Organic Formalism and John Witte’s The Hurtling

Scott Knickerbocker

Artifice, whether artistic or technological, comes naturally to humans; moreover, artifice is what paradoxically connects us to the rest of nature. Thus, poetic language, although distinct from nature, nevertheless has an analogous relationship to it; both language and nature occupy a complex middle ground between what Wallace Stevens calls “imagination” and “reality.” Language and nature, that is, are both culturally constructed (imagined) and wildly autonomous (real). The artifice of poetic form foregrounds the most “real” relationship we have with the rest of nature, which is simultaneously distinct and inseparable from us.

Much contemporary poetry resembles merely lineated prose, as if poets today are either suspicious of or intimidated by the restraints of form. Although one need not employ meter or rhyme to be formally rigorous, much free verse in the latter twentieth century has, as Robert Hass puts it, “lost its edge” (70). Even Ezra Pound, one of the instigators of the free verse movement, expressed reservations about the “dilution” and “general floppiness” to which much American free verse had already descended by the 1920s (qtd. in Carpenter 349). Still, most poets continue to take for granted Pound’s earlier conflation of organic processes in nature with free verse. Traditional “symmetrical” poetic forms, on the other hand, he considered too artificial to be associated with natural processes: “I think there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase. That most symmetrical forms have certain uses. That a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms” (9). Unfortunately, the consequence (that Pound himself later feared) of such a formulation has been not just a rejection of meter and rhyme but also a resistance to the patterns and symmetries of form in general. Contemporary ecopoets especially strive to write poetry that appears organic, like nature, although what they mean by organic lacks nature’s form. A. R. Ammons, for example, employs zigzagging lines in “Corsons Inlet” to emphasize the asymmetry and irregularity of the shoreline, which inspires him to leave behind the “straight lines” and “boxes” of symmetrical verse as it appears on the page:

                    . . . I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
          straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
          of sight
          . . . . . . . . . .
in nature there are few sharp lines . . . (5-6)

Ammons does notice a few symmetrical forms and patterns in nature, but he quickly dismisses them and emphasizes instead

the large view, no
lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together
          and against, of millions of events: this,
                    so that I make
                    no form of
                    formlessness . . . (8)

Trained in biology, Ammons employs chaos theory to describe the “possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness” in nature (7). As Paul Lake points out, however, Ammons relies on outdated theories from the science of chaos. (Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems was published in 1965). Chaos theory today (sometimes termed “anti-chaos”) employs fractal geometry to show that what appear to be random occurrences and shapes in nature actually contain distinct patterns and surprising symmetries. It turns out that natural phenomena, including Pound’s tree and Ammons’s coastline, operate according to principles similar to formal poetry, such as repetition with a difference:

Thanks to these new discoveries [in fractal geometry], we now know that the “order tight with shape” [Ammons] observes in a tiny snail shell is the same order seen in “the large view” in coastlines, weather systems, sand dunes, mountain ranges, and galaxies. That the laws governing the growth of trees-as well as of leaves, ferns, pinecones, and sunflowers-[are] the same law[s] that govern[] the growth of human organs, snowflakes, tornadoes, bird wings-and . . . the elegant, broken symmetries of formal verse. (Lake 160)

Inversely, practitioners of traditional verse forms, such as Richard Wilbur or the poets now writing in verse known as the New Formalists, often experience poetic composition organically. Their poems are not static objects like vases but, like complex natural systems, simultaneously “top-down” and “bottom-up phenomena” (Lake 163). Like a self-organizing storm, the “initial lines determine the shape of the finished poem, yet the overall shape and tone of the finished poem is what draws the initial lines into being” (Lake 163-64). Therefore in some crucial ways formal verse is more organic than free verse, as it more consistently expresses the combination of chance and order we find in nature.

There is, of course, no programmatic way of expressing in poetry nature’s organic formalism. One need not write in meter or rhyme, as Wilbur and New Formalists often do, to demonstrate the central role of form in our “naturally artificial” relationship with nature. For example, John Witte’s recent book of poems, The Hurtling (2005), demonstrates that the question of poetic form is not only an ancient but a continually fresh and invigorating one. His poems repeatedly turn to nonhuman animals and raise important ecological questions, and poetic form is central to his treatment of nature.

