2 sides - could be said to underlie the styles of two different literary eras.

For the Elizabethan/Baroque/Metaphysical poets, where the literary values included tension, intensity, brilliance, and rhetorical force, a process of mediation was translated into the idea of "wit" - the yoking together of disparate things in a startling metaphor or simile, which captures the imagination.

For the Restoration/Enlightenment period - of Pope, Dryden, Samuel Johnson - very different literary values came to the fore. This was a new era of rationalism, science, and political stability; its values were clarity, blunt social satire, moral didacticism, literary order, decorum, smoothness. For these poets, the Elizabethans were rough and uncouth in style, metrics, manner. This was the era of the perfect machine-tooled heroic couplet, when Shakespeare's plays were "improved" in order to smooth out the rough edges. It took Eliot's essays on Donne and the Metaphysicals, 200 years later, to revise this estimate.

What we see in these two contrasting eras are differing concepts of proportion, fitness, beauty. The Elizabethans' sparkling wit, their stylistic discordia concors or fusion of discordant things, was, in the eyes of the Restoration, not really "fitting" anymore : their metaphors remained discordant : two things yoked together which didn't belong together. For the Restoration poets, moderation or fitness involved a kind of stylistic efficiency : the exaggerations of style are smoothed over and subdued on behalf of clear, rational and elegant presentation.

I think it might be worthwhile to explore this historical debate - and others like it - in the context of our own times and our own writing. Because once we start looking for examples of synthesis/juxtaposition, harmony/discord, in contemporary poetic theory and style, I suspect we will discover them to be pervasive.

What if we tried to determine our own acceptable notions of the literary "golden mean" - the elements of style which, for us, provide effective, elegant, or beautiful mediations and transmissions of non-poetic ideas and experiences, of history at large?

The train to Florida

In this country, there are 2 kinds of literature : official and unofficial. The first is trash; the second, stolen air. - O. Mandelstam [rough quote from memory]

I like J.H.'s supra-metaphors for the plumbline metaphor. A plumbline is necessarily "ponderous" - so, for the sake of a superior balance, he offers airy sparks.

Again, I think we will discover that the reply to tedium, in this arcane pursuit, somehow involves the relation between the "golden mean" and the "conjunction of opposites". John Donne knew how to play that tune (cf. "metaphysical wit"). Sparks will fly.

This cul-de-sac of style & substance, realism & artifice, has caught many a lumbering critic in its maw. I hope I haven't already fallen into it.

I'm thinking of that chance encounter on the train to Florida, in the 1930s, between the 2 famous poets, Frost & Stevens. Stevens, with a smile, says - "The trouble with you, Robert, is you write on subjects." To which the canny old pseudo-Yankee replied : "Your trouble, Stevens, is you write bric-a-brac." [rough quote from memory, again]

I'd like to see this done as a video on YouTube : it could be the iconic moment of the Plumbline School.

& I'm really looking forward, along with a lot of other poets & readers, to this new Norton anthology, about to appear (American Hybrid). I think all the exempla of official poetry in there will give us something to talk about (along these plumbline lines). I'm already wondering (from here on my superior-dilettante perch) to what extent these hybrids will exhibit natural healthy fruit & scent (true grafting processes), or merely the ambitious stylistic compromises (ie., pretentious mish-mash) of literary politicians.

We can't escape this paradox : poetry is both necessary and free. Frost and Stevens. Art and experience... the Russians have a more elegant couplet - how does it really go, J.H.? - something like byt and byet - "beauty" and "the daily grind". It seems that no matter where you fall, as a poet, on the scale of values - between "realism" and "play" - fact and dream - if it's going to be remembered, it has to have that spark - Eliot's thought-experiment with a platinum wire - the evidence of a supra-rational conjunction (Eureka!)...

Professional (AWP) & Dilettante (AWOL)

While all the professional poets are AWOL at AWP, I thought I'd just respond briefly to Joseph's previous post, on the distinction between professional and amateur. Joseph writes : "That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I'm not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression."

I'd like to glance at a couple of those problems.

