The Iowa School of Disembodied Poetics
In 1976, I moved with my family to Fairbanks, Alaska to teach for a year in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska. I’m still there. I’ve published six books of poetry, as well as a collection of essays. My work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and many other journals. For more information, visit my website: www.johnmorganpoet.com
Jon Anderson and Steve Orlen lived two flights up across the hall from each other, and in our second year in the Workshop their downtown rooming house became our gathering place. Sprawling on ratty chairs and couches, or propped on pillows on the dusty floor, we’d hang out, talking about poetry, movies, sex, what magazines we’d sent our stuff out to and who, among our contemporaries, had made the latest breakthroughs in their writing. This aspect of graduate school, freed from the restraints of classroom discussions, was vital to our development. Though lacking the cafes, museums and great architecture of a major city, as the place where we formed those key friendships and forged our youthful aesthetic, Iowa City was our Paris.
With his wispy blond moustache and brassy Boston accent, Anderson was the magnet. Skinny, funny, original, and an ardent Red Sox fan—his poem, “The Summer Deaths” intones with rue and reverence their starting line-up from his youth—he had a gloomy side too, a moodiness, that gave his personality its edge. Abused as a child, he struggled with depression and had turned to poetry in a passionate quest to uncover—recover—endangered parts of himself. The title of his first collection, Looking for Jonathan, alludes to this search. He’d immersed himself in Rilke, scouring the Orpheus sonnets for poetic strategies, and absorbing the “Letters to a Young Poet” as if they’d been written for him. He was generous with advice and clear about his ambition—not for fame which he discounted, but for the next essential poem. If David Schoss was our designated critic, Jon was our metaphysician, struggling to crack open the mystery of poetic inspiration and find the alchemy that could make a merely decent poem great.
Insomnia often kept him working through the night, and by morning he’d have run through a dozen drafts and come up with another insight into the poetic process, which he’d pass along at our next gathering. “Love the mysterious,” he might argue, lifting his shoulders, spreading his palms in front of him, “don’t try to explain it away.” And this proposition was likely to spark an extended discussion, as we questioned and elaborated his point. The proof was always in the poems, and we’d pull books of recent poetry from the shelves—Merwin, Bishop, Berryman, Plath—and read out key passages to back up or refute an argument.
Sometimes Anderson would formulate his discoveries as literary axioms (“A quiet steady voice may be the most enduring”) or spell them out as practical tips (“Say the hardest thing, but don’t stop there—keep the poem going”), and some years later he published a small pamphlet called “Helpful Hints,” aimed at beginning poetry students, with fifty-nine of these pointers laid out in numbered order. As Jon saw it, we were engaged in a collective endeavor, and the advances or “breakthroughs” that any one of us made promoted the group effort. And generalizing this view, he contended that poets everywhere, no matter how antisocial or egotistical they might be on the surface, were, at a deeper level, all secretly in cahoots. He acknowledged the competition for recognition and space in the journals but considered those issues secondary. The underlying point, he felt, was that anyone who took the risk of being a poet, who was willing to walk that emotional edge day after day, putting their psyches on the line, was engaged in the visionary project of advancing our mutual aesthetic and spiritual understanding. This generous insight took some of the sting out of the brutal critiques we often faced in Workshop and we all bought in to it, although later on, out in the literary world, it disconcerted me to see how fragmented and contentious the poetic landscape had become and how many contemporaries hadn’t begun to grasp Jon’s point.
Not that we always adhered to it ourselves. Since we saw our calling as central to the advancement of the human spirit, any poet who failed to live up to the highest standards, or who’d backed off in a recent collection from earlier achievements was seen as copping-out. Even a very good poem that merely repeated an earlier triumph risked falling into the trap of formula and, though we admired verbal skills and formal virtuosity wherever we found them, without the right vision and sensibility, technique was never enough. Clever poets who hoped to pun or sass their way to Parnassus were scorned as ducking the essential task.
Though this spiritual quest may sound intimidating, Jon believed that playfulness was an important part of the job. Like a kid choosing his ideal lefty line-up, he enjoyed comparing lists of favorite formal or free verse poems, favorite collections, favorite movies, favorite directors, and, in another vein, he and a friend once spent a couple of weeks developing “The Game of Iowa City,” a cross between Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders. Players threw dice and landed on squares with instructions like, “The New Yorker rejects your best poem—go back 3 spaces,” or “A ‘famous writer’ pukes on your couch—advance 2.” It had, I seem to recall, a set of “Get Out of Town” cards, with messages like, “Your car breaks down in Davenport, go back 4 spaces” and “Your plane circles O’Hare for 3 hours, go back 1.” The object of the game was to reach the final square and “Get out of Iowa City,” but the board was arranged so that this outcome was not just difficult to achieve but virtually impossible. Mirroring a poet’s life of endless existential struggle, the game was a triumph in its conception but a serious downer in practice, and those who actually played it found that it soon brought on a state of hair-pulling frustration verging on despair.
Anderson was always trying to extend his range. He relished stories of oddball behavior—like one about a prisoner who was obsessed with eating glass—and often these tabloid squibs would be turned into metaphor and slotted into his work. When stuck for inspiration, he’d scan the dictionary, noting down words that carried a cargo of poetic implications. Soon you’d find them cropping up in his work: odalisque, contemplative, medallion, solicitude, retrospect. And when completely blocked, he had another recourse, one however that didn’t make it into “Helpful Hints.” I once visited an introductory writing class he was teaching and heard him advise the group, which included a couple of nuns, that when he needed fresh ideas he found it useful to masturbate.
