Finding the Measure: Robert Kelly, Deep Image and the New American Imagination
By Stephan Delbos
Editors played a key role in American poetry after World War II; the enormous success of Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945—1960 demonstrated that an editor could present a coherent viewpoint on contemporary American poetry in a single volume, a de facto argument for the relevant in current poetry and directions significant poets would take. Thanks in large part to literary editors, there was a feeling across American arts, after 1950, that it was time for a fresh start. In his own nascent literary journal The Fifties, poet-editor Robert Bly identified a “new imagination” asserting itself in American poetry, while Robert Lowell differentiated between raw and cooked American poetry, and Allen created a watershed out of merely 15 years of writing. Thus Robert Kelly came to prominence as an editor with his anthology A Controversy of Poets (1962). Edited with Paris Leary, it was the first American poetry anthology to seriously contend with the Allen legacy. Kelly’s roles in A Controversy of Poets and in the early sixties journal Trobar are seminal to some of his most influential ideas about poetics and also map a pivotal development in post-war American poetry and thought.
A Controversy of Poets sought to turn the discourse away from “movements, schools or regional considerations” and back to the poem. The result is more inclusive than The New American Poetry, yet the anthology was clearly intended as a definitive, if controversial, statement on American poetry in the early 1960s. As Ron Silliman has pointed out, the anthology “manifestly reflected the perceived & passionately felt militancy of the various New American tendencies.” This is especially clear in the anthology’s two postscripts, each written by one of the editors. As Paris Leary writes: “This is an anthology in tension: it is designed to bring together poets who have heretofore sat at different tables, to see if there can be any conversation.”
A Controversy of Poets explicitly politicized poetic form and positioned itself in relation to the two-camp model of raw and cooked espoused by Lowell and emphasized in Allen’s The New American Poetry, which the editor promoted as “a total rejection… of academic verse.” But even more significant in terms of Kelly’s lifelong vision for American poetry (and what would come to be known as Deep Image poetry) are these lines from his postscript to A Controversy of Poets:
I mean a poem that means something because it is no longer about
something but is something: but, and this is all-important, a poem that,
as a thing, does not come to exist aesthetically and in remoteness, as a
thing would be in a museum, unthinged, but as a thing would exist, and
possess meaning, in a world of living men… In general, the new poetry
is the product of those poets who believe in the word, who believe in
the word’s strength, who do not say: words fail me, but who may
confess: I failed the words. The words do not fail us, and in the strength
of that conviction a poetry has lately grown up in America that enlarges
human experience and human relations… The ancient understanding
of the poet as custodian of the words (the mythos, the story) of the tribe.
The thingness of language and the poet’s role as custodian of it is vital to Kelly’s conception of what would become Deep Image poetry, and is also one of the clearest distinctions between the type of poetry that Kelly was advocating and what he saw published in mainstream journals and books. Of course, Kelly’s concept of the poet as custodian of language builds off Stéphane Mallarmé’s description of Edgar Allen Poe as a poet whose role was “to purify the language of the tribe,” a process that T. S. Eliot remarked was “not so much a progress, as it is a perpetual return to the real.”
Kelly’s insistence on the real and the materiality of language points away from the breath-based poetry of projective verse and the Beats (as championed in The New American Poetry) and toward the writing of the Language poets that would emerge later. The poetry Kelly is advocating here—which would deeply inform his poetics for decades to come—is more than a midpoint between two poles, however. This is a distinct way of thinking about language, but not only that. As Kelly later said, “Deep image was Thinglish Grammar forgotten into dream and awakened by music.”
After nearly sixty years, A Controversy of Poets still charms and impresses with its incisive quirkiness. Clearly, the anthology was an attempt to bridge the supposed division in American poetry that had calcified with the publication of The New American Poetry in 1960 and The New Poets of England and America (1957), edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson.
A Controversy of Poets grows out of this post-war editorial tradition. Most of the poets Kelly and Leary selected were included in one of those two previous anthologies. That the juxtaposition of John Ashbery with Daniel Hoffman for example may seem surprising now reveals both the ecumenical nature of Kelly and Leary’s editing as well as the degree to which we have internalized the supposed split in American poetry. The anthology contains fifty-nine poets in total, with one poet of color, LeRoi Jones, and a total of eight women. This is actually more inclusive than most anthologies of the time, including The New American Poetry. A Controversy of Poets also follows The New American Poetry’s nationalism, including no poets who were not American.
