Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics by Anthony K. Webster
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2009)
The Principle of Measure in Composition by Field: Projective Verse II by Charles Olson, Ed. Joshua Hoeynck
(Chax Press, Tucson, AZ, 2010)
The dully academic wording of their titles is not the only thing these
two books have in common; they are both exciting books of poetics based in feeling. Not feelings, simple emotionality or sentiment, what Olson theorized here and practiced elsewhere and what Webster here minutely details about Navajo poetics includes both brain science and social science. Olson’s source, what he works his ideas off of, is Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality; Webster is working in the dissertation mode of including a multitude of references to show his thorough familiarity with the field, but his most central and exciting concept is “feelingful iconicity.” This “turn of phrase,” as he calls it, goes all the way back to one of Olson’s other sources, Edward Sapir’s Language. It is also cited as developed by Webster from three other scholars who write about “the felt attachments that accrue to expressive forms” (9).
That’s the kind of academic language we’re subject to in Webster’s book, but it’s worth the weight. If you carry the heavy load of figuring out or even halfway sussing out what is being said in this lingo, a poet can make good use of this book. It is not just about the Diné world; it is about all poetry or at least as much as allows itself to see how feeling is a basic function of mind. He also “attends to language as action and not language as abstraction” (9). Though Webster uses both of these concepts mostly in relation to performances of poetry, he is also theorizing about a performativity in language itself—the place where audience meets something in language and makes something of it. One chapter deals with “ideophones,” bits of language that “create a sense of ‘sound symbolic involvement’,” borrowing that idea from Janis Nuckolls et al. These “affective-imagistic uses of language” are sometimes onomatopoetic and sometimes otherwise iconic sounds of the poet’s linguistic world like the naming of places in a local way that does not translate for others(52-53). “The ideophony found in contemporary Navajo poetry can certainly be considered both poetic and political,” Webster concludes after looking at how Navajo poets “actively select” this trope. “Since it can be linked back to a variety of verbal genres it gains feelingful iconicity as a sign of continuity” of Navajo-ness, and it is “also aesthetically pleasing and thus delights as well” (79). Ut moveat, ut doceat, ut delectet, was the way the Roman rhetorical theorist Rodolphus Agricola, and Ezra Pound borrowing from him, put it: poetry moves and teaches and delights.
Webster himself does all three things as he details the ways in which contemporary Navajo poets like Laura Tohe, Lucy Tapahonso, Rex Lee Jim, and others make their audiences think about language-ing in poetry. “Jim is quoted as saying, “most of my poems are written to stimulate thoughts and that involves thinking about semantics and etymology.” Webster tells us that “some of the Navajos that I have spoken to about Jim’s poetry have pointed to the semantic ambiguity that he evokes through his poetry as a positive aesthetic achievement” and he asserts that this “resonates with a general Navajo ethos that I have heard, t’áá bee bóholnííh or, in English, “it’s up to him/her to decide” (70). This kind of observation, based in statements by the people involved, is the concrete basis for Webster’s achievement in this book. We get to see that Navajo/Diné poetics is fully complex, not just some re-iteration of a simply recognizable identity. Webster’s study is a serious appreciation in gorgeous detail of that poetics at work in and from those who create it anew in each context they enter. There is an aesthetic of “felt connections that linger” (127) here but not as nostalgia or other sentimentalization. Webster establishes a scholarly but not intellectualized framework for a whole ideology of language that is “not about language alone” but about how language-acts “enact ties to identity, to aesthetics, to morality, and to epistemology.” He goes on quoting from fellow scholar Kathryn Woolard to point out how such linguistic ideologies “underpin” the poets’ “linguistic form and use” (82).
That’s where Mr. Olson and his master Whitehead come in. We have a new opportunity with Joshua Hoeynck’s edition of the follow-up work by Olson in the later Fifties on his idea of “projective verse.” Hoeynck’s introduction is a valuable guide to the thoughts here, their origins, and their relation what came before them in the famous letter to Elaine Feinstein and the first essay on this approach to a poetics. With this framework, the book is valuable to poets, literary scholars, Olson readers, and maybe even philosophers because of its generous work with Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality and several of its central ideas like “impetus” and “strain.” Olson picked up those terms from Whitehead’s book and transferred use of them into his poetics. It appears to me that Olson had discovered for himself, the way a writer does, his own impetus for writing as it came out of the masters of his age, like Pound and Williams, and found in Whitehead thinking that confirmed this poetic push. Hoeynck’s intro begins in a balanced discussion of Olson’s placement of his masters at the hinge point of entry into this new thought and practice of his. He then positions Whitehead where Olson found him and focuses through Olson’s use of a couple of key chapters in Process and Reality. “By drafting his essays from these two chapters, Olson transforms the vocabulary of Whitehead’s philosophy of science into a language for metrics and quantitative verse.” This can be seen, as I see it, as an act of finding a vocabulary to fit a practice rather than finding a concept first. Nevertheless, it seems to confirm Olson’s poetics as “engaging with things, environments, and the heterogeneity of the actual world, what Olson names ‘the variety of order in creation’ in the opening proposition of ‘Projective Verse II’” (10).
