Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus




Stanley Diamond, Totems.
Open Book Publications: Rhinebeck, NY, 1982.



I began this series with the idea of critiquing poetry by writers whose first vocation is not verse, and so bring to the art knowledge not found in creative writing courses and workshops. Loren Eiseley may be one model for this. Although his prose is poetry and his poetry prose, he was trained as a naturalist and came to writing out of a passion for language and the natural world, with an eroticism toward matter that a scientific journal wouldn't publish. As another philosopher of science and the imagination said, "Matter is dreamed and not perceived." (1) Although I have sometimes veered from this course, I will now attempt to return.

Stanley Diamond (1922-1991) was an anthropologist, best known for his book, In Search of the Primitive, in which he wrote:

"Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other. Anthropologists who use, or misuse, words such as 'acculturation,' beg this basic question. For the major role of acculturation, the direct shaping of one culture by another through which civilization develops has been conquest."

He continued:

"Conventional historians, who live by documents and, therefore, consider them sacrosanct, would deny authentic history to most of the human race for the greater period of time on this planet. The opinion of H. Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, is typical: 'Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness...'" (2)

Although the scenario may someday change, most archaeologists now believe that it was from this "darkness" that Homo sapiens and our ability to think symbolically emerged. "Together with instances of pigment use, engravings, and formal bone tools, personal ornaments are used to support an early emergence of behavioral modernity in Africa, associated with the origin of our species and significantly predating the timing for its dispersal out of Africa."(3)

Totems, Diamond's first book of poems, travels two contradictory roads. On one is an amateur poet, on the other an anthropologist whose reputation attracts blurbs on the book’s back cover from such a distinguished a group as poet/essayist Gary Snyder, folklorist/linguist Dell Hymes, poet/anthologist Jerome Rothenberg; and poet/anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn, who speaks of Diamond as a "poet turned anthropologist turned poet (who) assumed a bone breaking task to faithfully record earth’s tribal voices and to encounter the unexpected tribes within himself." All these writers appeared in Dialectical Anthropology, a journal Diamond founded, in an issue that commemorates a public reading by anthropologists of their poetry, given in May 1983 at the New School for Social Research. In his Preface to the journal, Diamond wrote:

"But one must never lose sight of the obvious fact that anthropology is not poetry, and anthropologists are not per se poets. This is unfortunate (everyone should be a poet) - and in anthropological perspective, it would be otherwise. That is to say, if anthropologists were Zulus, or Eskimo, or Seneca, or Pawnee - the language of everyday life, fundamentally metaphorical, rhythmic, connotative, and at the same time concrete, would make it possible for everyone to speak poetry, as many anthropologists have the imagination and experience to understand."(4)

We should expect poems that magically extract the cultured marrow of human spiritual life in an evokingly personal voice skilled in science, a poet whose mind lives within a bountiful landscape of life-forms. But instead of raising our expectations, Diamond lowers them, because he and most of his colleagues are not indigenous persons. He writes that

"in our society, denuded of culture, symbols collapsed to signs (the significations of production and reproduction), impoverished in everyday language, further burdened by notions of essentialist truth that can only be expressed in denotative, ultimately mathematical terms — the writing of poetry has turned into a particular, personal, and exhausting effort, which must fight every moment against the gravity of civilized language."

So, "Writing poetry today, in the absence of an oral tradition, is like trying to fly without wings." (5)

This is much the same argument David Abram makes, when he claims that, "By writing oral traditions down, we thought simply to preserve them, and to render their teachings more accessible.

We did not realize that in order to plant them on the page we were uprooting these deep teachings from the soils that gave them their specific vitality. We didn't suspect that by transcribing them on the page we were stealing away the expressive power of each place, usurping the manifold eloquence of the land and translating it into a purely human tongue. We didn't realize that we were divesting the ground of its voice." (6)

If you believe in a place as being sited, the foundation of which, it seems to me, is becoming thinner, then orality should still be sacred to you. On the other hand, I offer the notion that in this century the idea of an anima mundi, a world center, or centers, ceases to be functional, except as a point where you are at any particular moment. The ground's voice is much larger than a pebble. Bio-region is more realistic, although this is expanding too. Even the earth's isolation, and uniqueness, is fading, as our images of the universe, like those of our brain, become brighter.

With collectors of oral literature, the irony is that, like with every scientist, in order for one's work to be legitimized, he or she must write and publish. In other words, in the world in which anthropologists live, the literate legitimize the non-literate. I am not saying that primal peoples need to be legitimized in the "developed world," or that they want to be. I am saying that, for better or worse, this is what ethnologists do.

