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Sunday, 22 December 2013

Poetic energy

Brain light bulb

Poetry is energy, it is an energy-storing and an energy-releasing device. – Miroslav Holub, Poetry Ireland Review, Autumn-Winter 1990

What’s the point to a poem? I’m somewhat in agreement with William Carlos Williams who stated that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.”[1] Words are what drive a poem. He said they were capable of “explosions of linguistic energy.”[2] When asked to define ‘poetry’ this is what he had to say:

I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organised… A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is.


In prose an English word means what it says. In poetry, you’re listening to two things … you’re listening to the sense, the common sense of what it says. But it says more. That is the difficulty. – William Carlos Williams from Paterson Volume V quoted in The William Carlos Williams Reader, pp.99,100

If a poem is indeed a machine then most (if not all) poems are remarkably inefficient machines as much is lost in the process. As a metaphor I prefer to think of a poem as a by-product of a process—in this case I am the machine—and what ends up on the page could be discarded; it’s served its purpose as far as I’m concerned. I call it by-product and not an end product or waste product because I recognise that others can make use of what I write; the writing of the poem was enough for me. But I’m not completely opposed to the metaphor of a poem as a machine. Let’s run with that. So, what is a machine?

A machine is a tool that consists of one or more parts, and uses energy to achieve a particular goal. Machines are usually powered by mechanical, chemical, thermal, or electrical means, and are frequently motorized. Historically, a powered tool also required moving parts to classify as a machine; however, the advent of electronics technology has led to the development of powered tools without moving parts that are considered machines. – Wikipedia

Okay, we’re talking physics here not metaphysics but a poem meets the basic conditions. It’s made up of many parts (letters, words, punctuation marks) that form a unified whole which isn’t consumed in the process of its operation; it would be a lousy spanner that needed to be replaced every time you wanted to loosen or tighten a nut. Energy, however, isn’t quite as easy to define. Simplistically put: Energy is the capacity of a physical system to perform work. That said:

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. – Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964) Volume I, 4-1

Work, however, is a precisely defined concept in physics. Again, in simple terms, it is: force x distance through which the force is applied. Energy is transferred from one body to another by one body performing work on the other – i.e. pushing against it through a certain distance. (Think of a bicycle pump and how you push it in against resistance for a certain distance.)

There’s a physical distance between you and I right now (and a temporal distance too but let’s not complicate things). I’m working by rattling away on my keyboard The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poeticsand you’re working by moving your eyes back and forth. So we’re all happy that work has taken place and work requires energy. Since energy cannot be destroyed (First Law of Thermodynamics) is it reasonable to assume that some of the energy used in a poem’s creation goes into the poem? And, if so, what kind of energy are we talking about? Wikipedia lists eleven kinds of energy but it has nothing to say about poetic energy. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics doesn’t have an entry for ‘Poetic Energy’ either. And yet a lot of people use the expression assuming that everyone knows what they’re on about. Most notably George Eliot—not TS, who occasionally (not unreasonably) gets credited with the remark:

Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: – in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures. – George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, p315

Many others use the expression. A selection:

The very structure of the language he uses suffers the impact of an entirely unfettered poetic energy in this truly unique book. – Enrique Molina talking about Oliverio Girondo’s last book of poems, In the masmédula

Robert Louis Stevenson ... discovered sources of "primitive" poetic energy in his own psyche, most notably through the nightmare that yielded Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. – Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, p.232

The power inherent in the words surfaces as the presence of an energy field, of psychic energy, or perhaps better said, psycho-poetic energy. – Dennis Patrick Slattery, ‘Psychic Energy's Portal to Presence in Myth, Poetry and Culture’ in Eranos Reborn: The Modernities of East and West; Perspectives on Violence, p.466

[T]he poetic rhythms grow and soar with energy. An expanding set of alliterations and assonances and inner rhythms are a product of the poetic energy. – Elaine B Safer, ‘William Gass, the Short Story and Metafiction’ in Nor Shall Diamond Die: American Studies in Honour of Javier Coy p.473

