If you read Gibbon or any of the later historians on the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, and set them beside Dante's recapitulation of ancient and medieval culture, you realize very clearly that Dante is an upstart. His Divine Empire rooted in Rome is a dream, a fantasy, an excess, a surplus. That's perhaps why Blake, another excessive surplus dreamer, illustrated Dante. In fact all the great poets throw themselves into this liminal region of dream, imagination, irreality. Poetry itself is unreal, surplus : consider the pop-culture image of "poet" in America.

The Bible is surplus. The prophets were surplus. God Himself/Herself is surplus, excess, unreal.

Only, when you begin to think about the underlying, basic actuality of time and mortality, then what is real and what is unreal, what is surplus and what is necessity, tend to get switched around... a "transvaluation of values" (so to speak). The scandal of Resurrection implies the funhouse mirror of reality as a whole, in general...

One of the Church Fathers wrote, "I believe because it is absurd"... or something like that...
Heading up to the woods for a couple weeks. Be back around Columbus Day. So long, friends -


So I finished the Divina Commedia last night (in what I think is the very fine Mark Musa translation). Dante gives off a sort of M.C. Escher effect : an oscillation, due to the blending of fact and imagination. Is this Paradisal scene for real? No, it's "virtual", it's a pageant; but every element is grounded in Dante's sense of (ideal, philosophical, yet also ultimate) truth; thus the representative, verbal order impinges on "physical" actuality - the surreal order of the prophetic Word... so there's a wavering back and forth, actually a philosophical test of the reader's own beliefs and reasoning...

This passage struck me - Paradiso XXVII, lines 118-120, where Beatrice is beginning to explain the superfast sphere of the Primo Mobile, the surrounding ball of "light" of God's making which encompasses all creation :

"How time can hide its roots in this sphere's vase
and show its leaves stemming through all the rest,
should now be clear to your intelligence."

- it reminded me of the opening stanza of my own long poem, Stubborn Grew -

Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay.
A spring breeze flows through the branches on the terrace.
The city below flutters and flaps, roars
and drones like a resurrected bumblebee.

There is a lot in Stubborn, and Forth of July as a whole, about clay and pottery wheels (partly because my mother was quite a potter while I was growing up). The wheel of time spins through the clay, and the lips of poetry spin their own complementary vortex.


... then again, of course, poetry isn't just an arty game of echoes. But I'm talking about some of the impulses that inform my obsessed engagement with it...
Have been reading Divine Comedy in English, Mark Musa translation. The first time I've gone steadily through it - have tried dutifully in the past to read it in Italian (without much success), have read Singleton & Mandelbaum translations, but usually end up slowing down so much I lose the thread. It's going better this time, even though when I picked up this book (Portable Dante) I thought it was the Laurence Binyon version, which I really wanted to read...

Going through it steadily, you see how each part (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) really builds in momentum and intensity... you also recognize the slow stretches, the not-so-successful passages... it seems (for me anyway) to humanize the great Maestro - you sense him working out the compositional problems... (though I know I'm missing most of the Italian subtleties).

A little bulb went on as I was somewhere in Paradiso last night... felt I was more aware for a moment of the inventive, image-making, image-shaping activity going on... and it reminded me of two things : first, my initial sudden attraction for a book of Mandelstam poems in translation which I came upon in a bookstore back in '78 or so - and what it was that attracted me : the startling-mysterious images; second, a childhood memory of how strong the attraction was I felt for toys, artworks, small objects, toy soldiers... the visceral delight I took in seeing such things...

So these thoughts were going through my mind, and it made me think of another two things - a couple principles of Acmeism (in the Gumilev & Mandelstam version, respectively) : the emphasis on imaginative clarity, clarity of vision; and secondly the emphasis on the continuity of poetic tradition. And the thought occurred to me that perhaps one could say that both of these principles have some unconscious roots in that childhood fascination with both making (invention) and perceiving adorable objects, toys... thus our good poems are inevitably a response to the self-contained radiance, the toy-like mana, of previous poems, of models... and that poetry participates (with the other arts) in this process of active imaginative invention and shaping of images and meanings, forming models of beauty meant to have some kind of equivalence or relationship with the order & beauty we encounter in nature and experience...

So to get back to my wacky crusade, an "American Acmeism" would recognize that poetry does not always re-invent the wheel by simply transcribing anecdotes of individual experience; rather it's always engaged with these charismatic models (other poems), with the sound of poetry as some kind of organic, synthetic entity in its own right, with its own living aura and tradition... that poems emerge in a context of other words, other sounds, other poets... As that paramount toy-maker Wallace Stevens put it,

The man-hero is not the exceptional monster,
But he that of repetition is most master."


