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Poetry, consciousness and community by Christopher (Kit) Kelen (Consciousness, Literature & the Arts: Rodopi) The process of poetry has importantly intuitive aspects and poetry embodies an ambivalence towards consciousness and towards those activities of thought in which it is constituted. It was ability to favour doubt over the productions of the rational mind that led Keats to associate poetry with his 'negative capability'. Consciousness is - like poetry - a floating signifier, a term of wide reference, and with a range of implications in the various disciplinary contexts in which it finds currency. Poetry, consciousness and community is about these abstractions, about their reflexive relationships in process, and about how these relationships matter to the world today and to worlds to come.

This book is interested in the nature of poetic, as opposed to other, thought; it is interested in the critical application of these forms of thought to each others' productions, and in how poetic thought might or might not be subject to its own regime. Poetry - as practice of testing the limits of language - entails a reflexive goal: that of understanding the journey in words made possible for, and by, the poem. Poetic meaning and truth are revealed between languages (likewise between genres, between texts, between subjects); it is in this inter-subjective and inter-cultural space that the limits of language (and so of conceivable worlds) are found.

This book is about poetry, consciousness and community, about their reflexive relationships in process, and about how these relationships matter to the world today and to worlds to come.

The process of poetry has importantly intuitive aspects and poetry would appear to embody an ambivalence towards consciousness and towards those activities of thought in which it is constituted. It was ability to favour doubt over the productions of the rational mind and its determinations that led Keats to associate poetry with his `negative capability'. In Tropics of Discourse Hayden White connects poetry with lapses into the prelogical, lapses in the interest of bringing logical thinking into question. White draws our attention to Hegel's definition of poetry as use of metaphor that is conscious and has the effect of releasing us from the conceptual tyranny of over-determinations (1978: 10).

This present volume is interested in the nature of poetic, as opposed to other, thought (for instance in the relationship between the types of thought Julia Kristeva describes as ambivalent and bivalent). It is interested in the critical application of these forms of thought to each others' productions, and in how poetic thought might or might not be subject to its own regime. 'Thought' here is taken (after Bakhtin and others) to be an essentially dialogic process, one therefore suggestive of continuities and breaks in the meeting of minds and of (at least the prospect of) community.

Throughout the work, poetic texts and the canon of texts about poetry and poetics (from the most ancient) are used to interrogate the issues outlined above. For instance, the expulsion of the poets from Plato's ideal polity (and the various invited 'Defences of Poetry') are read in our present epochal conditions: those in which the post-modern, post-colonial, avowedly reflexive subject is engaged with the question of its own identity, its complicities, its exclusions. The business and direction (or lack thereof) of poetry is engaged with the ethical problems acts of reading and writing imply.

Key terms of the work are poetryl consciousness and community. Brief working definitions of these are introduced here, together with their role in the argument.


Does it matter what poetry is? Considerable time and effort have been spent on attempting to resolve the question, and while this has been entertaining (and often poetic), one is left with the impression that poetry is something of a floating signifier, or one might say it has been all things to all poets, critics, innocent bystanders. Complacency with regard to the insistent assumption of poetry's universal properties ought to lead us to doubt whether these constitute the imposition of one culture's (and/or epoch's) construct on others. Many definitions of poetry have been evasive. A favourite is that of A.E. Housman, who wrote, 'I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms it provokes in us' (1971: 369). In general terms perhaps that should suffice; for the particular purposes of this work, some more specific framing of poetry is required.

From the synoptic point of view, poetry — as extant text — is defined by the company it keeps and does not keep. Distinguished as other than particular non-poetry genres, out of long dis/continuities `poetry' deemed worth preserving has become an evasion of (addition to, subtraction from) what the canon already contains in the way of poetry. What should therefore serve as (or in lieu of) definition, is this formula — that poetry is the continuity of efforts gone on under the name of poetry; that the most characteristic of these, in the modernist and postmodernist sense, have been those paradoxical attempts to produce the text deserving of canonization by virtue of being what could not before have been poetry.

From the dynamic point of view, poetry — as art practice — is not merely the business of creating the text fresh enough to be canonised `poetry'; it is world changing work'. If, as Wittgenstein claims, the limits of my language are the limits of my world, then we can say that poetry is the practice of testing of those limits. Or — if the linguist and philosopher of language have in common a desire to understand how language works, then the poet's concern is with making language work and with testing the workings of language. An important question then will be how self-aware any such process can be. Similar reflexive questions apply to the linguist and the philosopher, but in the case of poetry more is at stake, because, as Roman Jakobson tells us, poetry's functional focus is on the message itself.

