Introduction to Organic Poetry

Paul Nelson
Lesley University
March – April, 2007

Introduction to Organic Poetry

When I first read Michael McClure’s book Three Poems in 1995 and saw in the author’s preface the words “if poetry and science cannot change one’s life they are meaningless,” something resonated so deeply it was to change my life for the better, forever (xv). It added a great deal of momentum to my own process of individuation and serves as the main part of the substrate of the materials gathered here. What resonated deeply was that poetry ought to have a transformative function or what was the point?

By 1995 I had developed a spontaneous process of writing poetry and other forms. I was a regular journal keeper and in my twenty-six years of radio work I was required to write (or re-write) news stories quickly or compose thoughts in the moment when serving as music host, using a basic structure to get information across and vamping from that, as a jazz musician might say. McClure’s field of resonance, perhaps never more powerful than in the poem “Dolphin Skull,” provided an opening which manifested in different actions in my life: starting a center for poetry in a small, traditional Northwest town; beginning graduate work to delve deeper into what gives this kind of poetry its energy; and changing my career from radio to writing and teaching.

McClure’s work, especially “Dolphin Skull” affected me deeply upon first reading it at Appleton Pass in Olympic National Park while preparing to interview Michael in October 1995. Many references in the poem were over my head, and it does not have traditional framing, but there was something that resonated, which Michael might call a “hunger for freedom” (xv). Other aspects of that field of resonance which attracted me were his process of composition (Projective Verse) and his cosmology which reflects an inherent experience of interconnectedness, though in 1995 I was not conscious of that last aspect. One of McClure’s main sources is Hua Yen Buddhism which teaches the interdependent origination of the universe, or that everything is not just equal to, but the same thing as everything else in the universe and dependent on everything else for its well-being. McClure told me in 1995 that what gives “Dolphin Skull” its energy was the fact that it was written in “Projective Verse” and he suggested I read the Charles Olson essay out loud to deepen my understanding.

 Organic Centers

Olson was the last rector of Black Mountain College, a legendary experimental education community which existed from 1933 to 1957. Located in a small, rural mountain setting in North Carolina, Black Mountain had as teachers or students, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, M.C. Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Dahlberg, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Willem de Kooning, and others. The college has achieved mythic dimensions in American art education history. The Black Mountain Review magazine, edited by Creeley, existed between 1951 and 1957, and included Creeley, Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan and Jonathan Williams. When the college folded in 1957, Olson left for Gloucester, Massachusetts. At that time William Carlos Williams was still in New Jersey, not too far from where Walt Whitman ended up in the 1880’s, in Camden. Creeley had already connected with San Francisco poets who were partial to Olson’s poetics and involved in the San Francisco literary scene at the time, such as Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Whalen. Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Joanne Kyger and others were active in that community and open to a spontaneous mode of poem-making, as was Jack Kerouac who spent some time on the West Coast. Kenneth Rexroth had already prepared the ground for cutting edge poetry with his literary activism, his translations and his notion that Asian influences and traditions were at least as important, or more important than European ones on the West Coast of North America.

Up the coast from San Francisco, by the early 60’s, Warren Tallman was teaching at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Through his wife Ellen, he met many of those poets just mentioned. Of them, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer were to make serious impressions on the young poets of the fledgling Vancouver scene, including George Bowering and members of what would be known as the TISH group, which also featured a publication of the same name. The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference was a seminal event featuring many of the people mentioned here and it was followed by similar conferences in Buffalo in 1964 and Berkeley in 1965. Robin Blaser moved to Vancouver to teach at the recently-established Simon Fraser University in 1966.

All these events were to further the momentum created by Donald Allen’s ground-breaking anthology “The New American Poetry” in 1960 and later, its 1974 companion volume “The Poetics of the New American Poetry,” establishing these poets as parts of legitimate counter-movements of the post-war North American literary scene and San Francisco and Vancouver as two of the main centers for what we’re referring to as Organic poetry.

In Latin American countries a stance compatible with Organic poetry was christened Neo-Barroco in the 1930’s by Cuban poet Jose Lezama Lima, a poetics extended by Cuban expatriate Jose Kozer. An improviser, according to his translator Mark Weiss, Kozer writes most of his poems in “an almost daily exercise of intense concentration that rarely lasts longer than forty-five minutes” (13).  In South America Neo-Barroco is sometimes known as Neo-Barroso and has its adherents, though that has not been my area of concentration despite my interest.

 Transcending Materialistic Consciousness

It is the rare person in this culture who can bypass the blur of materialism and the dominance of an allopathic ethos, (a fixation on symptoms), and address the root causes of one’s suffering, of what is impeding their liberation. Watch your typical television program for a half hour or so and the pharmaceutical ads more than anything else reinforce the desire for instant gratification and aversion to suffering of any kind, however minute, as if the mind were separate from the body. In the “Book of Runes” Ralph Blum points out that “suffering,” in its original sense, merely meant “undergoing,” but we are conditioned to avoid struggle and pills of all kinds are available to those who can’t, or won’t undergo very simple and usually tolerable processes. Philosopher and scientist Ervin Laszlo makes the basic difference between Eastern and Western cultures quite clear,

the traditional Eastern conception differs from the view held by most people in the West. In the modern commonsense conception, reality is material. The things that truly exist are bits or particles of matter. They can form into atoms, which can further form into molecules, cells, and organisms – as well as into planets, stars, stellar systems, and galaxies. Matter moves about in space, acted on by energy. Energy also enjoys reality (since it acts on matter), but space does not: space is merely the backdrop or the container against which, or in which, material things trace their careers…space is…empty and passive and not even real…in complete opposition to the view we get from contemporary physics…the unified vacuum  – is in fact the primary reality of the universe…What we think of as matter is but the quantized, semi-stable bundling of the energies that spring from the vacuum (141).

