“Hurrah for Euphony” was written during the semester Ronald Johnson taught creative writing at UC-Berkeley in 1994, a position that allowed him very temporarily to move back to his beloved Bay Area from Topeka, where he felt he had been exiled, much like Ovid before him (though RJ’s was a financial rather than political exile). Initially, he wrote “Part I” of this piece for his poetry students. It was first published in a UC-Berkeley anthology entitled Re/Mapping the Occident. Later, he expanded the piece considerably (for RJ, at least), publishing “Part II” in the special Ronald Johnson issue of Chicago Review (I recall RJ telling me that Thom Gunn helped him revise this part of the essay).
This is the first time the entire piece has been published. Ronald Johnson did not write a great deal of prose; furthermore, of the prose he wrote, none of it besides “Hurrah for Euphony” could be described as poetics. As such, this piece, written after the conclusion of ARK, and composed in the midst of writing his elegiac “Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid: In Memoriam AIDS” and the final concretions that make up The Outworks, stands as his defining statement about the craft of poetry.
— Peter O’Leary
Content finds Form, as a leopard prey. Take the path which branches, for the best word is always at a crossroads. Words are what poetry is made of, tools. Thumb the roots of any word in a (large, preferably) Webster. No harm going further afield, or digging down, for there is new territory. Agassiz would have his students calculate every particle of soil clinging each root — and write exactly about it, and more exact again.
Words conjoined, just so, in a sequence make rhythm: give life, just as a fiddler’s bow on gut. Study Jazz — invention within convention. Though, unlike music, which is abstract, poetry should be quick with specifics. A jamboree of the senses jarring us into naming our own circus, perimeters, it should be. Conjured from eye, ear, and intellect, words are best when they push and jostle, sharpen wit, condense wisdom. No verse is free in the tireless wash of sea on shore, wind about, salt in the blood, moon above. All else is blague and jargon.
Measure. William Carlos Williams called it “variable foot,” formed by homespun idiom. Webster says the word includes proportion, degree, “Means to an end” and, in mathematics “A number contained in another number a certain number of times exactly.” In music, air and movement divided, and in poetry “The arrangement of the syllables in each line with respect to quantity or accent: rhythm.” Word next to word on the page should unify everything around it, as if a chemical solution making crystal phrase. This is the process of The Muse, and thereby unwinds the poet’s maze.
The task is to thread the labyrinth, rattle the Minotaur of truth. At the heart of the labyrinth, as in fairy tales, are three wishes which will be answered. Beware asking to be a poet! Cast off in the plethora of unruly English, head above waters, singing like the cut-off head of Orpheus is your fate.
Once there was a child who was born with stubby wings at the shoulder blades. One said “someday these will be great pinions and you will fly.” Another said “stand up straight or people will think you have a hump.” All great things are done by the force of opposites. Preparing his argument with Milton, Blake sat with his wife Kate, both nude in the back garden, reading Paradise Lost aloud. Each poet should become Adam, naming everything new. We tell the archetypal. Face the sun, your shadow will be sharper. Condense everything into a ball, and throw it.
The shaggy and ecstatic, the concise and elliptical, Walt and Emily are the twin fonts of American poetry. And Protestants, like our founders, in the sense of protest against status quo — both grounded in scripture but bound for rapture. They redefined the world around them, Walt wanting to create a voice for the Nation, and Emily hugging inner horizon.
To gauge their stature only read the poems of Emerson and Thoreau, two of our most original prose writers. And don’t ignore the chance to learn from their prose (nor Ruskin, whom Proust studied). A poet might find profit by a study of their pithy fine distinctions — in Emerson’s case also disjunctions — Yankee dictions, surprise like possums under every bush. Consider Thoreau writing “to make the earth say beans” after a day of hoeing, as fine a line as Dickinson or Whitman, any day. I’ve learned more from the wit of Henry James than all the ironies of T.S. Eliot.