Although they do not employ meter or rhyme, Witte’s poems in The Hurtling should not be labeled simply “free verse,” a category much too broad-there are countless ways to write non-metrical, non-rhyming poems-and misleading since “free” implies a lack of pattern. Like the other poets in this study, Witte resists the fallacious opposition between “formal” and “organic” poetry, preferring instead what he calls “organic formalism” to describe how his poems in The Hurtling take shape. While he does not use sonnets or other received forms, all of the poems in The Hurtling conform to the same pattern: unrhymed, unpunctuated tercets, each one beginning with a very short line, followed by a medium length line, followed by a very long line.1 The lack of punctuation, heavy enjambment, and increasing line lengths have a simultaneously accelerating and restraining effect, as in the first two tercets of the opening ars poetica, “The Soloist,” about a performance by violinist Itzhak Perlman as witnessed from the front row of a concert hall:

This close
his lips pursed we could tell
how the slow opening phrase rose and broke through him his face

clogged his bow
arm rising and rowing how the music
eddied how he labored bearing the weight of memory and longing
. . . 2

The image of the music “eddying” corresponds to the way Witte’s stanzas operate throughout the book. A river’s eddy, the recirculation of water behind a rock, flows in the opposite direction of the main course of the river, and Witte’s lines capture this tension, or movement in opposite directions: “One editor called the form ‘whiplash triplets’” (Witte, “Hurtling Words,” 5). On one hand, the mostly enjambed lines in each tercet accelerate as they accrue in length, culminating in the long line that “hurtles” across the page. On the other hand, this motion is suddenly stopped short after each long line, as the subsequent white space followed by the short line of the next stanza reins in the tempo. Furthermore, the lack of punctuation causes one to hurtle through the stanzas, but it also frequently hinders movement by creating, in conjunction with the line breaks, grammatical ambiguity that forces one to consider which way the language is pointing. For example, in the lines “the slow opening phrase rose and broke through him his face / clogged his bow / arm rising and rowing,” the soloist’s face is both the grammatical object through which the musical phrase broke, and it is the subject that clogged his bow arm. Similarly, in the poem’s later lines, “how the body bends the mouth / works open gawping slaunchways” (15), the mouth is both the grammatical object of the body, which bends it, and it is the subject that “works open.”

Through these tension-producing effects, along with often violent diction and dissonant sound effects, Witte expresses the sometimes painful energy of contemporary life: “I’ve tried to invent a form that might capture the fleeting quality of our life, its acceleration and breathlessness. I’m trying to get from these triplets a formal sense of cohesion containing, under strain, the chaotic swerving of our experience” (letter to the author). Significantly, the “strain” of his poems would not occur without their formal regularity, which gives them the “cohesion and tensile snap of a sonnet” even as they also convey, through their unusual formal effects, “the chaotic rush” of modern life: “There is a loosely syllabic form, and its violation. Order threatened by chaos” (“Hurtling Words,” 4-5). Witte thus is innovative with form but does not reject it, for he knows that a poem’s energy derives largely from the tension between pattern and differences within that pattern. Poetic “violation” requires a background “order” to violate.

Although Witte created the particular form of his Hurtling poems himself, an entire book of three-line stanzas also undoubtedly recalls other tercets in long poems and books of poems, most famously the terza rima of Dante’s Divine Comedy but also including the long, late poems of Wallace Stevens, such as “Auroras of Autumn.” Furthermore, while some of Witte’s subject matter demands the disorienting yet energizing effect of his form (another way it is organic), his form also evolved slowly over ten years, at some point becoming the norm for his book and presumably determining some of the subject matter. Even though they appear fresh and energetic, in other words, Witte’s poems emerge from rigorous craft: “I work very, very hard. I really believe in the perfectibility of language. I’m old-fashioned this way. A number of people have noticed this-a lot of people don’t like this writing because it’s just too rich for their taste, there’s too much going on, it’s too dense” (Personal interview). In his work as editor of the literary journal Northwest Review, Witte encounters much of the “general floppiness” Pound was beginning to see in American free verse: “I wish I encountered more often in young writers a sense of serious vocation. A willingness to sweat-even bleed, if necessary-to get the story or poem right. Much of the writing we see in our work as editors . . . is uninhabited, the poetry little more than lineated prose and the fiction vapid” (“Hurtling Words” 5). Besides his desire to write good poetry, Witte’s work ethic can be explained by his belief in the inadequacy of language, its inability to connect entirely with the world even though “language is the best tool we have” to do just that (Personal interview). If language neatly captured nature, then composition would be easy, but for Witte, language can only creep up on reality:

If you work very hard you can occasionally approach this place where word and world come within sight of each other . . . . at least they are maybe close enough that there is a little synaptic charge that happens. For me that would be the way to describe a pure poetic event, or a success . . . I used to love doing this as a kid, inching magnets together, and they suddenly connect. We go to poetry for that instant of connection [between word and world]-it’s not that one disappears into the other, but by God they’re connected. There is this mysterious internal pull they are exerting on one another; they don’t want to let go. Word and world are locked together. Maybe two or three times it happens in this book. (Personal interview)

Witte’s linguistic skepticism thus causes him not to throw up his hands but to work that much more carefully at negotiating the relationship between language and nature, a process that requires a great deal of time and attention to form.