Some follow-up to previous post...

"Acmeism"... it's not the specifics of the Russian phenomenon that interest me, it's the indications of a general stance and impulse. It would be silly to try to replicate or import "Russian Acmeism" per se (& I'm sure many would find previous essay silly on the face of it).

The combination of theory and practice - ie., to be more precise, the example of living poetry culture - represented by Mandelstam & co. is what draws me.

And the key thing is that I agree with Wallace Stevens's & Hart Crane's basic position (standing on the shoulders of Whitman, Melville, Emerson and Dickinson) that "America" offers an appropriate place for poetry to spring up. Poetry can "originate" here just as well as anywhere else. This is slightly different from the positions of Eliot and Pound, who were under the influence & shadow of Eurocentric and expatriate Henry James. Pound's conflicted-aggressive attitude marks him as an "upstart colonial" (with the emphasis on colonial) - paradoxically, he remains stuck in that attitude of (rebellious) epigone of James.

I know this sounds like I'm working out "positions" which became antiquated decades ago! & the reason for that is that, as I stated in the essay, I feel myself between Eliot and Crane. My "religion" is not Romantic-transcendentalist (Crane), neither is it exactly "medieval-traditionalist" (Eliot) : it's somewhere in between. My "America" is not exactly nationalist, nor purely imaginary (ideal); it has roots in colonial New England, in Native America, and in Europe.

In this regard, Mandelstam and Akhmatova (& Brodsky also, to some extent), by giving an example of how a poet can be both Russian and global (part of "world culture"), offer me a slightly different model for an impulse they share with Pound and Eliot (that is, the impulse to participate in "European poetry" as an organism, a unitary phenomenon). And this difference, for me, makes it possible to envision a kind of middle way between the Americanists and the world-culture expatriates.

I'm going on like this (oddly enough) because I believe that what a poet does can't simply be equated with or reduced to his or her literary genealogy. It can't even be reduced to "art" (in its Poe/Baudelairean Symbolist-Modernist formations). It's something more distinctive, autochthonous, uncanny, and "contemporary" (Now). So I'm offering here a sort of imaginary "genealogy" for the relatively sui generis activity of my own poetry-making.



... & so what do I mean exactly by "American Acmeism"? Here are some free-form disorganized top-of-the-head answers to that question.


What is/was Acmeism? The Acmeists were a small informal group of mostly St. Petersburg poets in pre-Revolutionary Russia, led by Nikolai Gumilev, and expounded/expanded-upon in a couple of interesting essays by Osip Mandelstam. There's a brief Wikipedia entry here. The Acmeists emphasized craft, clarity, neo-classicism, respect for history and cultural tradition, a suspicion of mysticism and vague other-worldliness (Symbolism), as well as of radical nihilism or a-historicism (as in some flavors of Futurism).

Mandelstam built a very baroque and imaginative superstructure on this simple platform, which involved both a "longing for world culture" and a kind of Bergsonian or Nietzschean enthusiasm for ana-chronism, the Eternal Return, a Renaissance-like sense of the infinite possibility of renewal through ancient texts and poets (Ovid, Villon, Dante...).

Mandelstam's this-world optimism, his gusto for reviving the Classic - a kind of millennialist desire for a new Golden Age - can be usefully compared to the "New America" enthusiasm of Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, & in particular the Hart Crane of The Bridge : this was a neo-classicism with a folk-America, nationalist strain, a very deliberate counter to TS Eliot's Anglophile, reactionary & disillusioned stance. However, at least in Crane's case, it was also different from the radicalism of some of the more "futurist" moderns like Pound, Stein, WC Williams. Crane, as with Stevens, put less weight on the "experimental" surface of style.


Lots of things have changed since the heady days of the early 20th century; in fact the entire "climate of reception" of today, and literary culture as a whole, might be fairly unrecognizable to those antique Twenties scriptonauts.

But history in the larger view is still history; Reality with a capital R is still Reality, however mysterious; and some of the underlying philosophical and artistic ground remains similar to what it was in those days, if not exactly the same. And if history and Reality are relatively unchanged benchmarks, then it would, I think, be possible to reconstruct, reconfigure, and restore, in some ways, an Acmeist literary approach.

In other words, if I call myself an Acmeist, what do I wish this to mean? What would "my Acmeism" be?

An American Acmeism - my Acmeism - would be a name, for one thing, for a certain set of general beliefs about nature, culture, art, poetry, history, religion... a working philosophy, a pragmatics. We live in a polyvalent and polyvocal world, where poetry means different things to different people - and in many cases, poetry involves a reflection of very diverse and variant worldviews and ideologies.

