Essay by Jared Smith
Scientific Thought And Poetic Vision:
Seeking New Imagery And Metaphor to Involve The American Scholar
by Jared Smith
Poetry of whatever form or school can be broken down into two significant areas of study, the combination of which establishes a poet’s voice. One area of study is that of “craft,” which might be briefly defined as the study of how a poet lays out his or her words on paper in such a way as to communicate the intended feeling or understanding in the mind of the reader. Within craft, one can further break the work down into more precise matters, such as line length, meter, imagery, symbolism, or others.
The second area of study that is required, however, is “vision.” Of the two, vision is the more important and the harder to teach. It encompasses the sense of being that the poet possesses, along with his formal or informal philosophy as to the significance or lack thereof of any image, symbol, or metaphor as it relates to that philosophy. A significant poet’s vision is vast, and may contradict itself, but its cohesion provides the material with which readers can dissect and analyze the poet’s work. Vision generally involves the poet’s understanding of art and the humanities, of existence and perception, of nature and human achievement—though these are often implied by context and juxtaposition of images rather than stated. Craft follows vision in poetry, just as form follows function in architecture, or in evolution.
Together, a poet’s use of both vision and craft form what we usually think of as a poet’s voice. The different voices that define a generation or a literary era are generally recognizable as being from that era by other writers, as well as by historians and scholars. A significant part of what makes them recognizable as being from one era or another is the furnishings with which the poet provides imagery and metaphor. What kind of social settings are described, for example, or what pastimes, or what technology? Technology is important because it represents what is newly perceivable or achievable because of an increase in general human knowledge. It significantly shapes or impacts the society and people living at that time. Thus, the technological framework of the 1920s could be used to provide a dissolute setting for “The Waste Land,” or alternatively for the hearty exuberance of Sandberg’s “Chicago.” It could also be used as counterpoint for contrasting pastoral egalitarianism. In any of these examples, the technological framework opens doors to and illuminates the understandings of its time. And it provides a uniquely contemporary canvas or milieu for discussing new ideas and their implications across a wide spectrum of the educated public, providing a cross-fertilization of thought that extends beyond the craft of writing.
These thoughts on the importance of utilizing scientific thought and technological achievement in poetry are not entirely new. They were at one time endemic to our literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson first advanced the notion of “The American scholar” as a person of insatiable and wide-ranging interests and disciplined learning, along with a profound respect for literature. He was among the strongest early supporters of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And it was Walt Whitman who wrote within that work “Scientists, I welcome you. You open doors for me.” Thus began the greatest expansion of U.S. literary growth to date.
Whitman lacked significant scientific or technological training, but understood the importance of such knowledge in trying to create poetry that could capture the full human potential for understanding the vision he perceived of an oversoul or universal spirit that infused all people. And, as in the quote above, he encouraged it. He understood that new scientific and technological discovery could provide powerful images that would lend fire to the public imagination, as well as an enhanced degree of proof for his own beliefs. Out of that understanding and encouragement of others, grew at least a century of advancement when poets became concerned with the intellectual examination of ideas within their work, in addition to their continued interest in imagism, meter, and stanzaic form. This initiated an environment that fostered the keen intellect of poets such as T.S. Eliot, the business experience of Wallace Stevens, the social understandings of William Carlos Williams, and eventually the entire spectrum of social groupings and voices that make up today’s contemporary poetry.
Nor was the rest of society, outside of poetic circles, untouched by this sudden infusion of intellectual and scientific interest. T.S. Eliot’s description of the gas works that he visited and the musings they nurtured, were close enough to the cutting edge of technological advance at their time that they captured the attention of Robert Oppenheimer as he worked on issuing-in the Atomic Age. Richard Rhodes, in his 1986 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, notes several references to Eliot’s work in Oppenheimer’s notes.
Imagine that! A discussion of ideas and morality; of human consciousness and conscience between two of the nation’s most respected people—a scientist playing with the act of creation or destruction, and a poet working along the same themes!
But, of course, gas works are today an almost-extinct technology; town gas sites across this country are now Superfund sites for toxic remediation. Already, by the time powerful poets like Anne Sexton and Denise Levertov and Sylvia Plath focused attention on the importance, strength, and vulnerability of the individual in technological societies, that technology had been replaced. Poetry remained vital because the conflict remained vivid between machinery that is designed to exploit human labor for the good of society, and the pressure the individual in such a society must confront when the good of the society conflicts with personal good or desire. This conflict, of course, led in part to the anti-intellectual rebellion of the Beats and of society generally.