[Ted] Hughes defines energy as ‘any form of vehement activity’, through which one invokes ‘the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the universe’. – Keith Sager, The Achievement of Ted Hughes, p.73

Reader may further observe poetic energy as cyclic, the continuum a panorama of valleys and plateaus with peaks of inspiration every few years. – Allen Ginsberg, preface to ‘Kaddish’, Collected Poems, p.26

Okay, what then is poetic energy and where does it come from? Plato was the first to come up with the notion of a poetic energy:

[In Ion] he speaks of enthusiasmos (a kind of divinely inspired 'enthusiasm' or 'energy' equivalent to the Latin inspiratio) in terms of magnetic power as it passes from one iron ring to another. In just such a way, he suggests, poetic energy is communicated from the divinity to the poet and so on through the performer (here the rhapsode) to the audience. – Rob Pope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice, p. 92

Of course in these secular times few credit divinities with anything much so let’s pass on to more recent thoughts on the subject:

It is poetic activity that creates a poem. But what is a poem? It is the manifestation of poetic energy, etc. – Cleanth Brooks to Robert Penn ‘Red’ Warren in A Literary Correspondence, p.301

The energy latent within language which often energises the aesthetic imperative. – Murray Cox, Alice Theilgaard, Shakespeare as Prompter: The Amending Imagination and the Therapeutic Process, p. 80

Professor Woodberry defined ‘poetic energy’ as “shared and controlled emotion.” – William Aspenwall Bradley, ‘Inspiration and Poetic Energy’, The New York Times, 26 March 1910

As a result, Tennyson's poetic energy would come not from the vitality of the poet's personality expressed through his characters, but from his technical skill in manipulating language. – Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, p.174 [Compare that to what Wallace Stevens says below]

People-who-love-reading-poems often do so because of the sheer energy of connections between a poem and the section it is in, the book it is in, the epoch it is in. When the energy is unleashed, one wants to scribble in the margins, following the flight of ideas/emotions/images. – Aaron Moe, ‘People Who Claim They Don’t “Get” Poetry’, 28 December 2011

…a communicable energy rooted in the experience of human corporeality, an energy that resonates with the body and between bodies, giving poetry both its feeling of reality and its capacity to move. – Joseph Campana, 'On Not Defending Poetry: Spenser, Suffering, and the Energy of Affect' in PMLA, Vol. 120, No. 1, Jan., 2005, p.34

Such an energy is the profound intellectual control of material, as distinct from profound emotional sensitiveness to the material. – John Drinkwater, The Lyric, p.12

More than a century ago, Francis B. Gummere, in a close study of the early beginnings of poetry, pointed out that rhythm was the initial source of poetic energy and was fundamental to the making of poetry. – Cecile Chu-chin Sun, The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry, p.31

Long vowel sounds will decrease the energy at that point in the poem and make the mood more serious.

Higher vowel sounds will increase the energy and lighten the mood. – Examples of Assonance Poems,

…poems crammed full of repetition and alliteration. The result is poetry bursting with dynamic energy. – 'Gerald Manley Hopkins', BBC

Energy in poetry … is compelled to manifest itself through form, not simply or necessarily metrical structure but a continuous inevitability of movement… – Edwin Morgan, ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ in Essays in Criticism Volume II, Issue 2, p.138

A line of poetry on a page exists in space, but I think of it as a kind of timing, a measured flow of poetic energy, a dynamic. – Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, 'Two Lines',

…the facts and the descriptive writing jostle with each other and the poem’s energy derives from the collision. – Neil Powell, Carpenters of light: Some Contemporary English Poets, p.128

Lots of opinions then. Energy, whatever its source, is clearly a part of the process just as electricity powers so many machines these days but generally energy is not the intended end product (unless you’re a turbine) and I personally find poems that focus on energy lacking. I agree wholeheartedly with what’s said here:

