From the Pens of “Leaping” Poets: Parataxis as a “Leap” Between Robert Bly and Wallace Stevens
I begin this essay on a Saturday morning after a week of reading some of Robert Bly’s poems from his 1997 book Morning Poems, the more recent The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001), and Wallace Stevens early work from Harmonium. It is a clear morning. Just out the window from my desk a crab apple tree blossoms, near it, a wild plum of some sort. I step outside onto the deck at eye level with the tops of these trees emerging from their hibernation. Just feet away the traffic of LaPorte Avenue runs its way over the warming blacktop. It has become part of my nature to attempt to reconcile the two: the wild and the tame, the boundless and the bound. It has become part of my nature; but, perhaps, there need be no reconciliation. Perhaps I need only make a “leap.”
Patricia Rae, in her essay “Bloody Battle-Flags and Cloudy Days: The Experience of Metaphor in Pound and Stevens,” introduces parataxis, the “method of ‘presenting’ materials, side-by-side, without commenting definitively on their relation to one another,” as a foundational element in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Rae quotes Stevens in saying that parataxis offers an “ambiguity that is so favorable to the poetic mind.” The poet Robert Bly is likewise interested in ambiguous associations in poetry and makes this known in his book, Leaping Poetry. He develops the idea of “leaping,” a quick and imaginative form of association that “increases the excitement of the poetry” (Leaping Poetry 4, hereafter LP). The idea in this essay is that Rae’s notion of parataxis in Stevens’ poetry is similar to, if not the same as, Bly’s notion of “leaping.” The difference between the two theories is one of perspective; it is the difference between writing about poetry as a poet and writing about poetry as a critic.
In this essay I will briefly introduce Robert Bly’s idea of “leaping” and relate it to Rae’s parataxis while applying both to some of the poetry of Wallace Stevens as well as Bly’s own poetry. Furthermore, in an attempt to strengthen the argument, I will introduce a form of poetry called the ghazal form, one that applies the techniques that both Bly and Rae introduce.
“In ancient times…the poet flew from one world to another…” (LP 1)
In his book, Leaping Poetry, Robert Bly explores the form of modern poetry, mostly that of Spanish language poets such as Garcia Lorca, Neruda and Vallejo. His aim is to examine the movement of the poem, the manner in which the poet makes use of association as a tool. He writes: “It is this movement [the movement towards an increase in speed and range of association] that has given such fantastic energy and excitement to ‘modern poetry’ in all European countries” (LP 6) Bly’s idea is that the range of association in literature went into decline with the rise of Christianity largely due to the establishment of an ethics based on the dichotomy between “spiritual” and “animal”; the former representing the conscious, the latter representing the unconscious. It is no great stretch to deduce that the bipolarization that ensued from such ethics developed into the notion of “good vs. evil” or “black vs. white,” while the real struggle is between the known and unknown, or, more than likely, what we are willing to know and what frightens us. As recent history has shown, this battle is still very much alive. What Bly refers to as “leaping” is a means of traveling between the two worlds, between the conscious and the unconscious, the known and the unknown. Fundamentally, it is a means of integration in a world where the “intellectual Western mind [has] accepted the symbolism of white and black” and “tried to get ‘apartheid’” (LP 2).
Bly’s notion of apartheid, the idea of segregation and exclusion, works well when contemplating the evolution of modern poetry through writers such as Wallace Stevens. Segregation, exclusion, the privileging of one idea over another has great validity in the discussion of metaphor. Time and again, the poet confronts conventionalized language and the powerful culturally ingrained metaphors there, possibly falling victim to the trap of associations that have become cliché. In language, the choice of how something is represented or what association gets made necessarily excludes other possibilities of representation and association. A narrowed range of metaphorical possibility is the result of this exclusion.