Most of what concerns the practice of poetry in this book concerns more generally the processes of art. For this reason a definition of poetry (as distinct aesthetic process) is less essential than a definition of art as process. This is not to suggest that poetry as an activity is indistinct from other art forms. An important difference is in the lack of a line dividing talk about the verbal or literary arts from the substance of the work itself. Unlike music and visual arts, an art of words has the same substance as the language with which its practitioners must function in their everyday lives; likewise meta-awareness of verbal artistry takes place in the same language medium.

As with art more generally, poetry's world changing work is not characterized by the propagandist's sledgehammer or the preacher's pleading. While acknowledging a danger of essentialism, it nevertheless seems reasonable to claim that the creative process of aesthetic production is a continuity definitive of existence as human, both through the ages and across cultures. These continuities can be contrasted with those of the (more recent) forms of thought considered critical or rational.

The creative process is work of re-visioning the world. It is difference making. As such, imaginative work is tropic (as opposed to iterative). As process, creativity is the opposite of alienation. Art represents and so explains the world — as it is, as it was, as it could be. This is a way in which humans make themselves at home, and in this sense, all art is anthropomorphism — a making sense so making ours, making human of the world. Creativity is the practice of the magic of making, and natural language — seamlessly evolving through use — is its paradigm instance. An art of words practices this magic on and with the magic power all words have to alter the world. The world altering power of words is a function of their mutability, their use as floating values-in-common. Alienation of the word comes where its creative potential is denied in favour of fixed values able to be endlessly reproduced (for instance mechanically). This occurs where words and their sum are reified, hypostasized, commodified. Paradigm cases of this are the dictionary and the canons of literature. In the context of popular capitalist culture today, the ever more impressive technologies with which the paying masses have their imagining done for them mask a struggle between the impulse to create and the desire to receive impressions of a desirable world. The contradiction here is that the apparent freedom to consume of culture's passive recipients depends on a cultural enslavement: it is the desires and the judgements of a culture-producing elite that hail the punters in what appear to be their own terms.

While this study is not focused on aesthetic judgement, it nevertheless acknowledges the fact that such judgement is perpetually taking place and that aesthetic productions only`survive age to age to the extent and in the degree that they are judged worthy by those whose opinions count in such matters — those variously empowered to pass on to others their delight or disdain for particular works. The canon is, at any given moment, the collection and arrangement of works surviving such judgement (and other vicissitudes of time); the canon provides a synoptic view of art as finished product. From the point of view of art-as-practice the canon is an edifice, an already-built world of influence — an essential context — into or against which new works fit or misfit. Thus the canon of literary texts — of word works — exists in a dynamic relationship with the process of art, as the arrangement of words to which the breath returns. Although this work deals almost entirely with a particular notionally 'high-culture' product and process (poetry canonised or canonise-able), no essential high-low distinction is made with regard to the nature of art products or processes or the consequent judgements allowing or disallowing their survival. The Odyssey may be understood in its original context as popular culture in the same sense that The Simpson is read as popular culture today. The canonic status of particular episodes, characters, lines is, in either case, dependent on a particular history of reception, needing to be understood in terms of a context of reading. In`either case, patterns of allusion in the text are suggestive of the canonic knowledge of the reader as relied upon by the author/s. A comparative study of the participatory (or interactive) aspects of reception of these texts over time would be enlightening, but it is beyond the scope of this book.`Though attention to canonicity and reflexivity reveal a difficulty in separating production from reception, the focus of the present work will remain with the processes through which texts are created and so become products of literary art.

Is it merely wishful thinking to consider art practice as world-changing work? It was the revelation of eighteenth and nineteenth century philology that every unreflective instance of speech alters its language and — so it may be inferred — alters the sum of what words have meant thus far. This process is necessarily unnoticeable; art's process — as it relates to the prospect of survival — is by contrast frequently visible, leaves a trace to be Inoticed. To leave such traces is the intention of those who I consciously avow themselves as practitioners of art. The point is not that every work of art alters the world, rather that this is the measure of art's effect — its presence to the here and now and its ongoing presence. That act of presence we call art is not about taking a jackhammer to the status quo or the powers that be. It is about shifting consciousness under its own steam.