Witte’s poem “As If” registers both his linguistic skepticism and reveals his use of what I term sensuous poesis, the enactment of experience and observation through sound effects and other formal devices as an alternative to conventional representation of nature. The speaker observes a phenomenon in Eugene, Oregon, when at twilight in the spring and fall up to forty thousand Vaux’s Swifts form a spiral together above a chimney before descending into it for the night:

A swift two
or three flitting over
the abandoned school then more plunging into the chimney

a blurry funnel
their chee and chirring overhead
a multitude scattered across the sky it’s their coming back

that gets us
the air trembling troubled as memory
whistling satiny feathers arranging and rearranging in the dark

cramped shaft
over the dead furnace birds
hurrying down now like smoke billowing back into the chimney

as if smoke
could return to its fire
the wood to its tree in the sun on the hill as if flesh returned

wheeled back
through the locks and chambers
back into its clothes onto the crowded train backing away. (45)

On one hand, the poem expresses-and its title emphasizes-the gulf between language and actual, irreversible historical atrocities like the death camps of World War Two. Words have only an “as if” relationship with the world. The title phrase refers not only to the self-conscious simile, thus emphasizing the artificial status of language; it also suggests the speaker’s feeling of unfulfilled longing, as if he were saying “if only it were possible, if only we could turn back time, like the smoke going back into the chimney, turn back history, turn back horrific events” (Personal interview). On the other hand, the formal features of the poem express the physical reality of the swifts. Even though Witte feels “very frustrated by the inadequacy of language really to connect with the world,” and “the stammering quality of a lot of the language is meant to suggest that frustration,” his poem also suggests what he calls an “onomatopoeic connection” between the formal effects of the language and the reality of the swifts (Personal interview). In other words, he employs sensuous poesis. The vacillation of line lengths and fracturing of syntax connotes the erratic movements of the swifts, which veer, flicker, appear, and disappear. The first two lines of each tercet especially are meant to express the “flitting movement” and “sporadic sounds” of the swifts, while the long third lines suggest an opposite movement and feeling: the “long, swirling motion of the whole cloud, which is not at all uneasy or nervous” (Personal interview). Individual instances of onomatopoeia such as “flitting,” “chee,” “chirring,” and “whistling” add to the larger, figuratively onomatopoeic relationship between poem and phenomena. The language of the poem behaves like the swifts, but the inverse is also true. Witte sees in the underlying order of the seemingly wild tumult of birds a “hidden analogy” for poetry:

I really did think of the swifts as a poetic, as like the work of a poet. Tens of thousands go into this chimney, and they are three or four deep. You can only imagine what kind of commotion is going on inside there. They’re hurtling down at nightfall, and they are wildly arranging and rearranging themselves and finding ways to clasp on. I can see in my mind’s eye the birds inside the chimney as being like molecules arranged or like the scale patterns of a snake or the feathers of an individual bird-there is no space between them and they are all organized perfectly. (Personal interview)

Like the swifts, language behaves wildly even as it is organized into patterns through poetic form. Indeed, Witte experiences language, particularly in its aural aspect, as physical like the natural world it points to: “I read with my ear and only at the pace that I would speak. I think of fiction writers as reading with their eyes and poets as reading with their ears and tongue. So automatically reading a poem becomes a physical act” (Personal interview). Consequently, in a figurative sense Witte’s language echoes rather than mirrors the world.