Books are one of the paths. When I read Elizabeth Sewall’s The Orphic Voice I knew I wanted to be of that order of writer she talked about. I’d met my myth: Orpheus and Eurydice, and that proved a honeyed terrain. Myths gather gossip of the race distilled as a story, a story moreover which involves us all. Find any books you can learn from and re- and re-read. I never am without Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. With only that as a map you could find your way. I spent years reading in the two huge volumes of the Dover Edition of Thoreau’s Journal to sharpen my eye and how it intersects with text. I learned how Henry David could set down the miniscules, then slip right into the unconscious, speculating about snakes in his stomach or eating a red raw muskrat. Don’t worry, if you read, books will find you.
Another path is to simply see as much as possible, be sentinel for incidence. Jonathan Williams and I walked one whole summer The Appalachian Trail from the end in Georgia to New York, me with binoculars around neck, and bird and tree and flower guides between us, to consult at fireside. To become your own Audobon! And if you only hear one winter wren or veery in descending ripple through the dusk, it’s worth sore feet. Gary Snyder teaches the same lesson: wait and look and listen, and hike to get there. Kenneth Rexroth claimed that any poet worth his or her salt should know the names of plants and habitat of whatever moves around you. He would stride out, thrashing a clump of greenery with his stick, giving its history, inspecting each sprig of the extraordinary. He knew whose bones were in the land. Was it Sherwood Anderson who said: “Don’t write a line you wouldn’t read aloud in a cornfield”?
A third path is by the ear. Let sound lead the line. This is one of the binges I learned first (luckily) as a poet. If you abandon strict meter and end rhyme, something is needed to give backbone. I gathered it from Jonathan Williams who has appropriated it, with a satiric twist, from Charles Olson. This is what Olson means by “by ear, he sd.” Let sound gender sense. If you put your attention there, on sound, rhythms, the intellect begins to have its play, and before (literally) you know it you’ve begun to write. This needn’t be anything Sitwellian or esoteric — consider W.C.W.’s “stiff curl of wild carrot leaf” in which consonants carry the line. Or Basil Bunting’s “the thrush in the syringa sings” in which you also hear the gentle breeze. Louis Zukofsky had the best ear in the business.
Olson credits learning from Edward Dahlberg that “perception must immediately and directly lead to another perception.” Image heels upon image, all musculature — and cut out the fat. Irascible autodidact that Dahlberg was, I found he was at his most charming with a student to tell stories to and chafe against the universe. A prophet in our own time, now little listened to, though the later books equal any of the great prose stylists. I also learned from years of friendship with Robert Duncan, sharing ideas and energies. His practice of trusting the unconscious gave me strength, iron to go on. We struck sparks together. Any beginning poet: take a Mentor or more, then develop friends to share ideas with, fellow travelers, hobo poets along the way. Kick up your heels!
At the beginning of the century paint began to be manufactured in tubes the artists could carry easily outside, and thus was born Impressionism. The typewriter changed prose (with Henry James) and poetry (Pound, Williams, Cummings) found a new challenge in loosening up the page, freeing the left margin. Perhaps our beginning was the painter Degas remarking to Mallarmé he’d always wanted to write a poem, but could never get an idea for one. Mallarmé’s answer was “Poems, my dear Degas, are not made out of ideas, they are made with words.” I would add, yes, but ideas are their armature, the unseen engine, what makes the merry-go-round go round. Learn to use words first — later you’ll have ideas.
I believe in form and make up my own rules. Without, it is all too like what Robert Frost called “playing tennis without a net.” Of our immediate forebearers Wallace Stevens made blank verse brand spanking new, Marianne Moore stitched tapestries of rhyme and reason, Zukofsky translated the sound of Catullus rather than his sense (allowing eye and ear to refocus), and classically trained E.E. Cummings became an acrobat of the alphabet. Pound saw, via the typewriter, how to set out a page that breathes. Gertrude Stein reconnected all the lights on the Christmas tree so they’ll forever twinkle, W.C. Williams banged his head against the question of form all his life and came up with answers of sorts — when in doubt he would always follow his ear. He attempted, like Whitman, to give voice to a mostly inarticulate land. Nobody has improved on the Creeley/Olson dictum: “form is never more than the extension of content.” I’ve learned most from those seekers for new form, but I respect traditionalists such as Louise Bogan and J.V. Cunningham, and these days Thom Gunn, for showing that the vein of gold was not all worked out.
