Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Tony Tost

Tony Tost author photo

Downward and Upward at Once, into an American Mythopoetics, in Twelve Slippery Steps


We Come to One Another in the Histories We Choose

1. A Shaker ritual event, from America a Prophecy, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha:

Participants march through houses and out- buildings, pretending to be sweeping and cleaning wherever they go, while singing a song of vengeance, often "in the voice of God." They roar and howl at the appropriate time, stamp their feet, and shake wherever they come on any unclean spot. Returning to the place of worship, all fall on their knees "to scour and scrub from this floor the stains of sin."

2. In a letter written in 1885, Emily Dickinson states, "'Sweet Land of Liberty' is a superfluous Carol till it concerns ourselves -- then it outrealms the Birds." Also, "I saw the American Flag last Night in the shutting West, and I felt for every Exile." Responding to Mabel Loomis Todd, a pen pal and her own brother's mistress, Dickinson addresses the freer woman's travels: "I am glad you cherish the Sea. We correspond, though I never met him." In conclusion, she writes: "The Savior's only signature to the Letter he wrote to all mankind, was, A Stranger and ye took me in." Emily Dickinson signed her letter, America.

3. From Nick Tosches' biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire:

Now, Jerry Lee at this time had neither use nor liking for any girl-creature too young to wear an undershirt, and he regarded his sisters not so much as kin or even flesh, but rather as dark-haired, wailing thorns. Frankie Jean was the greater of the thorns, for she was larger than baby Linda Gail and she not only wailed but also spoke.

[. . .]

His mother had been pleading with him all day to take Frankie Jean outside and play with her. Finally he inhaled through his teeth and dragged the thorn from the house, letting the screen door slam weakly behind him. Frankie Jean climbed into her baby sister's stroller and commanded Jerry Lee to take her for a ride. It was then that he had his idea.

He pushed Frankie Jean for a long while, across dirt and grass and stones, toward a hill that dynamite and steam shovels and bulldozers had recently cleft in twain to make way for a new road. He pushed her to the top of this progress-ravaged hill, to the edge of this barren cliff that God never made. He peered into the chasm, to the moved-mountain rubble many feet below. Then he gave the stroller one final push and heard the scream of the thorn.

The stroller teetered, then plummeted from the cliff. It smashed against a jutting rock and burst into a noisy shower of flesh and hardware. Chrome, cheap wood, and pink tatters sprayed outward and downward in myriad wild trajectories. And in the middle of this crashing, splintering tumblement: the spinning, wailing thorn. It was a glorious sight, and Jerry Lee beheld it.

When he returned home alone, his mother asked where Frankie Jean was. He did not reply, so she asked him again.

"A chicken hawk," he answered. He unscrewed the lid from a jar of peanut butter and stuck in the two longest fingers he had. "Biggest one I ever seen. Snatched her up like a poor little chicklin' hen and carried her off." He squinted upward and raised his hand, the one with the peanut butter on it—raised it toward the heavens and moved it in a long, slow arc, like an Indian in a movie. "Stroller and all."

Frankie Jean entered the house, bleeding and bruised and wailing from the abyss. Mamie grabbed a broom handle and took it to her son until he, too, was bruised; but he would not wail. Frankie Jean did not smile again until she was twelve years old, when she was married.

4. The amateur, and one assumes, auto-didactic philologist, Edna Sarah Beardsley, was included in Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery's anthology, Imagining Language (MIT 1998), after Rasula came across her perplexing book in a used bookstore. Still unknown, and seemingly unread by all except Rasula, McCaffery and myself, Beardsley anonymously produced a miniature masterpiece--in the odd taxonomical spirit of Yeats' A Vision--called The Word, a Philosophy of Words: a literology or science of literate characters; a psychology or logic of The Logos (Soul); a word analysis or word treatise (Filmer Brothers Press 1958). Under the entry for the word "Influence," Beardsley writes to an American audience that has not yet arrived to her tutelage:

The moral one whom the human nature confronts with its flood of influence, is not easily confounded or made to flounder. He does not acquiesce, but resists and restrains human nature (humanly finite conceptions). He is not easily washed out to sea, or made to be at sea and at the mercy of human mindedness. He holds his own. He stands firmly upon the rock of morality or on the mountain of conscience, or in the heights of the solid convictions of conscience. He is not moved or driven by the human instincts.

