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What is Open Form Poetry

“I expected to include plenty of Whitman here and discovered, reading him, a sort of seasickness at all those undulating lines of Uncle Walt’s perpetual swoon over grass and leaves and camerados. There are good poems there, and it’s a mistake to omit them, but Walt is the Typhoid Mary of American Lit: so much bad poetry can be traced back to him (and not brief bad poems, either), he gave so many dreadful writers permission to lavish themselves upon us.” (Keillor 23)

“20th century American poetry is the best era for poetry since the T’ang Dynasty… The Japanese are reading more (of it) than Americans are. They’re reading Philip Levine…and Allen Ginsberg, including all (his) crapola.”  – Sam Hamill

“…a poet of some local interest, perhaps.” – T.S. Elliot on William Carlos Williams.

Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams. To read the words of these intelligent, thoughtful people, you’d think that poetry would have been better off without these three luminaries. Yet after ten years of serious study of their work and the work of what one might call Open Form poets, it is clear to me that they represent three pillars of one of the most brilliant achievements in American art, not just literary art. Yet, to many intelligent people, they wrote a lot of shit. It reminds me of what Red Barber said about people who knock the American pastime, Baseball is dull only to those with dull minds.

Open Form. Birthed in America in the 19th century and similar to what pianist Bill Evans saw in Jazz music and other disciplines as he wrote the liner notes to Kind of Blue:

“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere. The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.”

After having read some Ginsberg, Williams and Whitman (and I consider myself much less than an expert on these writers) and having interviewed Allen in 1994, I was sucked deeply into the open form universe reading Michael McClure’s brilliant poem Dolphin Skull. I took a review copy along with me on one of my backpacking trips into the Olympic National Park. A dibia from the Igbo tribe and two other chums ended up doing a ritual at 5,000 feet and used Dolphin Skull as our entryway in a different state of consciousness. For some reason this poem was immediately accessible to me and profoundly powerful. I interviewed Michael shortly after the trip and have had subsequent conversations with him since. I searched out other poets writing, as Michael does, in Projective Verse, and though there are a few who do, there are hundreds of others, I am convinced, who are (consciously, or likely not) practicing some variant on the suggestion. (Projective Verse, by the way, is the title of an essay by Charles Olson, published in 1950, which is Olson’s take on Open Form, perhaps the most definitive so far.)

Once of the remarkable things about people writing with a spontaneous process is that the poem often has more depth to it than the poet realized while writing. Perhaps this is true in all forms of poetry, but to me closed verse is missing that life force that open verse, at its best, is brimming with. Michael said: “To write spontaneously does not mean to write without thought or deep experience. In fact, there must be a vision and poetics that are alive and conscious. The moment of writing is complex and at the same time it is natural and vigorous. I do not know of a more adventurous gesture than to write spontaneously…” (McClure xv).

“So what is open form,” the older Slam poet asked me at Red Sky Poetry Theater. He moved here from Boston a few months ago and one of my first questions on that particular occasion was if he had made a pilgrimage to Olson’s home in nearby Gloucester, Mass. This man had never found an in to Olson’s work, which is not uncommon. He wanted to know if Open Form was free verse, and it is, but it is also much more than that.

Williams said: “…no verse can be free, it must be governed by some measure, but not by the old measure. We have to return to a measure consonant with our time… a purely intuitive one which we feel but do not name…” (Williams 339-40). Each writer has rhythms and tendencies that inform the work, so free is a misnomer. Of course his life-long concern was with the line, an important notion of which all too many free verse writers have no comprehension. (Ginsberg’s Some Different Considerations in Mindful Arrangement of Open Verse Forms on the Page is an excellent resource.) In one of the most powerful passages of Paterson, Williams says:

Without invention nothing is well spaced,

unless the mind change, unless

the stars are new measured, according

to their relative positions, the

line will not change, the necessity

will not matriculate:  unless there is

a new mind there cannot be a new

line, the old will go on

repeating itself with recurring

deadliness:  without invention

nothing lies under the witch-hazel

bush, the alder does not grow from among

the hummocks margining the all

but spent channels of the old swale,

the small foot-prints

of mice under the overhanging

tufts of the bunch-grass will not

appear:  without invention the line

will never again take on its ancient

divisions when the word, a supple word,

lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.