The slow evolution of Witte’s strange tercets (his last book of poems, Loving the Days, was published in 1978) came about partly from how he sees the natural world. The alternation of text and white space (after the short lines and between each tercet), for instance, corresponds with various oscillations in nature: sound and silence, light and dark, life and death, and ocean waves. Furthermore, he associates the fluctuation of line lengths with bodily functions such as the beating of a heart and breathing:

Ecological interconnectedness implies a kind of order which is corollary to prosodic order, a poetic, formal order . . . . The first two [lines] create a kind of gasping, and the last is a long exhalation. So [the poems] are formal, but I think of them as very physical and organic as well, and replicating, first of all, the rhythm of breathing. Mostly the intake of breath tends to be short and the exhalation is long. Beyond the body I had in mind waves and wave motion in nature-the first, short line a sort of trigger that trips the movement, the second line being a building of the wave, while the last line is a long exhalation, this rush. I see this form a lot in nature. (Personal interview)

The natural world that Witte represents is no pleasant, pastoral idyll. Writing from a decidedly post-Darwinian perspective, Witte depicts a natural world filled with struggle, sex, and death, such as in “Rooster,” “Porcupine,” “Pig’s Ear,” “Bestiary,” and “Goat.” Throughout the book, Witte draws implicit and explicit comparisons between the struggle in nature and the struggle of artistic creation, which is figured in sexualized, violent, or natal terms (or a combination of these). In fact, “comparison” is misleading since it implies that poetic creation is outside of the rest of nature’s struggle; for Witte, artistic and natural struggle are part of the same process. Of course, poets of all stripes, from Alexander Pope to William Carlos Williams, have claimed that their poems behave the way nature does. Still, as recent chaos theory reveals, the natural world in our current understanding of it operates from a combination of chance and pattern-it is neither mechanical nor totally random-and organic formalism such as Witte’s expresses this fact.

“Pilgrimage,” another ars poetica, ends The Hurtling and offers several images that express organic formalism. On his way home, the speaker recalls visiting Sagrada Família (Temple of the Holy Family) in Barcelona. Construction of the church, designed by Antoni Gaudí, began near the turn of the century but has yet to be completed due to a number of setbacks, including Gaudí’s sudden death in 1926, when he was hit by a streetcar. The church has traditional features of a cathedral, such as spires, transepts, and nave and yet is unmistakably innovative, incorporating Gaudí’s signature organic style. Instead of employing merely geometric shapes, he incorporated the angles and curves of nature, the fluidity of water, and the way humans and trees grow and stand upright. His church is thus both formal and organic, serving as a model for the poet’s work: “That image [Gaudí's cathedral] is intended to sum up a lot of my thinking about this [organic formalism]. It’s recognizably a cathedral, so that itself encloses a considerable amount of form. If you know nothing about it you would know immediately that it is a cathedral. But that is the place that he embarks from-he takes a lot of liberties” (Personal interview). The speaker of “Pilgrimage” experiences the church not merely as spiritually referential, pointing to God beyond the structure as cathedrals are conventionally meant to do, but as intensely physical and even life-like: “eery helicoidal warping flutter”

and undulation
of snail and saint a slumped column
crusted with shattered cups plates and pieces of glass . . .

under the ribbed
dome as if on parchment the scrambled
anagrammatic names of Jesus Mary and Joseph the temple

breathing gently
the grottoes and tender doors
of a human lung he is buried inside who remained silent . . . .

Gaudí is literally buried inside his own unfinished church, but this image also serves as a figure for the inside-out process of organic creation. Ironically, the artist lies dead whereas his creation surrounding him seems to “breathe gently,” but the cathedral’s incomplete state is not merely the result of the artist’s death. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Monument,” the organic status of the cathedral demands that it remain open and unending, like nature’s processes: Gaudí “knew his temple would never be”

where the work and worship are one
who said we make all forms within like bees. (77)

Witte is attracted to the cathedral’s resistance to closure and the idea that the process of building it is more meaningful than any finished object: “That’s why Sagrada Família is such a moving image to me, because it’s so in progress. The work is the worship. The business of building this temple is ongoing and will never be completed” (Personal interview).

The poem and book conclude with an image-of a beehive-that expresses organic formalism, this time drawn from the nonhuman world. Human artifice like Gaudí’s cathedral is obviously formal but also organic, and beehives are obviously organic-constructed from “within”-but also formal, in that the bees replicate their hexagon-shaped chambers according to a strict pattern. Witte uses both Sagrada Família and the beehive as metaphors for the kind of poems he constructs in The Hurtling: “In the last line about form and bees, I’m thinking about the hexagonal hive packed in, which the bees know innately to be. It’s not something that they have to be taught. And poetic form is also innate. This is what interests me and is the ambition of these poems, to touch on form that is instinctual, if you will” (Personal interview). Like the swifts of “As If,” the bees are formalists in an immediate, unconscious sense.