The thinker of Realm II [spirituality] is wisdom, the logician. He is a spiritual scientist who understands and demonstrates the science of conscience and of his own soul. His logic flows in from The Logos. His literacy is the inflow or influx of the substance and essence of The Word (The divine creative Word). His law is The Logos-Principle which loves and disciplines, tutors and protects.

5. James "Rabbitt" Brown's 1927 recording, "James Alley Blues." Even a love song is, it seems, a tale of the tribe.

6. Jerome Rothenberg, from the preface of his anthology, Technicians of the Sacred:

A sound, a rhythm, a name, an image, a dream, a gesture, a picture, an action, a silence: an or all of these can function as "keys." Beyond that there's no need for consistency, for fixed or discrete meanings. An object is whatever it becomes under the impulse of the situation at hand. Forms are often open. Causality is often set aside. The poet (who may also be dancer, singer, magician, whatever the event demands) masters a series of techniques that can fuse the most seemingly contradictory propositions.

But above all there's a sense-of-unity that surrounds the poem, a reality concept that acts as as cement, a unification of perspective . . . a feeling for "the solidarity of all life" leading toward a "law of metamorphosis" in thought & word.

7. From Norman O. Brown's Love's Body, from the final section of the book, titled "Nothing":

To reconnect consciousness with the unconscious, to make consciousness symbolical, is to reconnect words with silence; to let the silence in. If consciousness is all words and no silence, the unconscious remains unconscious.


To redeem words, out of the market place, out of the barking, into the silence; instead of commodities, symbols.

When silence
Blooms in the house, all the paraphernalia of our existence
Shed the twitterings of value and reappear as heraldic devices.

--Duncan, Letters, XVII.


To restore to words their full significance, as in dreams, as in Finnegans Wake, is to reduce them to nonsense, to get the nonsense or nothingness or silence back into words; to transcend the antinomy of sense and nonsense, silence and speech. It is a destruction of ordinary language, a victory over the reality-principle; a victory for the god Dionysus; playing with fire, or madness; or speaking with tongues; the dialect of God is solecism.


The antinomy between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence, overcome. Everything is only a metaphor; there is only poetry.

8. From H.D.'s Notes on Thought & Vision:

There is no great art period without great lovers.


Two or three people, with healthy bodies and the right sort of receiving brains, could turn the whole tide of human thought, could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the world of dead, murky thought.

One must understand a lower wisdom before one understands a higher. One must understand Euripedes before one understands Aristophanes. Yet to understand dung chemically and spiritually and with the earth sense, one must first understand the texture, spiritual and chemical and earthly, of that grows from it.


If you cannot be seduced by beauty, you cannot learn the wisdom of ugliness.


An enormous moth detached himself from a bunch of yellow grapes--he seemed stupified with the heat of the sun--heavy with the sun and his soft belly swollen with the honey of the grapes, I would have said, for there was a bead of gold--resinous--that matted the feathers at his throat.

He fell rather than flew and his great feet scratched with a faint metallic ring, the side of my golden cup.

He stumbled, awkward and right himself, clutched the rim of my cup, waved his antennae feebly.

I would have rescued him but I myself was dizzy with the heat and the fumes of the golden wine and I heard a great shout of laughter as I tried to steady my cup and I shouted in reply, he is drunk--he is drunk.

So he was drunk.

Outside is a great vineyard and rioting and madness and dangers.


The intellect, the brain, the conscious mind is the bridge across, the link between the sub-conscious and the over-conscious.


Christ and his father, or as the Eleusinian mystic would have said, his mother, were one.

Christ was the grapes that hung against the sun-lit walls of that mountain garden, Nazareth. He was the white hyacinth of Sparta and the narcissus of the islands. He was the conch shell and the purple-fish left by the lake tides. He was the body of nature, the vine, the Dionysus, as he was the soul of nature.

He was the gulls screaming at low tide and tearing the small crabs from among the knotted weeds.

9. In a lecture delivered in 1930, called "Education & Work," W.E.B. Dubois presents his audience with a Rilkean image containing terrifying pressures and promises, a mascot for the American spirit, expunged from the subconscious:

Last night I saw the zeppelin sailing in silver across the new moon. Brilliant, enormous, lovely, it symbolized the civilization over which it hung. It rode serene above miles of death; like a needle it threaded together clouds and seas, stars and continents. Within its womb were caged eternal and palpitating forces of the universe, and yet without quiver it faced the utter ends of space. Across the city, mute, dominant, magnificent, imponderable—it flew.