It seems that, in regards to poetry, Patricia Rae’s notion of agnosticism in the approach to metaphor is essential in widening its range and tearing down the walls of “apartheid,” or, rather, “leaping” over them. When discussing the agnostic attitude towards the experience of metaphor in her essay, Bloody Battle-Flags and Cloudy Days: The Experience of Metaphor in Pound and Stevens, Rae notes that the “essence of this attitude is a refusal to pronounce on the origins, and thus the ultimate veracity, of such experience.” In relation to poetry, the idea of agnosticism, a term often wrongfully used as a substitute for atheism, has more to do with leaving open a door than closing one. The latter is the result of atheism; the former is the result of agnosticism. In a language where words represent things or ideas, and more complexly in metaphor where the degree of separation is multiplied, conventions become established and the users of the language capitulate to the power of that language. Stagnation occurs. The implication of conformity and convention in the phrase “ultimate veracity” that Rae uses is key in understanding the work of poets such as Bly and Stevens, for it is that obstacle that both struggle to overcome. What develops in Rae’s essay is that agnosticism creates room for the use of a new tool: parataxis—association by proximity without commentary.
I believe the notions of “leaping” and parataxis are the same; however, Bly and Rae approach the subject from different perspectives. What Bly, as a poet, calls “leaping,” Rae, as a critic, calls parataxis. The difference seems rather obvious: the poet explores the process, while the critic describes the outcome. In other words, the action of association is what Bly calls “leaping;” the outcome, or formal manifestation of that action, is what Rae calls parataxis. For redundancy’s sake, the poet is interested in the movement itself, while the critic is interested in the result of that movement. An example of this difference in perspective comes out of Steven’s poem “Domination of Black.” The first stanza reads:
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
turned in the room,
like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks. (Stevens 7)
There are two moments of parataxis in this stanza that I wish to call attention to. I will discuss them first as Rae, the critic, might. The first example deals with the internal scene (inside the room) as a mirror for what is occurring exteriorly (through a door or window). The “colors of the bushes / And of the fallen leaves” appear within the room and act “Like the leaves themselves.” This is a moment of parataxis because of the juxtaposition between what is happening outside and what is happening inside; as the colors turn by the firelight in the room, the leaves turn out in the wind. The second example of parataxis comes at the end of the stanza when Stevens introduces the “color of the heavy hemlocks” which occurs simultaneously with the speaker’s memory of the “cry of the peacocks.” The two are associated, not only by rhyme, but by proximity within the structure of the poem, but the reader is not privy to—as Bly might say—the “psychic” workings of the poet’s mind. In Leaping Poetry, Bly makes great use of the term “psychic.” Used in connection to poetry it refers to the poet’s ability to transcend the empirical.
Looking at the two examples from the poet’s perspective, as Bly might, the view is a little different. In the first example, Bly might consider that the poet’s movement between the “colors of the bushes / And of the fallen leaves” that exist outside the room and the repetition of those colors within the room, brought on by the poet’s imagination and association, is an act of “leaping” between worlds. It is a demonstration of the focusing of the poet’s “psychic” energy. Similarly, in the second example, what Rae would call parataxis in the association between “hemlocks” and “peacock” is what Bly would consider a “leap” taking place in the poet’s imagination; in this case it is a leap from the empirical (“the color of the heavy hemlocks”) to the more ethereal (the memory of the “cry of the peacocks”).
Bly states that the “early poems of Wallace Stevens are some of the few poems in English in which it is clear that the poet himself considered association to be a form of the content” and that the “content of the poem lies in the distance between what Stevens was given as fact, and what he then imagined” (LP 14). What begins to emerge here is the possibility of the concrete and abstract lying next to one another paratactically with the poet able to “leap” between the two. Bly considers that the form of the poem is distinguished by the poet’s “leaps” from her own imagination to her interpretation of the empirical world. In other words, without the “leap,” poetry is a dull experience. Further examples of the “leap” between the imagination and the empirical include the opening of Stevens’s The Snow Man: “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow…” Here, Stevens makes the association between the physical reality of the snowman and the imagination of the poet. Here, the “leaping” between the worlds of the conscious and the unconscious demonstrates how the two lie together paratactically. This “leap” is also an example of the pathetic fallacy: The poet bestows human reasoning on the snow man with its “mind of winter.”