Poetry which concentrates upon energy—its generation, control and unleashing—generally leaves readers with an exhilarating sense of kinesis, as skiing or flying does, but without a firm conception of content. It lives most fully in the act of reading, and recedes during the process of critical reflection when more tangible problems of 'meaning' come naturally to the fore. – DF McKay, 'Aspects of Energy in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath' in Critical Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1, pages 53–67, March 1974

ep“Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” wrote Ezra Pound. You see he doesn’t discount energy—he says “charged with meaning”—but energy is not the poem’s end, simply a means to an end:

In some writers, and these the very greatest … poetic energy and poetic art are seen in something like equipoise. It is of poetry as an art, however, that we have mainly to speak here; and all we have to say upon poetry as an energy is that the critic who, like Aristotle, takes this wide view of poetry—the critic who, like him, recognizes the importance of poetry in its relations to man’s other expression of spiritual force, claims, a place in point of true critical sagacity above that of a critic who, like Plato, fails to recognize that importance. – Theodore Watts-Dunton, ‘Poetry as an Energy and as an Art’, Encyclopaedia Britannica 10th edition (1902)

I have to say I’ve read that last paragraph several times—Christ, they could be wordy back in 1902—but my general feeling is that he’s saying that those who view “poetry as an energy” have fallen short in their estimation of what poetry can and should be.

This article was prompted by a couple of comments made concerning my review of Stephen Nelson’s poetry collection Lunar Poems for New Religions. My article took a very literal reading of the main poem ‘Look Up!’ which the poet himself thought was not really the way to read the poem. Stephen said:

I'm of the opinion that you don't have to understand a poem to be moved by it, indeed the way it moves you is more important than understanding. I find easily understood poems a bit boring sometimes. Unusual or complex language and structure are just more enjoyable. I particularly like the flow of spontaneous writing, where meaning is perhaps subordinate to energy.

and his comment was supported by my friend Marion McCready who said, “I'm in complete agreement with Stephen over the energy and language of a poem being much more important to me than meaning.” My response (in part):

I wonder sometimes why I’m a poet because there’s a whole level of poetry that seems to be screened off from me. Words are all about meaning and those meanings, once processed, prompt feelings. What is this “energy and language” of which you speak? Yes, of course, there’re dynamics in writing—short punchy sentences, long meandering sentences—and choice of word makes such a difference … but I cannot understand what anyone gets from a poem if not meaning and feeling. I read Wilfred Owen and he makes me think and feel. I read Philip Larkin and he makes me think and feel. I read Ginsberg and he makes me want to scream.

When I first read—correction, tried to read—‘Look Up!’ I wanted to scream too. Having heard Stephen read it … I suppose I can see what you’re on about when you talk about “energy” but it’s so short-lived and I would still argue that what one experiences still comes under the general heading of ‘feeling’. I’ve the same problem when people talking about spirituality. I don’t get it. Religion for me was always an intellectual exercise first and foremost. You need to understand Christ’s sacrifice before you feel anything about it. At least I do. I know there will be people who learn that Jesus died for us but don’t understand what that actually means and so go off feeling stuff based on a false premise but false or not their emotion response is still a natural reaction to an intellectual proposition.

Marion and Stephen are not alone, however, when it comes to considering energy paramount:

My chief point ... is that I must read our poems in their field of energy—our entire body poetic. Call it imaginative reading, which is also why the field of interpretation is always open. In that field of poetic energy, what matter most is not the language but what is done to it, how it has been worked and what is reaped; how language has been made to serve the poet's imagination. Imaginative reading is another mode of reasoning, of thinking through language—of finding one's own path through language—which isn't the usual mode of reasoning and theorising that we are taught in academe... – Gémino H. Abad, ‘A Sense of Country: Our Body Poetic’ in Philippine Studies: Have We Gone Beyond St. Louis?p.493

I think Charles Whitmore’s comments are particularly relevant here:

