Canadian Poetry Online top banner link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page

From:   Milton Acorn. Hundred Proof Earth, ed. James Deahl. Toronto: Aya, 1988. 49-58.

I. Poetry and the Dilemma of Choice

A fundamental point of departure in modern non-academic philosophy is the Sartrian proposition of choice ... That each person is compelled, day by day and deed by deed, to choose his or her life; and that though this choice is by nature extremely personal and individual, it is nevertheless a choice not only for the person choosing, but for all mankind. It is no accident that in the efforts of some intellectual smart alecs in the West to reduce existentialism to typical bourgeois hee-haw guff, the second part of this proposition of choice has come under attack. These dear little boys and girls will accept the proposition that they are free agents all right, but in order to give them the proper titillation the choice must be wishy-washy, non-urgent, and involve nobody but their precious selves.

Official Marxist philosophy also opposes the Sartrian proposition of choice, though on somewhat more serious grounds. In brief, they find it in opposition to their own thesis of freedom being the ability to recognize necessity, and to act upon that recognition. To myself, and to other believers in socialism, this once seemed a very formidable objection. But it seems to be the Sartrian proposition of choice, and not the Marxian definition of freedom, that stands the test of history ... So much so that the existentialism of Sartre and Camus is today being taken up by the young communist intellectuals of Eastern Europe, and is having a profound effect on cultural events there.

To me at least, the proposition of choice is perfectly valid. Personally, I have chosen to be a poet, and event by event, decision by decision, I am compelled to repeat that choice. Again, I recognize that this is a choice not only for myself, but for all mankind. This leads me to an aspect of choice which has been taught me by my own experience. To quote from my poem 'Letter To My Red-headed Son':

nothing I've done, no poem, stand,
thought or act of love, hasn't called for
another, stronger deed, or I've lost it.

To elaborate on that, when a choice is made, and the result proves positive, leads to spiritual enrichment and/or the humanization of one's relation with other people, this successful choice results in another choice becoming necessary, usually a choice on a higher level of existence, usually also more difficult. Similarly, when the choice made proves negative, it too leads immediately to another choice, usually on a lower, grimier, more insulting-to-dignity level of existence, and here it is easier to make the choice, especially to make another negative choice. In our present state of society the road of descent is not too long and leads to a condition where not only human values, but the living values that animals have by nature and do not have to strive for, are lost. To quote another of my poems, dealing with the same problem:

I shout LOVE against the proverbs of the damned
which they pause between clubbings and treacheries
to quote with wise communicative nods ... I know
they're lies, but know too
that if I declared a truce in this war
they'd turn into pronged truths and disembowel me.

from 'I Shout Love'

It is this perspective of increasingly difficult choices facing one as long as life continues creatively which makes the whole proposition of choice such an agonizing one, so agonizing that I prefer to call it the dilemma of choice. There is only one safeguard against this dilemma, to see that each choice enriches one spiritually, so that one might have the equipment to face the next—more difficult—choice. To look at things from this angle certainly weakens many attitudes that most people take almost for granted, such as that the means may justify the end. Here I must digress a little to remark that most of Sartre's propositions are meant to be understood on the abstract, spiritual plane, and not always absolutely literally. This is something that should be so obvious that Sartre has never, to my knowledge, even bothered to explain it. Nevertheless Sartre's bourgeois critics who,[END OF PAGE 50] being bourgeois, understand hardly anything abstract or spiritual, even though they are constantly talking about abstraction and the spirit, can't get this through their heads. They persist in understanding him literally, and hence making the most laughable mistakes.

Thus, when I choose to be a poet, I naturally don't choose that the human race shall become a species of poets. The choice for all mankind is in the spiritual content of my decision ... I choose that the whole human race shall be raised to the spiritual level of poetry.