First, I think it can be said that the techniques in the canon of poetry which professionals master are themselves expressive. And it's not so easy drawing the line between self-expression & mastery. To take an example from the visual arts : the familiar image of Picasso, whose every doodle is inimitably Picasso-esque (and no one else's - unless he's imitating Matisse, for example, in a Picassoish way). So perhaps one result of mastery can be a kind of return to self-expression, or its fulfillment.

Secondly, I've found that often enough "artless self-expression" is paradoxically more effective that artful imitation of established styles. I attended a reading a couple weeks ago, where a young poet read what was basically a grocery-list/litany of "everything that went wrong" in her day. It was an "amateur" poem in Joseph's sense : but her funny list came across - in a way that some of the "workshop" efforts by young MFA students, imitating current stylistic mannerisms, did not. (Then again, this anecdote may reinforce Joseph's point, that we enjoy one end of the spectrum or the other, depending on what we're looking for.)

Finally, there's a larger issue, which I will try to grapple with in a separate post. This question of finding a "golden mean", or a middle way, between art and experience, style and substance, seems dauntingly complex. We could look at the whole arc of literary history of the last 150 years (or more) as an oscillation between realism and symbolism, an art of "experience" and art-for-art's sake. (& behind this oscillation lies an even older one - between classicism and romanticism.) I would suggest - with great over-simplification - that the era inaugurated by Lowell's Life Studies, running til about the mid-1970s, represented a period of "realism". Since then we have seen a wave of self-conscious, modernist/postmodernist formalism, which represents the antithesis to the earlier wave. (It gets complicated, since various modes of "identity" poetics actually continued and strengthened the earlier, "experiential" mode - not to mention all the very "unreal" things - NY School & "deep image" being obvious examples - that were happening during the Life Studies era!)

What I would suggest, as something to think about, is that we could look at the various modes of formalist poetry - representing a "mastery" of autotelic and self-referential techniques - as self-absorbed and self-enclosed, in a way which is comparable to the near-solipsistic "self-expression" of the "amateur".

I'm not asserting this with the aim of starting another polemical debate. Rather I think these phenomena represent the playing out of an inherent ambiguity or oscillation, within art itself, between form and content, artifice and nature.

Eugenio Montale (in a famous essay of the 1920s), trying to avoid the Scylla and Charibdys of artlessness on the one hand, and effete aestheticism on the other, came up with the term "superior dilettantism". With this phrase perhaps we can say that Montale was aiming for the plumbline too...

[p.s. let me repeat with emphasis : I realize that this idea of a "realist period" is a big simplification. Many of the modernist techniques of the school of Pound, for example, were carried on into the 60s & 70s on behalf of that wing's own, very different, idioms of "the real". The debate over the status of representation itself has been quite contentious for the last 50 years, at least. Nevertheless, I think it's pretty hard to deny that Lowell's rejection (in the 1950s) of late-modern, New Critical formalism, was a kind of watershed, the beginning of a new era.]

a couple iambics, out of context

across this table stretching farther than the compass of the naked eye
(from my translation of tsvetaeva's 'new year's [letter]' to rainer maria rilke) nonameter

x x x

hang out and watch dusk happen to the hills
(from 'mnemonics for my brother')


the ethic of metaphor

being a poet or thinker is necessarily to be caught up in the hopeless justification of life, which pulls with the insistence of gravity towards nihilism (or meaninglessness), which i would argue is the natural state of things. overcoming the senseless is the task of the transensual, the creator of imaginative fallacies. this is what i mean when i talk about architecture, the building of artificial structures towards meaning--all the temples, towers, hagia sophias and mausolays, language itself.

operating metaphors are important, and religion is full of them (religions are old-poetries-cum-politics). the image of moderation between extremes needs its own metaphors (some of these are plagiaristic, and i know that some poets put a special trust in the concept of the author, while others try to deauthorize themselves, neither of which bothers me or concerns me much, so):
the plumbline hung from the sky, whose slight shifts are a record of the earth's precarious balance (and calibrate the true scales of justice);
the tightrope walker, on a frayed rope, or...a slack rope, anchored to two embarrassed moons;
the green flash between dawn and day;
the long-legged aphorism straddling a mountain top;
the rappelling spider; the sticky cocoon in the baobab; the apple that fights the windfall; the last breath of the poet hanging from the waterpipes; the tongue in the bell; the drops on gate bars; the loose teeth of icicles; the ashberry; the zonkey foal...

the moderations are made possible by strong traits--curiosity and skepticism, the manacles pulling us up from hell and down from heaven, respectively. the BeeP is a poisoned well, and the filtered aquifer underneath, is an acid cloud, and the injured ozone above, is on a journey through all the wimpled rebates of the sea and sky, and cetera, and cetera...

