Read an excerpt from Robin Blaser's “Letter from a Student – Letter to a Student,” published in TCR 2.13 (Spring 1994).
Dear Mr. Blaser:
I am a 4th year English major at X University. A friend and I have elected to present a seminar on you and your poetry to our class. I must confess that I’m having difficulty not only in how to make your poetry accessible to my friends but also in interpreting it myself!
I am reading through Pell Mell at this time and I wonder if you would be able to answer a few questions for me. Before I get to these questions will you please forgive my presumption in writing to you? I just felt that I had to explore all the options in presenting your poems justly.
Mr. Blaser – how would you prefer me to represent you to my classmates?
I noticed that you dedicated a poem to bpNichol; what is the nature of your relationship to his poetry?
Can you tell me what you meant by “alien exotica” and “scientific angelism”?
I noticed various references to art and artists; what role do these play in your writing of poetry?
I am exploring your poem serials; can you tell me what benefits you gain in using this medium instead of other types of poetry?
Would you say that there is a ‘concrete’ element to your poetry?
May I thank you in advance for simply looking at this letter? A humble student’s undying gratitude is yours if you actually respond.
Dear X and friend,
Your letter was forwarded to me by Coach House Press, and I thank you for your generous interest in Pell Mell. You offer attention to my work, and attention is fundamental to the way any one of us moves around in the world. I am uneasy with your sense of a necessary “gratitude,” but I don’t want the courtesy you meant by it to die like a dead letter. That would make me a dead-letter officer. Your exploration of my poems implies a cordiality, and it is that which draws me to respond.
First, you mention “difficulty” and “interpretation.”
So first, I answer, “just read” – then try any one poem outloud – you and your friend might read to one another – “difficulty” is one aspect of my reputation that I think is rapidly solved with familiarity –
I suppose syntax is one difficulty – how is so much going on without the “I” of the poem taking imperial power over the flow? – our traditional, learned arrangement of a sentence (syntax) goes something like this: I drive (the) my car – ownership of things all the way – very comfortable – the “I” never at stake in the verb and life of the relation –
the arrangement of my sentences is meant to deny the simplicity and danger of such a relationship as ownership – why, the language isn’t yours alone – it’s older than you are, and largely other than you are, and it’s never transparent to any reality you can think of –
the “I” of my poems is among things, people, etc. (images) – say, “Drive I Car” – there’s a fancy word for this – parataxis – a placing alongside – or, to put it my way, the “I” of (my) poems is discovered among things, not in charge of them, not owning them, not drowning them in my sentiments –
the “I” then, found among things, is also in great part created by them – whether they be loved, hated, or simply met –
a poem is a commotion among things – a search for form – because form is alive – and the poet is, thereby, a commoter – not a commuter of meaning –
(Have you ever read or, for that matter, written a love poem in which you/I can’t see the beloved? – in which one only gets the slop of your/my feeling? – therein, the beloved most often disappears – we have honoured no one – in fact, we’ve asked the beloved to be drunk up in a disappearance – and the reader is left with your/our washing up)
still, there’s an admonition best kept in mind – as Jack Spicer put it, “Learn to use the I before even trying to give it up” – one has, I think, only a brief time to hone the mind, to discover and honour the structures of reason, folding and unfolding as they historically are – only then does one come upon the limits of reason and beautiful clarities – and enter the unfolded of what and where we are –
“Interpretation” – before you, the student, become a critic or a theorist or a philosopher – is perhaps best thought of as what one is saying to one’s self as one reads – about what is happening in the poem and about what is happening in one’s experience in relation to the poem – and this, when you share it with others, is CONVERSATION – as between you and your friend – as among you and your classmates – there you come upon what you do, indeed, know and feel – and you come upon what you don’t know, which is a pleasure of particulars and of finding out studiously – in order to feel and know beyond one’s lonely self –
accordingly, one finds out that we’re not wandering around looking for a SELF that preceded experience, but, rather, we are looking for a world in which to find ourselves – alive and celebrating, sometimes sadly at a loss –
“Interpretation” is not a matter of a meaning belonging to an object (the poem) or to somebody else – it’s first of all an engagement with – a relation –
have you tried to say what music means? – not, I hope, without some sense of harmony, disharmony, noise, and counterpoint – voice – of meaning –
Language strikes me – rings in my ears – as an instrument by which we converse of our experience in the depths of things, big and little pieces of depths – then, there is, of course, the Language of linguistics and philosophy for your reason to study as an object – something you are as a person thrown against, while simultaneously you’re under it – biologically attached and curious about cosmogony –
How to represent me to your classmates? – well, don’t – that would require a photograph – I’m white-headed, approaching 69, no sexual graphic intended – where does that get you? – instead, why not try to open up a relation to a poem – say “poetry is ordinary busyness” – note the child’s memory of a barn dance – the beauty of a woman (his mother? he isn’t sure) in the tulle dress – wearing a blue pendant – “pendant blue sparkle” – followed by the laughter of the words the caller uses to guide the steps, as he pounds a broom on the floor to set the rhythm – or try “The Iceberg” – that’s about love and human nature that’s beneath the surface of what we see – or how about “Image-Nation 20 (the Eve” – that’s about Christmas Eve and families in Canada calling their soldier sons and husbands via CBC in Golan, Baden, and Cypress (it seems there were no women over there that year) – surely conversation could begin with such bits and pieces – . . .
You ask about “serial poems” – this is a way to keep the form open – open form – never a closure in or of being among things – a continuous song – a fold which unfolds the unfolded – perhaps, you could think of modes in music, wherein the major and minor scaled are unfound, disturbed, lost, or distrusted – take a look at “Image-Nation 18 (an apple, “wherein “Love is Form” and ethos – if my poems say anything that is larger than any one of the poems can say singly, the serial structure – 1 to infinity – allows me to say that human nature – mine in the midst of things – is INDETERMINATE, an adventure, an open narrative – continuing –
There are no “types” of poetry – that is, if we’re talking about our experience of any given poem – typology is interesting for classing things and for generalizations – where that would get you, I have no idea, except one mountain becomes all mountains and one sea becomes all seas – there are, however, formalities of poetry – form is a lovely word, coming to us out of Latin – the trouble is that we’ve lost our sense of the life of it – its rhythm, another lovely work, coming to us out of Greek – rhythmos – we too often take the word form to mean shape, a spatial sense of it – as of an object, a circle, a square, or a blob (exactly what some poems are, especially when the “I” of the poet sits in tons on top of the thing) – but-but-but form is alive, a structure in words – form is no more than an extension of content, and that’s a lot – is your content alive? – your language operational – not stamped into a shape in a General Motors Plant –
Please note that open form is a discovery of twentieth-century art and thought (philosophy and science included) – so you will find artists, composers, philospohers, and scientists swimming around in the waves of my work – I try to honour them –
Would I say that “there’s a ‘concrete’ element to my poetry?” you ask – there’s the concrete of the particulars – there’s the concrete of the language, which allows me some relation to and respect from certain of the Language Poets – in fact, I wish to be joined with those poets who are overwhelmingly aware of the materiality of language – that it’s not transparent to tradition, to reality, to pie-in-the-sky – this has a great deal to do with our contemporary condition – our contemporary belief – the WORD was not spoken once and forever (for me, Mallarmé is a guide is this) – syntax, our arrangement of words towards a meaning is disturbed – the TRUTH, in poetic or philosophical terms, may be one somewhere, but, as Kafka said, it has many faces – changing into mortality – where the dance begins – . . .