Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Harriet Tarlo, Editor,
The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry.
Shearsman Books: Exeter, UK, 2011.



Nearly where this book begins are poems by Colin Simms. Born in 1939, influenced by fellow Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting and also the American Beats, Simms has "published thousands of natural-history letters, articles, reports, scientific notes and papers, broadcasts and (above all) poems, and his scientific work has an international reputation."(1) It interests me that Simms' range of knowledge does not begin with literary studies, but with trekking through the landscape itself. And so I was drawn into the pages of this book by a poem of his: "Carcajou," a wolverine, ferocious hunter in the cold boreal forests, tundra, and taiga

who can face encounter    who must face it
listen in the forest first where the voices we want to hear
are not people's but of The People                                         In uit
                                               out of the glade
enlightenment is sudden in the forest             eyes bright-red-brown-as Mars

It's a poem that makes political points with sharp teeth, while also opening a landscape of radical aesthetics. Warrior/poets, perhaps, armed only with words that illuminate, not weapons that assassinate, or exterminate individuals or whole species.

Further along, Welch poet Zoë Skoulding explores a new bridge, "as the vein runs / under fragile reconstructions / of what was holding us together."(3) What used to hold us together was a reciprocal relationship with the earth, one that since the 18th Century's Industrial Revolution has become more one-sided, if not suicidal. We evolved as a bridge between heaven and earth, and instead we've become a detour. Thus, Skoulding continues:

I walk beside the swing of your pulse
              and your heart pumps
                            in both directions at once
the lines of the landscape
                            run through me to somewhere else

The old straight track, ley lines that align ancient sacred sites, "run through me to somewhere else," because too few artists, psychologists, philosophers, and teachers are learning (again) that being human is larger than human being. One place where the problem is planted is in the word “psychological,” which is commonly thought to mean that one's psyche is only in the head. While in reality it's the whole world. A old Zen poem rhetorically asks: "When consciousness ends in the skull, how can joy exist?"(4)

Joyfully wandering through Druidical dolmens, around menhirs and other Megalithic standing stones, I had almost forgotten to begin with where I am. Rutted with dirt bike tracks running parallel to a road cambering with vehicles of various weights and sizes, this narrow path is verged with wildly growing sages and shiny patches of poison oak, in a California cobbled together from clumps earth that over millennia sailed in from somewhere else. "An island arc here, a piece of a continent there—a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar—came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered."(5)

At the top of a mesa, a parked panel truck's sides are painted: Santa Barbara Paraflying. I look through a notch in the hills onto a choppy steel-gray sea that stretches to Asia. A young man in a floppy hat appears. We talk briefly about the blustery weather. Then he says, "I think a lot of people will be flying today." It was not until I had walked among Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, saw the stoic faces of Western Gulls, and was transfixed by pelicans skimming the waves until suddenly diving for dinner—that I began to think, "What unlucky roll of our genes gave us airplanes instead of wings?"

It seemed it would be hours before anyone jump off and sail on the slowly warming currents, so, with shoes gripping bone-dry soil I walked back down, feeling ponderous as a dinosaur burdened by its own gravity.


According John "Brinck" Jackson, landscape "is never simply a natural space, a feature of the natural environment...every landscape is the place where we establish our own human organization of space and time."(6) This includes what we call "wilderness," a tract of clamorous realty brought under the illusion of human control, along with environments that have been eviscerated, mined-out, irradiated, spilled on, stripped down to their bedrock.

"The Hopis had held a rain dance Sunday, calling on the clouds—their ancestors—to restore the water blessing to the land. Perhaps the kachinas had listened to their Hopi children. Perhaps not. It was not a Navajo concept, the idea of adjusting nature to human needs. The Navajo adjusted himself to remain in harmony with the universe. When nature withheld the rain, the Navajo sought the pattern of this phenomenon—as he sought the pattern of all things—to find its beauty and live in harmony with it."(7)

Red ink on the sides of the canyon, Navajo script
and the great emptying, the great advance

What took ecological systems working together millions of years to create can never be restored, only superficially reconstructed, as "wilderness valuations depend in part on the presence of properties which cannot survive the disruption/restoration process." (9) It has been counter-argued that as humans are a part of nature whatever we do is "natural." "Modification by human activity, then, is the price the world pays for having humans around." (10) But this is a price the world can no longer afford.

It is true that like the Hindu god Shiva nature both creates and destroys. But, in doing so, there's no discrimination between species, no ego involved. While humans level and build in myopic self-interest, an orogeny that extends even into modernity's spiritual tropes. It would follow that a poem that addresses Britain's mythic standing stones might look like Francis Presley's "Stone Settings x3," with its words carefully thought into place. (11)

three                         rows                        of
three                         evenly                     spaced

However, no matter how much we work toward creating our own world, "it is always a world and not the world." (12) Thus, the psyche measures one's life one drop at a time, using an archaic technology.

a chepsydal measuring of
my life; a sound
                the size of a small blot
can shake a whole house.