Before I begin to consider the poems in Totems, I ask myself: Should I hold a scientist who publishes poetry as a supplement to his day job to the same standards to which I hold full-time poets? In the case of Stanley Diamond, he was writing poems at an early age; although from age 19 to 44, the years in which he studied and became an anthropologist, he was frustratingly unable to complete a poem. "Perhaps the challenge that might be taken up here," he wrote, "is not the desperate writing of unachieved poetry but rather the critique of the fragmented and hegemonic society which drives out culture, and drives out poetry."(5) When he was finally able to write verse again, he realized that it was "anthropology that made me a poet again (or rather, provided the occasion for my recovery as a poet)—

the work in the field, the necessity of penetrating the forms of the substance of the other, and above all, the self-understanding that finally develops in relation to the other as one learns over again to be a radical and a singer, the two, as Plato feared, being one."(7)

If his poems are to have a respected voice within the literary tradition, and the progressive intellectual community to which he belonged, then we must require from them the same level of resonance we ask, or should ask, of all poets. I'm sure this is what he would have wanted.


One of the virtues of reading a collection of poems is that you don't have to pretend that there is an origination, an ur-myth, a Big Bang from nothingness, or even love at first sight. You can enter where you feel already engaged, already in love. It is the poem "Eskimo," that drew me in, perhaps because its title promised an adventure—

self-conceived animal
in fur of white fox...

Suddenly I am in a time when humans and animals spoke the same language, and could, the shamans tell us, morph into each other's shape. Here, in the middle of the long cold darkness that descends on the Northern realms, the only blood lines are those of the animal. Here one

stands at the center of night
silence upon silence
stars drop

Once I was lost in a frozen land with no signs and the snow brushed clean of tracks by the constant wind.The silence so dense, it was visible. What madness had driven me to where maps folded into pure white space, and the land is "alive like an animal; it humbles him in a way he cannot pronounce."? (8) Stars circled the horizon, their heat dropping to

the temperature of ice
the ivory point
the named
the personal weapon

I have not heard of Inuit weapons being named, but it wouldn't surprise me, as it is well-known that the great Japanese samurai named their sword, the symbol of their warrior spirit, it would sing its name when drawn. And so an ivory point, exposed to cold darkness, would shiver in anticipation of uniting

with the bursting heart
of the mild-eyed seal
whom the man
loves enough
to kill

The heat of the animal blood, coupled with the satisfaction of bringing home fresh food for family and tribe to

as in a sacrifice.

The scientific investigator appears again, and what was the poet's psyche surviving in a perilously environment unfortunately falls flat.

"A work (of scientific anthropology) is deemed evocative or artfully composed in addition to being factual; expressive, rhetorical functions are conceived as decorative or merely as ways to present an objective analysis or description more effectively, Thus the facts of the matter may be kept separate, at least in principle, from their means of communication. But the literary or rhetorical dimensions of ethnography can no longer be so easily compartmentalized."(9)

When it comes to ethnographically inspired poetry, for example, where is the line drawn between "factual" and "metaphorical"? It would be more interesting to read factual expressions within a poem's metaphorical structure, or poems made in midst of scientific work, rather than separated into books of scholarly presentation and those of metaphysical flights, cauterizing the wound the Enlightenment opened between poetry and science. When this has been tried, too often facts are wrapped in cold statistics, or the poem takes off toward the sun on its own.

Diamond's poems are mostly introspective and personal, the way one expected poetry to be twenty years ago. Indeed, he writes that "it is tradition that catalyzed Dickinson, Frost, and the southern poets, followed, of course, by the negation of these moments, and the encroachment of the wasteland. Poets in America no longer live in that instant of tradition which kept many of them alive, and the experience has become repetitive, meaningless, shallow, a compulsive ritual, not the primal ritual of existence." (7)

Since the Beat Poets are taught in academia, as are the Language Poets, even the nascent digital poetics, what is traditional has changed since Diamond wrote these poems. Also, with several of his poems, including one titled Zoo, which I will quote in full, he magnifies the bite of zoological critique has advanced during the past three decades, gnawing at the anthropocentric assumption that we know what animals are feeling, even dreaming—

only the soft-eyed fox
across the quiet cage
and back again
by an exquisite
suppressed rage
dreaming in vain
of a widening stain
in the snow.

