I: Champions of Mavis Beacon, or, Notes Toward a Poetics of Canonization

I: Champions of Mavis Beacon, or, Notes Toward a Poetics of Canonization


Not to seek a synthesis, but a melee” – Robert Duncan

As far as I know, literature is as strong an act of distinction as any kind of business or science. History favors the “innovators,” though one wonders what the hell that actually means. Every poem presents itself as avant-garde, standing at the precipice of some grand new discovery of shadowy ground, but it’s not clear if they set up any lights out there.

Our responsibility as readers has little to do with genesis, but the organic present which the poem inhabits. That is, we forget beginnings and endings (there’s some sentimental phrase that corresponds with this, “living in the moment,” I believe). Poetry will move somewhere else tomorrow, but we’ll discuss today.

This series of essays is a mutual journey that we take. We’re something that is—at least to people interested in this stuff—somewhat grand. Our goal is an impossible one; that is, it can never be complete, by necessity. We are going to attempt to make a list, a contemporary canon. And therein lies the trick. If you read the title’s second part (Notes Towards a Poetics of Canonization, in case you’re too lazy to scroll back up), you notice that we are involved in an, at the least, two-pronged process. While attempting to choose the best current poetry, we are also in the process of forming a poetics.

So, here’s the process (another hidden sentimentalism): I have a small list of poetics that I have composed, but claim their sources from poetic systems from the past 80 years or so. In order to destroy a base, you must first have a base. A subversion cannot crack the root if the root is not standing. I will devote the rest of my essay to building the base, which we will continually destroy and rebuild.

The method is a short list, for now:

1: Form is an extension of content

This series will give a new look at poetry. And an old look. And then a new look.

This assertion has its historical formulation within Imagism. If we move away from the metronome, as Pound directed, and towards the musical phrase, we have made the entire page a field. Now, the field of the poem was more fully articulated by Olson and the other Black Mountaineers. This motto became the fixed point in free-verse poetry right to this day, each avant-garde movement accepting it as dogma of praxis. Composition is now a question of SPACE, with infinite freedom of measurement.

2: The poem is an act, not a description

Description is a single aspect of a poem, not the whole of the poem. Imagery functions as the key to transforming an object. If you want a description of a flower, a biologist will gladly give it to you. If you want a flower to transform, ask a poet. We don’t read poetry to affirm what we already know.

I could invent my own metaphor, but let’s actually look at some lines of poetry:

I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.

If I could break you
I could break a tree.

If I could stir
I could break a tree–
I could break you.

This is a section from H.D.’s “Garden,” which illustrates my point. The poem assumes your knowledge of natural objects. That’s fair, isn’t it? What makes these lines so masterful is H.D.’s insistence on the poem’s ability to act on the objects within it. The innovation is the primacy of the act. The “I” bleeds into the object, the speech becomes object along with the world it operates in. A poem is useless when it is reiteration without transfiguration.

If you can’t tell me that a tree is made of wood, I can’t help you. But have you compared the breaking of a tree to breaking a human being? Probably not.
ill. Future installments, as I’ve mentioned, will explore these and other poetic controversies in more detail, using contemporary work as our topic.

Use the connect buttons on the the side to follow TrainBust and keep up with Connor’s updates. Come back next Sunday for the next article of this series. Comment, and let him know how you vehemently dis/agree.