II. About the Politics in My Poetry

One beautiful thing about poets is that they differ from each other. Looking at the old-time poets who are remembered one can see that, though in the gross mechanical and philosophical aspects of their work there may be some likenesses, inwardly no two have the slightest resemblance to each other. Looking at the best of our contemporaries, one sees again differences so total you'd almost imagine that each poet inhabits a world peculiar to himself—you'd imagine this, that is, if it weren't for the fact that what each good poet says is so universal. I love Ginsberg because he is the most savagely political of poets (his objection that his poems are 'angelic ravings' and not really connected with politics is about as convincing as Khrushchev's contention that he doesn't really believe in God). I love Creeley because he inhabits an emotional world where hardly anything but the most intimate one-to-one relationship ever seems to occur. I love Souster because of the simplicity and truth of his awareness of human beings, and because of a fundamental political attitude of which Souster himself is hardly aware that shows in practically every poem. Difference, individuality, is the essence of good poetry. It is a mistake to fence off any facet of human experience that can, or may in the future, be expressed in language, and say 'Here poetry cannot touch.' As long as a phenomenon can be personally experienced by a poet (and the area of personal experience is constantly widening) it is a perfectly good subject for him to try out his gift of language on, to try to make it personally experienced by others. Thus, when one says that[END OF PAGE 51] Wallace Stevens feels an intense relationship only to inanimate objects, that even when he speaks of human relationships he makes them felt as if they were clashes of monstrous natural phenomena, one is not giving a reason why the poetry of Wallace Stevens is bad, but a reason why it is good.

Can any statement be sillier than the one repeatedly made today that politics is no fit subject for poetry? There have been great poets who were successful politicians—Chaucer for instance; and great politicians who were successful poets—Mao Tsetung for example. In between there were such minor figures as Milton, Goethe, Byron, who were deeply involved in politics, and whose politics informed much of their best poetry ... And then there were poets like Shelley, Mayakovsky (why, to extend the list would make this article sound like a catalogue of most of the great names in poetry) who wrote of politics in their poetry, and wrote on the fundamental spiritual and emotional levels. Indeed, the truth is that poetry—to an extent equaled by no other art—has been so continuously and fundamentally involved with politics that, in the past, great poets who, like Donne, produced work that had little to do with politics, have been somewhat overlooked. This is an injustice that modern literary criticism has been correcting; but only as a by-product of an effort to emasculate poetry socially (e.g., Auden's 'For poetry makes nothing happen'—a flaming lie); to shove it off—as the religion we know shoves off the human spirit—into a never-never land where it can no longer be an annoyance to those high personages who have taken over the ordering of political events.

Now I am a poet who writes about politics. I don't cover it up with any half-apologetic double-talk about 'angelic ravings', I call it politics. Politics in this present day, especially in what is laughably called the 'free world', is a mess—and I don't blame any young poet who feels it is a mess and therefore tries to steer clear of it altogether. But, in the most creative moments of history, politics is the focus where all human aspirations meet and struggle for fulfilment. Furthermore, politics is a subject with which most intelligent and sensitive persons are concerned, even if their concern is expressed in a periodic refusal to vote for any of the hopeless fart-faced goons the political machine periodically presents to us in[END OF PAGE 52] order that we may exercise our 'free franchise'. It aids communication for a poet when his poem at least begins within a general area that his audience is accustomed to thinking about.

Yes, I choose to communicate. This was a second, more demanding choice which grew out of my original choice to be a poet:to raise the entire human race to the spiritual level of poetry.

III. About Communication

I forget the name of the Soviet (or rather anti-Soviet) poet who summed up his views of poetry in the line: 'For us there is only the moment of recognition.' Unfortunately for him, the Soviet methods of enforcing literary judgements in the time he lived were altogether too drastic: he died in a labour camp.

I think it's limited and anti-human to regard a poem as a static thing, fixed in one moment of experience, having neither past nor future. I regard my poetry as a part of a current of experience, experience which was taking place before the poem was begun, and will continue after the poem is finished. I think that those people who speak of 'timelessness' in poetry are hopelessly up on cloud nine; that the illusion of timelessness we get from certain ancient Greek poems is just that - an illusion, caused by the actual shortness of the historical human experience. I think a poem must not be 'timeless', but timely.

By communication I mean that a poem is one moment or several moments in a shared experience—one which involves both poet and reader. I make statements but I also ask questions, and I don't always give the answers. I mean the question to be asked, and perhaps answered, by the hearer; this being part of the continuation of the current of experience. This is why I almost always design my poems to stand at least as good verse, something that on some level, whether sensuous or intellectual, will carry the hearer along, involve him or her. I count the sensuous aspect of a poem very important, because I theorize that even if the hearer doesn't immediately comprehend the intellectual argument, the poem in toto will leave an impression at some level of consciousness, and the intellectual content will eventually rise to the surface of the hearer's mind.[END OF PAGE 53]

It is of course impossible to discuss communication without discussing form ... and by form I mean not only the metric and verse structure, which is elementary and not something I'll discuss here, but all the tools of poetry: imagery, idiom, language. Very early in my prosodic thinking I came to the conclusion that the classification of imagery taught in our schools—those strange domesticated animals, the simile and metaphor—was a bit of pedagogic silliness based on accidental language arrangement, and of no functional value. I made up my own imagic categories. Later I found out that this invention of mine had been anticipated by a matter of four hundred years, in Elizabethan times; and the definitions I rebeled against had been an invention of the strange, dried-up, Latinizing poetasters of the 18th century.