Examples of parataxis/leaping in the poetry of both Stevens and Bly are plentiful. In Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” we are offered thirteen different glimpses of the blackbird in connection to its environment and humanity; Stevens even makes the “leap” between the moving of a river and the flying of a blackbird. In this poem, parataxis is used both within the stanzas (e.g. the river moving and the blackbird flying, stanza XII) and among them. It seems inherent that the reader’s wish is to make associations between the stanzas; he wants to reconcile the blackbird “In the cedar-limbs” with the “shadow of the blackbird” that crosses the window filled with icicles even though the poet does little if anything apparent to connect the two. The cerebral nature of the poet’s associations remains intact and the reader is left to his own devices.
An example of parataxis/leaping from Robert Bly’s poetry comes from the eighth in a series of poems entitled “It’s As If Someone Else Is With Me.” The first stanza reads:
The dawn comes. Leaves feel it’s time
To say something, and I feel myself drawn
To You. I know this is wrong” (MP 56)
The “leap” between the empirical view of the leaves to the desire of the speaker is a bold one. Where the poet views the transition as one of “psychic” association, the reader views the coincidence as an example of parataxis, the association not apparent but, nevertheless, for the interested reader, valid. Bly states: “My idea, then, is that a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around a magnet” (LP 3-4) This notion of the central leap is evident in this eighth installment of “It’s As If Someone Else Is With Me” as the poet makes a leap from the external world to the internal. Bly shifts from what is observed to what is imagined or intuited. The second stanza reads:
To be drawn to You can cause trouble;
I do so against all advice, from that one
In me who saved me by keeping me alone” (MP 56).
The “ leap” from the external to the internal is complete and represents the focal point of the poem, that moment where the poet makes an unseen association between what he views and what he feels.
Stevens’ Poem, “Six Significant Landscapes,” offers much in the way of parataxis. The poem focuses on six distinct representations that focus on the external, the internal, the personal, the seemingly detached, and the philosophic. The poem seems to span the globe, beginning with its focus on an old man in China and ending with a philosophical debate about hats with allusions to sombreros. The assumption of the reader is that the poet wishes to connect the “Six Significant Landscapes” in some cohesive manner; whether that is an accurate assumption is open to debate. The first “landscape” reads:
An old man sits
In the shadow of a pine tree
He sees larkspur,
Blue and white,
At the edge of the shadow,
Move in the wind.
His beard moves in the wind.
Thus water flows
Over weeds. (Stevens 58)
At the end of the stanza, Stevens makes a “leap” between two worlds, between the man’s body and its surroundings. The late introduction of the water that “flows over weeds” is abrupt but, here, the poet nevertheless asks us to make the association. In this example, it seems, my theory on the interchangeability of “leaping” and parataxis fails. It seems clear that a “leap” has occurred, but the poet’s use of “thus” connotes a causal relationship that fails to meet the paratactical criteria. Here, the poet makes an association and states that he is doing so. The theory must then be modified to allow room for the possibility that “leaping” does not necessarily manifest itself in the form of parataxis, but that, in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, it often can—and as seen above—it often does.
“Christianity Taught its poets—we are among them—to leap away from the unconscious, not toward it” (LP 2)
Early on this essay I briefly introduced Bly’s idea regarding the decline in the range of association in literature with the rise of Christendom. That Stevens believed that there was some deficiency in poetry is inarguable. That Bly feels there is a deficiency is also inarguable, but in exalting Modernist poets, Stevens included, he clearly sees some glimmer of hope. What Christianity may have taken away or at least squelched, Bly looked for in the poetry of other cultures, translating works by such poets as Kabir and Rumi, both Islamic poets.
