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Monday, April 18, 2011

Robert Kelly - Poet and Treasure of Hudson Valley

(Hudson Valley poet Robert Kelly will celebrate his 75th birthday and 50 years at Bard College in a Poetry Reading on April 21. The conference Logic of the World will be held on May 7 in New York City.)


By:  Joseph Mulligan, New Paltz

A ravenous reader would enjoy devouring, at length, the works of Robert Kelly, the way he or she would enjoy not only Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but also his Democratic Vistas; not only Pound’s Cantos, but also his Guide to Kulchur; not only Williams’ Spring and All, but also In the American Grain... A broad survey of this sort leads beyond the poetic epidermis & into the nerve-center of that animal anima. The poetry of Robert Kelly appears before us as an indispensable corpus, an ongoing parade of corpulent volumes, a voluminous body for sure. As we look at it, we are no doubt met with much more writing than we are used to encountering when we read most contemporary poets from the United States (1). Added to the works in print, there is no shortage of Kelly media online.

However, the breadth of this corpus may seem daunting to a reader today, as it must have 30 years ago to Jed Rasula, after he read Spiritual Exercises & observed that “Kelly’s stature, like Whitman’s, is characteristically American in proportion to the embarrassment with which it is received. The work is vast, his ‘readers’ have not really read him, and his own often contradictory impulses cast him as a chameleon in an arena where pure bulk is not a simple substance but another arcanum” (2). Rasula, one of the few critics to recognize the significance of Kelly's poetry & evaluate it on a massive scale (3), reminds us just how stark the contrast is between Kelly & many of his contemporaries.

Kelly’s writing is ‘chameleonic’ neither by accident nor due to caprice. It does not concern itself with whether it appears ancient or modern. It is sanely disinterested in the state of poetry & devoted to measuring, in language & in spirit, that crucial tension between the drive toward & occultation of human understanding. That line from Heraclitus, that the logos likes to hide itself, seems to echo through this poetry. Rather than a report of discoveries, we are more likely to reach Kelly in the midst of his search, as we do in Finding the Measure, where he sings: “Finding the measure is finding the mantrum, / is finding the moon, as index of measure, / is finding the moon’s source [...] Style is death. / Finding the measure is finding / a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement / forward” (4). Style is death because style is the repetition of bad habits, because style is stasis & truncates real transformation into mere trend. The same search can be seen in the poem “Injune” where we read, “The gold / hides in the ground // the way tomorrow’s weather / hides in the air, // the way what I finally will know / hides in me now” (5).

The linkage of movement & meaning in tension gives birth to an aesthetic of longevity that has slit the throat of style in a venerable ritual. The winding syntactical knots in Song XXI, for example, transform into potency & simplicity in The Flowers of Unceasing Coincidence, thrust forward by an unforced lyrical sensibility: “pretend it is a ship / and what we feel / that’s so like moving / is a meaning / and what pitches is uncertainty and / what rolls is the sumptuous / pleasure of having a body to be in / while the ocean itself / captains your brief ears / and guides you to blue places” (6).

Kelly’s continual transformations confirm that this poet writes for his life, not for a living, & that he has done very well for himself. The result: a poetry of discovering, not discovery, a poetics of longevity. The healthy distance that Kelly has kept from stylistically cohesive schools has resulted in the uninhibited proliferation of an organic lyric. “A knowledge of the future”, we read in Mill of Particulars, “is what the close / study of written texts provides, / given a reader / wise with natural sympathy: // in some book is recorded / each thing will ever happen. // This is not style. / These words now / are part of your future / (not just that I’ll be there for breakfast) // & the least song / rimes with the end of the world” (7).

Joseph Mulligan
New Paltz, NY

(1) The following is a (likely incomplete) list of Robert Kelly’s published poetry: Armed Descent (1961), Her Body Against Time (1963), Round Dances (1964), Enstasy (1964), Lunes (1964), Lections (1965), Words in Service (1965), Weeks (1966), The Scorpions (1967), Song XXIV (1967), Devotions 1967), Twenty Poems (1967), Axon Drendron Tree (1967), Crooked Bridge Love Society (1967), A Joining (1967), Alpha (1968), Finding the Measure (1968), Sonnets (1968), Songs I-XXX (1968), The Common Shore (1968), A California Journal (1969), Kali Yuga (1970), Cities (1971), In Time (1971), Flesh Dream Book (1971), Ralegh (1972), The Pastorals (1972), Reading Her Notes (1972), The Tears of Edmund Burke (1973), The Mill of Particulars (1973), A Line of Sight (1974), The Loom (1975), Sixteen Odes (1976), The Lady Of (1977), The Convections (1978), Wheres (1978), The Book of Persephone (1978), The Cruise of the Pnyx (1979), Kill the Messenger Who Brings Bad News (1978), Sentence (1980), Spiritual Exercises (1981), The Alchemist to Mercury (1981), Mullberry Women (1982), Under Words (1983), Thor’s Thrush (1984), A Transparent Tree (1985), Not This Island Music (1987), Doctor of Silence (1988), Oahu (1988), Cat Scratch Fever (1990), Ariadne (1991), A Strange Market (1992), RED ACTIONS: Selected Poems 1960-1993 (1995), Lapis (2005), May Day (2007).
(2) From Jed Rasula’s review of Spiritual Exercises, in Sulphur 6, Vol. II. California Institute of Technology: Pasadena, 1983.
(3) See The Alchemist to Mercury: An Alternate Opus: Uncollected Poems 1960-1980, Robert Kelly. Ed. Jed Rasula. Richmond: North Atlantic Books, 1981; see also the essay “Medusa's Gaze: Deep Image, or Traveling in the Dark” in Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth, Jed Rasula. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
(4) In RED ACTIONS. Black Sparrow Press. Santa Rosa: 1995, 80.
(5) Ibid., 99.
(6) Ibid., 153-154
(7) Ibid., 289.

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