A World Dimensional

How do we devotees of the Plumbline defend against an understandable first impression, that to seek a "middle way" is a ticket to mediocrity - a boring compromise? Isn't poetry all on fire? Isn't it a stand against exactly the stolid "workmanship" that grinds everything down to a levelling sameness?

One could do worse, in reply, than turn to Guy Davenport's famous essay "The House that Jack Built" (collected in The Geography of Imagination - which you can find online). Starting with some wide-ranging speculations in John Ruskin's Fors Clavigera, Davenport examines the deep labyrinthine craft of Joyce, Pound, WC Williams & Zukofsky as "Daedalian" makers - poetic builders. Davenport's little essay opens up a view onto a veritable abyss of supple literary masonry.

The notion of the plumbline as a measure of balance or equilibrium - a measure which allows the artist to devise syntheses & combinations of seemingly discordant materials - & thus to delve deeper into whatever subject or theme he or she has taken on - I think this is also an aspect of what we might be concerned with, here. All of these artists were interested in fashioning capacious works - that is, capable of reflecting experience and reality in "the outdoors" - beyond the confines of art itself. Once a "fitting" balance between matter & style is forged, the artist is then able to move forward to further symbolic syntheses. (For example, in Joyce's Dubliners, as Davenport shows, we have 2 things in balance : tales of very realistic grubby Dublin on the surface, and a symbolic labyrinth of literary meanings underneath, whose moral and aesthetic valences give weight to that very surface.) So, in this sense, the "plumbline" is also a sort of compass, or gyroscope - a means for traveling further, deeper.

The poem as conjunction-of-opposites... when was a wedding night ever boring (even if - God forbid - it goes wrong)?

There is a world dimensional
For those untwisted by the love of things
... - Hart Crane

Lift that Plumbline, Tote that Bale...

Very happy to welcome J.H. Stotts to the Plumbline School!


Professionals & Amateurs

I participated in a reading yesterday at the Brush Art Gallery at SLU. There were about ten of us reading, a fairly even mix of professional* poets and amateurs. That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I'm not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression.

That distinction between poetry as a set of practices and poetry as a mode of (self) expression seems basic to me and it raises an underlying question about value and pujrpose. The professional poet implicitly makes a claim about the value of the work based on his / her mastery of the canons of poetry; the amateur poet, on the other hand, makes a claim for the value of his / her poetry based on the degree to which it satisfies the human need for self-expression. The reading I participated in yesterday embodied this pair of categories with hardly any overlap. Now, it would be easy -- as with all binary pairings -- to put a positive valance on one side and a negative valance on the other, but I don't want to do that.

Speaking from the professional side, I want to honor the impulse to express oneself in poetry, however one understands poetry; at the same time, my sense that the poem must always exceed the poet's personal situation runs counter to the self-expressive mode. It's not that my own poems don't express something about my "self," whatever that may be in this contingent, post-modern world, but the poem must ultimately float free from the self and take its place as an autonomous cultural object.

What is the nature of that object? It is not the independent, shimmering, well-wrought urn of the New Critics, certainly; it is embedded in history and is no doubt a captive of an evolving cultural matrix that at least partly animates it. An organism in an environment? Perhaps that's as good a metaphor as any for describing the relationship of one of my poems to the world.