Olson warned against adjectives as leaking energy from matters at hand, and on the whole he is right — distrust anything which impedes the flow. Though a rigidly placed adjective can illumine, as in Donne’s “a bracelet of bright hair about the bone.” Only with “bright” is the line indelible. William Carlos Williams was right: “no ideas but in things, ” and these are nouns. Poems ought to jostle with things, nouns naming and imagining. “It is a privilege to see so / much confusion,” as Marianne Moore calmly points out while listing intersections of Dürer-like observation, in the guise of conversation. Nouns are the bones of poetry. It is verbs which give muscle to your work, and make it move. Every time you re-read your poem check it for verbs, then see if there isn’t something more vivid, more precise to turn the screw. Remember one thing leads to another, so search for the inevitable and definitive. Metaphor is the flesh, as Webster defines it from the Greek: “a transferring to one word the sense of another.” Poetry without metaphor is like music without a melody, blood without breath.
Blake insisted all art, visual or verbal, should have a “wiry bounding line.” He said we should take an abstract and give it form and human sinew, voice. He believed the perfect world was the imagination. You have only to connect with it, the more you see, the more you can, led to another Eden.. Another Protestant: a-turn-the-bible-end-on-end-and-see-what-shakes-out, Blake is Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in one, etching his vision of the way it really is. For him this was scary and ecstatic, but he left a blueprint from which your own aesthetic could be constructed. Like Pound, at first it’s best to read about him rather than to read him. Thom Gunn says his first entry into The Cantos was through Canto XLVII. With me entrance to Blake was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Every poet should have a notebook at hand to record fleet impressions, gifts to the ear, heretofore unnoticed precisions. I tend now to capture words and phrases, but when I was young I kept a note book of mostly quotes from reading which have stood me in good stead over the years. Anything which attracts your attention will be needed , believe me. This is your nest egg, hope chest, buried treasure. I know, you can stuff your computer, but it’s best to keep your hand in, and write it out, for we can’t rule out the importance of script as connection with the Muse. Sometimes the hand has an eye in the palm, as the American Indians remind us. Grab a frontier!
By indirection, or to tell a story? Though it’s not my way, tale-telling is (after son) the oldest way to use words. You can re-tell the fables, or flesh out your own. Frost is the obvious tutor here, but there’s no lack of those. Read Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and recently Galasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a book as yeasty as The Orphic Voice, for stories of the tribe. But there are also those who have made-up their own fables, like lively Stevie Smith in England, or Kenneth Patchen, a homegrown Blake from the 1930s through 1950s, a true American product.
I’m probably the last typewriter poet, one informed by the keyboard and its possibilities. I can scribble in my notebook, but I only write when I type, and compose by length of line on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. This itself, a form. The next poetry will be written on a computer, and as I type this, new forms are being created. One of the things to consider here is “fractals” by which a fragment repeats the configuration of the whole. Would not a computer throw up slant rhyme and correspondences? I can’t answer this but I can offer two poems of Louis Zukofsky’s which fractal nicely:
Tears, bare way,
A god’s egis,
Catspaw spray. (( Louis Zukofsky, Collected Short Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 113.))
Succinct as Homer, and with as many meanings, in faultless rhythm. Also,
To reach that age,
for a time
be young. ((Ibid., p. 97.))
This is a perfect lyric, form and content elegant as a shell, and like a shell you can put it to your ear. Hear the three mysterious g’s, the echo of tide in time. Poems like these only arise if you are attuned to strains of the language — strains in both senses of effort and melody (as Zuk points out elsewhere).