The zeppelin is neither miracle nor stroke of genius. It is unremitting toil and experiment and thought and infinite adaptation in the face of every discouragement and failure, in the face of death itself.

I thought as I saw it flying there, of an angel flying low – an angel of steel and silk and of grim and awful human aim.

10. Born around the turn of the 20th century in Oaxaca, the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina did not read or write, but instead performed healing rites through the use of mushrooms (her saint children) and hallucinogens, rituals and chants, often productively collaborating with modern doctors who employed more normative, Western medicinal approaches. She eventually became a kind of cult figure in the 1960s, and received numerous American visitors seeking a generalized religious experience, and soon lost her visionary and healing powers. Many of her works, including her own oral autobiography (quoted below), can be found in Maria Sabina: Selections, published by University of California Press:

I woke up when the world was already in sunlight. It was morning. I touched my body and the ground to make sure that I had returned to the world of humans. I was no longer near the Principal Ones. Seeing what surrounded me, I looked for my sister Maria Ana. She was asleep. I didn't want to wake her. I also saw that a part of the walls of the hut had fallen down, that another was about to fall. Now I believe that while the saint children worked in my body, I myself knocked over the wall and toppled it over. In the following days the people who passed asked what had happened to the house. I limited myself to telling them that the rains and winds of the last few days had weakened the mud-wattled walls and finally overthrown them.

And Maria Ana got better. She was healed once and for all. To this day she lives in good health with her husband and her children near Santa Cruz de Juarez.

From that cure on I had faith in the saint children. People realized how difficult it was to cure my sister. Many people learned of it and in a few days they came in search of me. They brought their sick. They came from places far away. I cured them with the Language of the children. The people came from Tenango, Rio Santiago, or San Juan Coatzospan. The sick arrived looking pale, but the mushrooms told me what the remedy was. They advised me what to do to cure them. People have continued to seek me. And since I received the Book I have become one of the Principal Ones. If they appear, I sit down with them and we drink beer or aguardiente. I have been among them since the time when, gathered together behind a table with important papers, they gave me wisdom, the perfect word: the Language of God.

Language makes the dying return to life. The sick recover their health when they hear the words taught by the saint children. There is no mortal who can teach this Language.

After I had cured my sister Maria Ana, I understood that I had found my path. The people knew it and came to me to cure their sick . . . For some there was no remedy and they died. I cure with Language, the Language of the saint children. When they advise me to sacrifice chickens, they are placed on the parts where it hurts. The rest is Language.

11. At the end of Ronald Johnson's life, he left California, broke and ill, and returned to his native Kansas to die. He lived in his family's house and worked at the local park and completed his final book, The Shrubberies. When Johnson was on his deathbed, a group of young poets came to help gather his literary remains for posterity and record-keeping; among the items they were instructed by Johnson's to pick up was a found sculpture that Johnson had labeled The Tree of Life. Having only the title but not the description of this sculpture, and with Johnson too weak to speak, the young poets were reduced to frantically running around the house and picking up objects and running them into Johnson's sick room, asking him, "Is this The Tree of Life?," and then running off to find another possible object when Johnson would inevitably shake his head no. At last, one of the poets found an upside down pitchfork in the corner of a room, raced into Johnson's room, and with a nod of Johnson's head knew that The Tree of Life had been salvaged.

Also among Johnson's holy totems is a little known, out of print book by Elizabeth Sewell, called The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, published in 1960. In it, she writes:

. . . for the last 400 years, with the coming of what one might call the modern age, poetry has been struggling to evolve and perfect the inclusive mythology on which language works and all thought in words is carried on, and that this type of thinking is the only adequate instrument for thinking about change, process, organisms, and life. The history of this struggle and evolution is occasionally explicit, more often implicit. This is where Orpheus comes in: for Orpheus is poetry thinking about itself, and every significant mention of Orpheus by a poet or scientist may bring the working methods a little nearer the surface, make them easier to grasp than they will be when they are bound up with all the other things poets think and write of. For we are not saying this is poetry's sole task; poetry has not one task but many, which is why all approaches to it are allowable. We shall hear what the Orphic voices have to say on this matter.

