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The Fire

The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser

Edited and with a commentary by Miriam Nichols
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 535
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  • Book Info
    The Fire
    Book Description:

    Spanning four decades of meditation on the avant-garde in poetry, art, and philosophy, the essays collected inThe Firereveal Robin Blaser's strikingly fresh perspective on "New American" poets, deconstructive philosophies, current events, and the state of humanities now. The essays, gathered in one volume for the first time, include commentaries on Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Mary Butts, George Bowering, Louis Dudek, Christos Dikeakos, and J. S. Bach.Blaser emerged from the "Berkeley Renaissance" of the 1940s and 1950s having studied under legendary medieval scholar Ernst Kantorowicz and having been a major participant in the burgeoning literary scene. His response to the cultural and political events of his time has been to construct a poetic voice that offers a singular perspective on a shareable world-and to pose that voice alongside others as a source of countermemory and potential agency. Conceived as conversations, these essays brilliantly reflect that ethos as they re-read the cultural events of the past fifty years.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93885-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE (pp. xi-xviii)
    Miriam Nichols
    • The Fire (1967) (pp. 3-12)

      I am here writing about my poetry in relation to poetry. The writing had an occasion: for a few in San Francisco, where I read it last March 8th [1967].² I want to talk about the personalism and the so-called obscurity of my poems in relation to thesight, sound,and intellect that compose them. “The test of poetry,” in Zukofsky’s words, “is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.”³

      One difficulty I want to describe is that I’m haunted by a sense of the invisibility of everything that comes into me (aware that nothing is...

    • Particles (1969) (pp. 13-25)

      The relation of poetry to politics has received too little attention. Often, those who have made this matter their business have desired poetry’s service and they wove nets of slavery around her activity. Before I lead you into my argument, I want to point to my dependence upon two scholars who act as masters in my life and thought: Ernst Kantorowicz, who taught me to read history in terms of events, actions, and men in relation to ideas, rather than as a process and generality;¹ and Hannah Arendt, whose work has clarified the partnership of politics and society for me.²...

    • The Stadium of the Mirror (1974) (pp. 26-37)

      Unless theImage-Nationsare read by image, there is no saving grace. They will be stopped by a diminished and interruptive present, a misreading of the one here that is flowing in every direction. Their effort to recover the primary language in which the world and the sacred are alive will go unrecognized. The reader will be pushed into an argumentative unknown, which he will not believe because he has separated it out, as he wants to do with what he knows. The fragmentary angelology of the poems will look like gilt. Unless. When I have moved out to speak...

    • Poetry and Positivisms (1989) High-Muck-a-Muck or “Spiritual Ketchup” (pp. 38-63)

      Silence, the Word and the Sacred. There is to my mind a bird-like swiftness in the relations of these three terms—a there and a not-there on the highest branch of a topless tree. Yet, each is also a field of disturbance, an expanse for which “Map is not territory” (Korzybski).³ And so, earth and sky are not disposable humanisms, but aspects of the Sacred. My sense of my own time is that the Word and all its words disappear into Silence. Thus, the vast field of Silence becomes the Sacred. This wondrous Silentium, then, becomes worded, for that is...

    • The Recovery of the Public World (1993) (pp. 64-86)

      And only the “idiot Reasoner” so forgets that reason is far more complex and natural than a logic or a factuality of this and that. The range of this murder of human nature I shall discuss as I go along. My working title is taken from Hannah Arendt, whose life-long meditation on the vital relationship between public and private worlds of men and women—a fundamental happiness, if truly alive—informs my own. Her work begins with a major effort to understand the totalitarianism that dogs the political, social, and artistic life of the twentieth century and of our modernity....

    • Among Afterthoughts on This Occasion (1993) (pp. 87-95)

      What has become of the concept of imagination in the postmodern era? In our Civilization of the Image might we not expect to find imagination accorded a privileged place by contemporary philosophers? The very opposite is the case. Right across the spectrum of structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructionist thinking, one notes a common concern to dismantle the very notion of imagination. Where it is spoken of at all, it is subjected to suspicion or denigrated as an outdated humanist illusion spawned by the modern movements of Romantic idealism and existentialism. The philosophical category of imagination, like that of “man” himself, appears...