This engagement and the emphasis in it on feeling are what seems to me to connect with the Navajo poetics discussed in Webster’s book. If we read all of Hoeynck’s edition with its useful endnotes, bringing in the passages Olson used from Process and Reality and the notes he made in his copy of that book along with some of the thoughts on those notes that Hoeynck points out from Robin Blaser’s essay “The Violets,” we can get a deep look into both Olson’s practice of adopting and adapting scientific thought and his practice of writing poems. His voiced line as its own unit of measure makes a lot of sense when you see how he gets help from Whitehead at denying the validity of the kind of counted bits usually used in measuring the world that the philosopher calls “infinitesimals” (11 & 16 & 41-42). Hoeynck characterizes Olson rightly as “a poet who sensitively registers the relations between the evolving properties of the cosmos and the mind” and who evolves his own theory of projective verse “upon discovering Whitehead’s suggestion that ‘There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling; and it is felt’” (11-12 & 21). The trick then, with the help of scientific philosophy, is to make a poetics of feeling that is not a poesy of feelings. The Navajo/Diné do this with a great long tradition behind and around them of perception and concepts that go beyond the personal without leaving it out.
Olson’s way of building such a possibility for himself and others stretches a taut line across a kind of boundary of the personal, with Whitehead’s help. This is where he went beyond Pound and Williams’ efforts in this direction too. The poem itself is a kind of “line” in a larger field by which it is measured. “Projective Verse II” begins with a set of propositions numbered in the form of formal logic. After these, three “magnitudes” are proposed for the poem:
the ‘line’ of the poem (which would previously have been called its ‘ form’—what it is, from beginning to end);
its material of ‘field’, here called ‘impetus’; and
its condition as intrinsic to itself, that by which this poem differs from all other poems which have been or might be written, what can be called its own ‘obstructiveness’
This set-up is commented upon in Blaser’s essay now collected in his U.C. Press book The Fire (222). Hoeynck uses Blaser to help show how Olson took a thought from Whitehead and transformed it into one about “the poem”:
The inside of a poem, its volume, has a complete boundedness denied to the extensive potentiality external to it. The boundedness applies both to the spatial and temporal aspects of extension. Wherever there is ambiguity as to the contrast of boundedness between inside and outside, there is no proper poem.
What Olson did here was merely to rewrite in his marginal notes a passage from page 301 of his Process and Reality and replace the word “region” with the word “poem.” Hoeynck and Blaser show us clearly that this demonstrates the kind of awareness that Olson brought to his reading of Process and Reality. He was looking for concepts that applied to a sense of the poem as an extension of some perception that would impetuously pause to show itself. All us O-heads know it: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT,” from Creeley in the original “Projective Verse” essay of 1951. But here we have more.
The “Letter to Elaine Feinstein” that we have had at least since Auerhahn and then Grove published Human Universe and other Essays in the mid-Sixties was written in 1959, just after these things that Charles Alexander at his Chax Press in Tucson has now published for Hoeynck and us all. We see there that Olson is shooting for “the replacement of the Classical-representational by the primitive-abstract” and he wishes to “mean of course not at all primitive in that stupid use of it as opposed to civilized.” He asserts that he “means it now as ‘primary,’ as how one finds anything, pick it up as one does new—fresh/first.” We have all learned from the original “P.V.” essay that this means “kinetics” and that is “energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.” And that Olson’s masterly friend Edward Dahlberg taught him that “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (H.U. Grove 52). But there is more. In the 1959 letter, it is a discussion on the Image and its placement in a “basic trio: of “topos/typos/tropos” that centers the “obstructiveness” of the Whitehead notes of ’58 in a process of Image that Olson names with another Whitehead term as a “vector.” In his final succinct wording of it for Feinstein, we have: “Place…plus one’s own bent plus what one can know.” This is what carries Image beyond “the dead-spot of description” where “Nothing was happening as of the poem itself” because it was too simply “referential to reality” (H.U. Grove 96-98). By supplying the working thoughts of Charles Olson from the winter of 1957-58, Hoeynck and Alexander have provided the means to see the further push of a poetics that sought to have a physical basis, that is—one in physics and in the body. In the next couple of years, Olson would start to call it “proprioception.”
Here in this new old book, we can see the interplay of this science and poetics in passages like the following:
Why metric has had to change to do with quantity, the restoration of attention to the implicated character of the physical in everything--All things are vectors, among them systematic order thrives. This is private truth as well. Feelings are vector, the vector character of them is fundamental.
Olson then quotes the bit from Whitehead on feelings that I put in earlier, and he goes on to quote “All origination is private. But what has been thus originated publicly pervades the world” (21). Hoeynck’s notes show us that he might also have used another passage in which he did some underlining:
Thus the primitive experience is emotional feeling, felt in its relevance to a world beyond. … Also feeling, and reference to an exterior world, pass into appetition, which is the feeling of determinate relevance to a world about to be. In the phraseology of physics, this primitive experience is ‘vector feeling,’ that is to say, feeling from a beyond which is determinate and pointing to a beyond which is to be determined” (43).
This proprioceptive basis is now confirmed by brain science like that of Antonio Damasio. Olson put it directly in what Hoeynck presents as the “Notes on Poetics (toward Projective Verse II)”: Physical memory and causation spring from the same root: they are both physical perception.” And the next sentence, beginning the next paragraph asserts that a “poem has so many things to which it must do equal justice if it is to establish its own bounds (be inclusive)” (34).
I will leave the subsequent list of those elements, where the “intent here is to say it all,” for your reading of this slim but widely useful volume. It is provocative, instructive, deepening, and dang near if not wholly essential for us as we struggle our way between a here & now where we have something to say and we have to say something, and a beyond where the unbounded is both what informs this world and what serves it with potential content as it takes form coming into our time. That’s what this book does too, with “feelingful iconicity.”
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.