There was an audience in the room yesterday, each of whom came to hear a poetry reading. Matthew Schmeer has raised the issue of what the audience gets from contemporary poetry. Some (fairly large) percentage of the audience were themselves poets, either on the program or not, but there were also ordinary readers of / listeners to poetry. And what about those "ordinary" readers? What's in it for them? The answer depends, I think, on how they conceive poetry: If they think of poetry as self-expression, they want one sort of thing and are likely to be disappointed by poetry that fails to deliver self-revelation; if they are interested in poetry as an expression of particular cultural values produced according to certain aesthetic assumptions, the auditors / readers will want another sort of thing, more like what the "professionals" produce.

*Isn't the act of writing a (modern) poem, by virtue of its inevitable skepticism about its own language, the antithesis of professionalism, which is about the acceptance and deployment of power?

Another Mason takes up the Plumbline

I'm very pleased to report that Matthew W. Schmeer has joined the Plumbline School.

Shakespeare, Lincoln, Macbeth

I'd like to take a closer look, for a moment, at the patch of poetry which actually triggered the formation of ye "Plumbline School". I was reading a history of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton (A Stillness at Appomatox). Catton describes how Lincoln, during a particularly bleak stretch in 1864, was reading Macbeth, & on one occasion recited this bit to one of his staff:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

What is it about this particular passage which inspired the formation of this still-coalescing group & website?

I think what struck me in this passage is Shakespeare's, shall we say, conjunction of opposites - the synthesis of two different literary aspects : poetry & prose, eloquence & precision (directness, clarity, simplicity).

The many-layered context is significant. First of all, we have a theatrical, a dramatic situation. This informs the nature of the verse, substantially. The passage is part of a larger plot & scene. The lines are spoken by a king under extreme duress. The tension of the situation provokes the intensity of the language, its passionate figuration. The metaphors of the "poor player" etc. have a double impact (as they are spoken by a "player" in two senses of the term) - this is not "flowery" metaphor, but language whose intensity is in proportion, is adequate to its situation. It is "fitting".

This passage is an example of "synthesis" or balance in another respect. The development of Elizabethan dramatic verse demanded a correlation between the literary and the demotic, the everyday. The "high rhetoric" of blank verse, its eloquence and elegance, had to be fused with the prose values of simplicity, directness, naturalness, precision. We have to believe this is a man actually speaking, in an actual situation, not an actor reciting ornamental lines.

Another aspect of this also interests me. This passage was mediated, on this particular occasion, by a work of history - Catton's book, which in itself is an example of synthetic writing - a combination of prose chronicle (history per se) and evocative, imaginative, dramatic writing. Catton very skillfully sets scenes, describes landcapes & characters, finds dramatic meaning in the actual events he relates. We have, for example, Lincoln (the great writer, along with Jefferson, among the presidents), interpolating a passage of dramatic poetry into a real situation, with its own comparable dramatic intensity (the climax of the Civil War). What we have here is an example of the interpenetration of poetry and life - rooted, I believe, in Shakespeare's synthetic power, as poet, to evoke real human drama with the art of poetic masquerade.

This is, in part, why I think this anecdote, & this speech from Macbeth, might help point the way toward the principles of the "plumbline".

Now I'd like to share an old poem of mine, which in a way does the "Shakespearean" in reverse. Here I try to interpolate a kind of theatrical-Shakespearean rhetoric & reference into a 20th-cent. American occasion. I don't know how well it works. But it attempts a kind of synthesis of different rhetorical ranges & representative occasions.


It is no longer in my power
To pass the torch to those who follow.
Long ago I fell away from the steel
Fiber holding up the school gymnasium,
And years have obscured the clear
Path I walked, a serious child,
By the dreamy lawns, the sheltering
Oak trees of the suburbs. Shame
Weighs on me, tugs at my pride:
My tongue grows awkward, inarticulate,
Unable to confess in clever numbers
All the grotesqueries this antic mind
Would indulge - my soul, snagged
In a filmy web, in the seamy afterlife
Of manifest destiny, that central pomp
Of high-riding families, magnified
On the national screen. An irony
Hovered with dark wings over the slow
River of my growing, marking a sign
On the brow of the elder son.

We plant our feet on the boards,
And pretend a scene. But every word
Tingles with guile; the simple form
Of the body recites from memory
A better tale - more harsh, more
Innocent, exemplary. To be born -
To be thrown off-center - the rest
Is only lust, or circumcision -
And perhaps a morning breeze, echo
And reconciliation.

