The Kenyon Review Credos
In my graduate school, in the nineteen-eighties, frequently floated forth was the idea that language precedes reality—I think what that meant was I had—had to have—the word sandwich in my mind before the actual physical sandwich was summoned to our hand. This was met by objections about cavemen and mastodons and how the mastodons must have been dealt with, even if the cavemen hadn’t named the animal. The mental representation is a language, at least this was the counterargument, the institutional argument of the era (I have no idea if it still holds sway). And so it went back and forth, back more than forth, because I did not have the vocabulary to out-argue the theorists, whom only the combination of immaturity and pride led me to pretend I understood.
Now I know my own mind well enough, maybe, to say that I believe the first responsibility of poets is to wrestle with the world, the actual world that is out there, boiling. The same world that seems to have taken a step backwards these days wherein a person sitting in a room somewhere in the middle west of America flies an unmanned plane over the sands of the Middle East, searching for the suspect on whom to drop the bomb. Not far away, at a lunch counter in the center of a town that is mostly abandoned because a Walmart has opened on the outskirts of it, an unemployed somebody takes a picture of herself and uploads it for the benefit of the person whose shoulder hovers just a few inches away from her own. Am I being a naive fabulist, or a Quaker housewife in her bonnet, if I say that I believe the poem pulls the world closer, that it would have those people turn and look each other in the eye? That words are not some analogue of the now-obsolete product Wite-Out, to be used to obscure mistakes made in the real world?
Forgive me for blowing the dust off those lines from William Carlos Williams, scolding the citizens of Paterson, New Jersey:
. . . who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees . . .
To exist outside the body, apart from of the world . . . it would be easy to apply those same disparagements to the people who fill the arena at the Defense of the Ancients games, people who have come from around the world to watch a sentient tree battle a half-woman/half deer for 11 million dollars in prize money. Easy to apply the lines also to the sentient tree, which is “really” (mediated by a constellation of technology that includes a satellite, a hydroelectric plant, and the transfer of ions from the silica molecule) a quadriplegic teenager blinking his eye. So it is someways a good thing, isn’t it, to no longer be held hostage by what many of the players and spectators of Defense of the Ancients would call the meat world?
It’s a famous dispute that when I was younger I naively saw as a capsule of the problem, what Wallace Stevens said to Robert Frost when they crossed paths in Key West in l940:
“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic.”
“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too executive.”
“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about–subjects.”
“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about–bric-a-brac.”
This debate no longer makes much sense, though, as subjects and bric-a-brac converge. That so much of culture can now be replicated and dispersed has led to a dilution of it that I mostly find depressing. One of the products we are most fond of replicating is story, and it is interesting to me that the story-driven poems of Frost (it was “Out, Out—” that first hooked me back in ninth grade) have not aged as well as some of Stevens’ language-driven tchochkes that I keep well dusted in my brain by reciting them when I go swimming.
You wouldn’t think it would be worthwhile to consult Jack Spicer on the subject, but there’s this, from his “Second letter to Federico Garcia Lorca”:
I yell “Shit” down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fade. It will be dead as “Alas.” But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.
Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection-as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!” What does one do with all this crap?
Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.
Sometimes the only rational response to the crisis of dilution seems to be to stick with what cannot be artificially multiplied so that the assault on your sensibilities is limited. Hence the comeback of vinyl records. And one wants to say, OK, Jack Spicer, I will nail this actual tree into my poems, but is it possible to nail a tree into a book without breaking the spine, and would Amazon still honor the free shipping guarantee? Isn’t the poem itself another easily-multiplied commodity that we all are so busy typing, or keyboarding in the modern parlance, or else copying and pasting, and what do we do about poems.com, poet.org, poemhunter.com, versedaily.org, writersalmanac.publicradio.org . . . etc., etc . . . until we come down to kenyonreview.org? Pretty soon, when they ask my ethnicity on the forms, I will start checking the box marked “caveman.” And let me say here that I believe in the woolly mammoth. I believe it’s time to sharpen up the spear.
More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.