Elisabeth Blatsoe's village in Dorset traces its roots back over a thousand years, to when it was a pen for wild boars, animals that figure in many mythologies, including the Greek Mysteries. So that,

"After the initiates at Eleusis bathed themselves and their sacrificial pigs in the sea near Athens, they formed a sorrowful procession along the Sacred Road to Eleusis. They—like the goddess (Demeter)—were heavy-hearted searching for the lost maiden (Persephone)." (14)

Demeter's daughter, Persephone, had been abducted by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and taken down into the bowels of the earth to become his queen. How strange that while reading this poem, this myth that weaves together wild (flowers) and cultivated (wheat) would return to me. Did it return? Or is our unconscious continuously spinning myths on the border of our consciousness?

I will draw a veil over
my hat & black feathers, draw
it down to my feet
suspend myself
for the journeying

under a killing moon...(13)

A veiled message from an unseen terrain, delivered by "the fatal raven, that in his voice / Carries the dreadful summons of our death."(15) For, as depth psychologist James Hillman reminds us—

"There is an opening downward within each moment, an unconscious reverberation, like the thin thread of the dream that we awaken with in our hands each morning leading back and down into the images of the dark." (16)

The dark cave in which the primordial self gestates throughout one's life is

an astonishment
as if it were raining


On May 29 1960, an anthology of forty-four poets was published in New York by Grove Press. Edited by Donald M. Allen, The New American Poetry's mystique, with its message that something exciting was stirring in the coffeehouses and bars of New York and San Francisco, continues to reverberate in literary circles around the world. "In 1960," Marjorie Perloff recently wrote, "the Age demanded that a poem be self-contained, coherent, and unified: that it present, indirectly to be sure, a paradox, oblique truth or special insight, utilizing the devices of irony, concrete imagery, symbolism, and structural economy."(18) The poets in Allen's anthology broke through these conventions, and more than fifty years later, having sold over 100,000 copies, The New American Poetry is "still acknowledged by all later anthologists as the fountainhead of radical American poetics."(17)

In 2003, as science and technology have become more and more involved in the daily concourse of our lives, philosopher/geologist Robert Frodeman wrote, "Our most heartfelt concerns have been converted into foreign discourses, the languages of science, economies, and interest group politics." He went on to say that the early 20th Century English art critic, John Ruskin,

"warns the artist against imposing a spurious clarity upon the world: to correctly depict nature, the artist must 'have recourse to some confused mode of execution, capable of expressing the confusion of nature.'" (19)

In addition to complexity, thanks largely to Internet connectivity a World Culture is subsuming established cultural centers. Here I suggest that humanity's growing failure to live with integrity on this planet is, at least in part, the failure of its poets to reanimate the metaphors of its languages and ensoul its academies. Can a book still accomplish this? As an English bard famously said, "That is the question."

Admittedly, I have only recently come to appreciate the accomplishments of modern British poetry, beginning to see how, unlike North American societies, Britain is aware of, and preserves, its legends and mythologies that have been sung for thousands of years. Of course, America and Canada are countries whose original peoples were subjected to genocide, relocation and colonization, while Britain has a continuous history from at least the Neolithic into which invaders and their stories were absorbed.

Although we all share the same planet, and are electronically entangled, a landscape poem is still drawn from the ground where one is at the moment. From there, a collective poetics beckons. As Ezra Pound said, "Poets are the antennae of the race," the human race.

The Ground Aslant is among the few anthologies inking out a language and aesthetics as complex and reciprocal as the world in which we live, making it one of the most important anthologies of poetry published in the past fifty years.

every word every world is its own
hidden footfall crosses light
the ground aslant where
walkers sleep along lines of
habit scored in ink barely
reading the grid one instant to


References and Notes: 

1-"Author's Page," Shearsman Books: http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/authors/simmsA.html
2- Simms, C. From, "from Carcajou.'"
3- Skoulding, Z. From, "The New Bridge."
4- Cleary, T. (2002) Translator, Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
5- McPhee, J. (1993) Assembling California. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
6- Jackson, J.B. (1984) Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press. When I visited him at his home south of Santa Fe, he had retired from his professorship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. He looked like a grizzled Humphrey Bogart, in a black motorcycle jacket with his "hog" was parked nearby. Through the building's open door I could see floor to ceiling shelves burdened with books. "A rough-cut intellectual," I thought, but didn't say.
7- Hillerman, T. (1978) Listening Woman. New York, Harper & Row.
8- Riley, P. From, "from Western Skies."
9- Elliott, R. (1982) "Faking Nature" Inquiry 25 (March).
10- Losin, P. (1986) "Faking Nature": A Review." "Restoration and Management Notes." (Winter). http://www.plosin.com/work/FakingNature.html
11- Presley, F. From, "from Stone Settings." See my Poetica critique of Presley's book, Lines of Sight: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/Poetica/blog-1.htm
12- Bronk, W. From, "At Tikal."
13- Bletsoe, E. From, "Cross-in-Hand."
14- Hall, N. (1980) The Moon & The Virgin. New York: Harper & Row.
15- Peele, G. (1599) The Love of King David and fair Bethsaba.
16- Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row.

17- Clark, T.A. From, "The Grey Fold."
18- Perloff, M. "Who's American Poetry?: Anthologizing in the Nineties." http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/anth.html Still in print, The New American Poetry is presently published by The University of California Press.
19- Frodeman, R. (2003) Geo-Logic. Albany: State University of New York Press; Ruskin, J. (1907) Elements of Drawing. London: Dutton.
Skoulding, Z. From, "from Here.'"