The person who senses there is something limited in the materialistic view, and desires more in life, is made to feel like an alien and the poet, in any society, has historically been an outsider, perhaps since Plato called for a ban of poets from the ideal commonwealth, but certainly never more so than in this era where materialism is reaching its limits. The real benefits of poetry are not material things. The Organic Poetry model is, at its most ideal, not a reaction to materialism, but an expression of balance between the brain’s two hemispheres, the two main modes of consciousness, as we will soon point out. This differentiates it from the left-brain, linear nature of materialism.

Walt Whitman is the North American source of the stance-toward-poem-making which Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov called Organic (405). This is a spontaneous mode of poetry composition in which the poet tries to get the quick take, and write without major revision. This is not to say Whitman did not revise. He revised his life work Leaves of Grass repeatedly over a span of thirty-five years. Yet some scholars suggest his first edition of the book is the strongest. Certainly it is the one which was closest to the transformative experience that led to his sense of seeing himself as an heir to literary masters Homer, Shakespeare and others. It is the epiphanic/ transcendent state or heightening of consciousness which the organic poet strives to experience in the process of writing. What goes to the core of poetry as wisdom teacher is that you become what you behold, or as Walt Whitman put it

           There was a child went forth everyday,
           And the first object he looked upon, that object he became,
           And that object became part of him for the day or a certain
              part of the day,
           Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
 
“There Was a Child Went Forth” (386).

We are all captive to our thought patterns. The act of writing has long been used as a way to clarify thought and mitigate destructive emotions. The practice of writing letters to someone in anger and then not sending the letter but burning it is a common one. To become aware of thoughts, the process of composing is remarkably effective. And poetry, which has little economic value in this culture, can be a transcendent tool, since the financial stakes when one chooses to compose a poem are not high, taking the pressure off. A newspaper editorial writer can lose her job if she states opinions that rankle a majority of her readers, and so it is with most forms of writing. There is usually an audience to please, whereas poetry is different, as Canadian poet George Bowering says:

I do not compose poetry to show you what I have seen, but rather because I have seen…this poet’s job is not to tell you what it is like, but to make a poem…Not trying to use your poems to prove a point, or address an argument. Not to try to control what they’re (the poems) are doing…but rather to be a kind of audience listening to where the poem is going to go…the practice of outside…Try to forget your own voice…and listen hard for what the language is saying… you yourself are the audience, hearing a voice you’ve trained your ear to receive (emphasis added)… (Bowering 6).

 

When one learns to trust that voice, a voice sourced outside the poet in the Organic tradition, when the training has gone on for some time, and one tunes into the moment of composition, one is experiencing life in the same way Alfred North Whitehead suggests reality happens. In his view the fundamental elements of the universe are actual occasions of experience. What most folks think of as concrete things are, in Whitehead terms, seen as successions of occasions of experience, which are influenced by prior experiences, and influence all future experiences. An occasion of experience consists of a process of prehending other experiences, and then responding (23-4). Robert Duncan noted in the introduction to “Bending the Bow” that “every particular is an immediate happening of meaning at large; every present activity in the poem redistributes future as well as past events. This is a presence extended in a time we create as we keep words in mind” (ix). And McClure notes in the “Three Poems” author’s preface mentioned above:

…When the poem is finished I listen to it and look at it on the screen or in the ink of the pen, and see that it has a deeper consciousness and brighter thoughts than I was aware of while writing (xv).

 

Why the organic poem has this quality is a mystery, but Tibetan Bon Master Physician Christopher Hansard has a theory: “Because all people in their deepest beings are like that type of poetry” (Nelson). The perfectly dictated (to use Jack Spicer’s term) organic poem is an amalgam of the resonances, personal experiences and energies available to the poet open enough to tap into the strongest, most energetic of them, without going crazy. Robin Blaser suggested that this practice of outside as his friend Spicer called it, which resonated deeply with the poets of Vancouver’s Tish group, has cost many poets their lives. He said: “…In fact, I think it wrecks some people too, they can’t handle that. Open Form doesn’t propose you have shape with what you work or you adapt, or belongs traditionally. Open Form means you have to find out what form is” (Nelson).  “Form is never more than a revelation of content” as Denise Levertov modified Robert Creeley’s dictum. (73, emphasis added.)