Enter Hamlet, reading.

Pray God, your voice, like a piece
of uncurrent gold, be not cracked
within the ring.

The envious ghost burns for his
Possessions - rattling armor there
On the far side of the battlements,
In the outer dark. Gertrude?
Ophelia? I remember Memorial Day,
Gathering families in the clear
Green stillness of the huge park -
And my brothers scampering, acting up,
Waving their tiny stars and stripes.
As in a grainy home movie, I can see
My meek father hovering over the grill;
Granddad motionless, his hearing aid
Turned off; and Grandma and my mother,
Laughing, bustling around, two bird voices
Diving into the water, where a bronze
Hiawatha carries Minnehaha carefully
Across the muttering stream...



Plumb Lines and Base Lines

I'll begin by thanking Henry for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I hope we can attract others to the conversations as well. Especially those who, for whatever reasons, have found the currently available maps and charts of poetic practice inadequate to their needs. (There are also those pure souls who find no need of maps.)

Henry has chosen the metaphor of the plumb line around which to organize this discussion. I have also been reading poet / blogger Seth Abramson's discussions of poetic taxonomies recently. In passing, Abramson uses the metaphor of the baseline in one of his discussions (thus the picture of the spirit level above), which seem to me the most lucid map-making I have encountered. (Abramson also offers an admirable model of reasonable discourse around a cluster of contentious issues.) What I have found salutary about Abramson's proposed taxonomy is that it avoids the binary division of Ron Silliman's School of Quietude versus Post-Avant boxing match, which is my its nature polemical rather than descriptive. (In any binary pair, one term will have a positive valence, the other a negative, though these can reverse depending upon context / perspective.)

Silliman's division of the poetic landscape has long troubled me at the level of personal practice. It is embarrassing to admit, but I have longed to be able to fit into a known aesthetic type & in addition my strong personal preference generally has been to identify with the most progressive trends in politics & arts. But I haven't been able, in my practice as a poet, to find much use for the Language poets & their progeny. I own a shelf full of books & it is not for lack of trying; rather, of trying & being rebuffed. There have been times over the last decade when I have simply not been able to find my way as a poet, long periods of silence. It would be absurd, obviously, to blame the SoQ / Post-Avant division. I am of course responsible for my own practice, but this particular binary division has made it difficult for me to find an aesthetic location, to chart my position on the map. I've accepted Henry's invitation to post here at least in part because I hope to be able to find common ground across the territorial boundaries of contemporary American poetry.


Here's a simple but pervasive indicator of what I'm talking about. Think what it means when a political statement, or an ordinary or symbolic action, or a work of art, is said to "strike a chord" with people.

Pythagorean basis : the Golden Mean

As a way of leading into what are, hopefully, discussions about our contemporaries, about the various streams & traditions from which they stem, & about our own work, I'll try to provide some context by putting forward an abstract image : that of the Golden Mean.

Much ancient art, science and ethics, in particular that of the Greeks, was anchored in a consideration of this Golden Mean. The Pythagoreans - early Greek mathematics & geometry in general - focused on the notion of a mean between extremes : beauty and proportion were seen to grow from the concept of mediation between polar binaries.

Mediation entailed not one, but two important consequences. It not only found the balancing center between two antitheses; in the process, it also rendered a clearer distinction, a more distinct, substantial impression, of the nature of each of these binary aspects in themselves. Fundamentally, mediation made possible a synthesis, a whole, in which the parts remained distinct, retained their integrity. Thus whole and parts were in proportion (therefore, beautiful).

It's hard to overestimate the importance of this concept for ancient canons of beauty and art. (Yeats, for one, was very explicit about this.) Moreover, with Plato and Aristotle, a point of mediation was found, in the notion of mediation itself, between art and ethics. The "good man" shunned excess of every kind. The extremes of too much or too little were to be avoided : the straight path led directly forward, through the center.