For me, anyway, this notion of "worldview" is important, because I think poets participate in the broader activity of culture-making. Nothing happens in a vacuum; art is original because it is aware of its conditions and the context of its making - it is, actually, the process of reflecting, and reflecting on, those conditions.

Basically, the model of Russian Acmeism appeals to me, because in my reading of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and others who followed them (such as Joseph Brodsky), I find a harmony between basic cultural-historical attitudes, artistic allegiances, and the artworks themselves. In other words, the worldview and the poetry mutually support and guarantee one another; the "ideas" are manifested and "proven" in the works.

Scholars (& Russians!) might not find my reception of these writers to be sufficiently critical; but then, to be critical is their calling and business. For me, these writers serve as benchmarks, models and inspiration. Indeed, it is Mandelstam's "longing for world culture", and the poetic models he derives from that longing, which in turn provide a new lens for perceiving the weights and values of American poetry - the affinities and differences which impinge on the understanding of our own (American) cultural history and poetic developments (for example, the affinities and differences between the "classicism" of Frost and Crane and H.D., and the visions and allegiances of Akhmatova and Mandelstam).


In thinking about the appeal which M's "longing" has for me, I am brought unavoidably to certain philosophical or religious underpinnings of my own - my own "worldview". But I hesitate to dilute or debase the concepts themselves, by way of a glib summary, a reduction to tags and slogans.

So in sketching this out, I want to say that I seem to hold two contrary attitudes in suspension. Let's say that Eliot and [Crane/Stevens/Joyce] stand as figures for the two ends of this spectrum.

On the "Eliot" end, I believe in a supreme order or logos in-forming Time, Nature and History : what Mandelstam referred to, obliquely, as "the Christian calendar". History itself is a story : incarnational, actual, irrevocable, ineluctable. As such, the vocation of Israel, and the Christian Incarnation and Redemption - no matter how confused and in the dark we may be about their "final" meaning(s) - are the pivotal points of reference for human knowledge and experience.

This is a cultural order, which immediately contextualizes the meaning of more local or national historical events and artistic developments. Culture as such fuses and transmutes the ordinary and "natural" growth of poetic making and artistic activity. This is one way of representing M's "longing for world culture", his (very Petersburgian) desire to unite Russian destiny with European and world culture as a whole. Eliot, in this sense, represents a somewhat similar impulse in relation to the culture of the United States, though their personalities and underlying vision of things could hardly be more different.

Then, on the (so-to-speak) "Crane/Stevens/Joyce" end of my view of things, stands the role of the poet as original maker, as Orphic-Romantic visionary. Here the poet (and reader) is a free and independent interpreter of the given : that is of the historical given, of the script of history. Nothing means anything without interpretation : I take very seriously the Gospel statement that "the Truth shall make you free". There is a playful spiritual optimism lurking in these three writers, a whiff of absolute freedom - something that was snuffed out in Eliot and Pound, as a consequence (or a symptom) of their authoritarianism and reactionary world-weariness (post-WW I). This optimism is also in Mandelstam and Akhmatova (despite her grief-filled, elegiac sensibility) : a spirit of confidence and endurance. There is no poetry at all without this point of absolute, self-sufficient, spiritual originality : only for me this is complicated by an underlying "Trinitarian" understanding of the human person (that is, we are, in the most basic sense, the children of God : the living images of God : and we depend on the "Spirit of the Creator" in the very substance of our being). So it's a "relational" notion - not a Renaissance-ubermensch-Romantic idea - of creative originality. This is why, in my mind at least, I situate myself spiritually between Eliot and Crane/Stevens/Joyce.


So what would American Acmeism be about, besides representing a sort of boilerplate for my own poetry? It would be about re-reading and re-valuing the American poetic inheritance in the light of its affinities with the Russian Acmeists and their own allegiances (to world culture, to Hellenism, to historical memory). It would read Stevens' celebrations of this-world and of poetry itself ("the poetry of life"; "poetry is the sanction of life"; etc.) in the light of Acmeist culture-making. It would hear Mandelstam in Frost's line about "one could do worse than be a good Greek"; it would read M's "domestic Hellenism" in Crane's renovation of Pindar. It would see the devotion to craft and the spiritual optimism of the Acmeist ethos in some of the early American modernists. And these readings, in turn, would provide a new ground for understanding where we are in American poetry now. It would go to the neo-Aristotelianism of the Chicago Critics, and find affinities with Gumilev's concept of the poem as a dramatic-cultural act (as opposed to simply a "verbal construct", in the too-familiar terms of the Russ. Formalists and the New Critics and the Language Poets and the post-structuralists etc.). In Aristotelian fashion, it would re-think "form" as something far deeper and more elusive than the surface elements of meter, rhyme or stanzaic design : something much more closely interfused with both "meaning" and "plot".