Why are all people in their deepest beings like the poetry Walt Whitman created? As one studies the sources which inform Olson, Whitehead again comes to mind. Shahar Bram’s excellent and little-known essay illustrating the use of Whitehead by Olson is a valuable tool for someone wanting to understand the link between Olson and the organismic cosmology which supports Organic poetry. In composing the organic poem, one is open to influences beyond rational understanding. This is why Olson called “Projective Verse” language at its “least logical and least careless” (CP, 247). Nicholas Everett describes it as: “…syntax … shaped by sound, not sense; sense is conveyed by direct movement from one perception to another, not rational argument” (Everett 1). Olson himself suggested that: “The distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant” (CP, 156) The difference may seem too subtle, and to most observers it is, but I suspect that as the paradigm turns from the mechanistic to the organismic, more people will understand the need to, “…find ways to stay in the human universe, and not be led to partition reality at any point, in any way” (CP, 157). So though all language is a product of culture, Organic composition leads one to a deeper consciousness if practiced as a discipline long enough as practitioners learn to trust perceptions, syllable by syllable, only to consciously understand some of the meaning afterwards, perhaps years later.

Olson saw that need to partition as one of the symptoms of materialistic consciousness, that being the use of reference, or symbology, in the act of poetry composition. It was the self-existence of any given thing that Olson felt should end up in a poem, rather than a mere description, or as he goes on to say in Human Universe:

Art does not seek to describe but to enact. And if man is to once more possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again (CP, 162).

Olson understood that the brain function which is responsible for putting things in categories actually impeded the organic poem. Labeling things is the first step to controlling things and the urge to control is a facet of the materialist/reductionist/mechanistic paradigm which the poet writing in the organic begins to understand as limited. Rather than attempting to control something, the organic poet is always ready to find an opening to a deeper understanding, food for that hunger for liberation, and is ready to act. In a sense, if the organic poet is looking to control anything, it would be his own actions, the only thing which we ever have real control over.

Practice

Another way of understanding the power underlying Organic Poetry and why the discipline of it deepens one’s consciousness is clearly articulated by author and philosopher Jose Arguelles who points out the root definition of consciousness is knowing all together. To know all together, in Arguelles view, is having a balance of the two primary aspects of consciousness which he calls “psyche” (right brain, feminine) and “techne” (left brain, masculine).

To know all together is to be in complete communion with psyche and in complete command of techne. Most people live arbitrary, mechanical existences in which error and aberration succeed each other unendingly, while the mind is plagued with sundry neuroses and the body with various diseases. This dis-integrated life process consists of a series of momentary experiences held together by a minimal awareness sufficient to pull the organism through its round of existence. Psyche is totally unconscious and techne totally mechanical, for there is no recognized relation between the two. But this is the life of the waking dead, and it is no real life at all. An integration of the two modes of being, psyche and techne, gives rise to and defines a mythic or cosmic state of consciousness, a harmonization of opposites in which war and strife have become transformed into a conscious interplay of energies, and the human organism itself is in a dynamic balance with the primal forces of the earth and the radiant forces of the heavens (6).

This paragraph sounds very similar to a description of William Carlos Williams’ theory of consciousness as extrapolated by critic James Breslin:

– mental activity in most people is conducted primarily at the level of ordinary consciousness or the ego. The distinctive feature of such life is its tendency toward a rigid conservatism, a fear of new experience, and a desire to operate safely and fixedly within established categories. Locked within a system, cut off from fresh experience by the desire for security, the ordinary man will be emotionally and sensually starved; in a real sense, he will not even exist…Ironically then, the person who seeks security uproots himself from the present moment, the only thing that IS, and so he becomes a perpetual  drifter. Because he is impoverished, his activity will be incessant; but because he is dissociated from the sources of life, his restless activity will be futile…his fear of the new, thwarting the creative process of renewal, is self-destructive(43).

Both Arguelles and Williams made multi-decade research efforts into their respective art forms, experience in creating works of art and had a sense of what primal essence(s) gave art its energy. They each understood what caused neurosis and what was essential about a stance toward reality (to use Olson’s phrase) that provided a balance, or a consciousness in which a certain equilibrium was not just present, but coherent, adaptable and robust. Each understood, in their own way, some of the basic elements of the organismic world view as they responded to the limitations of the mechanistic/materialistic stance and the inherent possibilities they intuited. Among those elements, as theologian, scholar and one-time Catholic Priest Father Matthew Fox pointed out, are that reality is made of patterns of relations, that one learns by participation and creativity, that the divine is in all things, that one looks to the earth for its sources (as opposed to resources), and that partnership and interconnection are fundamental aspects of reality (89).

The organic poet is open and thrives on the notion that each poem is a brand new experience, an experiment in consciousness. Michael McClure in a 1995 interview with the author suggested that composing spontaneously was a spiritual challenge and that composing this way was an adventure in consciousness. For McClure it is

a very sweet possibility of taking a trip through experience I’ve never taken before. Now the poem does not really necessarily come from me. With Projective Verse the inspiration for the poem can be outside of you. Or it could be inside of you. It could be a perception, or a memory, or a piece of consciousness. But it could also be, let’s say it was a vase of completely beautiful irises. I look at that vase of irises, or touch it and smell it. It’s not just looking at it. I’m aware. I have the perception in the real world of that vase of irises. It becomes part of me as a physical being. And then it sort of rebounds following my breath line onto the page, that is arranged on the page in terms of my breath line. And what I’m really listening to as I write, it’s not metrical foot…but I’m listening to the syllables as it happens. So you see it’s less like I’m dragging something up out of myself than it is like I’m acting in the world (Nelson).