For the purposes of this book, consciousness is considered from three perspectives; firstly as an alert state of mind in which a subject is aware of her self and circumstances; secondly (and importantly, a critique of the previous perspective is implied here), consciousness is the scale on which self-awareness and awareness of the world at large might be notionally measured; thirdly styles of consciousness are implied by different modes of thought and/or

feeling and for instance by different artforms and genres of literary work. In the first case, the 'light switch' metaphor is apposite (consciousness is off or on). In the second case, to shift (or to 'raise') consciousness is to move along that scale running from notional absolute non-awareness to notional complete knowledge. Contradictions between these absolute and relative notions of consciousness are rife in the automatised speech of everyday life and so provide a fertile ground for poetic process and observation. In the third case, point of view is foregrounded, as in for instance cultural or disciplinary differences. Modes of thought are likewise implied, so that we might for instance contrast a poetic with a rational style of consciousness.

Reflexivity and the (putative) self-knowledge of poets and poetry are key interests in the relationship between poetry and consciousness. Here again the generic contrast between reasoned and poetic thought is suggestive. An essay knows itself by way of an argument; it works or it does not work that way. A poem entails a different kind of self-knowledge. The anthropomorphism here points us though towards something these styles of mind have in common —that is, consciousness as what might be described as tropic motion. I For the purposes of this work then a distinction will be made between tropology and rhetoric; tropology being the study of tropes from all contexts and without prejudice to subjective intentions, rhetoric implying the avowed self-consciousness of subjects choosing how to mean what they mean.

This book surveys three exemplars of consciousness-inprocess, from the point of view of a poetic practice. These three are the oneiric, the tropic and the communal/interpersonal. Dream and community are poetic topoi — themes of avowed interest for the poet. The tropes — as structure for the practice of meaning in natural language — provide poetry with its most immediate source.


Plato's parable of the poets' expulsion is a useful touchstone for imagining the relationship between poetry and community. The association of poetry and its prospects with diasporic and exilic thought points to an affinity with the outside of (and with challenges to) civilization and rationality. Lao Tzu's mythic wish to flee the kingdom may be read as a similar motif in Chinese cultural history. In such imagery one witnesses an opposition between the state and those who refuse to sing its praises, between the governing impulse and an ironizing poetic impulse. We could call this latter the impulse to not have thought governed, to always think a new way. This impulse may be argued as something essential to thought in general, as in Michele Le Doeuff s formula: 'there is no thinking that does not wander'.

Community is a consequence of the intersubjective facts of language; it is what we consciously and unconsciously make of ourselves through the process of dialogue. As with language, and largely as defined by language, community's clearest characteristic is the line between the inside and the outside (belonging and not). Several key paradoxical formulations are relevant to contemporary poetry's exilic/cosmopolitan conception of community — these are, of community as unavowable, of the community of those who have nothing in common, the community of those who have no community. In our present cyber-age, the idea of anonymous community has purchase.

Is a community a participatory process or an edifice of civilization? In relation to art in general and to poetry in particular the canon is the key object in contention. Canon is what survives of art until now, it is that against which all future practices need to be measured. In a certain sense canon and community are opposites (the one dead, the other living). Their vital interdependence suggests though that they are different views of the one phenomenon; namely culture. In one case, art is read as trace of past practice, in the other art is a dialogic process in the here and now. Dialogue is possible because of the edifice of culture as it presently persists. Culture is possible because of the conversation that brought us thus far.

How real and how imaginary is community? The question is moot: however abstract they seem, structures of human community shape the world of the living. It is an urgent task of community to understand the stakes in the real crises the world now faces. These crises principally concern the destruction of other-than-human species, the erosion of human diversity, sustainability and the work of saving the planet from what humans are doing to it. It is an urgent task to witness these problems and to imagine solutions. The world today is in the thrall of three great abstractions (ideologies in the self-concealing sense) — these are nation and capital and empire. Religion and myth — the old ideologies — are harnessed in their service. Buck passers, none of these (nation, capital, empire) is responsible for the problem, none of them can solve it. So there is an urgent imaginative need to create the kind of human community that could understand the stakes and propose solutions to the problem.


What can be done by means of poetry? We who participate in poetry's community exercise a potential in common — that we might wake up to ourselves and so see what is to be done. Various traditions of poetic practice converge in this hope. If exile is a problem for poetry then reflexive awareness of place and time is the solution poetry offers.

Against world-wrecking 'rationality', the liberating potential of a poetic practice. That form of reason (as critiqued by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment) is best instanced in the clear and present danger to the globe posed today by growth economics. Against the gospel of growth, poetic play and the work of witness.