The consequences of these basic orientations call for much more, and more imaginative, exploration : here I'm just re-formulating and restating ideas the readers of this blog have encountered before. But as they well know, I never tire of re-affirming my allegiance to those famous Petersburgians.

(p.s. I've added this post over at the Essays.)
Have been revising the previews of my books over at Lulu.
You can buy these cute little books there, or download them for $2.50.

I have been very focused on writing these poems for the last 20 yrs or so, to the exclusion of much else. I work in a library and I try to keep my obligations to a minimum, so I have time to write. This doesn't guarantee anything, of course. But I'm happy with my work. My poems are quiet and simple, outside the mainstream, unknown, building their own virtual America, containing the vast (midwest) and the minuscule (Rhode Island). A sort of Byzantine-American Acmeism - an answer to the historical-aesthetic worlds of Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens and Frost and all, by way of Crane and Mandelstam and Berryman, along with myself. Simple, quiet and original.


Doing some reading in Alexandrian "bucolic" poetry - Theocritus et al., & Virgil's Eclogues. Also interesting study, Pipes of Pan, by Thos. Hubbard, on "intertextuality" in pastoral poetry.

The librarian-poets of Alexandria. Bookish scholars transposing epic to something less grand, more scribal and allusive. "Bucolic" poetry as not so much about rural vs. urban or nostalgia for the countryside, as allegories of actual poets' rivalries, their shared (intertextual, allusive) meanings. The contests of the "shepherds".

Sometimes I read things like this through the lens of what I've already written. Somebody someday might see Forth of July through an "Alexandrian" lens. Grassblade Light, the middle book, might be set beside Theocritus' 1st Idyll, about the Adonis-like dead shepherd, Daphnis, and the "Sicilian songs" sung by the rural shepherds. Grassblade enacts a sort of "ghost dance"/Ojibwa/shamanic resurrection ceremony for "dead shepherds" Hart Crane and John Berryman (along with the mysterious Juliet). It transposes its own "epic" narrative into a series of "songs", lyrics, "dream songs". And it's modeled, structurally, on a castle built by Emperor Frederick II, the ruler of the Kingdom of Sicily (Castel del Monte).

I guess it's a stretch. But nevertheless its one of the ways those who should be reading me could read me!


Whole lot of quietude here at HG Poetics. Shifting gears, I guess.

In my 40-yr weird trip making poems, I seem to have bumped against a few solid corners :

1. Poets are born not made. You either have it or you don't. Nevertheless, it takes effort.

2. I want to write for readers and the public, not for other poets. I don't like coteries. It's not a group project. Poems are not composed by committee. (Truth and beauty are elusive, unusual.) Nevertheless, in my writing, I get into conversations with distant or deceased poets. (I suppose this could happen with contemporary, living poets, too... but it hasn't yet, as far as I know. On 2nd thought, I guess I was in conversation with the NY School poets back in the late 60s & early 70s. It was a one-way conversation - ie., imitation.)

3. The literary world is a consequence of the fact that poetry exists, not the other way around. In other words, the labors of lit-biz do not produce poetry; they are a commentary on it.

4. My own motives and ambitions in making poetry are quite mysterious, obscure - especially to me.


Very sorry to hear that Reginald Shepherd passed away.


Picked up a booksale copy of Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel, for one dollar. Reading it today with much delight.

Though often playing with "forms" (sestinas, ballads, double sonnets...), she never comes across as "formal", or a formalist. Too much sly humor, too much experience, pathos, actuality, perception, fellow-feeling... nothing academic about it.


Been kind of a drought here at the ol' blog. I seem to be undergoing mild sea-change, in approach to writing, poetry, etc. Thinking a little differently, imagining differently. It began after finishing Fontegaia series, a couple months ago. Then the Colrain Conference. & working on shorter poems.

Perhaps those long-poem projects, & all their dense subject-matter & background reading etc., resolved the question of style for me. & also set in place a certain attitude or stance toward the current literary environment. Gave me a sort of context (if only subjective).

Now I'm afloat in a new framework... new/old issues surfacing, questions coming into play. Memories, too. I'm sort of inching along with it. Not as ready as before to issue pronunciamentos.

Reading Leopardi again, an interest from college days. In Italian, he's on a par with Keats (in the poetry) & Coleridge (in the criticism). Found a copy of an old aquamarine blue paperback translation by Iris Origo & John Heath-Stubbs, of prose & poetry, which I used to own 30 yrs ago. Also reading an interesting monograph by G. Singh (Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry). Curious whether there's any Leopardi background in Wallace Stevens.


Not much news here. Reading by & about Giacomo Leopardi. Writing some short poems.