It was moments like the one McClure describes in which William Carlos Williams felt truly alive when composing, which is why writing for him was like an escape from hell, “a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration, when a poem such as this or that would appear” (CPVI 203). It is also why Williams, began “Spring and All” with the words, “If anything of moment results – so much the better. And so much the more likely that no one will want to see it” (CPVI 177). For Williams and McClure Hell is being closed to new experience, not being aware of one’s surroundings, and existing at a very superficial level of consciousness. Hell is deep fear of being present in the current moment, so afraid of the next event, seemingly random and disconnected from one’s self, of rocking that existence – built and maintained by an ever more desperate array of coping mechanisms – which further serve to mask the very reality which one finds terrifying. “There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather the whole world is between” is how Williams put it in 1923 (CPVI 177). 1923!

In 1950 Olson, sharp enough to realize why Williams was doing something so different in American poetry from just about everybody but Ezra Pound, published “Projective Verse.” In it he called for a use of speech at its least logical and least careless, with the understanding that his method was an integrated process of perception/revelation and action. He saw Projective Verse as an antidote for the typical suburban consciousness Williams experienced as hell and led to a kind of poetry, unchained from fear, sourced in something profoundly deeper than the ego of the poet, that, naturally, allowed more energy into the poem. Arguelles understands the life-giving source of revelation as the “Visionary Experience” and suggests it “may lead to the most profound and beatific exaltation (268). (This is part of why the Beats resonated with the word Beat, as a reference to beatific). This understanding of the source of the transformative experience allows Arguelles to say “the problem of art is inseparable from consciousness” (262).

Poetry and Science

Olson also understood some of the early implications of field theory, as was being discussed in the scientific community, and subtitled his essay “Composition by Field” (CP, 239). He understood Pound and Williams to be the leaders in this field and had a sense that this was to become very important, and not just for the implications of how the poem looks on the page.

Robert Duncan knew better than almost anyone the demands of an Organic Poetry writing practice and the difficulties which arise using this process. In May of 1958, in a letter to Denise Levertov, he pointed out the conundrum that is simultaneously the beauty and the challenge of working in organic form, that being attention to the moment must be keen. I must force myself to abandon all fillers, to come to correct focus in the original act” (119, last emphasis his). A sort of pre-editing happens in the moment so quickly as one realizes the first thought is cliché, (or some other deficiency holding back energy) so one must get deeper into the well. One of those aforementioned Beats, Allen Ginsberg, illustrated that clearly when I interviewed him in 1994, one of the early lessons for me in understanding the nature of what he called Open Form.

AG – You catch yourself thinking…and you notice what you noticed in your mind, and you retain it intact. Doesn’t mean first thought chronologically. Chronologically might mean a surface thing like oh well, I’m going to think about what I would think about. You’ve got to get to the bottom…If you stirred the pool, wait until the water settles so you can look down to the bottom like in a fish tank.

PN – Sounds very much like Buddhism to me…

AG – Very much so. That phrase Catch yourself thinking, which is totally American vernacular, wh          ich everybody knows really…is basically the seed of meditation practice itself…taking a friendly attitude toward your thoughts (Ginsberg).

The effort Ginsberg speaks of is getting to deeper levels of consciousness. In an essay entitled “What is Consciousness,” I offer one model of how consciousness manifests in individuals from the most superficial levels of Behavior/Physiology, deeper into Thoughts/Emotions to Belief Systems, to Personal Mythology, Archetypes, and most deeply into the Chaotic or Cosmic Consciousness experienced by Whitman and translated into verse in “Leaves of Grass.” This is what gives the poem its power. “Leaves of Grass” works at a deep level of consciousness emitting a strong energy field.

Field Theory

 

The first person known to have used the notion of the field in reference to poetics is William Carlos Williams in 1944, in the Introduction to “The Wedge”, when he said:

The War is the first and only thing in the world today. The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field
(3).

In 1831 Michael Faraday, a scientist (or natural philosopher as was said back then) conducted experiments that established that a changing magnetic field produces an electrical field, a discovery that led directly to the viability of electrical use in technology. These developments evolved into what is known in physics as Field Theory[1]. Gravity may be the most common understanding of a field at work, evidenced by the pattern iron filings constellate around a magnet in elementary school science demonstrations. Wikipedia says

In physics, a field is an assignment of a physical quantity to every point in space (or, more generally, spacetime). A field is thus viewed as extending throughout a large region of space so that its influence is all-pervading. The strength of a field usually varies over a region. [Another description of its quality is “influence over distance.] [2]

While Williams pioneered the notion of poetry as part of the larger cultural field in 1944, six years later Charles Olson subtitled his seminal essay “Projective Verse” “Composition by Field” and understood that each part of a poem was as important as any other, or as he said in the essay:

It comes to this, this whole aspect of the newer problems. (We now enter, actually, the large area of the whole poem, into the FIELD, if you like, where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other.) It is a matter, finally, of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used… every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world…The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it)…must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being (CP, 243).

Robert Duncan ten years later would publish a book entitled “The Opening of the Field” which, in its opening poem, was able to at once reinforce the emerging notion of a poetic field, create one, and make a pun by referring to field in its natural sense, a meadow.

