contributing editors

Poetic License
A. Jay Adler

adler A. Jay Adler Biography
La Habana Nueva
The World Again
A Lexicology of the Middle Years
Ocean's End

Poetic Thinking

It is a Hollywood axiom that the first step to being a producer is calling yourself a producer. Producing begins with selling and you have to sell yourself, to yourself and to others. If you don’t believe you’re a producer, no one else in Hollywood is going to either.

It doesn’t quite work that way for writers, and for poets especially it could be that even if you write the stuff – doggerel and bad poetry can be found everywhere – you’ll really only be a poet not when you call yourself a poet, but when you think like one.

When I teach introductory literature or poetry classes, I begin by introducing students to two contrasting traditions of consciousness that I label the Logos and the Tao. The ancient Greek word logos, which means word, idea, story, explanation, discourse, reason, is central to the Western philosophical and Judeo-Christian traditions. In the New Testament’s original Greek, John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” In Socratic philosophy, commitment to the logos is a belief in the discursive nature of knowledge, that what we know can be put into words, is articulable, and that what is not articulable is not knowledge. What is real is subject to reason, and what can be reasoned can be expressed in words.

The Tao (Dao), meaning the way, or path, or principle, is the basis of a Chinese spiritual tradition that has broad application across many other Eastern traditions as well. It offers a contrasting sense of ultimate reality. An essential statement about the Tao is the paradoxical notion that “the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.” That is, ultimate reality, ultimate knowledge or understanding, is beyond words. Words limit reality by categorizing it, confining and reducing it. The moment you think you have identified the Tao, by naming it – that’s not the Tao. The Tao is something other, something different, something more. Still, it is a kind of understanding, reached through a form of consciousness.

In Zen practice, in the koans (paradoxes) that practitioners will puzzle over, and in the simple, often puzzling verbal responses a master may give a disciple seeking answers, words are not containers of meaning, but conveyances to it – if one can find one’s way into them. So, too, it often is with poetry, that words, rather than landmarks, are pointers, signs that say, not “You are here,” but… “this way.”

Of course, poetry has its ages-old epic and narrative traditions, and time-honored dramatic verse, but an essential lyric, expressive and contemplative impulse, always aspiring to something beyond its grasp, has predominated over time. Some months back on a podcast of Public Radio International’s “The World,” Patrick Cox posited that “poetry is often an attempt to reach beyond language toward that so-called raw feeling.” Considered Laura Solomon in response, at harriet, a Poetry Foundation blog, “While it’s an obvious contradiction that humans use language to do that, the fact that poets stretch language as far as it will go still puts them closest to those inaccessible abstractions.” Actually, it has been a question in poetry whether the abstractions are those “inaccessible” apprehensions to which poems try to point us, or are really the words themselves.

So it was that Wallace Stevens wrote “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” and Ezra Pound, in “In a Station of the Metro,” seeking the image, not an idea, agreed:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

And so, too, did William Carlos Williams, when he proclaimed “No ideas but in things” (rather than the words that are abstractions of things) and wrote,

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

By trying through an image to bring the reader back in contact with the sensuous world – the thing – these poets had it in mind to overcome the abstracting nature of words, of naming and classifying, and return us closer to theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s notion of what for an infant is, in his words, a “lake of sensation” – “colors, lights and sounds.” Suggested The World’s Cox, “Some poems might be seen as attempts to revert to a pre-linguistic form of communication. Others try to bridge the gulf between consciousness and language.”

“I guess you could argue,” Cox wrote, “that those sensations themselves comprise the elements of a language of consciousness.” A language, that is, not of the reasoning, discursive mind, but of a consciousness that is in some ways pre-linguistic, yet suggestive of the supra-linguistic – whatever aspect of reality that may be beyond language. All this contributes to that sense novice, untutored, or reluctant readers of poetry may have of poetry’s difficulty, why they want to look for the nut of easily digested prosaic meaning they think the poem is merely an elaborate edifice for hiding. But in my favorite poem for sharing with students how a poem is not a vault in which to hide meaning from those without the key, but a map to the treasure instead, William Stafford writes about poetry not in terms of what is present in it, but in terms of its absences. In “Notice What This Poem Is Not Doing,” he writes,

Every person gone has taken a stone
to hold, and catch the sun. The carving
says, "Not here, but called away."

Notice what this poem is not doing.

The sun, the earth, the sky, all wait.
The crowns and redbirds talk. The light
along the hills has come, has found you.

Notice what this poem has not done.

Along with these thoughts about poetry I offer for this second issue of West – my first on board and happy to be so – five poems, three previously unpublished, “weightless,” La Habana Nueva,” “The World Again,” “A Lexicology of the Middle Years,” and “Ocean’s End.” Each tries to point toward something spied in the distance, but not yet arrived at. They are not other words for something I have to say on their subjects: they are the words.


On the Poetry of Mariangela Spiezia-Nobre and Anthony A. Lee

In this month’s issue, West Los Angeles College student Mariangela Spiezia-Nobre and member of the faculty at WLAC Anthony A. Lee are poets as I call them here. Unlike aspiring Hollywood producers, they do not call themselves poets before they have done the work of poetry. Unlike the working producer, Mari and Tony do not make a living from poetry. (We will not discuss writing poetry and making a living.) You can see them both in the videos elsewhere in this issue joining in a “roundtable” about poetry with me and co-poetry editor William Wallis.

Mari, in fact, devotes her greatest artistic energies to her career as a songwriter and singer. With Mari’s intense imagination and passionate imagery at play, her songwriter’s approach to poetry in the early drafts of this issue’s “Lost in Translation” still required greater formal discipline and clarity, and that was the focus of my editing. Still, Mari’s inclination toward catachresis exemplifies one expression of poetic thinking. A catachresis is a strikingly unusual, almost disorienting metaphor. Done poorly, it descends into awful and outlandish mixed metaphor. Done well it reorients thought and sensation and provides among the greater pleasures of poetic language. From her poem’s opening line, in which the speaker is “Crawling in the orange of a dream” to “waves laughing blue and green” to “the homeless on skid row/lost in translation,” Mari thinks like a poet.

Tony makes his living as a Professor of African-American history, at WLAC and at UCLA, but he is a poet in that truest sense – he is called to it by the words and experience. In “Memory of Abel,” one needs to read beyond the surface of prose to recognize that the “demons” of the first stanza are of two kinds, and to feel the death in the poem that is never stated. And for the sheer thrilling pleasure of language invigorated, those demon Johns who “moan the hymns/ of the one-eyed siren” are almost – orgasmic. In Tony’s second poem, “The Sermon,” which begins “on the impossibility/ of imagining death or anything/ after that” and proceeds to the spirit for which “we still have no words,” we are all about the subject of this column, speaking about that for which we have no words, pointing beyond thought and trying to think about it. Tony does it in a manner that would please Williams and Pound, in “the crunch of tempura, the saltiness of pesto” and “the coldness of the stone floor on my forehead.”


Mariangela Spiezia-Nobre

Lost in Translation



Anthony A. Lee

Memory of Abel
The Sermon