It is a commonplace of literary history that no great outburst of poetic energy has been unattended by the lyric. Not only may we fairly say that its vitality is an index of the vitality of the deeper poetic energies, but we may add that it endures when other forms seem dormant or moribund, and that when it is wholly extinguished, true poetry is practically at and end. It would, therefore, seem that an examination of the lyric, and a definition of its peculiar qualities, would be likely to throw light on the nature of poetry itself. – Charles E. Whitmore, ‘A Definition of the Lyric’ in PMLA, Vol 33 No 4, 1918, p.584

philip-larkinI’m not going to get into a deep discussion of what ‘lyric poetry’ means these days if, indeed, it’s an appropriate term other than to identify poetry which isn’t narrative poetry. Unsurprisingly Larkin—who Michael Billington once described as “a fine lyric poet with tragic personal limitations”[3]—has little to say on the subject of energy[4] (apart from to acknowledge the existence of creative energy) although others have certainly seen fit to comment on his poetry’s negative energy[5] but in his book Sisir Kumar Chatterjee twice[6] uses the term “lyrical energy” to try to describe what he believes powers Larkin’s poetry; the term has also been used by other authors with reference to the diverse writings of Christina Rossetti, Cole Porter Shakespeare and Ralph Gustafson. Lyric poetry died away at the start of the twentieth century, came back for a bit, faded again, came back again. “In the early years of the twentieth century rhymed lyric poetry, usually expressing the feelings of the poet, was the dominant poetic form in America,” so says Wikipedia. It then goes on, “The dominance of lyric was challenged by American experimental modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who rejected the English lyric form of the nineteenth century, feeling that it relied too heavily on melodious language, rather than complexity of thought.”

Most poets—and I include myself here—would accept that one of the major ways in which poetry distinguishes itself from prose is in its use of sound. Before Stravinsky music tended to stick to regular rhythms harking back to the early dances, allemandes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and it pretty much found a key and stuck to it. And poetry is no different. We’ve moved on from songs and iambic pentameters. Poetic ‘melodies’ are far more complex these days, jarring even, but our ears have learned how to cope and even appreciate these rhythms. Word choice is extremely important. It may have a minimal effect on meaning—as I’ve said before is there any real difference between ‘wait a minute’ and ‘hang on a sec’?—but it affects the tone of the piece and therefore the feeling you get from it. Poetry is not simply an intellectual exercise and poetry that doesn’t illicit feelings in its reader is pretty drab poetry in my book.

We’re in danger of drifting away from our original topic. So let’s look at a poem famous for its energy. Here are the opening lines to Kurt Schwitters’ poem ‘Ursonate’:

Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
                   kwii Ee.

dll rrrrr beeeee bö
dll rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö,
    rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö wö,
         beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää,
              bö fümms bö wö tää zää,
                   fümms bö wö tää zää Uu:

It goes on like this for over a thousand lines but if you’ve ever heard it performed you couldn’t argue that there’s an energy at work here. Here’s a clip of Schwitters himself reciting most of the above (not sure what the cow’s got to do with anything):

There are nine versions of the poem available here. It’s worth nothing that Schwitters describes the piece in musical terms:

The Sonata consists of four movements, of an overture and a finale, and seventhly, of a cadenza in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four main themes, designated as such in the text of the Sonata. You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose. To explain in detail the variations and compositions of the themes would be tiresome in the end and detrimental to the pleasure of reading and listening, and after all I'm not a professor. – The Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten)

There are those who would argue that this piece is nonsensical and they have a case. On one level it is meaningless. If any meaning is to be gleaned from it the bulk of the work will have to be done by the listener. The sounds may remind him of things from his past, dredge up memories and feelings and this is no different to Gershwin’s inclusion of tuned taxi horns in An American in Paris or Respighi’s incorporation of a recording of actual birdsong in The Pines of Rome. I still see meaning and feeling as the intended result here. If the listener is not willing to open up in that way then the exercise will be pointless and (probably) painful. This is supported by what Schwitters himself wrote:

As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination. The reader himself has to work seriously to become a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. – The Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten)

‘[A] full understanding’. He doesn’t talk about those who have been energised by the work; rather he talks about those who have understood it.