What first comes to mind is Rainier Maria Rilke's well-known poem, "The Panther," so much so that I will read one poem with the other. Rilke begins with: "From seeing and seeing the seeing has become so exhausted / it no longer sees anything anymore."(10) So both poems begin with an animal's eyes, Rilke, looking through the panther's eyes, the hard exhausted look of a prisoner; while Diamond's "soft-eyed fox" trots around its cage. By calling it "quiet," Diamond isolates it, as if the fox is in solitary confinement, which it is.

In both poems the captive animal is pacing, Diamond's trotting the length of the cage, Rilke's circling "down to a single point," as if "a dance of energy around a hub / in which a great will stands stunned and numbed." Anyone who has visited a zoo has seen the neurotic pacing and circling. Now Diamond imagines that he feels the fox's "suppressed rage," while Rilke's panther has given up:

then a shape enters,
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart and dies.

Assuming that Diamond's fox is "dreaming in vain" of its prey's warm blood spreading into the snow, instead of the long-dead meat it's being fed, can we assume that the shape entering the panther's tight shoulders is that of the prey the animal remembers springing at to take down? With the joy of the hunt gone, one animal, surprising the smaller one, feels rage, while the other is already depressed. Of course these are the poets' emotions projected into the animals.

Do shamans (who fly without wings), magicians, or kachina dancers who assume an animal's, or god's, persona remain humans impersonating them? And if this is so, do we only have empathy left to save them, and possibly ourselves, from extinction? Although we must not lose the thread that leads us back to the ancient ways, as they are the spindle on which our soul turns, how do we connect in a postmodern way to a "natural world" that includes the things we invent?


On the facing page to "Zoo" is a poem titled, "On Self-Domesticating Animals." This also begins with the soft eyes of an animal. (I am reminded of my old Aikido teacher, Frank Duran, who told us to see with "soft eyes;" that is, not to focus on a particular object, but be aware of everything around us. Is this how even a domesticated animal sees?

With soft eyes
and domestic muzzle
the hyena turns inside the circle of his lust
to the must and the marrow
of the cat and the sparrow
and other creatures we've been taught to trust.

Instead of the pacing fox, we get an hyena circling like Rilke's panther; however, with its lusty instincts intact. "'Dogs may be happy with the situation. But they don’t know it exists.’ She explained. 'They’re not civilized, they’re domesticated.' I could not help wondering: How many humans are simply domesticated?"(11) To be civilized, then, one needs the soft eyes of the feral. As Paul Shepheard puts it, "We live inside a body made of wilderness material."(Ibid)

Unfortunately, Diamond seemed to have thought that to be a poet a scientist needs to profess a socially acceptable religion, or at least that's what I read into his many allusions to, and titles of, Judeo-Christian symbolism throughout this book. So this poem continues:

Cultured as the lamb
innocent as man
no longer wild or quick
all he ask of Him
as alternative to sin
is one last swallow
and the last clean lick.

Some rhyme, too, helps avoid suspicion from one's colleagues than the scientist has gone over to the dark side; e.g., the humanities. At best, we can only ask of a collection of poems for a few worth noting, and a handful of insights that cause one's neurons fire with delight. Such as with "Pure Ecology"—

roots clench like fists
around a suspicion of moisture
worms eat earth
and eyeless bugs
hurtle through each other
with awful accuracy
in the hysteria
of ecology.

In his Preface to Totems, Diamond opines: "Writing a poem is like trying to describe a totemic column which passes right through and beyond the world. We see it, but its existence is elsewhere." Although we can see the gods in the multiverse of their forms, they actually exist beyond the sprectum the human brain is tuned to receive. I suggest, then, we must expect our poets to guide our vision deeper into the universe than the ambient light from a distant star focused on an astronomer’s lens, or in the soft eyes of an anthropologist's observations written down.



1- Bachelard, G. (1971) On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. C. Gaudin, Editor. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
2- Diamond, S. (1974) In Search of the Primitive. New Brunswick: Transaction.
3- d’Errico, Francesco, et al. (2009) "Additional Evidence on the Use of Personal Ornaments in the Middle Paleolithic of North Africa." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 20 Oct. www.pnas.org
4- Diamond, S. (1986) "Preface" Dialectical Anthropology Vol 11.
5- Ibid.
6- Abram, D. (2010) Becoming Animal. New York: Pantheon.
7- Diamond, S. (1986) "Comment." Dialectical Anthropology. Vol 11.
8- Lopez, B. (1986) Arctic Dreams. New York: Scribner.
9- Clifford, J. (1986) Writing Culture. J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus, Editors. Berkeley: University of California Press.
10- Rilke, R.M. (1980) In, R. Bly, Translator. News of the Universe. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
11- Shepheard, P. (1997) The Cultivated Wilderness. Cambridge: MIT Press.