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On Serious Earth: Poetry & Transcendence

Celebrated poet Daniel Tobin takes on the largest questions of the meaning and durability of language turned to art in his new book, On Serious Earth: Poetry & Transcendence. In the aftermath of Postmodernism, is there any lasting reason to believe that the timeless might inform our art? And if so, are we able to make value judgments about what among the productions of time most deserves to endure? Tobin finds guiding lights in a wide range of thinkers and poets, including Simone Weil, David Bentley Hart, Marilynne Robinson, Agha Shahid Ali, R. S. Thomas, Gwendolyn Brooks, B. H. Fairchild, and Natasha Trethewey. Navigating deftly between relativism and authority, nihilism and positivism, Tobin strikes a wise, informed balance.



Daniel Tobin declares independence from the Academy of Postmodernist Poetry, the new establishment. He sees postmodernist relativism as a radical nominalism, flattening the world into cynical power-plays or even nihilism. To defend his counter-vision of language bridging to rich and even mystical realities, Tobin assembles the marvelously disparate company of Emily Dickinson, Simone Weil, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Czeslaw Milosz, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, and R. S. Thomas, all writers who trust the fracture of language not to annihilate meaning, but to enlarge it. A complex, sophisticated, and magnanimous book.
–Rosanna Warren

With unflinching sobriety and daring, Daniel Tobin's new book, On Serious Earth: Poetry & Transcendence, figures as a necessary voice in a conversation too often shrill with hyperbole or lackluster with a chronic failure to commit. Never before have the poverties engendered by a loss of stabilizing values, however multiply conceived, found such an attentive and bracing response, intent upon a broader contemporary cultural analysis in which the conflation of taste and judgment emerges as symptomatic of a greater loss, a blindness to the metaphysics endemic to language and its healing power—exemplary forms as imaginative, precise, visionary, generous, inquisitive, and haunted. A smart and beautiful book.
–Bruce Bond

From “Ancient Salt, American Grains”

In addition to exemplifying his own practice, Charles Olson's program of projective verse is particularly significant because it both gathers into itself many of the innovations advocated earlier in the century by Pound, Eliot, Williams, and others, and sets the table for the more radical postmodern poetries that have followed us into the new century. For example, it is possible to foresee Susan Howe's linguistic montages in Charles Olson's claim that the new technology of the typewriter can indicate "exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtaposition of even parts of phrases" and so for the first time "without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening [the poet] has done" and so further "indicate how he would want any reader... to voice his work." How much more would Olson see the computer developing this potential even further? Notice, however, that Olson's concern is with the breath, with speech, and that the page--the typewriter's field of action--suggests a spatial orientation exclusive of those oral traditions that have shaped traditional meter and form. Of course, stanzas by definition are "little rooms," but the spatial metaphor in the word's etymology does nothing to diminish the oral and therefore temporal dimension of poetry. People on the street do not speak in octava rima or blank verse, but Yeats' and Frost's uses of these conventions on the page have less of a visual appeal than the deconstruction of traditional form into atomized, "non-traditional" parts on the page, whether by pauses, syllables, or juxtapositions of phrase. The phrase "composition by field" clearly suggests as much, and visual poems like George Herbert's "Easter Wings" and "The Altar," and John Hollander's “Swan and Shadow” are exceptions that prove the rule. So by a strange reversal of original intent, Olson's program might be said to more deeply entrench the poet in the print bred culture from which he sought to liberate it, as well as the burgeoning digital culture, precisely because the freedom brought by scraping traditional meter and form makes positioning on the page even more integral to indicating how the reader ought to listen to the moves the poem makes.

A second problem, suggested earlier, concerns the issue of what Charles Olson's friend Robert Creeley called restriction. Because projective verse (and potentially all free verse) calls for a radical adherence to openness, to a furtherance of the poet's impulse to discover, there is nothing to stop the poem from not stopping. The obvious result is shapelessness, which is one of the reasons why Robert Hass fears that free verse has run its course. Pound's Cantos, Williams' Paterson, Olson's own Maximus Poems, all lose in formal integrity because, in the final analysis, they have no closure. In contrast, a long sequence like Berryman's The Dream Songs, though clearly open in its articulation of Henry's angst-ridden musings, nevertheless obtains an accrued sense of closure through Berryman's elongation and re-formalization of the sonnet. Likewise, though multifarious in the formal expression of its parts, Irish poet John Montague's The Rough Field obtains closure through the leitmotif of the journey and the sequence's overall circular structure. It almost goes without saying that if the great pitfall of traditional verse is a staid satisfaction in filling out the form to the letter of its convention, the great pitfall of non-traditional verse is to make convention out of originality. The result is verse that reads like the proverbial chopped prose, or as seems more and more the case, verse that runs like words in spate in lines that confuse excess with passion. At the far side of the gulf between open and closed poetries, lies mannerism: on the one hand the idolatry of tradition and form that mistakes security for achievement; on the other a pretentious radicalism that mistakes faddishness for sophistication.

Whether Olson's is a program for a more sophisticated poetry or not, if literary historian David Perkins is right in observing that he "writes in a language that was never spoken anywhere," then the irony of "Projective Verse" is that it reminds us that poetry ought to have the strength and vigor of speech that the best poetry has never lost, and it does so with practical acknowledgement that speech is not merely a recording of what might be heard in conversation but is speech shaped by the ear of the poet. To re-double the irony, despite his desire to escape the metrical strait-jacket, the last run-over line from "Maximus" quoted above is pure iambic tetrameter ("the mast, the mast, the tender / mast"); which perhaps only suggests that measure does exist in the rhythms of speech, however "kicked around" that speech might become, and it is one of the poet's essential jobs to listen for it. Despite Olson's objection to traditional meter and form, some of the ancient salt gets into the American grain. Moreover, in instances where attentive listening shapes the process of composition, I would argue that the gulf between closed and open modes collapses, and does so regardless of the individual poet's particular aesthetic or polemical program.