The specific kind of consciousness indicated here is ecoconscience — awareness of the here and now on the global/planetary scale. How will this 'cure' involve the forms or styles of thought thus far available? Read negatively, reason is the alienation of creative practice; creative practice is a kind of blindness. The Platonic ideal of the poets expelled removed from the city those who cast doubt in favour of those who styled themselves sternly and in terms of their own certitude. One notes that irony was the bond-in-common of the poets and those who first named themselves lovers of wisdom. Such a particular and elusive meeting of minds is one needing to be fostered.

An urgent necessity today is to balance rational and imaginative modes of thought.

The potential in play, in witness, in playing witness, in witnessing play, is to see how things really are in the here and now and to see a better way ahead. And because poetry is from somewhere and has destinations, poetry needs to witness itself, its play, its process, its presence. Myths of genius and of inspiration will no longer pass unanalyzed. So poetry — as practice of testing the limits of language — entails a reflexive goal: that of understanding the journey in words made possible for, and by, the poem. A key assumption of this work will be that poetic meaning and truth are revealed between languages (and likewise between genres, between texts, between subjects), that it is in this inter-subjective and inter-cultural space that the limits of language (and so of conceivable worlds) are found.


A methodological problem for this work concerns its form. Essentially this book is an essay and not a poem, a critical/theoretical work and not a creative work. Yet — to borrow Julia Kristeva's conception here — that bivalent (yes or no) version of the circumstances would seem to be solidly from the rational side. How can that bias do justice to the subject of poetic process? An ambivalent (yes and no) logic would allow productive play with imagined motions and continua — from waking to dreaming, between real and imagined worlds, between the as-is and the taken for granted and the various challenges a practice of art must pose for these. An aim of this book is to test the boundary between essay and poem and to build — or test the potential for the building of — a community in that borderzone.

When Levinas writes that 'the word is a window; if it forms a screen it must be rejected' (205), it may be replied that we are not necessarily privileged with the means of judging between these. And that perhaps what forges community is the failure of the reflexive capacities behind speech to keep up with speech's manifestations. Herein lies the fascination of the transcendence in which speech participates: that the between of us remains perpetually beyond consciousness, that what we say is always beyond the means of apprehension at our disposal; that we are thus, if in community, always beyond ourselves. Community exists only in the circle of alterity by means of which bodies apprehend each other only ever from the outside, in the gap which sensate experience broaches and makes common.

If poetry finds no community but the one which Blanchot suggests, of those who have no community, we may argue that this is because it is the art of being lost between, because it is (or rather it has long since become, in the movement from Romanticism to Modernism) an art of homelessness, the art (to go back to Plato) of the one disallowed from the city. The particularity of its dissonances establish the frame of affinities and disaffinities enabling and disabling community. Speech is the site between us in which we become participants in a community which opens onto rejection, the risk which has, as Blanchot writes of the community of lovers, 'as its ultimate goal the destruction of society' (1988: 48). The betweenness which makes possible culture also constitutes the risk to which it is subject: the risk of violence. It is in the exercise of this risk that civilizations build and threaten their others and as well threaten the calm they cultivate, the idleness for which they live. The mind Marvell imagines in 'The Garden' as one which, transcending its pleasures and resemblances, creates 'far other worlds', may indeed have the effect of 'annihilating all that's made' (1972: 101). Such is the negative power of imagination and such is the desire which can never quite found poetry's community — that paradoxical transcendent wish (as stated at this chapter's beginning) — to stand the world out of words.

In The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common Lingis writes:

To see the other as another sentient agent is to see his postures and movements directed to a range of implements and obstacles about him. To see the other is to see her place as I could occupy and the things about her as harboring possibilities that are open to my skills and initiatives. It is to see the other as another one like I am, equivalent to and interchangeable with me. It is the sense of the death awaiting me that circumscribes the range of possibilities ahead of me. To see the other as one who has his own tasks and potentialities is to sense another death circumscribing the field of possibilities ahead of him... But the other turns to me empty-handed from across that wall of death. (1994: 127-8)

But is death for the artist or the writer like this? Is Mayakovsky's death like this? What of a Keats, what of a name 'writ on water'? Acknowledging alterity is intimation of mortality. Death closes the corpus, death reduces that life of process to its products and leaves those products notionally open to unending judgement.