    • out of the velvet—the denim—the straw of my mind (1999) (pp. 96-97)

      I look into my poems, especially those I’ve not yet written—just now,the affection of crows or a marvelous conversation with birds—and I know I’m a “word-child” (Amos Oz).¹ I do not see my work in the context of a national state, though I hold, with conscience, dual citizenship by birth in the United States and by responsibility to Canada, where I have lived and earned my living during the last thirty-two years. Oh, yes, I worry about nationalisms, their mythic destinies borrowed from religion, and the endangered democracies here and abroad. I also think about what Christopher...

    • The Irreparable (2003) (pp. 98-110)

      In the long run of our talking-reading-writing lives, now and again we come upon language—that dear, homemade music—as utter shock, even collision. Recently, out of my reading of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, I stopped over two careful propositions inInfancy and History:

      . . . the pure exteriority of language. (6)


      The unprecedented violence of human power has its deepest roots in [the] structure of language. (7)

      Language is not our own—no more than our life or death is in our ownership—historically or now. We have only to honor them. The notion that we...

    • The Practice of Outside (1975) (pp. 113-163)

      At first this essay was short and simple— about Jack. But that became a reduction which every twist and turn of the work denied—a biography without the world the poet earned or a split between the man and the work which drank him up and left him behind. I fell into the experience of another poet’s request: “until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding” (Coleridge,Biographia1:12, 160). It is difficult, out of friendship and care, to find details disappearing into details rather than into meanings. My essay then became watchful of the context...

    • Imaginary Letters by Mary Butts: Afterword (1979) (pp. 164-176)

      These quotations, passages, and phrases come to mind from Mary Butts’s work. They are given here without regard to her chronology—though the Spenser comes from her reminiscences of school days; rather, I hope they will suggest both the size and the fragmentation of her concern. A worldly author and a very modern one. The bits and pieces with which I’ve begun suggest a prosepoem, and so indeed does her work in whole and in part. Here is a serious, high language and a composition out of which her laughter, the songs and jazz of her days, rings true. The...

    • George Bowering’s Plain Song (1980) (pp. 177-195)

      Some readers quickly lay this brilliant poetry aside—on a bedside table and put the lights out. And that is serious. They say, “It is too fragmentary”; or “It is stricken with problems—of where we are, just now”; or “It’s a game, it isn’t complete and restful in thought.” Ah, their expectations have been disappointed. So many are devoted to form as rest. Bowering’s work is restless. One difficulty with a selection from the size of it is that the process of selection may formulate and anthologize what is alive and delicate in the poems. The imaginative expanse—both...

    • The Violets: Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead (1983) (pp. 196-228)

      The American poet who has made the most profound use of Whitehead’s thought is Charles Olson. On this occasion, when I am to mull over the interchange between them, I am reminded of John Russell’s remark as he begins his book on the meanings of modern art: “in art, as in the sciences, ours is one of the big centuries” (9).† Out of the gloom, so to speak. Olson and Whitehead are not, of course, alone, but they stand there among the most important figures. And I like to note that Olson many times expressed his view that the finest...

    • “Mind Canaries” (1986) (pp. 229-252)

      Many of us have di‹ culty when first challenged by an exhibition such as this. Some ask, “What is it?” And others, “What does it mean?” Along with earlier work, the show comprises a ten-year labor—interrogative and creative—begun in 1976: a sequence of collages, in which, as the artist says, “everything comes from the real.” That aspect of collage—one of its marvels insists upon the relationship of chance to meaning—is not against imagination, but it is against stereotypical imagination. Collage points to the materiality of its means which are, as Apollinaire noted, “already steeped in humanity”...

    • “My Vocabulary Did This to Me” (1987) (pp. 253-261)

      I sat worrying about these notes today . . . and I think I’ll repeat my first reflection—and that is that if I live long enough, I expect to enter an era of Post-toasties—definitely non-Christian.

