One of the oldest critiques leveled against the poets, or anyone who makes (tous poietikous), is that making is always a making-after, in imitation of the real world. Socrates was afraid of poets because, no matter how skilled a poet is at their mimetic craft, at reproducing the real deal, the pathos of the poem seduces the audience (hoi polloi) into entering a world of false, refracting forms. The made thing is a distraction from which you can’t return. The made thing threatens how real a real thing can seem.
More recently, after an “autopoetic turn”—where myths and discourses about production are understood to reproduce the conditions of reproduction (Wynter, 2015)—what is real is always what is made. Now that there are no ideas but in things, the problem isn’t that the made thing misrepresents the real. Instead, the risk is of making the wrong thing with the wrong idea in it. And so the wrong reality. In an 1865 letter to Mrs. J.G. Holland, Emily Dickinson illustrated how a thing can be wrong, writing that “Father called today to say that our steelyard was fraudulent, exceeding ounce by ounce the rates of honest men. He had been selling oats. I cannot stop smiling, though it is hours since, that even our steelyard will not tell the truth.” Neither, as it turns out, will our subprime lenders, nor our consortiums nor superfunds, let alone our Big Three, our Carriers, our Boeings and Rexnords and Fords. As ever, reality is manufactured, and our makers are our poets. Their poetics, their assumptions about poeisis, are the algorithms for an autopoetic world.
So poetics matter. In America, where the land and its contents make up the “greatest poem” (Crase, 1996) if we look to the poets, we should be able to locate the algorithms that have given contour to our present reality, including its environmental, political, military, and economic dimensions. What kind of poetics underlies a reality in which our made things—our things’ packaging, our plastic bags and used cosmetics, Q-tips and tampon applicators, balloons with their strings and happy messages—festoon the shores of the Outer Hebrides, or spiral in galactic islands of oceanic trash? According to one well-known American literary critic, a poem “adds to the stock of available reality” (Blackmur, 1935). The poetic assumption underlying this axiom is that reality is made more, or gets stockpiled, insofar as it is made “available” through the poem. The poem processes: it mines and fracks and distributes the common real into a usable, accessible form—a form for usage.
The critic’s initial promise sounds nice. Who doesn’t want more reality? Or, as the poet and essayist Douglas Crase once put it in an article on John Ashbery: “How nice to have awakened among all the treasures that are yours to rearrange when you live at the apex, spatially and temporally, of empire” (Crase, 2017). He was referring to the American writer’s “literary luxuries”—to the wealth of allusions and intertexts and multimodal influences available for use by a postmodern poet like Ashbery. But soon enough the untrapped gas starts to leak into the water wells, and out your kitchen faucet. There comes a time you can set your tapwater on fire with a lighter. In a dream that Emerson had in 1840, Crase reminds us, “an angel presented him with the world—and he ate it.” These days, on the other hand, if a reader “eats the world, [they] will have incorporated a resource-limited, environmentally compromised, politically bewitched little ball that can be made to go poof in an instant by one culturally arrested septuagenarian. Can it be good for your health to digest an image like that?” Since he was writing in 1984, Crase’s “septuagenarian” is a reference to America’s other trickle-down, show-biz prez. But lords of the White House aside, Crase looks to poets like Ashbery for an “image of the world” that makes for healthier consumption.
The world is still being swallowed here, and the reader is hailed as its consumer; the planet is given a human scale. So perhaps our discourse about the “planet” needs to change if our aim is to alter an autopoeisis of endless production and consumption. When Crase cites Emerson’s dream from 1840, he speaks as an authoritative practitioner of Emersonianism; he wrote the introduction to the Library of America’s edition of the first and second series of the Essays. When Emerson set out to write his first book, Nature, Crase observes in that introduction, he feared the tendency people have toward establishing “usage” in and through language. The fear prompted him to make that famous invitation for individual Americans to establish their own “original relation with the universe.” As Emerson understood it, the trouble with discursive “usage” is that it threatens the “perceptual liberty” of individuals. Words ossify the world around them, and makes it usable. Irrevocably, people do things with words. “Do your thing” used to be Emerson’s imperative in the essay “Self-Reliance”—though in later drafts the word “thing” morphed into the word “work”: “Do your work and I shall know you.” Crase regrets this change. Both he and Emerson rail against a form of abstraction that loosens the individual from their environment, whether planetary or regional. To make a new thing with new words is to make new uses, to grip the real again at its roots. So it is I shall know you.