A poet asked me recently about how I worked. Here is an example. I wake every morning either with a song in my head, or a phrase. These I hum and ponder until they seem worked (or played) out. One morning it was “riddle iota sublime.” Obviously meant as a direction for my next Spire, and I puzzled it out (one Anglo-Saxon word, one Greek, one Latin) an edict for either scientist or poet: render radiant sense from smallest thing. When you are thrown a line like that you’ve got to live up to it. So I added the lines “and know no more / than when cast forth garden.” The rest came, night by night, via “America the Beautiful,” to the end of bells from the Sunken Cathedral “set in great hymnal font.”
“In our beginning is our end.” Almost all my poems have announced their first line, and then a few lines into the work a line is somehow important but “out of place.” This is usually the line which gives resolution to matter at hand. It helps, I think, to know your destination. In The Different Musics I decided to make each poem a leap in the dark and see where I wound up. Its last poem, “The Unfoldings,” invents new formal devices as it goes along, and was luckily ended by hearing over the radio: “The next sound you hear will be that of two galaxies, each the size of our own Milky Way, colliding in space, 500,000 light years away.” So use what means you can devise.
There are poets you cant mimic: Hopkins, Eliot, Dylan Thomas (though once I heard a young painter, who had probably only heard Ferlinghetti read aloud, recite Hopkins, and it was a revelation of transposition). Modernism has mostly left a path of affinities. Of these, Pound, H.D., W.C.W., Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and Lorine Niedecker all leave you on your own horse, but teach you how to ride. Because abstract, politics and economics are Scylla and Charybdis to a poet. War numbs writing, love leads to excess, though it can be fodder for the future. Also, except for Zukofsky’s valentines and late Williams, love is a patch overworked. I know, in the throes it seems inevitable, but it’s best in icy retrospect. The contemporary poets Michael Palmer, Charles Simic, Kathleen Frazer, and John Taggart are useful for learning sundry live tactics.
And most useful, I believe, is the study of Basil Bunting’s Briggflats. It soars and whittles away into what Zukofsky called the upper bound of music, as well as the lower bound of speech. And this, always using the sharp Anglo-Saxon word over a mellifluous one. He specifically grounds the work in Scarlatti, and other wiry music. In crisp cadence, it follows the sweep of seasons, past and present, as major a poem as “The Wasteland,” but one unknown to most. He loved to drink fine whiskey, tell stories from his time in Samarkand, and dandle a girl on his lap. And you can compass it, unlike the big poems of Pound and Olson and Zukofsky. Consider:
Thorns prance in a gale.
In air snow flickers,
elms drip. ((3. Basil Bunting, Collected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 52.))
Each verb initials activity by sound. “Prance” is a metaphor, then “flickers” for eye, and “tap, drip” for ear. Grounded in little things, it has also a grand human measure, even to a stride through Hell.
Be an enthusiast. Though it’s a hallmark of the artist, or scientist for that matter, enthusiasm is, at century’s end, considered “uncool.” It is one of those fiery words which have come steadily down in the world. Originally it mean “to be inspired by a god.” A poet should become an enthusiast for vocabulary, diction, phrase, be like the Chinese sage Pound applauded who had the side of his bathtub inscribed “Make It New.” To make whatever new you need to know what came before. Only then may you pick your own pastures and genealogy, your myth (as you go deeper), align your skies. Simply as possible find your terrain and build upon it. You’ll need a cornerstone, so look sharp.
Unless you are a precocious genius like Rimbaud, it takes about ten years’ work (as to become a doctor) to find your mature, unmistakable voice. This is a signature so infallible that two or three words peeled off an Egyptian mummy reveal us Sappho, just as would a tattered page of Marianne Moore, a scrap of Pound. By then you’ve become you’re own critic, know where to trust your instincts, say what you have to say and get off stage. This is work (or more properly play?) of quite lone obsession, not an “annual sonnet to the Spring.” Then, then you will resonate along the chain of ancient chime. You won’t become Yeats or whoever — you may possibly become you. Your task is to change the world by word alone. As Guy Davenport writes: “there were no waterfalls before Turner and Wordsworth, no moonlight before Sappho.” So weed unnecessary words, remember it is always easier to destroy than create, an image ought to be like a just-picked apple.