"Deep Imagists: The Subconscious as Medium" Leslie Ullman



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“Deep Imagists: The Subconscious as Medium” Leslie Ullman
The Deep imagist "school" of poetry, more than any of the others, proved to be both a watershed and catalyst for the diverse energies suddenly appearing in literature and the culture throughout the decade. It gave rise to a poetry whose characteristics recombined elements offered by other groups with a new energy source, Spanish Surrealism, to produce what two of its central apologists, George Lensing and Ronald Moran, define as a poetry of "the emotive imagination." The base element of this poetry is the image, and its "form" is a dreamlike rather than objectively recognizable progression of images whose aim is not to dismantle the reader's sense of self and the world but to startle one into quiet, unwilled acts of recognition. In this poetry, also known as Deep Image poetry (the term was first used by Robert Kelley in his essay "Notes on the Poetry of Deep Image," Trobar 2 [1961]), the poet's inner self and the outer world become landscapes described and fused by images that treat both as physical, yet associatively charged, phenomena.

The self in these poems is a profoundly subjective presence whose state of mind, as enacted by a progression of significant but loosely connected images, leads to personal epiphany or emotion that is ultimately understood as interpersonal, reflecting a larger collective wisdom. In the best of these poems the poet's self brings writer and reader into a shared, exploratory state of mind and involves both in an associational journey to an open-ended sort of closure, a final image that feels like revelation yet leaves the participants feeling suspended and pleasantly provoked.

Although this "new" poetry historically is not so radical a departure, it marked a significant change in the approach taken by North American writers, critics, and readers to poetry in the Twentieth century. " One of its most profound repercussions is a more direct and "poetic" sort of criticism that treats the poem as an experience rather than a statement, self-contained and self-referential, and the reader's experience of the poem as inseparable from the traditional]), analytical act of "understanding." This new incorporation of self was echoed in developments other than poetry: the flagrant assertions of the journalist's presence in the New journalism; the fusions between audience and performer in Happenings; the absurd, fragmented stories of Barthelme and others which nevertheless wooed the reader to re-experience the sensations of contemporary life; and finally a lucid intellectualism best exemplified by the criticism of Susan Sontag, who analyzed numerous aspects of sixties culture-Bergman's films, the role of "silence" in contemporary literature, Happenings, and Pop Art, to name just a few-by analyzing the dynamics of the attention paid them by their audience.

An even more important repercussion of this new poetry was its effect on a new generation of readers, which, ill turn, enhanced the impact of poems produced by the variety of writers, the variety of "schools," throughout the decade. By highlighting the associative possibilities generated by well-chosen concrete imagery and insisting on the involvement of the reader in the poet's act of self-discovery, Deep Image poetry sensitized readers to a resonant and shareable subjectivity evident in much of the poetry being written within and outside the major movements by writers such as Adrienne Rich, Donald justice, David Ignatow, John Logan, James Dickey, and Elizabeth Bishop.

The Deep Image movement, although it arose somewhat in response to the spirit of the decade, nevertheless came about largely through the singular energy of Robert Bly, who prornoted it as an antidote to Modernist aesthetics. His an(] William Duffy's magazine the Fifties, which began in 1958 and soon became the Sixties, flourished throughout the decade as the showcase for writers they felt would steer contemporary American poetry in the direction it needed to go: inward, toward the under explored regions of the psyche, by means of startling but rightly intuited images. The magazine also provided Bly with an arena for the impassioned, reductive, enormously provocative literary criticism for which be has become famous, a criticism that ranks intuition over rationalism and imagery over discourse , as a means of penetrating, for a moment, the reader's unconscious.

If Bly's sense of mission inspired him to dismiss things like Shakespeare and the entire formal English tradition with an overly theatrical sweep of the pen, it also made him recognize and offer to the public a new breed of North American poet for whom images were a mode of thought rather than skillfully crafted decoration. Some of these writers were James Wright, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, David Ignatow, Donald Hall, William Stafford, and Louis Simpson. He also produced and published translations of European and Latin American poets whosework, more than any other single factor, startled a younger generation of poets into recognizing the general direction they wanted to take. Especially influential were Bly's translations of German writers Gottfried and Georg Trald, Spanish writers Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado, Peruvian writer Cesar Vallejo, Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, French writers Ren6 Char and Paul t, luard, and numerous other nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets from Norway, Latin America, and other parts of Europe. All of these, Bly maintained, bad "passed through surrealism" and as a result spoke from that fecund area of the subconscious, or collective unconscious, where spirituality resides. This spirituality, as Bly demonstrated both in his criticism and his own poetry, derives its force from the natural world, from silence and solitude, and equips the writer to surface and fully confront the complexities of modern life.