In his exploration, Bly became aware of a form of poetry known as the ghazal form, a middle-eastern form that dates back at least a thousand years. The ghazal is a form “in which the scope shifts every few lines to encompass not just the deeply personal but also politics, myth and philosophy” (Habich). In discussing the form with John Habich in an interview with the Star Tribune, Bly states that, in ghazal poetry, “you really can’t become obsessed with yourself,” the idea being that the “scope” of the poem changes every three lines, not allowing the poet to become settled within the form. As Stevens would say, “It must change.” The “leap,” it seems, is inherent in this form of poetry; in order to stay true to the form, the poet must leap; she must create different focuses that lie next to one another paratactically.
Bly’s most recent book of poetry, entitled The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (hereafter, Night), is dedicated to the ghazal form. A nice example of this form is in the first stanzas of the poem “The Wildebeest:”
Once more the murky world is becoming confused. Oh
The essence of Reason’s House is confusion,
So this development is like the owl becoming owlish.
Arithmetic has failed to bring order to our sorrow.
Newton is not guilty, because the man who
Invents the knife is not responsible for the murder. (Night 3)
There is a “leap” in the focus between the two stanzas from the idea of something becoming like itself—the “murky world…becoming confused” and the “owl becoming owlish”—to the idea of something failing in its endeavors—“arithmetic” failing to bring order, a thing it ought to bring. Here, the themes of potentiality and impotence have a paratactic relationship, the kind of relationship that the ghazal form seems to demand.
Though not in the ghazal form, Stevens, in Harmonium, has at least two good examples that are similar to the ghazal in form: “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Surprisingly, when discussing the ghazal form with Habich, Bly states that “The landscape of every stanza is different”—it seems that he and Stevens are of the same mind. The focus of the different “landscapes” in “Six Significant Landscapes” leaps inward from distant China, to the more erotic night, to the personal; then it leaps outward from the inanimate (lamp-posts, domes, towers), to the abstract study of “rationalists.” All of these “landscapes” are associated only by proximity.
The focus in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” likewise shifts boldly, the difference being that while the blackbird is key to every stanza, how it participates within the stanza varies greatly. At times it is the focus as it is in the third stanza:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime. (Stevens 75)
At other times there are only traces of it as in the sixth stanza where it only appears as a shadow. The importance here is that while maintaining a traceable theme, Stevens alters his focus from stanza to stanza as a poet of the ghazal form might.
There is a time. Things end.
The fields are clean.
Belts are put away.
And the horses go home. (MP 26)
The similarity between Rae’s “parataxis” and Bly’s “leaping” is great, though, as shown, not absolute; their connection can deteriorate due to issues of form as seen in the stated causal relationship at the end of the first “landscape” of “Six Significant Landscapes.” Nevertheless, being that the perspective of the poet and that of the critic are so vastly different, the former involved in the process of poetry while the latter engaged in the study of the product, the similarity is impressive. But, it seems that the difference is irreconcilable within the confines of definition. The answer must lie in what Stevens states in the Adagia: “Everything accomplishes itself: fulfills itself” (Stevens 910), meaning that reconciliation need not occur. Perhaps there is only the “leap.”
Bly, Robert. Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations. Beacon Press. Boston, MA. 1975.
Bly, Robert. Morning Poems. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York, NY. 1997.
Bly, Robert. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York, NY. 2001.
Hablich, John. “Robert Bly on Persian poetics, politics and a writer’s life.” Star Tribune. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. December 2, 2001.
Rae, Patricia. “Bloody Battle-Flags and Cloudy Days: The Experience of Metaphor in Pound and Stevens.”
Stevens, Wallace. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, editors. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY. 1997.
Banani, Amin; Richard Hovannisian, and Georges Sabagh. Poetry and Mysticism in Islam: The Heritage of Rumi. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY. 1994.