Okay, let’s move onto a more traditional poem, one in English at least. Here’s the opening stanza to ‘Thank You' by Heather Nagami:

Why, thank you for the compliment!
Yes, I do speak well, don't I? I've studied hard
these 24 years, well, 23 if you don't count
that mindless baby talk. And no, I don't speak
my own language, but thank you for your concern.
I'm sure it is very much your business.
I know it is a shame. But I'll promise you one thing.
I'll learn someday! Yes! I thought that would make you happy.
And, I think you're so right; I will need it when I go back.
Oh, how I long to go back! Where everyone's hair is black,
eyes are brown, and they think I'm just as much a foreigner
as you think I am.

You can read the full poem on her blog along with a comment on the poem by David Landrum a professor at Grand Valley State University who says of the poem:

I teach poems like 'Thank You' by Heather Nagami, an ethnic poem that does not draw on metrics in any way. And while it is good, I think the text doesn't give it enough of a dynamic for it to endure as a work of art for very long. It is admirable but not enduring and many poems are like this. I like to think it is the lack of poetic dynamic, the lack of poetic energy in the poem that does this. And I can't help but think the Whitmanesque tradition provides more poetic language than just the poetry of flat statement. – comment on, May 2006

and this is how she responds:

I do agree with Landrum in that it does not draw on metrics, and the truth is that I also highly value some type of cadence in poems. I get extremely impatient when I read a poem that does not seem to have a sense of music. However, there is something to be said for not making something ugly beautiful. The essentialist way of thinking about culture, the unspoken entitlement involved in the types of statements ‘Thank You’ addresses is ugly. Music and rhythm would make it pretty; it is not pretty, and I'd rather strip the language down to show it as it is than pretty it up for a pleasant, even quaint, reading.

I do not, however, agree that it lacks poetic energy, but I believe I am simply defining poetic energy differently from Mr Landrum. If poetic energy comes simply from music, then yes, it lacks poetic energy. However, if poetic energy is what is produced from emotional content infused into the poem and the feelings, questions, and ideas that are stirred in a reader who connects with the poem, then it is certainly brimming with poetic energy. I also would not consider this "the poetry of flat statement" either, since none of the statements I make in the poem are what the poem is actually saying. – Heather Nagami, ‘I prefer “Poem of Color”’, Life Indefinite, 4 June 2012

200px-Charles_OlsonThe key expression here, for me, is, “I am simply defining poetic energy differently from Mr Landrum.” Part of the problem I’ve found in my researches so far is that, just as with literal energy, there’s no definitive, no clear definition of what poetic energy is which I don’t find strange because no one seems to be able to define a poem any more these days either. Not to everyone’s satisfaction.

One poet who talks at any length about poetic energy was Charles Olson in his manifesto Projective Verse which begins:

First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the “old” base of the non-projective.

(1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is the third term, will take away?

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: “the musical phrase,” go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome.) – Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950 (bold mine)

He still doesn’t actually say what this energy is though. He does mention a force later on:

Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the reality of the verse from that other dispersed and distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions. – Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950

Of course he’s still talking metaphorically. Speech is not solid. This is the clearest explanation of what Olson might have meant when he talked about energy I could find online:

High energy is the crux of projective verse—verbalized perceptions that move quickly and efficiently, leading to subsequent perceptions in a way that does not allow a poem’s energy to lag, or to be sidetracked, by poetic and intellectual conceits. In the shaping of these energies, a dynamic form emerges. – Jim Benz, ‘Charles Olson's Essay on Projective Verse’, Suite 101, 5 February 2010

Zukofsky also spoke of “the energies of words”[7] when he was formulating his idea about what would come to be known as Objectivist poetry but I can find nothing that explains what he meant by that expression. Pound famously described an image as “an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time”[8] which Peter O’Leary in this interview says is “for all intents and purposes a paraphrase of energy.” In the same interview he also says that his contemporary Ron Johnson “believed at his core, that poetry is imaginative energy in language.” There’s no doubt that a great many poets have their own thoughts on the subject. Pity they don’t agree more.