Levinas claims that the welcoming of the Other is the consciousness of my injustice. But while the foreigner may not necessarily be in proximity with me, my knowledge of that Other, foreigner or otherwise, demands a proximity borne of opening, in the face to face, a consciousness of the same. Yet it remains to ask: What if the Other should not welcome me? What if the face should not summon me, what if it should turn away? There would still be these words, whether windows or screens, and they would still lie between us; move with us by the means in which they are made infinite and by which we offer to ourselves our choosing, our wishfulness. Blanchot's `impossible community' is one which can never be finished and which always and necessarily risks disappearance.

Speech is evanescent and community has — by virtue of its being under negotiation — the unknowable status which Socrates, in the Cratylus, attributed to a transition always going on (1952: 114). Bertholt Brecht echoes Valéry's 'perverse delight' in the dictum that a work of art is never finished but abandoned (in Block and Salinger, 1960: 29), beginning his poem in 'About the Way to Construct Enduring Works':

How long
Do works endure?
As long
As they are not completed.
Since as long as they demand effort
They do not decay. (1976: 193)

It is in that failure to decay (corollary of never arriving), which can be said of none of us personally, that we discover a community which condemns itself and in which we are, as Sartre claims, condemned to freedom.


In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty writes that the oppressed, deprived of a voice, can only be spoken for. For him the victims of cruelty:

do not have much in the way of a language. That is why there is no such thing as the 'voice of the oppressed' or the 'language of the victims'. The language the victims once used is not working anymore, and they are suffering too much to put new words together. So the job of putting their situation into words is going to have to be done for them by somebody else. (1989: 94)

The problem of community may be best expressed in the fact that it is not only we humans who are condemned to our freedom. For Lyotard the animal is the paradigm of the victim (1988: 28). What Rorty says seems unacceptable for his oppressed fellow humans, but compelling in the case of animal others (those who have never had a language as victims). In dealing with the effects of our freedom a first step will be to witness the presence of the world (of worlds) which lack our forms of expression. Robinson Jeffers writes in his poem 'Carmel Point' of the extraordinary patience of things:

This beautiful place defaced...
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve.
Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,

Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. — As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and the ocean that we were made from.

(in Milosz, 1996, p. 34)

How may we learn to dwell among and not over those for whom — in witnessing — we cannot help but speak? What of the gap between the languaged and other sensate beings, even insensate beings (the fellow created of certain religions, the others deserving our compassion, as in Buddhism)? It is true that we cannot let them speak. Does this fact diminish our need for their voices, our need to meet ourselves in them? Are we able to witness what we cannot allow? We push toward too easy a transcendence when the goal of seeing less of ourselves simply involves our lessening, our retreat; at least the retreat of humanity's most virulent strains. That virulence can just as well be measured by genocidal effects as by the reduction of bio-diversity: two extreme monoculturalisms. If we manage to order that retreat, we only get there by means of speech. And it is language which, like the missionary's love, abolishes what it cannot see and abolishes what allows it.

How are we divided: as selves and between selves, between communities and idioms? To what extent are we entitled to speak or write as if these divisions were mannered or modelled after each other? Or is this the same mistake a phenomenology might make in assuming too easy a passage among subjectivities: is it the strategy of the imperial, inclusive, pronoun we? In Merleau-Ponty's formulation of we as (becoming) the question and of the world as reply, community discovers us, because it is only in such an open and dialectical movement that speech is possible.

Poetry's Community

My broad aim in this book has been to approach a philosophy of words of which poetry can make use. That effort has involved wrestling with what is for poetry the paradox of consciousness — that this form of indirection in words is achieved by those who — in important ways — do know what they are doing. It is also true that, in interesting ways, poets do not know what they're about. Indirection being a key strategy in this particular language game, poetry itself was that star at which I have attempted not to look too directly.

Poetry needs a law to write against. But the perruque which poetry effects is only a theft from an official point of view. The perruque is the reclamation of something stolen from everyone by official consciousness. It can be an expression of solidarity and without implying anything other than a diversionary process (de Certeau, 1988: 27) — a process which, in the case of poetry, not only allows, but may become the law.

If justice and its law is more generally an 'art of theft', as Plato has his Homer say, the canon is the kind of theft which official consciousness and its prescriptions rely on. By the means of survival the canon enables the inscrutable intentions of one age and place to serve the unknowable desires of another. The canon is in these terms the theft which, providing us with a cultural community, makes us who we are. It becomes the repository from which are taken the everyday words, as well the avowedly literary wordings, which will alter the repository by unofficial means. The canon is the continual source of its own continuous demise: its making.