The Elizabethans divided images broadly into three categories. First the descriptive image, which is simply (or not-so-simply) a description of the object, and at its best is so intense that it subjectively is the object. Secondly there is our old friend the metaphor, of which, of course, the simile is only a variation. Thirdly there is the conceit, which is an exaggerated, fantastic metaphor in form, but in function is quite different. Consider the famous Elizabethan example: 'There is a garden on her face/Where pansies and sweet roses grow' or to be more modern, Layton's 'And all the windows flew open like birds.'

In much of our modern poetry (that is, poetry since 1940), both descriptive image and metaphor have almost disappeared, and poets vie with each other in a campaign to see who can think up the most fantastic (and usually highly literary) conceits. This makes reading much of the stuff an exhausting game, a sort of intellectual squat-tag in which the poet skips erotically away from the reader—a poor dunce who follows, slipping and stumbling, seeking for some thread of meaning in the forest of imagery. This kind of poetry, as well as being difficult to read, is usually just about impossible to listen to... unless the poet happens to be a Dylan Thomas. A further tragedy is that this kind of poetry is usually produced by poets who are on the right side, who genuinely are seeking to say something honest ... All this while the old academic fuddly-dubs are plodding comfortably along with their meter and clichés,[END OF PAGE 54] producing simple stuff, easy to understand, with the filed teeth of the bourgeois cannibal showing in about every second sentence.

I have always thought, and still think (though not quite so strongly) that the conceit has been hopelessly overworked, and I avoid it almost absolutely. I have found that the descriptive image, if used with an original and discerning eye, can be by far the most effective of poetic devices. It might seem at first thought that the descriptive image is a type which places severe limits upon a poet's imagination; but this is not necessarily so. In fact, by compelling a poet to probe deeply into the reality of a phenomenon, it can produce images of amazing breadth and depth. Yeats was a master of this type of image. Consider in 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death' where he describes the First World War fighter combat in this manner:

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

Again in one of the most mystic of his poems, 'Byzantium', he concludes with: 'That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.' Although the use of the word 'tormented'— which brings in that old enemy with whom English teachers deal so mercilessly, the pathetic fallacy—makes the case a little doubtful, this is still essentially a descriptive image. And far from restricting the imagination it lets the reader into a vision in which he can wander and almost get lost. Myself, I don't think I ever created a better image than when I spoke of fishermen who

... putt-putt out with lunch-cans
on sea liable to tangle
and dim out the land between two glances

from: 'Islanders'

In metaphors, too, I've confined myself almost entirely to those that are clear, precise, and quickly grasped. I've found that it is entirely possible to do this without using clichés.[END OF PAGE 55]

As important as imagery is language. The danger of a poet using a language that exists only in books is very great. I've always tried to listen to how people actually talked. Especially I've listened to miners, seamen, people in close and clannish trades. I've noted how they speak in short, clipped sentences, designed to communicate information quickly in tense situations; how they manage to drop almost all articles and conjunctions. Turning that lesson inward upon my poems, I've never failed to be surprised at how many times words like 'a', 'and', and 'the' actually have no real function except to slow down the rhythm, make it stately, pretentious, 'poetic'. Again, in listening to the conversation of almost everybody, I've noticed how often such a word as 'have' is shortened to something which sounds like 'of'. Grammarians have noticed this too and, presuming that their poor dear children, their victims, are actually saying 'of', they condemn this as a grammati-cal error. Actually it is a contraction, and a good one. I represent it in a poem by an apostrophe 'ev. Other words that are shortened are 'will', shortened to just 'll; 'had' and 'would', shortened to a single 'd, and several others which I've probably forgotten.

I've always designed my poems to be spoken and heard, and therefore write English as I've observed it to be spoken. Only for the sake of special emphasis, again as the sound would occur in speech, will I write one of these words out.