754_morganlargeI found much of what Edwin Morgan has to say in his essay ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ interesting although, of course, he still doesn’t define poetic energy:

'Of what we call genius,' wrote Matthew Arnold, 'energy is the most essential part.' [...] If poetry is the manifestation of energy in order, Arnold's statement is still the backbone of the argument; we are dealing with ordered energy, not with energetic orderliness. [...] Energy without order usually gives us the feeling that we are in touch with a poet but not with a poem: the forges clang, the air is thick with the spark and fume of production, but in the end nothing is made, no object presented to us that we can grasp and appraise. [...] Order without energy is exemplified by the poet whose inspiration is fitful and less than a match for his knowledge of what effects poetry can produce. [...] But there is a complication, which Arnold did not consider. Energy may be felt by the poet primarily as order. – Edwin Morgan, ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ in Essays in Criticism Volume II, Issue 2, p.138

Perhaps ‘energy’ is the wrong word here entirely. I was rather struck by what Wallace Stevens had to say here:

Since we have no difficulty in recognizing poetry and since, at the same time, we say that it is not an attainable acme, not some breath from an altitude, not something that awaits discovery, after which it will not be subject to chance, we may be accounting for it if we say that it is a process of the personality of the poet. One does not have to be a cardinal to make the point. To say that it is a process of the personality of the poet does not mean that it involves the poet as subject. Aristotle said: “The poet should say very little in propria persona.” Without stopping to discuss what might be discussed for so long, not that the principle so stated by Aristotle is cited in relation to the point that poetry is a process of the personality of the poet. This is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing, the modernizing and ever-modern influence. The statement that the process does not involve the poet as subject, to the extent to which that is true, precludes direct egotism. On the other hand, without indirect egotism there can be no poetry. There can be no poetry without the personality of the poet, and that, quite simply, is why the definition of poetry has not been found and why, in short, there is none. – Wallace Stevens, ‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’ in The Necessary Angel, 1965 (bold mine)

We’re used to thinking of a personality in terms of dynamics, a forceful personality, a powerful personality, an energetic personality. I think Stevens might be onto something here and it reminded me of this:

[William Carlos] Williams often described the force or energy of poems as an essence or rare presence. These images occur quite early in his writing. A 1921 editorial in Contact, discussing Burke's article on Laforgue, describes the search for a "milligram of radium," while the essay on Marianne Moore published in A Novelette and Other Prose speaks of the "white light that is the background of all good work." – Lisa M Steinmann, ‘William Carlos Williams and Science’ in Science and Literature, p.143[9]

Personally I don’t see poetic energy as a thing. I see it as a metaphor. This following quote makes perfect sense to me:

Harrington's 'ecology of creativity' ... moves as freely across the human-machine as the human-nature interface. Working from the premise that 'life processes are sustained by functional relationships and interdependencies', he observes that 'the ecological study of human creativity will almost surely need to include a role for the concept of information and information flow that is in some respects analogous to but importantly different from the concept of energy and energy flow in biological ecosystems'. – Rob Pope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice, p.69

It worries me this elevation of energy. The earlier quote from DF McKay where he talks about an “an exhilarating sense of kinesis” really jumped out at me, as does what Edwin Morgan said about forges clanging, as does what the poet Brad Leithauser has to say in a rather scathing attack on modern poetry—which he sees as having lost touch with most prosodic techniques:

The harmonies of rhyme, along with all the vitalising dissonances of off-rhyme, have been largely silenced. So, too, the heartbeat of meter, and the tugging counterpoint that speech rhymes create against it. [...] The final result, when coupled with a lack of interest in new, compensatory prosodic devices, is a poetry that seeks to build most of its energy by breaking lines at whatever points appear most confusing or disruptive. One sees again and again an attempt, in Richard Wilbur's words, to "throw a monkey / wrench into the poem." The effect sometimes is a kind of energy, but of a transitory and often unpleasant bumptious sort. This is freneticism masquerading as power—a sort of jittery, caffeine high. And given the narrowness of its source, one is not surprised when its stamina collapses and all energy drains from the poem on a second or third reading. – Brad Leithauser, ‘The Confinement of Free Verse’ in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets and Poetry, pp.165.166

In all I’ve read (and I’ve spent several days reading everything I can find online on the subject) I’m still not convinced that “the energy and language of a poem [are] much more important … than meaning.” I think the poet Thom Gunn might have it about right as he put it in this early poem addressed to his mentor Yvor Winters:

You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.