How to take this? Certainly he spent the majority of his career trying to make sense of the rules that might govern (modern and) postmodern poetry composition and page formatting. He excerpted a large selection of Projective Verse in his autobiography, suggesting perhaps that Olson articulated these ideas better than he did with his phrase variable foot. His notion of aural empathy is a critical one for those who seek an in to these open form poets, or for open form poets seeking to explain the talent required to give life to such work. What IS such work? My conversation at Red Sky continued. It’s more than free verse, but alludes to the notion, (Olson again) that when the writer puts him/herself in the open (the field) (s)he “can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares for itself” (Olson 148). WCW articulated this earlier, as Paul Mariani pointed out in his excellent biography of Williams: “He meant to think with the poem and not with a preconceived master plan, going where the poem led him. (Mariani 540).

So why the ignorance of the intelligent people suggesting Whitman, Williams and Ginsberg have written a lot of shit? Part of it is a need to control and a resonance with that cosmology. Part of it is not being open to a different way of ordering. Part of it is the same reason why Olson was such a tough nut for our Slam poet friend to crack. It usually takes an effort to get how the poet’s mind works. Hearing a poet read her work helps and surely there are those poems which are immediately accessible: Ginsberg’s Howl, Supermarket in California, Kaddish, etc, McClure’s Action Philosophy, WCW’s This is Just To Say and so forth. But once you hear that voice, literally or not, then you get a sense, like Vancouver Surrealist painter and poet Laura Corsiglia says, that these people are creating galaxies. Yes, one star might be more luminous to you than others, but each poem is a star in that galaxy. Each poem is part of a gestalt that to me, more satisfying than what the poet in service to reason can achieve. It also has to do with the cosmology expressed, or communicated via the field. If Robert Duncan is correct, and the poem follows “the immediate impulse of psychic life,” (Sharma 67) then that work which seeks to control rather than discover is going to fall short for those who have moved beyond the uselessness of that impulse. Critic K.K. Sharma reminds us that Duncan believed the rational kills the negative capability in the artist and to Duncan: “…the conventional poetic art is disgusting because it cares more for control over common speech, for disciplining syntax and line into balanced phrases and regular meters, and ignores meaningful experience or intuition of the universe and the energies of the language itself.” (Sharma 71, 72)

Yet if one is open, he or she can be moved by the field of energy the poet swirls out. Olson and Robert Duncan have written extensively on this, following the lead of Williams. His essay: The Poem as a Field of Action, written for his talk at the University of Washington in 1948, Williams’ first academic exposure coming at age 65, is how the dependence on European forms was finally released, something WCW spent his whole career trying to do. He was using the words field of action as early as 1944.

I was open and ready for the complex field of McClure in 1995 when I first read Dolphin Skull. Something about it was beyond my conscious comprehension, but there was enough content to hook me. I open the Maximus Poems and whoosh, I am back in Olson’s unique universe which I find has a fire and depth lacking in conventional poetry.

So, besides those already mentioned, who are other Open Form poets? In no particular order some who interest me are: Anne Waldman; Diane di Prima; Jack Spicer; Gary Snyder; Victor Hernandez Cruz; Wanda Coleman; Eileen Myles; Jerome Rothenberg; George Bowering; bill bissett; Joanne Kyger; Denise Levertov; Adrian Castro; Ed Sanders; Gloria Gervitz and others. As Williams did not get the deserved recognition during his time, and because the academy has something representing a stranglehold on major awards, major funding, etc. and as American culture is, in the words of media literacy advocate Gloria deGaetano, an industry-generated culture, expecting the average person to do a little legwork might be asking too much. As documentary filmmaker John DeGraaf says: (Americans are) people who scream at the microwave to hurry up!  Yet, I am confident that future historians will, like Sam Hamill, see American 20th century poetry as a golden age, with the poets cited here at the front of the pack.

Paul Nelson

Slaughter, WA

Works Cited:

Ginsberg, Allen.  Deliberate Prose   Harper Collins: New York,  2000.

Hamill, Sam.   Poets-in-the-Park.  Redmond, WA,    April 3, 2004.

Keillor, Garrison.   Good Poems.    Penguin:   New York,   2003.

Mariani, Paul,   William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked   McGraw-Hill:  New

York,  1981.

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

Olson, Charles.   Projective Verse, Poetics of the New American Poetry.   Grove:  New

York,  1973, pg. 148

Sharma, KK.   Poetry as an Exposed, Open Form: Robert Duncan’s Poetics. Indian

Journal of American Studies.  Hyderabad,  1984.

Williams, William Carlos.   Paterson.   New York:   New Directions,    1963.