As langue and canon are officialising thefts, ones whose means entail automatic legitimisation, so that retrieval (of time) the worker effects by means of the perruque is automatically illegitimate: this is not what you are here to do, not what you are paid for. Langue and canon take something which is or was among the belongings of particular individuals (parole or oeuvre as the case may be) and convert these into regimes to which anyone may be subject. The perruque reverses this, turning the actual order of things to the ends of `popular tactics' such as, for de Certeau, leave order 'tricked by an art' (1988: 26).

Poetry lives with the carnival of which Bakhtin writes in Rabelais, that carnival in which time itself kills the old world, gives birth to the new (1994: 224), the carnival which reminds us of the process of rebirth by means of the grotesque, the abject of the body (234). The truth of laughter, the victory of laughter: these are what Bakhtin discovers by way of carnival ambivalence (208-9). Between the semiotic and the symbolic, for Kristeva, poetry effects the practice of transgression. An affinity for the beyond of words is what poetry finds in laughter. Its community is in that survival: survival of a practice which is never the same as it was.

The exhortations of poetry, as those of fiction, of any art, are unlike those we live by, because poetry is committed to the cause of challenging every commitment. And thus its freedom haunts the future. In his poem 'A Small Country:1' Otto Orbán writes:

I too was duped about poetry being omnipotent... We have no ocean? Let's invent one... I don't believe that poetry is a care package dropped from a helicopter among those in a bad way. The poem, like a bloodhound, is driven by its instincts after the wounded prey. But the latter will change form and essence on the run: go ahead, catch the real anguish in the act. You follow the trail of probability's interstellar Mafia, the trail of the Black Hand, who had spun a gas cloud (torn from the sun) as if it were a lottery wheel — this way inside the cloud, a massacre and a tourist path could intersect. It cajoles, with a reasonable image of the future, a passion for gambling. (1993: 59)

Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants by Margaret Magnus (Truman State University Press) “In 1993, as part of a computer project I was working on, I found myself reading an English dictionary and dividing all the words into prefixes, suffixes and roots. I had read studies in linguists which suggested that the initial consonants of a word had a set of meanings, and the remaining rhyming part also had a set of meanings. One 'sense' of 'str-' is linearity: string, strip, stripe, street, etc. And one sense of '-ap' is flat: cap, flap, lap, map, etc. If you put them together, you get a flat line: 'strap'. The idea fascinated me, and since I was marking all these words anyway, I decided to keep an eye out for these classes which have similar meaning and pronunciation both. It turns out that it is possible by means of a series of repeatable experiments to show that certain meanings hang out with certain phonemes and others do not.

“I have been working on a dictionary which outlines this data for English in much more detail rather formally and scientifically. But I also have many thoughts which I seem to express more openly and cheerfully when I voice them in a separate book. My purpose here is therefore not to prove anything, but to summarize my most important findings in plain English and to philosophize freely and naively on their significance.”

Back in 1978 the Chicago Surrealist group reprinted an essay by Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1919) entitled “The Poetical Alphabet”. Blood was a Yankee intellectual who lived all his life in Upstate New York and is best remembered by a couple of long footnotes in William James perennial classic of religious studies, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Blood had penned an essay on nitrous oxide visions, the LSD of his generation, The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy (1874), where Blood waxes revelatory trigger that led to his pluralistic philosophy as the key to all symbols concern a reality of many ultimate substances that no single explanatory system can exhaust any accounting of all the phenomena of life.

In this lesser known essay on the secret sound sense of basic English words, [both essays are reprinted in the Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism by Benjamin Paul Blood (1920)] “The Poetical Alphabet”. The idea itself is probably older than writing and every poet secretly pursues the shy dryad of soundsense and manages their own inner sound significance like a subtle palate like flavor  on a quivering lower lip to tease the tongue.

 William James describes Blood's ideas as one of the "stepping-stones" of his own pragmatic philosophy. Another sonic image poet in Gerald Manly Hopkins, whose intense poems beside being awash in a sensate nature also invokes the innate sonorous sense of English. I do not think Blood knew of the obscure Jesuit’s poems.

About the Author:
Margaret Magnus is a freelance writer and researcher. She grew up in Boulder, CO and Trondheim, Norway, and is fluent in English, Norwegian and Russian. Magnus studied Russian at the University of Leningrad, and holds a degree in German with a minor in mathematics from Colorado State University as well as a degree in linguistics from the University of Oslo. She was a PhD candidate in formal theoretical linguistics at MIT, from where she went on to co-found and serve for 10 years as CEO in a business, Circle Noetics, which develops natural language software, such as search engines, spelling checkers and hyphenation subroutines. She enjoys playing the piano and raising her two children.


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