“OFTEN I AM PERMITTED TO RETURN TO A MEADOW”

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Where from fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is (7).

Duncan’s notion here is that this state of consciousness, the one in which the organic poem is composed, is a place, a place charged with the energy of divinity, a place of first permission. There is a shift that occurs in people, a tipping point as they discover the nature of the organic. I have seen it in workshops, and have experienced it myself as a realization that there is something ineffable, yet powerful, in the poem constructed this way. Poems which seek to make a point, or convince me that something is wrong or right, good or bad, do not seem to have the same energy. (A comparison between the Vietnam-era poems of Duncan and Levertov on just this point is in the essay “Evolving the Organic.) That is not to say that organic poems have no morality, or sense of justice, but there is a quality about them that one might suggest is endowed with what John Keats in an 1821 letter to his brother called “Negative Capability,” or that quality when someone is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. It is a state of acceptance, of willingness. Like the organic poem itself it is a continuum. It is difficult to exist there at all moments, but Duncan recognizes the state in the poem when he calls the meadow a place of first permission. One way of looking at that is one gives themselves permission to remain open and not react, but at first to just notice. He also recognizes that the moment itself when one can get deeply enough into it, is an entryway.

In the introduction to “Bending the Bow” he said, “Every particular is an immediate happening of meaning at large; every present activity in the poem redistributes future as well as past events. This is a presence extended in a time we create as we keep words in mind (ix). Olson also understood the potency of the present, often lost in poems closer to the other pole in the continuum, and pointed this out in his book “The Special View of History” in which he said, “The tenses…of the mythological, are never past, but present and future (22).

In 1981 British Biologist Rupert Sheldrake offered a theory as to how organisms grow and evolve which he calls Morphogenetic or Morphic Fields:

Growing organisms are shaped by fields which are both within and around them, fields which contain, as it were, the form of the organism…As an oak tree develops, the acorn is associated with an oak tree field, an invisible organizing structure which organizes the oak tree’s development; it is like an oak tree mold, within which the developing organism grows. One fact which led to the development of this theory is the remarkable ability organisms have to repair damage. If you cut an oak tree into little pieces, each little piece, properly treated, can grow into a new tree. So from a tiny fragment, you can get a whole. Machines do not do that; they do not have this power of remaining whole if you remove parts of them. Chop a computer up into small pieces and all you get is a broken computer. It does not regenerate into lots of little computers. But if you chop a flatworm into small pieces, each piece can grow into a new flatworm. Another analogy is a magnet. If you chop a magnet into small pieces, you do have lots of small magnets, each with a complete magnetic field. This is a wholistic property that fields have that mechanical systems do not have unless they are associated with fields…Each species has its own fields, and within each organism there are fields within fields (1).

Sheldrake also understands his theory pertains to Artistic schools:

If we take the notion of “schools of thought” or “schools of art,” we have another area of traditions in which groups of people share in a common ideal and a common pattern of activity. Here again, artistic and philosophical traditions make more sense when considered in terms of organizing and enduring morphic fields. Art historians write about the flow of influence from the Venetian school to the Flemish school, for example. This mysterious flow of influence could be understood as the result of the process of successive schools of art tuning into the morphic fields of the earlier schools…If we think of paintings as having morphic fields for their actual structures, we can then see how a kind of “building up” occurs through morphic resonance. A painting in a given school is created; other people see it. Every time a new painting in that school is made, it alters the field of the school. There is a kind of cumulative effect. Just as an animal within a species draws upon the morphic fields of the species and, in turn, contributes to those same fields, a work of art produced within a school draws upon the morphic field of the style of the school and contributes to it, so that the style evolves (2).

Sheldrake offers his theory of Morphic Fields as being sympathetic to Carl Jung’s notion of the Collective Unconscious, but as a principle that applies to the entire universe, not just human experience and collective human memory. And with a focus on the breath the poet taps into those fields, those well-trod paths only with a new pair of eyes and lungs, and with each breath, really, a different person, evolving (in the best case scenario) into the form of his or her own highest self. According to the pre-Buddhist Northern Treasure School of the Tibetan Bon tradition as explained by Master Physician Christopher Hansard, the field into which humans (and other beings) tap is actually “the underlying psychic makeup of the material universe connecting everything in the cosmos” (84). By conscious use of breath and scrupulous listening, skillful intent, an openness to new experience and to discovering what the poem wants to say each time one sits down to write the organic poem, by using speech carefully with a non-linear sensibility that one begins to develop as a rhythm, or series of linked assonances building on the experience of someone fascinated by the possibilities of the moment, what the moment might be able to reveal, or deliver, the organic poet can tap into fields of energy that go back to the original creation of the metaverse, all the universes, in ways we are just now beginning to understand.