The problem of grammar I've always looked on as a problem of clarity, nothing more. I pay no attention to formal rules of grammar when these rules have no relation to meaning. For example, I've completely and deliberately forgotten what the formal distinction is between the words 'as' and 'like'. I treat these words as synonyms, and recommend that everyone else do the same. I'm a skeptic, and disbelieve that there was ever a real difference between 'as' and 'like' in the language as it was actually spoken.

IV. Which Side Am I On?

If I were asked to sum what I am for in one word I would make that word 'freedom'. But it's such an over-worked and falsified cliché! It's the battle cry of the West, yet in hardly any part of the world is man less free than he is in this European and North American[END OF PAGE 56] world. It's simply preposterous to call any person, whether child or adult, free when he or she lacks food, or the means of satisfying most of the multitudinous human needs, including the need to grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as long as life continues. The money standard impregnates every aspect of our society: every single human want and aspiration, without one single exception, must be channeled through this bottleneck of money. Money is the great leveler, a scalding iron which runs back and forth over every human personality, seeking to iron out everything which is original and lovely, seeking to reduce all mankind to a few basic, simplified types. The most terrible thing that can be said about money is that it turns one of the holiest aspirations of a man, the desire to help and protect his family, into a vicious force, working against creativity, turning him into a coward, a cheat, a ruthless enemy of his neighbours, especially those of his neighbours who show weakness.

This leveling influence of money is reinforced by every tool human ingenuity can devise. From the very beginning of life the child of the West is faced with a battery of tests, 'intelligence tests' and soon, devised to measure him against an arbitrary standard of what a human brain should contain. As he rises in life he is faced by his employer with new and more searching tests designed to pry into the most secret places of his consciousness. Always our society strives to find or produce the standardized man, the man who can make money for the lords of banks and industry ... who are themselves enslaved, though more pleasantly, by money.

I'm against this system, and for a system where the springs of action are the natural human instincts of love, joy, and creativity. I note with interest that in Russia these tests - intelligence tests, psychological tests, and so on - have not only been dropped, they've been outlawed; though China makes use of something in the same category. It's a Soviet educator, Makerenko, not a Western one, who's maintained that in all the children he's dealt with there have not been any two who basically resembled each other. The pre-frontal lobotomy, a horrible brain operation which deprives a man of much that makes him human, standard practice in many hospitals in this wonderful capitalist paradise, is also[END OF PAGE 57] outlawed in the Soviet Union. So if I was compelled to choose sides between capitalism and communism, I wouldn't have the slightest hesitation in choosing communism ... even though that choice might have very unpleasant personal results.

I'd just as soon choose neither. I find the typical commissar of fact and fiction, with his pretentious and unprovable atheism, his unwillingness—even while he's eliminating the poverty that goes with capitalism wherever it's established—to let anything at all simply be, his needless persecution of small businessmen, and his conviction that he is qualified to pry into and direct any social phenomenon, to be in some ways as repulsive as the capitalist. I'm much more interested in a humanist government, such as has come to power in Cuba, which has learned many of the lessons of communism but none of its fanaticisms, except the fanaticism that every human being has a right to the necesssities of life. I consider the publicized 'democracy' of the West to be little better than a bad joke, a disguise for class dictatorship. So when I see another country working to improve its human environment, I'm rather patient when it goes slowly in working out the techniques of democracy. I don't think our voting technique, leading as it does to near-complete frustration of any political creativity, is any example to copy.

So you can see that my original choice, made as soon as I reached the age of reason, of which side I was on politically leads to me being confronted with an infinite succession of further choices, progressively more difficult. I am, to a large extent, a political poet. I don't urge other poets to be political. I think and feel politically: other people do not. But I'd urge any poet who feels the urge to express political convictions or questions in his or her poetry not to be intimidated, but to go right at it.

Finally, let me explain that this is a personal view of poetry. Poetry, though often a very public thing as well, is also and always a very personal thing. I hope this discussion might help other poets analyse themselves and all their inner and outer relationships in the light of their choice to write poetry. I believe this to be almost a necessity for any creative existence. [END OF PAGE 58]

Milton Acorn's works copyright © to the Estate of Milton Acorn.

Canadian Poetry Online bottom banner link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Digital Collections home page link to University of Toronto Library catalogue link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Contact Information page