This nationalism wasn’t simply a fluke, but rather a part of Kelly’s poetics. In his essay “Notes on the Poetry of Deep Image,” he distinguishes American English as particularly important:
The verbalization of the image comes out of the linguistic patterns of
the poet’s native language… The American language of today provides
the only reliable linguistic patterns for the poet of images. Verbal
expression of the image demands an urgency and directness that only
the spoken language of poet and reader can supply the language of here
and now… Only in the native linguistic PATTERNS can the deep
image communicate at full strength…
The argument that American English was somehow more fit for image-based poetry than other languages was in part a lineage from William Carlos Williams, whose ideas about the American idiom are well known.
But Kelly wasn’t simply following Williams. Instead, he was declaring his allegiance to a particular type of poetry that relied on vivid words to convey vivid perceptions, something to break away from what Kelly identified as the endemic decorum of the post-war period:
As a poet, I was after something that was not exhausted by describing
the outer reality or by the kind of decorum I had been facing, as we all
were, of the Wilburs and all the other tired ’40-ish writing that came to
life briefly again in the ’50s… But after years of facing that decorum,
to turn & face the decorum of the Williamsites, who were going to tell
me that I couldn’t use language, that I could only mention the names
of objects… so there was one more decorum to deal with.
A salvo against decorum, A Controversy of Poets was also important because it gave Kelly, who would become one of the most prolific poets and editors of his generation, a foothold and a testing ground for his ideas. Soon after, he began to edit the little magazine Trobar, published in Brooklyn between 1960 and 1964.
Even more than A Controversy of Poets, Trobar allowed Kelly to develop and disseminate his ideas about Deep Image poetry. Kelly and his co-editors George Economou and Joan Kelly printed between 500 and 1,000 copies of each issue and sold them by mail and in bookshops. According to Kelly “it sold very quickly.” The magazine’s popularity suggested that it fit the zeitgeist. Kelly addressed this directly in the second issue’s editorial:
The editors of TROBAR believe that American poetry today must re-
establish contact with the perennial strength of the deep image as a
mode of working within the poem, as statement and vision… The
purpose of TROBAR is to publish American poetry of intensity &
immediacy, apparitions of the native duende, articulate in power of
word, dynamic in the space of music, made with all the powers of
poetry, moving alive and passionate.
This is articulate and uncompromising, despite the fact that Kelly has said that “While [Trobar] had polemic concerns, it wasn’t yet clear to me how important it is to foreground the polemic in a theoretical position.”
But even more significant—both to Kelly’s own work and American poetry at large—were Kelly’s ideas about Deep Image poetry, as expressed in the essay “Notes on the Poetry of Deep Image,” also included in the second issue of Trobar:
The clothed percept is the image… Thus a poem involves the
fundamental rhythm of the images (fundamental because more
complexly present), a rhythm which is at once intellectual & sensuous,
and also the structural, more directly sensual, rhythm of the breath
expressed in line. The counterpointing of these two rhythms is a
principal source of fullness and complexity in the poem.
Kelly was certainly aware of Ezra Pound’s definition, from the influential 1913 essay “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” of an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” But where Pound focused mostly on the way that a single image presents “a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation,” Kelly emphasized the “fundamental rhythm” of multiple images in a poem combined with the “rhythm of the breath expressed in line” as the source of a poem’s “fullness and complexity.” In this way, Kelly retooled Pound’s thought for the postmodern age. And he was not alone in calling for and identifying new poetic methods and perceptions.