(from ‘To Yvor Winters, 1955’)

I’d be delighted to hear what you have to think. Anyone care to have a stab at a) defining poetic energy for me or b) trying to convince me why it’s more important than meaning?



[1] See Kinetic Energy in William Carlos Williams's Poetry by Olya Mariam

[2] He said this in a letter to the editors of The Little Review in 1929 (according to this article). A fuller quote can be found here: The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, pp.44,45

[3] Michael Billington, ‘Life limited by love’ in The Guardian, 13 November 1999

[4] In a letter to Monica Jones he wrote, “I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things, but it prevents you storing up the psychic energy that can then be released to create art or whatever it is.” – Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica, p.35 His brief ‘statement’ on what poetry is is worth reading.

[5] "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” – Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-82, p 47

[6] Sisir Kumar Chaterjee, Philip Larkin: Poetry That Builds Bridges, pp.12,325

[7] See ‘The Energies of Words’ by Peter O’Leary, Poetry Foundation

[8] Literary Essays ed. TS Eliot, 1976, p.4

[9] See also The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, p.362 reproduced in a more readable form as a PDF here.


Joseph Hutchison said...

For what it's worth, here is my meditation on Williams' "machine" statement, from (gad!) over three years ago.

Regarding your final questions ... "Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy," says Blake. A dark saying, maybe, but my reading of it is that Energy alone is not enough: it must pass from the Body into Reason, i.e. into Meaning, and from there outward into the Reason and Bodies of readers and/or listeners. So, when you ask "why [energy's] more important than meaning," the answer begins by reframing the question. How, exactly? Maybe thusly: "How well does the poem at hand transmit the energy of its origin?" No poem can transmit all of the original energy (as poets never tire of pointing out), and in periods when fastidious formalities are valued above the original energy—the Alexandrian period (300 to 200 BCE), for example, or the poetry of 18th century England—then poets tend to go a bit wild trying to reconnect to that energy. After late Victorian decadence, the manic outburst of Modernism and Surrealism; and the counterforce: after the tremendous energy of the 1910's and 20's, the settling down into formality that persisted roughly until "Howl" plugged poetry directly back into the grid.

You could say that without the original energy, there is no impulse to mean, but without form (old forms, new forms), there is no way for the energy to flow.

Maybe I'm just blathering! Forgive me. I'm not doing justice at all to your massive and excellent post ... but there it is....

Jim Murdoch said...

Most machines Joseph—even simple kitchen appliances—come with a set of instructions including one (invariably in bad English) advising you not to eat the thing. I’m notorious for not reading these instructions and simply diving in and assuming that I will intuit how the device operates. For most of my life I’ve found this a surprisingly successful—and, most importantly, a time-saving—approach to dealing with new devices and computer programs which are also a kind of machine; it’s been a while now since the definition of a machine was revised to remove the necessity for any moving parts. Poems invariably (and annoyingly) virtually never come with any instructions. Since there’s a much of a muchness about most poems we cope—common sense saves the day again—but occasionally we stumble across a piece of concrete poetry or something of that ilk and we have no idea what to do with it. I find the idea of visual poetry fascinating but I never know how to operate them. I don’t have this problem with art no matter how abstract or surreal it is because I expect art to work primarily on my feelings rather than on my intellect. Also because most poems are constructed from words I expect them to stimulate word production in my head: words explain words but the words that explain the words need different words to explain them which, in turn, need different words to explain them and the process goes on ad nauseum ad infinitum.

I enjoyed your article—got caught up in your illustration right away—but what I came away from it with is what I’ve just written above. I have loads of machines—the laptop I’m working on at the moment is a fine example—where I’m only able to operate at a very basic level. The same goes for my DVD player and even the clock radio beside my bed. As long as these machines will do what I bought them to do I really don’t care about the bells and whistles. A poem, as a machine, should have a basic level of operationalization; everyone should be able to look at it and get something out of it. I can pick up a guitar and get a sound of out it but I’m no Jimi Hendrix.