Dr. Hansard understands the process inherent in writing the organic poem. He said that “all people in their deepest beings are like that type of poetry” and agreed that, like Whitman, people writing in this manner are in touch to different degrees with the universal oneness of all things (Nelson). The deepest state humans experience, as outlined in the aforementioned essay on consciousness, is a Chaotic, or Cosmic consciousness. Dr. Hansard continued in that interview by saying, “you are actually a human being living a life that is too big and too small to be defined clearly” which I translate in one way to mean your life is too big to be weighed down by the typical ego-based fears that limit most writers, such as: “people won’t understand it, it’s too weird, I have to resort to sentimentalism, I can’t be too sentimental, I have to come to a conclusion, I am the source of the poem”, etc. and too small because each person is like an atom or cell in an organism (or field) that stretches, perhaps infinitely, into galaxies beyond galaxies to the distant reaches of the metaverse. Certainly any human, as part of the system we call Earth, is a tiny aspect of that system, but the organic poetry process of composition is one that directly taps that field, nurturing the humility of the poet, while also (with practice) nurturing deep states of consciousness. Michael McClure understood this well, noting “As I get huger I become streams stretching into shadows of memories” (3).

Those memories may be his, or they may be ones he is prehending that have their source outside the system known as Michael McClure, as he explained earlier. Carl Jung understood this field, or one very similar, as the Collective Unconscious. As Ervin Laszlo explains through a series of questions in his book “Science and the Akashic Field” it,

could it be that our consciousness is linked with other consciousnesses through an interconnecting Akashic Field, much as galaxies are linked in the cosmos, quanta in the microworld, and organisms in the world of the living? And could this be the same field we have encountered before, manifesting itself in the realm of mind, in addition to the realms of nature (44)?

The questions are, of course, rhetorical. McClure begins the book “Three Poems” with the epigraph, “once this was all black plasma and imagination” and we are now in an era in which the kind of information which heretofore was the province of poets, dreamers and visionaries is not only being validated by scientists at the edge of the frontier, but is now critical for the survival of the species.

The materialist/reductionist view is quietly and repeatedly being proven to be limited, (our allopathic health care “system” and its futile attempts to control “symptoms” is one prime example of that) and the responses to the new information tend to come in degrees of two main categories. The first response is an opening up and a realization that the whole-systems, or organismic view seems to supply answers for a lot of what were previously experienced as mysteries at best, and conundrums at worst. The second response is a closing down and a rejection of anything that does not confirm the reductionist point of view. Arguelles would argue that this reductionist view response is in itself is sickness and the disease state manifests, or worsens at this point (6). In the most extreme cases there are the kind of violent acts which are common in the United States, (a hot bed of reductionism), the child-abductions, racial and sexual violence, hate crimes, murders, murder-suicides, school-and workplace shootings, incidents of torture, environmental degradation and executions.

Willingness and Acceptance are two qualities that calibrate as strong attractor fields in the “Map of Consciousness” created by David Hawkins. While his methods have raised questions in both the materialist and whole-systems scientific communities (more than questions, actually, from the materialists – outright hostility), as I have stated before the map’s use as a metaphor is valuable. He ranks emotional states on a numerical scale leading up to what he calls a process of Pure Consciousness, starting from the bottom with negative fields of Humiliation, Blame, Despair, Regret, Anxiety, Craving, Hate and Scorn, up past the “Level of Integrity” to Affirmation, Trust, Optimism, Forgiveness, Understanding, Reverence, Serenity, Bliss and the Ineffable. Of course the human experience is always a dynamic tension between the denser (yet still conscious) forces of matter and spirit and there are experiences and information in the A-Field, or Single Intelligence that would reinforce just about any action conceivable, as any action or thought that has ever been is a potential source for anyone to act on strongly held, or in some cases overwhelming feelings (attractor fields) as categorized by Hawkins. The ones he would describe as weaker attractor fields result in the stories we see reported on the evening news. The artist’s role in the culture then, is to raise the level of access to field experience, to represent/convey the strongest attractor fields as possible so that the energy of those fields is available to anyone open enough to recognize the value, or to simply experience, the energy of those fields and use them in the creation of her art.

Father Matthew Fox suggests the paradigm shift I believe is inherent in the Organic Poetry process of composition is a shift from the “Machine” paradigm to the “Green” or “Sheen” model. In the passing model, things are determined, whereas the new view recognizes that chaos, spontaneity, freedom are everywhere in the universe. Rather than seeing the universe as a machine, or clock in Newton’s example, the contemporary view, like Hua Yen and other ancient traditions, sees the universe as mystery (89, 90).

Doctor Larry Dossey calls the new paradigm Era III Medicine, whose main differentiating feature is non-locality, which he defines as a mind that is not confined to a particular body (19). Riane Eisler has done extensive research into the difference between a “Dominator” culture and a “Partnership” culture (403-5). In their work, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson see the three main subcultures in North America as being Traditionals, Moderns and Cultural Creatives, with Traditionals being personified by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Moderns exemplified by George W. Bush or Al Gore and Cultural Creatives like some of the people I have mentioned above.

