Expansive Poetics – (Symbolism & Imaginism)

Allen’s Summer  July/August 1981 Naropa class on “expansive” poetry (most especially, early twentieth-century Russian poetry) continues today with some preliminary “theoretical bullshit”

AG: (So). Going back. I want to go back and remind us of a poem that we had read which was by (Osip) Mandelstam, which is not in our (class) anthologies, and I’ll give you a version of that, and then an echo of that years later. That line, “We shall gather again in Petersburg.” (“B Петербурге мы сойдемся снова”) (because that begins to take on more poignance, when you realize that, by 1930, what had happened to all these people – all the Futurists and Acmeists and Imaginist poets).

It started in the Stray Dog Cafe – inventing new movements – Futurism  -which was the introduction of modern machinery, and conceptions, and relativity, into poetry, as well as the principles of sound poetry, and the physiological poetry (which leads to Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse”, wherein he says that the line is always an extension of physiology, i.e., the breath. The breath coming out of the physique determines the line, and the kind of breathing you do determines your line, your verse, your verse or line of poetry). Those new ideas were introduced in the twentieth-century by the Futurists, among others.

And also gathered at the Stray Dog Cafe in Petersburg was Alexander Blok, who was a Symbolist writer (and that was an attempt to recreate impressions – nostalgia, love, fear, emptiness, beauty – by means of symbols – sort of an intellectual process of finding the symbols ((which would be) equivalent, (Jungian almost, in a sense), finding the symbols that would be ideationally equivalent to your feelings – like, a sort of form of verbal mathematics). It was a practice that was kind of impressionistic in a way, and was simultaneous with the artistic painterly practice of Impressionism. Symbolism was an attempt to re-gather the impression by taking into account the associations in the mind and the archetypal symbols in the mind, that might key off in the reader the same impression that the poet was attempting to recreate in the poem from some experience of his own. The most common obvious thing is the rose as the symbol of love (and of the vagina, and of blood, and of passion). So, if somebody wanted to write a lot of very strong poetry about love, they might use the rose, and make many variations on the rose.

But, by the time of the American Imagists that method was worn out, or found to be too intellectual and too remote from everyday life, and too remote from the actual sense impressions experienced during the time of the epiphanous experience. And so, the Impressionists suggested collecting the actual sense impressions objectively, rather than idea, or archetypal mental associations, or mathematical associations.

Is that making sense? Are you following what I’m saying? Are you all?  Is there anybody that doesn’t understand what I’m talking about?

Student: Will you repeat it.
AG: Will I repeat it?
Student: Because I was thinking about..
AG: Oh.
Student: …what you said that before
AG: I forget what (precisely) I said.  No..
Student: I was..

AG: Symbolists were trying to find symbols for the emotions (which means roses, whatever – I don’t know what’s a symbol? – sunset, sadness, roses – love, dawn, energy – all the cornball stuff that clutters up poetry now. You understand? Whereas the Western Imagists (influenced somewhat by Chinese and Japanese picture-language) said that we should find literal sense-impression data evidence –  clues (like in Sherlock Holmes) to indicate the emotional sensation that we were experiencing, or that we wanted to create in a poem.

In other words, if you’re having a mystical experience in this room, then the way you would describe it is, not talking like Dante and the great yellow rose, the rose of paradise, you’d talk about what the light-bulbs looked like, how orange the orange was, what the look on the faces were (what you notice about the faces – whose glasses gleamed satanically, whatever..). You might throw in an idea or two. In other words, it’d be a collection of the sight picture(s), the sounds (roar of a car going by, just at the…,  or, “I heard a Fly buzz–/when I died”, as the acme of a sense-impression collected during a mystical experience). “I heard a Fly buzz-/when I died..” – that’s Emily Dickinson. Instead of saying “there was a vast silence”, she indicated a silence by saying,”I heard a Fly buzz–/when I died..”. The buzz of the fly is so focused and so particular that you get the whole silence of the universe around the fly, and around the dead man (dead woman), or the dying man (dying woman), listening. So the collection of the sense-impressions would be Imagism.   Now, does that make sense?

Student: Yes

AG: Anybody not understand all this theoretical bullshit. It’s just simple ideas.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning and concluding approximately six-and-a-half minutes in]

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