The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape
Edited by David Hinton
Shambhala Publications, 2017; 320 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
David Hinton’s anthology of American poetry, The Wilds of Poetry, is nothing short of a manifesto, a spirited call to discover new ways of orienting ourselves to our world (uniting inner and outer) and new ways of forming language. He declares that “this is primarily a philosophical book” (13), one that tries to “excavate a female dimension in the tradition [and] to track the discovery that it is the tradition’s most powerful and transformative proposition” (14).
Artistic revolutions are often caused by a breakthrough in perception or in expression, and in the best a dynamic between them emerges. In the visual arts, for example, discovering a vanishing point was a new way of expressing two-dimensional art, but it caused new ways of seeing as well. In poetry, Ezra Pound sought new ways of making poems, beginning with his exhortations to focus on the image as a “complex” that reveals intellectual and emotional meanings in an instant. In the 1950s and 60s, Robert Bly’s forceful essays advocated a “leaping poetry” that moved back and forth between the unconscious and conscious, the known and unknown regions of self, and so to heal the rifts in our psyches but also in our societies. These were philosophic assertions as well as aesthetic ones. Hinton is proposing nothing less than transforming both.
Hinton’s work is oriented by an experience Henry David Thoreau had on Mount Ktaadn around 1846. Thwarted in his attempt to summit the mountain, Thoreau descended but found a great deal of himself stripped away. He not only lost his goal, but he was also physically depleted. Furthermore, facing “vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature” his faculties also felt “dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtle, like the air” (2). Hinton comments that these diminishments fostered an “intensification of Thoreau’s encounter with Ktaadn wildness” (2).
It is exactly this direct “existential contact” that Hinton is advocating. He informs it with his deep immersion in the Classical Chinese he’s been translating for decades, work of Taoism and Ch’an (the root of what became Zen in Japan). Meditation is one means of fostering this contact and discovering a heart-mind unified with the phenomenal world. His introduction traces the development of these ideas in the Eastern tradition while contrasting how the West, especially since the Enlightenment, pursued other means of perceiving. These led to a way of expressing the world where the human perceiver is separate from what is sensed. But the poets that Hinton presents have achieved some level of this contact and express it through innovations of language.
Some writers are informed by the Eastern tradition (through Pound’s injections, via Fenollosa), like Rexroth, Snyder, Merwin, and Cage, but others are not, such as Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, A. R. Ammons. Some poets, such as Jerome Rothenberg, Michael McClure, and Ronald Johnson, find their roots in “primal” or pre-literate sources of knowing. His choice of male poets overlaps a great deal with Eliot Wienberger’s 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders, except that Weinberger includes women, more Objectivists, and New York School poets. Like Wienberger, Hinton chose writers who “established terms for innovative poetic practice” (13), but Hinton wants to focus on those who also “try to replace [a Western cosmology] with a gentler self that dwells as an integral part of the generative, female Cosmos…—that is, to use the Chinese term, the female Tao” (14). He seeks nothing short of a cultural renovation.
Hinton claims that a poetry “that hews as closely as possible to that opening where we see through the assumptions about who and where we are” (his italics) necessitates subverting the language in some way. English simply doesn’t have the special non-identification that Chinese has, and so these poets wrestle with their material in many ways. How does the language look in a poetry of contact? “It would be the most minimal of languages, an ecopoetry of the least possible materials—and so, free of the structures of knowing that define us as the center of identity separate from the empirical world around us” (241).
He presents poets who sought methods of composition that stripped perception down to the essentials, in ways that echo what the Objectivists were after. Observers melt away by mirroring (an important concept in Ch’an/Zen, and so for Hinton) what is observed, or as Olson says, by “the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the ‘subject’ and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry our) and those other creatures of nature” (102). His selections from Williams and Eigner serve as good examples of this method.
Other poets represent a spontaneous exchange of energy, like Charles Olson or John Cage. This more kinetic approach is freer and associational, and so by definition, it has indeterminate forms. It can also result in such incoherence that the language embodies the teeming multiplicity of the world (as Hinton says, the strengths of these poetics are their own weakness).
The third method, best demonstrated by Ammons, is to attend to the workings of the mind as precisely as they attend to the workings of the world, and so fuse the two at the point of contact.
All of these approaches question the way language itself “structures mind and self-identity” and so “structures our relationship to the world” (263). This anthology invites us all to revolutionize our relation to the living world. “Poetry is most deeply a way of doing philosophy—not as merely juggling of abstractions, but as lived and felt experience” (12). David Hinton presents the abstractions clearly and with excellent nuance, and his overviews and selections from these poets’ work is pitch perfect, not only doing the philosophy but animating the art of poetry.