To repeat once more : these notions were central to ancient canons of beauty. And if we, as hopefully somewhat reflective artists & critics, wish to achieve a holistic or comprehensive view of our metier, we might consider how the idea of a "middle path" finds parallel expression in both art and experience. In other words, we might imagine how a range of artistic expressions reflect the comparable range of human experience : sadness/happiness, fear/joy, laughter/tears, ignorance/knowledge, pride/humility, honor/shame... these are mirrored in the tonal, modal ranges of various forms of art (comedy/tragedy being only the most obvious example).

With this in mind, it seems to me to make sense to imagine a sort of tonal center : a midpoint, a middling voice, a midrange : where a poem or other work might be balanced, so as to reflect or comprehend, to some extent, this range or variation in human experience.

A particular topic I have in mind, in this regard, has to do with the notion that we might be able to recognize a range of equilibrium, a mediating center, between representation and expression. Imagine a possible poem which adheres to this kind of balanced, tonal center. The poem's expressive means are in proportion to its theme or subject-matter. Neither end of the spectrum outweighs the other; they work together, they combine in a new and effective synthesis. In fact, it can be said that the poem essentially is the fusion or synthesis of matter and manner.

I think this particular notion might be applied, in a useful way, to a consideration of some of our own work, and that of our contemporaries.


I'm delighted to welcome Joseph Duemer to the Plumbline School. & it seems an appropriate time for me to state that, though I have set some guidelines for this "school", I hope it will be a good collaborative exchange, a mutual learning process, for everyone who takes part. The possible meanings of a "middle way" in poetry are many and diverse, as are the possible models or examples of the kind of poetry that illustrates a "plumbline", as well as the possible applications of this idea to current debates & polemics (in the poetry blogosphere and beyond). Not to mention all the areas of interest here which impinge on our own poems & practice.

So I think there's plenty to learn & talk about...

What, Pray Tell, Is the Plumbline School?

The present motto and ruling axiom of the Plumbline School :


Inaugural Message of the Plumbline School

This blog is intended to serve as a collaborative forum for a group of practicing poets who display a genuine interest in, and serious engagement with, the aesthetic values of the "plumbline". It is meant not so much as a public platform, but rather as a vehicle for mutual learning, the refinement of ideas and techniques.

"Plumbline poetry" is provisionally defined here as poetry which exhibits a stylistic "mean between extremes" : understated, transparent, inclusive, objective. It avoids extremes of both the ponderous and the superficial; it shuns mannerism and facile ornamentation, on behalf of clarity and simplicity of presentation. It strives for mimesis rather than pantomime. On the other hand, the plumbline poet (Bard o'th' Plumbline, BP, BeeP) is not merely sober, dull, strenuously industrious. Poetry is recognized as paradoxical - as a conjunction of opposites - as old and new, experimental and traditional, funny and sad, simple and complex, personal and public, unique and common.

Here is the blog post from HG Poetics, which triggered the establishment of this blog :

"In 1864, during the grinding horror of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse battles, Lincoln was reading Macbeth. He quoted these lines to one of his aides :

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

I ran into this last night (reading an old book by Bruce Catton - A Stillness at Appomatox - which I'd randomly pulled down).

Fleeting thought, then : now there is a benchmark for a "school of poetry"!

How so? Actually, it goes back to something Chas. Olson once wrote, about "the middle voice". Imagine a club of poets who strenuously seek & study this middling manner. An antidote to mannerism, that. An antidote to extremes - of wheezing bloat, of anemic shallow nerviness....

This is actually a recurrent theme in my decades-long bloggology.

A middling, modest, understated manner. An unassuming, midwestern manner. What's its value? Limpid clarity, simplicity, pointed directness, efficiency... all these writerly effects put to the service of objectivity, capaciousness. An inclusive poetry of wide range, able to glom onto all kinds and levels of phenomena & discourse.

Objective in the sense of disinterested, as I mentioned yesterday : that is, capable of presenting a scene, without hectoring the reader about it one way or another. Letting the reader gradually enter the poet's trap. Because there is an understated or unspoken argument - but you have to discover it yourself. It can be ambivalent, ambiguous, duplex, many-sided. As such, it achieves its realization : a free-standing work of art, a poem."