Like Olson and the Projectivists, Bly sought to explore the self in an area beyond that of ego, in an area that might offer "organic" truth of its own. 15 Whereas Olson mapped this territory using the body as a point of departure, Bly mapped it Via the psyche, using ground broken by Freud and Jung to highlight the associative powers of the mind as it responds to resonant imagery and opens the self to depths that must be acknowledged despite the pressures from the culture and self-protective aspects of self to avoid them. Olson, he felt, stopped too short, treating the image simply as literal object. Yet much of tile poetry produced in the sixties by Olson's adherents, especially that of Levertov, Snyder, and Crecley, did explore and reveal new depths of interaction between the self and the physical world, did address itself to nature and to perception in resonant ways, and Bly recognized this achievement by publishing and discussing at length their poetry in The Sixties. Indeed, another of the mail), repercussions of Bly's energetic revamping of the poetic imagination in America was the melting of boundaries between these two important movements, one of which was legitimate]), avant-garde in the fifties and one of which seemed an inevitable condensation of energies burgeoning anyway, throughout the culture, in the sixties. Ultimately, the two movements became even more closely aligned as the), provided the major impetus to another unique and vital phenomenon in poetry of tile sixties, the poetry of protest. By tile time the Vietnam War bad firmly entrenched itself in the national consciousness as morally untenable and out of control, both Bly and Levertov had forged, in their poetry and critical writings, links between inwardness and the outer world, the explorable self and the collective self, which legitimized "protest" as a necessary aesthetic in its own right and drew poets from diverse areas into its field of energy.

The Spanish Surrealist tradition contrasts with French Surrealism's aesthetic of deliberate derangement of the senses as it aims for a kind of rearrangement of the senses through images juxtaposed in such a way as to reveal their hidden affinities. This "softer" mode of Surrealism thus affirms, by challenging and then rewarding with some glimpse of tile familiar, the sensibilities of the reader. Furthermore, its source is not chance but the release of strong emotion, and this grounding in emotion is what makes the flow of association feel somehow logical, despite the jolting combinations of images. Finally, and most important for Bly's purposes, the Spanish tradition offered poets of the sixties a means of grasping and transforming vital elements of modern life, through the poet's ability to descend into tile subconscious and then rise to meet those elements from the depths of being. "Inwardness," Bly claimed in all important essay entitled "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry," was the alternative that the Latin American and European poets offered to the American imagination, which had allowed itself to be constrained by the Modernist tradition's myopic fixation oil the outer world, the objective world.



The work of several poets in the sixties reflected this shift toward heightened consciousness via exploration of inner images, inner responses. Bly's work, of course, enacts quite clearly the states of mind he called for in American poetry, and many of his poems also echo the image constructs and pacing of images in the poetry he translated. With Bly, it is often difficult to tell who is echoing whom, but his work as a whole expresses such conviction and sense of celebration over a newly revealed state of mind that one cannot really doubt the authenticity of the experiences it enacts, even if that enactment becomes, after a time, insistent and formulaic. His first major book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, appeared in 1962. Most of its poems draw from the winter landscape of rural Minnesota and reveal the speaker in a brief, quiet moment of joy. They take place in solitude and benevolent darkness, two elements Bly feels to be important to a fruitful relation with the subconscious, and their images progress with the jolting yet supple movement which he so admired in poets like Pablo Neruda. Light Around the Body appeared in 1967, still reflecting Bly's mystical, at-one-with-self-and-nature predilections but adding to them a voice of protest: a condemnation of the public, rational modes of thinking which cut off the individual's access to the subconscious just as they have narrowed the sensibility of the entire society so that it acts brutally, out of ignorance, against others. Many poems in this volume speak in what Charles Altieri calls Bly's "satiric" mode, offering images that caricature the mentality of governments and armies and delineate them clearly as paternalistic, without spiritual resource.
The work of James Wright is thought by many to be the most genuine, most ground-breaking poetry to come directly from the Deep Image school. Wright met Bly when he moved to Minnesota in the late fifties, having published two books of poems cast in the current formal mode and knowing himself ready for a change. Other Deep Image-related writers, most notably Louis Simpson and Donald Hall, also turned away from formal poetry at about the same time and produced new work which expanded on the implications of Bly's theories; however, Wright's evolution, unlike theirs, took place directly within Bly's field of energy and undoubtedly influenced it as well. With Bly and William Duffy, he collaborated on a book of poems, The Lion's Tail and Eyes: Poerns Written Out of Laziness and Silence (1962), and, most important, he collaborated with Bly to produce translations of Trakl, Vallejo, and Neruda, which appeared in The Sixties magazine and then in book form from tile Sixties Press.


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