That rebellion might be said to have helped open the doors for such writers as Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin, writing within the same generation as the above, who could draw upon as well as translate the experiences of nations and cultures perceived in a more mythic or nonlinear mode of thought than our own to highlight weaknesses within our society, where individuals were in danger of losing their connection with the natural world around them. Their work, along with increasing numbers of other poets from their time and ours, pulled with increasing frequency on nature imagery once again for its effect, because nature imagery remained common to so many readers across our intellectual and emotional landscape. Most of their writing, however, lacked an urban or technological imagery that could communicate viscerally with an educated general readership audience—as opposed to a more specialized poetry audience.
An exception to that statement about their work is Robert Bly’s The Light Around The Body, which drew heavily upon the technology and weaponry of war to achieve a powerful effect not only among poets, but among the larger readership of the general public. But that exception strengthens the argument that technological setting is important. The book was a resounding success and helped further resolve feelings against the Vietnam War because the general public was so well able to visualize and relate to its contemporary imagery. The combination of that specificity with the more Shamanistic perspective that is a general component of Bly’s work provides a wonderful breeding ground for what he himself refers to as “Dragon Smoke.” It is where the poetry happens. Even so, there still remains, even in that book, an absence of any sense of wonder or discovery coming from scientific or technological progress. There are few positive new images or metaphors for the time.
This is not because of a lack of adeptness at poetic craft; poetic craft is, I believe, at as high a level as at any time in our history. Never before have so many writers come out of years of studying and applying craft for their MFAs. What is missing in much of our current writing is vital new imagery. The technological imagery of the past generation is no longer perceived as a common part of our shared human landscape. The science employed as imagery and as a door of discovery by the past generations is growing old. The technology from those generations is perceived as obsolete. And the metaphor, so well established and such a powerful tool for shaping society to the needs of the people, has been weakened.
This contributes to making poetry a weaker force than the sheer number of its practitioners might otherwise suggest in contemporary society. One can no longer read the works of even our most widely recognized poets in the newspapers or wide circulation magazines, the way one used to be able to read W.H. Auden, for example. As Dana Gioia wrote in his book Can Poetry Matter, long before he became involved with the NEA, poetry even as it expanded in numbers of participants in the 1960s onward, started to become an area for learning that generated too many MFAs who were trained in writing poetry, rather than providing poetic or literary training for both MFAs and practitioners in other fields of endeavor. And, as Gioia suggested, the overwhelming number of MFAs overcame the ability of literary magazines to look toward other fields of knowledge to include with craft. He further proposed in that book that a large number of these MFAs were not trained in what he termed a “rigorous enough” fashion to publish in the scholarly magazines—despite the fact that “publish or perish” was the rule at all the universities. Thus, he surmised, the number of literary journals continued to expand, and the number of poets continued to expand, but poetry itself became seen by the general reading public as rather light fare due to the number of journals competing for a rather select number of innovative writers. Great writers were there, but the general public was having a very hard time finding them. And because of the degree of specialization our contemporary society began to require of any professional, whether scientist or plumber or poet, the scientists and plumbers who might once have been encouraged to write poetry as well—to enhance cross-fertilization of experience—found themselves having to devote more and more of the free hours they might have used in such pursuit just to stay on top of the swelling knowledge base in their field.
The standards accepted as publishable poetry by today’s literary magazines are therefore increasingly established by specialized Masters of Fine Arts, not by physical or social scientists, philosophers, blue collar workers. Not by The American Scholar, nor even by students of the Liberal Arts, which encircle all of the above.
There remains a way back, of course; a way to draw forth new visions with all that that word implies. That way back calls for poets to welcome back the American Scholar, and to open the doors of human advancement once again to the province of poetry. It may call for inclusion of meditations on the implications of mapping the human genome, or of the heavy metals that make up our bodies coming only from the heart of super novas that exploded millions of light years ago to bring us together where we are. There are many, many dark, chilly places that we as poets have not ventured yet, despite receiving scientific fact that shows that over 90% of the universe is composed of dark matter and is not observable through our senses. One hopes that we will begin to do so, that we will step down from defending ourselves as definers and protectors of a language that has already expanded well beyond the words we work with as poets; that we will begin to think about these things and include current data in our musings, even as prose writers do.
It would be good to speak again as equals with the likes of Robert Oppenheimer and T.S. Eliot, and to drive forward new understandings that once again lie beyond the doors that science opens and can only partially comprehend; to be American Scholars rather than specialists. If we have unique knowledge of the Cosmos, and every poet of vision does, let us learn better to communicate with the imagery of our time.
first appeared in The New York Quarterly; then in Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology;
and then in Lummox Favorite Poems Anthology.