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Organic Poetry

is a spontaneous composition process in which the writer engages speech “at its least careless and least logical” in the words of Charles Olson from his 1950 essay Projective Verse. Paul’s essays pertaining to this subject are found here.

Source of the Organic

Much of the source material for this stance-toward-poem-making was developed through 14 years of hosting (& later syndicating) a radio program on Whole-Systems approaches. I am convinced the shift Organic Poetry represents (from reductionist to organismic) is that shift in literature.

Organic Manifesto

Organic Origins

The term Organic is taken from correspondence between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov from 1963 in which Robert Duncan described the difference between Conventional, Free Verse and Organic poets:

For the conventional poet, universe and life are chaotic; the natural is formless (chaotic); the poet (the civilized or moral man) is given an order to keep against chaos. Every freedom is a breakdown of form. Freedom = (a) disorder or (b) sin.

For the poet writing free verse (and we are reminded of WCW’s notion that no verse is actually free, that each takes on its own patterns & tendencies,) the universe and man are free only in nature which has been lost in civilized forms. The poet must express his feelings without the trammel of forms. The poem does not find or make but expresses…Free verse just doesn’t believe in the struggle of rendering in which not only the soul but the world must enter into the conception of the poem. (Ginsberg’s Howl is one of Duncan’s examples of free verse.)

For the organic poet, the universe and man are members of a form. Freedom lies in the apprehension of this underlying form, towards which invention and free thought in sciences alike work. All experience is formal — We feel things in so far as we awake to the form. The form of the poem is the feeling (and where form fails, feeling fails.)

See also Levertov’s essay: Some Notes on Organic Form.


The Organic Poetry process of composition was best described by Charles Olson in Projective Verse & is sympathetic to the process philosophy outlined by Alfred North Whitehead in which the fundamental elements of the universe are not concrete objects, but occasions of experience. All experiences are influenced by prior experiences, and influence all future experiences. An occasion of experience consists of a process of prehending other experiences, and then reacting to it.


“The real business of poetry is cosmology” is what Robin Blaser said and Organic Poetry is based on an organismic cosmology in which all things in the universe are equal and interconnected. Whitehead’s Process Philosophy, the cosmology of Hua Yen Buddhism (the interdependent origination of the universe) and Tibetan Bon cosmology are largely sympathetic to the cosmology which underlies the Organic Poetry process of composition. This is the “stance toward reality” Charles Olson references in Projective Verse.


While most poetry composition processes involve extensive revision, Organic Poetry is written largely without any revision except for a fine-tuning, as poet Gary Snyder described it. Think of poetry as a continuum, in which the Organic is one pole in which revision is minimal or rendered unnecessary due to the attention and discipline of the poet, and the other pole, the Closed is either formalism or free verse where the original impulse is lost in a complete overhaul of the first draft of the poem, or the end of which was decided at the beginning of the composition process. Sunn Shelley Wong said, “at every moment in a life or in a poem, the formal choice is between answering to that which is alive, or attempting to enslave it.”


Among the more notable practitioners of Organic Poetry are Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, Joanne Kyger, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, George Bowering, Wanda Coleman, Sam Hamill, Diane di Prima, Daphne Marlatt, Jose Kozer and Brenda Hillman.


The Organic website was originally constructed as a resource for information about poetics, practitioners and cosmology, to aid other practitioners, or potential practitioners who seek to use a process which deepens their own consciousness through balancing the left brain techne impulse with the right brain psyche tendencies. The essays which were once available through this site were composed by Paul E. Nelson for his graduate work done for Lesley University between 2004 and 2007. The site was made possible through Global Voices Radio and its supporters and sponsors. Paul uses this concept as a basis for all his poetry workshops. (Book a workshop by Paul). A re-issue of the Organic Poetry book is coming soon from Apprentice House, the publisher of A Time Before Slaughter.

See essays here.