It is clear that a number of respected thinkers and visionaries see a shift no matter their different ways of describing what is happening. Organic Poetry and its practitioners clearly define one aspect of this shift. Literature has kept up, but that may be hard to recognize from the typical university Creative Writing program and the general mediocrity it spawns. The academy has long been an institution dedicated to preserving the status quo and Arguelles reminds us that the fundamental value of the humanist/academic tradition was “the supremacy of man, separate from nature” (45). The intentional distancing of Organic Poetry’s main practitioners (Olson, Williams, Duncan) from academia itself is an indication. This suggests the standard academic setting has, and still is attracting professors and students who are more than likely resonating with a materialistic world view. Arguelles cites the rise of photography in the 19th century as the main factor ending the reign of the academic thrust in painting, but creative writing programs have increased exponentially over the past thirty years (at the expense of English majors) but try to find someone who says this has improved the overall quality of writing in general, or in poetry. The truth is that time will test all of the writing being done today and it may be fifty years before we can really tell who the giants are and who just look big from our contemporary angle. I believe that it will be those writing with a cosmology of interconnectedness who will be valued at that time and this is part of why I call the field Organic poetry, after Duncan and Levertov. Charles Olson called this way to write poetry “Projective Verse” but it was more of a possibility than outright advice as the poem “Maximus, to Gloucester Letter 2” may suggest:

…..tell you? ha! who
can tell another how
to manage the swimming?
he was right: people

don’t change. They only stand more
revealed. I,
likewise (9)

When someone is in the water, struggling to stay afloat, it is useless to yell tips such as “more legs” or “try a backstroke!” Let them focus on their process. If they need help, they will ask. Their essence will be revealed over time as their work becomes more appreciated, or their thought patterns manifest in physical (and sometimes mental) disease.

 

Organic Poetry / Organismic Cosmology

One of McClure’s sources is Hua-Yen Buddhism and a seminal text for understanding that tradition is the book by Francis Cook entitled: Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel of Indra’s Net. It refers to a Chinese school of Buddhism known as Hua-Yen or Flower Ornament.  Cook sets the context of the holistic/process orientation of this mode of thinking when he points out that the “tendency in the West has been to analyze rather than unify, to discriminate rather than see all as one, to make distinctions rather than see all qualities within each datum of experience” and that “people ordinarily think and experience in terms of distinct separate entities, while Hua-Yen conceives of experience primarily in terms of the relationships between these same entities” (8). Cook also points out that Western Physicists have drawn the conclusion that “relationship is the more fundamental” (8). One would also find resonance to this emphasis in Jungian psychology.

The notion of interconnectedness is not exclusively Eastern. Father Matthew Fox, quoted above, is a scholar of the mystic side of Christianity and quotes Hildegard of Bingen who said “everything that is in the heaven, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness,” as well as “God has arranged everything in a universe in consideration of everything else” (CC,19). Meister Eckhart had similar notions “all creatures are interdependent” and “relations is the essence of everything that is.” (CC, 19) It is only that this wisdom has been lost in the Western culture’s materialistic/mechanistic undertow.

In Organic poetry, like in the organismic cosmology, relationship is key. In McClure’s example from above, as h describes the projective act of prehending a vase of beautiful flowers, what is the relationship between the poet and the irises he sees? Do they rekindle powerful memories of past irises? What perceptions does it foster in the poet? The organic poet uses the process to delve into these questions in the experiment in consciousness the organic writing process is. Will the finished product be captivating, or even interesting? Allen Ginsberg said “If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything” (12). To Paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi your thoughts become your words, which become your behavior, which becomes your habits, which become your values which end up as your destiny[3]. He implores at every step of the way to employ a positive outlook, on all things.

If one understands the ramifications of how fields work, or even becomes aware of the potential for these links, the wisdom of Gandhi’s advice is reinforced. McClure said “we swirl out what we are and watch for its return” (86). No matter what the practice, it behooves everyone to find something which helps create self-knowledge. Elderly people who are totally unaware of who they are and how they effect others around them are tremendously difficult individuals and our task is to love them, have compassion for them, but not to end up like them.

It was literature that helped me envision a model of aging gracefully that resonated quite deeply upon my first exposure to the anthology Japanese Death Poems. Like the instant recognition that there was something potent in McClure’s “Dolphin Skull,” I recognized that the lifelong learning discipline, so beautifully expressed by Zen masters in a final poem before death, was something to which I aspired. To summarize the wisdom gained in a lifetime within the restrictions of a short poem and have that gesture as one’s parting salvo strikes me as an especially wise use of one’s life.

In North America the culture values material things, but who on their death bed says “if only I had driven a bigger car” or “if only I had ten more ceramic Dalmatians in my collection!” I have not met that person and I am sure they don’t exist. But as one starts peeling the onion of one’s consciousness, exfoliating those attributes and thought patterns that prevent a healthy, engaged life, different fields of energy are enacted bringing with them different people and opportunities for further growth.

William Blake, a sympathetic forerunner to the organic tradition, said “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and if he is correct, then North American culture may be ready to move past the very empty materialistic lifestyle and begin to value that reality which can’t easily be seen, but is experienced every day, that of the A-Field, or Akashic Field, the field to which all things are connected in Laszlo’s view, with its record of all that ever was. With the environmental, social and economic realities dooming the logic central to a mechanistic world view, where growth is necessary and the only valid measurement of something is quantity, the end is near for a way of thinking that does not value every living thing, as we are dependent on every living thing for life as we know it. Unfettered growth is the philosophy of the Cancer cell. Corporations add untested genetic engineering to crops to boost revenues and monarch butterflies die. We attack a country ostensibly to remove a threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction and thousands of new threats emerge. We develop a lifestyle where we will drive half a mile to get bread and milk and the fossil fuels discharged into the environment by millions of others who learn to do the same thing imperils the healthy existence of systems that sustain life. The examples are almost endless and no doubt you have your own, but somewhere in each horrific reality there is the seed of something better. A friend had a poem that stated “no Middle Passage, no Jazz.” He was suggesting that without the horrors of violently removing Africans from their homes to put them to work as enslaved people there never would have been the creation of Jazz music, which is a fusion of European classical music and African soul. That is but one example of good that can come out of one of the most pernicious acts still reverberating in A-Field

There are no hard and fast rules as to how one creates great literature. I have used an evolving organic poetry composition practice to build my own soul and deepen my consciousness, but inherent in every step of the way is a need to maintain what has been built and writing daily is but one of the practices that helps me maintain a sound mind and body. The organic is but one mode.