We were avid movie buffs and a buddy of Dave Schloss’s, a grad student in film, had access to all the flicks that came into Iowa City for their various classes. On weekends we’d often spend from eight in the evening to two or three a.m. screening these movies in our own private film festival, and I must have seen more movies in those few years than in all of my life up to that point. Jules and Jim, Breathless, Last Year at Marienbad, and Children of Paradise became our benchmarks for serious art, but we didn’t scorn Hollywood thrillers, musical comedies or campy horror flicks either.
This crash program in cinema led a couple of us to sign up for a beginning film-making course which culminated with each student producing a five minute short. My take on a boozy loner living among rats in the attic of an abandoned Iowa City railroad station starred Jon Anderson, and my wife Nancy and I had parts in his short about a ghostly love triangle spiced with hints of murder and incest. Working hard in the editing room, I pasted scraps of black and white 16 mm film into some semblance of a story, but my best efforts turned out to be more like a parody of a student film than the gripping psychological study I’d intended.
Still, the physical nature of snipping and gluing film and the startling juxtapositions that can be achieved as shots and scenes are moved around, taught me something about the creative process. In the editing room, a film can be stopped and examined one frame at a time, or speeded up so that minutes flash by in seconds. A freeze frame holds a single image up for contemplation while jump-cuts push the story ahead with a nervous urgency. The poet Muriel Rukeyser, who worked professionally as a film editor, compares that work to the poet’s in her book-length meditation, The Life of Poetry: “The editor in the cutting room is dealing in time, in rhythms of length and relationship. The selection and ordering are a work of preparation and equilibrium, of the breaking of the balance and the further growth. The single image, which arrives with its own speed, takes its place in a sequence which reinforces that image.”
Dave Schloss slept late. If I knocked on his door before noon, I might not get an answer or else he’d be in a fog and unable to function. But usually by twelve-thirty or one, he was up—though still in his underwear—when I came by with a draft of my latest poem. Pulling on a pair of black jeans and lacing his boots—the sharp city-kid look he’d brought with him from Brooklyn—he’d pour some cereal in a bowl and, while spooning it in, read over my poem. If it showed any promise, he took out a pencil and framed with thoughtful brackets every superfluous word. Then he read it again and underlined anything that smacked of cliché, lacked clarity, or struck him as “intellectual bullshit” (his critical term of choice).
The early poems of Ezra Pound were Dave’s touchstones, and until I could develop the ability to step back and see my own work with sufficient detachment, I relied on his editorial judgment. Dave’s editing saved me from embarrassment when my poems came up in workshop, but more important he modeled the craft of revision for me. By watching him work, I was eventually able to internalize his techniques and even now when I look at a student poem or rethink one of my own, I fall back on his critical symbols and categories. As he overhauled a draft, he’d mutter to himself “bullshit…irrelevant…not clear…cliché…nonsense,” while on the flip side, his few chary adjectives of praise—“interesting,” “moody,” or, much more rarely, “cool”—suggested that I was on to something.
In those days, I wrote catch-as-catch-can, but mostly late in the evening, as consciousness loosened its grip and images floated up from the day. But Schloss’s creative process was very different. He explained that only by sleeping late could he gain access to deeper layers of thought. He kept a notebook and pencil beside his bed and when he woke from a dream, he’d scribble down whatever images and phrases came into his head. He took dictation from his dream-life, he said, because, when fully awake, his mind tended to operate in critical mode. As a result his poems had a quirky, surreal edge to them, but just what they were about was frequently in question. When they came up in workshop the students and often even the instructor seemed baffled.
One day a poem of his with the seductive title “The Dolphins of Atlantis” appeared on the worksheet, and when the discussion bogged down, feeling a debt of gratitude to my friend and editor, I jumped in and defended it with a careful line-by-line reading. In the rancorous debate that followed, I may have won a few converts, but after the session, David shook his head and told me that my interpretation had nothing to do with what he’d been thinking about when he wrote the thing.
Having been duped by my own ingenuity, I was dumbfounded. But then I had a great idea. Would he mind if I borrowed his title and wrote the poem I’d just described myself? Dave hesitated, running his fingertips over his temple as he thought. That catchy title was the best thing about his poem, but since I’d just shown my loyalty, if not my critical insight, he shrugged, and said, sure, go ahead. Here’s what I wrote:
THE DOLPHINS OF ATLANTIS
As the town walls fell apart
a particle at a time, their arms
contracted, their human contours
sleekened, sinuously, like a shark’s.
The face went last, long after
they were swimming in and out of doors.
Their paved streets, water polished,
shine like cast-off necklaces, exciting
fatal plunges from the decks of yachts.
They breathe another logic, simply
understanding that for them, it was easy.
“The final evolution we have become:
loss of feet, of names,” a legend
inscribed minutely in the deep
foreheads of those who might remember.
“The Dolphins of Atlantis” turned a corner for my work, stepping away from the clever Ashberyan cut-ups I’d been experimenting with to a more approachable, more lyrical style, and a more inward content. In a way, the dolphins embodied my new aesthetic—alluring, dream-like, a little dangerous—and their mysterious underwater world symbolized the artistic community my friends and I were forming. In that sense, the poem describes our progression from student-poets to the real thing, while transferring our casual coterie from landlocked Iowa City to the mythical ocean deeps.
[This article is based on a chapter in my prose collection FORMS OF FEELING: POETRY IN OUR LIVES (Salmon Poetry, 2012)]
©2017 John Morgan
©2017 John Morgan