I appreciate you having a crack at the final question but no answer was ever going to be the right answer. Humans are machines. We eat food which gives us energy and we use that energy in all sorts of way from dancing the polka to throwing up after a night on the tiles; some of us use that energy to write poems. Does the energy go into the poems or has it been expended on said poems? Since energy cannot be destroyed it has to go somewhere but the energy I’m expending right now is going into my keyboard, not the words on the screen. Looking at food doesn’t fill you. Reading a poem may make you feel better about yourself but a diet of poetry will do your body no good whatsoever; it will wither and die without some good ol’ protein and carbohydrates and all that other junk.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Ever helpful, let me trot out my own poetic condensation of the issue:


I can only half believe
the brain is merely
thinking meat, although
one day I did glimpse
the glovedness of my hand—
a numb moment teeming
with incipient losses:
hidden bones laid bare,
blood, lymph, nerves,
muscle and fat and skin
all melting down to muck:
gone, the whole subtext
of yet one more unfinished
experiment in consciousness—
like this little machine
made of words…

Jim Murdoch said...

A very effective little poem you have there, Joseph. Glad I managed to get your creative juices flowing.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Just one last comment, Jim. Those who draw a distinction between energy and meaning are wrong, I think. Meaning is the energy in a poem; there is simply more meaning in a poem (a good poem, of course) than in standard prose. This is why there are half a dozen, at least, books devoted to commenting on Eliot's Four Quartets, for example. Of course, musicality is important: it carries meaning in itself, after all, and in many ways connects a given poem to the larger tradition. This is why the hat-tip Frost gives to Dante in "Stopping by Woods," where he applies a terza rima rhyme scheme to quatrains, is part of that poem's meaning: it adds to the significance of the dark woods the speaker contemplates and so adds to the poem's "energy." I do wish the deconstructionists hadn't scared so many people out of using the word "meaning," which is (after all) intimately linked to the word "intention," which is also verboten now.

Happy New Year, amigo! You have only four hours left of 2013 in Scotland, yes? Party on!

Jim Murdoch said...

The first poem of mine that my wife ever read, Joseph, was entitled ‘Reader, Please Supply Meaning.’ It took me a while to come to that thought. I had up until then or thereabouts believed that meaning was something that I imbued a poem with and if readers failed to extract said meaning then the fault was theirs. Of course it was also possible that I’d written a bad poem but that was almsot unthinkable. Some years later I became aware of the famous quote by Samuel Johnson: 'A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.' If that’s true of prose then it’s doubly true of poetry. If a poem contains energy then it’s potential energy. It needs to come in contact with the right mind before anything happens. We marvel when we hear of novels and collections of poetry that are now regarded as masterworks being rejected over and over again but the simple fact is that the readers they encountered were not the right readers.

Of course that all depends on what I mean by ‘energy’ and what I mean by meaning’. I find it stimulating to consider questions like this but I also don’t think one should take finding an answer too seriously. If poetry is indeed a machine and you pull it to pieces to see how it works the odds are you’ll end up with a pile of verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections and miscellaneous punctuation marks and have no idea how to fit them all back together in such a way that they’ll make as much sense as they did before you began fiddling with them.

Most people who sit behind the wheel of a car know next to nothing about applied mechanics. They know if the road’s wet or icy it takes longer to stop than if it’s dry. They know nothing about the coefficients of friction. Nor do they need to. And the same with poetry. Yes, undoubtedly there are techniques involved in producing a poem and most people utilise them without knowing the names of any bar the most rudimentary ones like rhythm and rhyme. I used to enjoy analysing poems at school but I also felt afterwards like I’ve often felt since when I learn how a magic trick works. I know it’s not magic, it’s just sleight of hand and misdirection but a part of me doesn’t want to know the ins and outs. There’s precious enough magic left in the world without ridding ourselves of what little there’s left to us.

Thanks for the good wishes. Hope 2014 is kind to you.

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