Similarly, the crows that sometimes gather around Witte’s home in the south hills of Eugene, Oregon, seem to be “riotous and cacophonous,” yet actually operate according to their own sense of order: “I was fascinated to learn that each crow has a particular, specific call. It’s their identifier. It strikes us as cacophonous, but it’s simply all of these individuals calling out their own names. They’re calling, but also hearing each other’s names. It’s an auditory gathering, this commotion of crows” (Personal interview). In “Crows,” the speaker experiences this order and language of the crows as merging with and unsettling his own language:

Why this why
these words rasp shriek skirl
why “tranquil sleepy light” one day and the next these black

gloves flung
between the trees why crows
assembling in the limbs on the roof shadows casting shadows

who summoned them
why have they come our days
were peaceful reading the paper on the patio after breakfast

the distant haw
haw haw the saltiness of the ocean
gaggle and squall approaching the wish of wings the crowding

in on us
of fear and joy ghosts
memories years this drift this sweat of crows this jittery

host bending
the limbs with their numbers
sighing and whispering no end to the world of their cries

croaks yawps this
hubbub this plight of crows
crows in our sleep in our thoughts the ceaseless commotion

on my tongue
the familiar dark rustling of
crows flocking fluttering the page squabbling unmediated ink. (41)

The poem depicts the process of crows incorporating themselves into the speaker’s language (even into individual words, like “crowding”) and psyche, but it also shows language to be crow-like, right down to the black, “flocking” letters on the page, the “unmediated ink.” Language is like a flock of crows, the poem suggests, in that it arrives not “summoned” by the poet. But there were also actual crows before this idea of language as surpassing intention: “The crows were not summoned. I did not use my voice or language to call them. They came-first they were crows-then they insisted on impressing themselves on me in a linguistic way” (Personal interview). The speaker thinks he has a promising poetic phrase, “tranquil sleepy light,” corresponding with his “peaceful,” solitary mornings on the patio, until the crows flock around him, demanding a new kind of vocabulary and conveying the need for contrast with one another. Ironically, the real crows are first presented through figure-”these black / gloves flung / between the trees”-and as they seem to gather energy and significance throughout the poem, they turn into the poet’s new language.

But is this an ecocentric process? One ecocritical response to this poem would be to complain that it translates nature into artifice, that it merely reiterates the poststructuralist idea (however misinterpreted) about the priority of language in a world thoroughly coded. Where has real nature gone? Have the crows no independent life of their own? Are they merely figurative vehicles for the speaker’s primary argument about language? Like other poems by Witte, “Crows” sidesteps the question about which has priority, art or nature, and expresses a subtle middle way: “‘Crows’ explores that difficult interface between language and the natural world. To that extent, it is ecopoetic, a poem that is trying to think about what a poem can and cannot do, the limits of language” (Personal interview). The poem is indeed about language, but not as separate from the natural world that gives rise to it. Language is surprising, wild, and even intrusive, like crows, but it doesn’t replace them. In fact, while “Crows” is in a sense a language-centered poem, what it reveals is language infused by the natural world. Neither language nor the flock of crows is “summoned” by the poet; both word and world, through their relationship with each other, possess autonomy. The crows demand a new kind of language, which then makes its own demands on the poet. Through sensuous poesis, such as the many instances of onomatopoeia (for example, “rasp shriek skirl,” “haw haw,” “croaks,” “yawps,” “fluttering,” “squabbling”) and the stanza structure, the poem expresses the sound and movement of the crows. For instance, from the first to third line of each tercet the words accumulate in number, “assembling” like the crows. The third lines are literally “crowded” with words that “flock” and “squabble.” Witte thus conjures the crows without merely representing them, even as they become his tongue’s “commotion” and his pen’s “unmediated ink.” The relationship between language and nature is, after all, far too entangled for mere representation, demanding that we look ever more carefully at the forms both take.



     1 There are only two exceptions: “Genius Loci” (53) inverts the length of the lines from long to short in each tercet as do tercets 10-13 in “Witte” (22).

     2 Poems are quoted from Witte’s The Hurtling with page numbers from each poem in parentheses in my text. This poem, “The Soloist,” is on page 15.


Works Cited

Ammons, A. R.. Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1965.

Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Hass, Robert. “One Body: Some Notes on Form.” Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1984. 56-71.

Lake, Paul. “The Shape of Poetry.” The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science. Ed. Kurt Brown. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001. 156-80.

Pound, Ezra. The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Witte, John. “Hurtling Words at the Speed of Life.” By Ranee Ruble. Literary Reference: Newsletter of the Creative Writing Program. Winter 2005: 1, 4-5.
     —. Letter to Scott Knickerbocker. 12 July 2006.
     —. Personal interview. 14 July 2006.
     —. The Hurtling. Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 2005.

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