Robert Bly’s statements about the new imagination emerging in American poetry after World War II are crucial here. One might note that the editors of Kelly’s Collected Essays make a distinction between Kelly’s ideas about Deep Image and “the cheapened version [of Deep Image] peddled for some time by Wright, Bly & Co.,” objecting to what they see as Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg’s erasure from the mainstream and critical discourse about Deep Image poetry. Nonetheless, it is insightful to trace the overlaps between Kelly’s project and Bly’s ideas about “the new imagination” as expressed most clearly on the pages of his journal The Fifties, a magazine that was in large part inaugurated by Bly’s polemical essay “Five Decades of Modern American Poetry.” Here Bly lamented the return of “the old tradition of iambic verse” and the tendency of many American poets of the 1950s to seemingly ignore the formal innovations of the modernists. But the essay is not completely pessimistic, because Bly writes that “an imagination, a style, a content exists that has a magnificence of suggestion and association.”
Bly’s lament against poets using received forms to address contemporary thoughts and issues echoes Kelly’s postscript to A Controversy of Poets. Bly goes onto identify:
an imagination which assembles the three kingdoms within one poem:
the dark figures of politics, the world of streetcars, and the ocean
world… We need poets now who can carry on a sustained raid into
modern life, and in work after work, carry on the green and vigorous
waters of this profound life.
Examining Kelly and Bly’s ideas about Deep Image more closely, it becomes clear that they do in large part align. It is interesting too where their opinions diverge. According to Bly, recognizing and supporting the new imagination was paramount, but in contrast to Kelly, he based his ideas on poetry in languages other than English: “We must have some sort of phrase to describe these dark waters of Neruda, Lorca, Trakl, and the poems made of a new substance I have never seen before.” Bly also suggested that the type of associations that fascinated Freud and Jung had helped the new imagination come into being. These were influential ideas. As Donald Hall commented on poems by Bly and Louis Simpson in his 1962 anthology Contemporary American Poetry (which also included poems from so-called Deep Imagists James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but not Kelly or Rothenberg), “This new imagination reveals through images a subjective life which is general and which corresponds to an old objective life of shared experience and knowledge.”
There are similar formal and conceptual concerns in Bly and Kelly’s pronouncements, and there is a similar sense that little of the American poetry of the post-war period seemed fully realized. Citing Robert Duncan as “the sudden clear voice of poetry I heard speaking in our idiom,” Kelly makes clear that his totalizing sense of poetics left him caught between “the clashing teeth of the confessional and propagandic, the two molochs of the time I was growing up.” It is just this contrarian sense of totality and depth that provided the power of Kelly’s greatest poetry:
Some vital spark was missing in the poets I liked and imitated, yet in
the other contemporary work I got to see of an anti-formalist
inclination, while I found some vigor, it was all yawp & coarse,
scarcely deep-funded in the lore of poetry. For I wanted all things—the
measure and the immoderate, the archaic trove of all high poetry but
also the vivid “language of flesh and blood”…
This in fact is the new imagination that Bly was describing, a poetry that would maintain an active relationship with contemporary language and the depths of consciousness as it interacted with reality, striving to realize expression through organic rather than received forms. But by juxtaposing these quotes from Bly, Hall and Kelly we also see where Kelly’s ideas about Deep Image began to be taken up and developed by others. Bly clearly locates the power of the new imagination in imagery. Hall calls up its primitive associations. Kelly may have agreed, but also insisted on the primary materiality of words and what he called “intentional language.” This focus on words as things in themselves, not only vessels for thought and imagery, distinguishes Kelly among the consequential contributors to American poetry of the second half of the twentieth century and today.
Early on in his writing life, Robert Kelly declared himself a “custodian of the words of the tribe,” and for more than half a century he has kept up and kept after a purer use of English language in poems that are alive with actuality and depths of unconscious power. He has demanded no less of his contemporaries. His early work as an editor of A Controversy of Poets and Trobar was crucial in the development of his poetics and that of poets to come. Kelly launched his life as a poet and editor in post-war America, when his ideas were both an expression of and an inspiration for new ways of conceiving of poetry, thought and language in the United States and beyond. His words remain vital and inspiring because they have much to teach poets about the necessity of not just “finding” one’s own voice, but parsing it from the cacophony of contemporary discourse and keeping it pitched to the timeless directives of human language and thought. As Kelly wrote in the title poem of his book Finding the Measure (1968):
Finding the measure is finding the
specific music of the hour,
consequence of the motion of the whole world.