Like in anything else the proof is in the pudding. The last bit of that old English proverb

“is in the eating,” so we may add our literary modifier “in the reading” or listening. Writing in this manner is an experiment in consciousness every time one sits down to write. It is something that will serve well any practitioner an our increasingly illiterate world. There are writing groups in almost every town and if there is not one where you live it may be your charge to start one. There are resources on-line for just about any aspect of what I discuss here. It may seem overwhelming, but each journey begins with the first step. Each time one sits down to write a poem, employing the intent to get the take down quickly and cleanly as possible, one is changing the work, charging the A-Field and, whether visible or not, changing people’s lives sometimes with profound ramifications.

After Blaser (Above Nebraska)

 

We hover above the sun’s reflection of clouds
are two examples of grace
not afraid to wet our toes
in it, or life force, how simple
religion could be in this sun-returning air
but
we hover above the bones of it
are in between the old god’s death
inside the parenthesis, before the birth of the new.
Whatever is going to happen
has already
happened, or is happening, so we hop ingeniously from pleasure
to the promised cosmos & hope the rest emerges as if
it were the first yinrise of the last lost star.

2P – 12.24.06

 

Paul Nelson
Thursday, March 8, Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Auburn, Washington

 

WORKS CITED:

 

http://www.globalvoicesradio.org/Crafting_the_Organic_Poem_12.11.06.htm

 

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/actual_occasions

 

Arguelles, Jose. The Transformative Vision. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975.

 

Blum, Ralph. The Book of Runes.  New York: St. Martins, 1994.

 

Bowering, George. Craft Slices. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985.

 

Bram, Shahar. Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: An Essay on Poetry. Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2004.

 

Breslin, James. William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. New York, Oxford U. Press, 1970.

 

Cook, Francis. Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra.  Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1994.

 

Duncan, Robert, Levertov, Denise. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.

Bertholf, Robert and Gelpi, Albert, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Bram, Shahar.  Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: An Essay on Poetry. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004.

Dossey, Larry, M.D. Reinventing Medicine. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.

 

Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: Grove, 1960.

 

_____________. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.

 

Eisler, Riane. Sacred Pleasure. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

 

Everett, Nicholas.    The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

 

Fox, Father Matthew.  The Reinvention of Work. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1994.

 

________________.  The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. [CC] New York: Harper San Francisco, 1988.

 

Ginsberg, Allen. From an unpublished interview with the author, conducted July, 1994.

 

_____________. Cosmopolitan Greetings. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

 

Hansard, Christopher. The Tibetan Art of Living. London: Atria, 2001.

 

Hoffman, Yoel. Japanese Death Poems. Boston: Tuttle, 1986.

 

HU – Olson, Charles.  Human Universe from Collected Prose.  Berkeley: U. of California, 1997.

 

Kozer, Jose. Stet (Selected Poems).  New York: Junction, 2006.

 

Laszlo, Ervin. Science and the Akasic Field. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2004.

 

Levertov, Denise. New and Selected Essays. New Directions: New York, 1992.

 

McClure, Michael. Three Poems.  New York: Penguin, 1995.

 

Nelson, Paul. The Tibetan View of Sound and Field Poetics. (Unpublished), 2004.

 

__________. Tracking the Fire in Open Form (An Interview with Robin Blaser.) (Unpublished), 2004.

 

­­­­_______________. From an unpublished interview with the author, 1995.

 

Olson, Charles. The Special View of History. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.

 

____________.  Collected Prose. (CP) Berkeley:  U. of California, 1997.

Sheldrake, Rupert. Society, Spirit & Ritual: Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious – Part I. Psychological Perspectives, (Spring), 18(1), 9-25

Sheldrake, Rupert. Society, Spirit & Ritual: Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious – Part I. Psychological Perspectives, (Fall), 18(2),  320-331

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1969.

 

Whitman, Walt. The Complete Poems. Murphy, F. ed. New York: Penguin, 1975.

 

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Later Poems. New York: New Directions, 1963.

 

____________________. Collected Poems Volume I. (CPVI) New York: New Directions, 1986.

 

 


[1] “field theory.” WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. 10 Apr. 2007. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/field theory>.

[2] “field (physics).” Wikipedia.org. 10, Apr. 2007. <Wikipedia.org http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_%28physics%29>.

[3] [3] http://media.www.jhunewsletter.com/media/storage/paper932/news/2002/11/15/News/Gandhi.Urges.NonViolence-2249057.shtml This often repeated quote, paraphrased above, was cited in a speech by Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma.

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