      Now this conference, coming together in panels on Jack Spicer’s context last night, and his vocabulary tonight (so divided, I take it, only for convenience)—I turn them around: vocabulary in context—and turn them around again: context in vocabulary. That is, the intelligence of context is vocabulary, and syntax—whether hypotactic, the author imperiously in charge of the sentence; or paratactic, the...

    • Infinite Worlds: The Poetry of Louis Dudek: Introduction (1988) (pp. 262-282)

      The first quotation is the big question that Louis Dudek put to his friend, the poet Raymond Souster, in 1951, and to himself, in one way or another, throughout his life-work in poems, essays, lectures, and scholarship.* The epigraph from one of Ezra Pound’s letters came to my attention by way of Dudek’s thoughtful, measured presentation of Pound on CBC Radio in 1957.† Repeatedly, as I read through Dudek’s work, more than forty years of his intellectual and artistic engagement, Pound’s words came to mind. They amount to a summary recognition, in the early years of modernism, of the whirlwind...

    • The “Elf” of It (1992) (pp. 283-298)

      Robert Duncan’s drawings in ink, pencil and crayon are, for me, a marvelous dimension of his poiesis that would make a world. They please and delight the mind’s eye with that quality of addition to, not illustration of, his writing, just where I may be left breathless by Duncan’s working sense of the boundlessness of language. They represent figurations that are other than himself, other than the writing, and if one looks closely at the energy of the lines he’s drawn, they flow, so to speak, from his handwriting. They are, of course, also, a reflection of his long devotion...

    • Preface to the Early Poems of Robert Duncan (1995) (pp. 299-304)

      What do I want to say about Robert Duncan’s early poems? Waiting for the morning news, waiting to write an answer to my own question, I hear on the radio that someone who’s read Joyce’s Ulysses could win a Chevrolet, because practically nobody has: “Do you know what it means? Write us. Frankly, we haven’t a clue.” The broadcaster is, I suppose, competent from his window on things—that is, as they may be. Still, I’m grateful for his meddling even before I reach to turn him off. He’s led me, willy-nilly, back to 1946, to a donut shop on...

    • “Here Lies the Woodpecker Who Was Zeus” (1995) (pp. 305-349)

      This essay on Mary Butts’s Armed with Madness (1928) will, I fear, appear to be more an anthology than a commentary. My reasons are that her work is little know, few libraries have her twelve published volumes, and even the little that is written about her is hard to come by and confusing. I have chosen, therefore, to quote extensively and carefully. Her work belongs to the youth of twentieth-century writing, and the creative energy of it helps in the imagination of ourselves. An essay-story, then.

      Mary Butts’s reputation began with the publication of a volume of stories,Speed the...

    • Bach’s Belief (1995) (pp. 350-368)

      George Butterick cites Charles Olson’s response to a performance of Pierre Boulez’sSecond Sonataat Black Mountain College, 1951, played by David Tudor:¹

      I hadn’t heard anything as interesting as that since I once heard Bach.²

      This initial recognition and juxtaposition of musical minds—perhaps aided by David Tudor’s knowledge of the score and of The Tributes to Bach in the final bars of the Sonata—continued for years—the early intensity of his acknowledgement appears in letters to Robert Creeley and in letters to Cid Corman, as editor ofOrigin.

      In “Notes for a University at Venice, California” [1959?],...

    • Love Will Eat the Empire: A Commentary on the Essays of Robin Blaser (pp. 369-400)

      A large collection of essays invites the reader to wander between different points of interest, stopping at favorites, perhaps, or looking up comments on certain themes or writers. Like a gallery, a “collected” offers the pleasures of repetition and difference: same subject, different treatments; different subjects, same author. This commentary is intended as a guided tour. But before beginning my commentary, I want to point out a formal feature of the essays taken as a whole. Blaser typically works in fugal fashion. In the early essays, he introduces key “subjects,”¹ which he then elaborates in the later works, just as...

  7. CHRONOLOGY (pp. 401-410)
  8. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  9. EDITOR’S NOTES (pp. 411-456)
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 457-480)
  12. INDEX (pp. 487-516)
  13. Back Matter (pp. 517-517)