Blooding the abstract

This third post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"Abstract," as Robert Pinsky points out when visiting Pearl London's seminar, comes from the Greek "ab," for away, and "trachere," for draw:

[audio:|titles=Robert Pinsky on abstractions]

The etymological suggestion is that the abstract is the result of a separation, an untethering from the material world. When the guest poets in London's class talk about abstractions, the conversation often turns to their attempt to reenact this process of separation; that is, to push the concrete and the particular to a point where they call up, gesture towards, or are transmuted into the abstract.

This process, however, is also discussed in the reverse. When London speaks with Lucille Clifton, for instance, she comments on the poet's propensity to "concretize" the abstract:

[audio:|titles=Lucille Clifton on abstractions]

As an example, London mentions Clifton's short poem "chemotherapy," which starts: "my hair is pain." This curious linkage transforms pain from a sensation to a human substance. Clifton draws the abstract back down to the concrete through this jarring association to the body. As Clifton puts it, she wants the "specific thing to illuminate the larger thing."


London discusses this issue with poet Eamon Grennan as well, and he goes into detail about his "embarrassment" of the abstract:

[audio:|titles=Eamon Grennan on abstractions]

Both the Wallace Stevens phrases they allude to—"the abstract must be blunt" and "blooding the abstract"—suggest the need to materialize, or corporeally infuse, the abstract. Grennan's poem "The Statue" elegantly achieves just this, underscoring Grennan's stated poetic aim of "allow[ing] the accumulated particulars to embody, to dramatize the idea, the abstract idea.":

...the muscled legs steady, ready to step
through any drawback or impediment--
even death itself, it's wall of glass--
and not turn a curl amongst the bunched
unshockable waves of his hair: he is
a summary of boys...

From the inanimate and material we move into the animate and immaterial; and so the abstract comes alive.

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