12. Clayton Eshleman has stated that while the most vital influences upon his own work have been those poets he has masterfully translated--Vallejo and Cesaire at the forefront--their influence has occurred through Eshleman's active translation of them. In other words, Eshleman has been most influenced by Eshleman, but only through the voice of others. This seems to be one Orphic model, where the work of a great poet becomes the underworld, and the Eurydice one perpetually reclaims and loses is one's self. The descent and ascent, the gaining and losing: the mechanisms of myth. One of the poetic triumphs of the last several decades is Eshleman's Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, the culmination of his other life-long immersion, in Ice Age cave art, a result of Eshleman's unrelenting search for the ground zero of the human imagination itself. Early in the book, Eshleman writes:

I believe that we make images not simply because we are creatures who seek to lose ourselves within a pattern's mastery, but that the making of images is one of the means by which we become human. In this sense, to be human is to realize that one is a metaphor, and to be a metaphor is to be grotesque (initially of the grotto). While it is understandable to think that we stand on blind Homer's and Shakespeare's shoulders, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we stand on a depth in them that was struck hundreds of generations before them by those Upper Paleolithic men, women, and children who made the truly incredible breakthrough from no image of the world to an image. The cathedral and churches in which humankind passively sits today, listening to watered-down statements based on utterances of visionaries and ecstatics, were, before being in effect turned inside out, active underground "sanctuaries" or "incubational pits." There people created the first electrifying outlines of animals while performing rites of passage, commemorations of the dead, rituals to insure fertility, and just messing around. . . .


Previously I spoke of the contours in the wall itself that gave rise to some engravings and paintings. Such imagery could be thought of as containing the figure's emergent, or retreated, essence. Attempting to understand how early consciousness managed to make the nearly invisible visible, I thought of a moment in a prose work by Rainer Maria Rilke called "An Experience." After leaning against a small tree in the Duino Castle garden by the sea, and having suddenly been filled with the most delicate of vibrations that he could not physically explain, Rilke "asked himself what was happening to him and almost immediately found an expression which satisfied him, as he said aloud to himself that he had reached the other side of nature.

Is it possible that the "place" Rilke reached in the interior or nightside of the tree was a "place" that Cro-Magnon people looked out from? If it were, it would suggest that the locus of projection was sensed as inside the material the surface of which was being painted or engraved. Of course they must have had an intimate relationship with the surface of a wall to be able to pick up, by a flickering flame, the contour that implied the potential presence of a figure. Such people could be said to have seen from the "other side of Nature" as well as outwardly, to have had no fixed boundary or "reality principle" within the fluidity of the imaginal and the observational.

Thus the double separation--from the animal, from mother--endured by our ancient forebears may not only have taken them to the wall but allowed them an encompassing access behind the wall's undulating surface as ghosts of their own potential.


"The descent beckons . . ."

Further steps, down and out and in:

Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form; Joseph Mali, Mythistory: the Making of a Modern Historiography; Joan Richardson, A Natural History of Pragmatism: the Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein; Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather and Country: the Twisted Roots of Rock & Roll; William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain; Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History; Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America and The Geographical History of the United States; Nathaniel Mackey, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate; Irv Broughton and Frank Stanford, It Was Not a Dream It Was a Flood; Greil Marcus, Mystery Train and The Old, Weird America; Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America; Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, The Special View of History and Mayan Letters; Sandra Rudnick Luft, Vico's Uncanny Humanism: Reading the New Science Between Modern and Postmodern; Fred Moten, In the Break: the Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition; Robert Creeley, A Quick Graph; Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era; Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and The Education; Rosmarie Waldrop, A Key Into the Language of America; Louis Zukofsky, Bottom: On Shakespeare; Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, The Spirit of Romance, ABC of Reading and Machine Art & Other Writings; Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: the Collected Lectures; Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: a Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta; Jerome Rothenberg, Pre-Faces & Other Writings; Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man and Mystery Train; Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book; Carl Ortwin Sauer, Land & Life; Allen Grossman, The Sighted Singer and The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle; Forrest Gander, As a Friend; DH Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature and Fantasia of the Unconscious; W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South; Barry Hannah, Airships and Ray; Thomas McGuane, Panama; Jim Dine, Birds; Kenneth Goldsmith, UbuWeb; James Marshall, The Hound Blog; Peter Guralnick's Elvis biographies; John Richardson's biographies of William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson; the autobiographies of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus; the scholarship of Eric Havelock, Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin; the films of Maya Deren, Sam Peckinpah and Kenneth Anger; the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Ma Rainey, The Blue Sky Boys, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Fahey, Albert Ayler, Loretta Lynn and Hasil Adkins; the artwork of Simon Rodia, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger and Grant Wood; the photography of Weegee; the fiction of Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson and William Faulkner; the poetry of Frank Stanford, Theodore Roethke and Alice Notley.

Published 2010.

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