So, too, the proliferation of things. And in the Emersonian tradition, things are weapons; I protect myself with my things. In a democracy given to prophets and confidence men and demagogues, I may “have a right to think like a planet,” having thereby “a right to an unobstructed view” of the world, but, as Crase observes, it is “a right I’d better be ready to defend.” To think, as Emerson encourages, like a planet is to patrol against external “threats to perception,” which are “less likely in a democracy to arrive on horseback” and “more to be expected from the character of custom and modes of thinking...”. This must be the assumption underlying a poetics informed by Emerson, whose Essays, Crase claims, are historically the headspring for the mainstream of American poetry. The poem-thing the American poet does is the militia-musket mustered in the common defense of “perceptual liberty” against royalist and corporate forms of discursive usage. Of course, as Crase observes elsewhere, even this Emersonian folk-logic can become a form of usage. So, if “do your thing” is a weapon, it’s less a musket, and more like a 3D-printed zipgun—a plastic “wiki weapon” you can prototype from your desktop and discard after using. At which point it, too, enters the ocean and dissolves into microbeads.
As Crase illustrates in AMERIFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book (1996), a minuteman poetics extends beyond Emerson and infiltrates poets like Wallace Stevens. Curating quotes from canonical American poets under headings like “The Discovery of America” and “The Common Defense,” Crase cites two remarks by the object-oriented Stevens that signal the libertarian burliness underlying our US-materialist poetics. The relationship of the poet to “contemporaneous” objects in the world—say, “herrings and apples”—is one of “resistance” to “pressure.” The “common defense” of the poet is a “resistance to the pressure of ominous and destructive circumstance” that converts quotidian objects, like herrings and apples, into “an explicable, an amenable circumstance.” Stevens describes this as a “fortifying” reaction against the onslaught of an otherwise meaningless, arbitrarily circumstantial reality. Elsewhere, Crase cites Stevens’ claim that “One turns with something like ferocity toward a land that one loves, to which one is really and essentially native, to demand that it surrender, reveal, that in itself one loves.” Stevens’ “Discovery of America” involves a nativist violence that borders on sexual abuse, a strenuous exertion leveled against “the particular things on display at a farmer’s market, as, for example, the trays of poor apples, the few boxes of black-eyed peas, the bags of dried corn” which “have an emotional power over us that for a moment is more than we can control.” Crase weaves Stevens up in his poetic homespun, which has at its center an Emersonian poetics, where an original relation to the universe warps into a defense-industrial weapon-thinging.
That said, Douglas Crase is well prepared to orchestrate a careful critique of an Emersonian poetics, which territorializes on its planetary outlook. After all, he says that “to say the wrong thing has physical consequences”—so the question of poetics, or discourse about poetry, as well as the saying that a poem is, is of substantial urgency. He meditates extensively in his new book of compiled reviews, “Essays and Addresses,” Lines from London Terrace (2017), on the importance of attending to our poetic “analogies and tropes,” and even “memes.” Emerson “avails” as a meme—or, in fact, an anti-meme, subverting “trope with trope.” While he is willing to discard a lot of other antiquated nineteenth-century ideas sucked into the present-day in Emerson’s riptide, Crase preserves in his essays, as well as his poetry, what the Sage of Concord “thought poetry was for”: that is, the “liberty of perception”—which depends on the freedom to “choose metaphors, turn tropes, that express our own original relation to the universe.” We have seen how that original perceptive relation is preserved—with things as weapons. But how is it developed in the first place? By grabbing hold of the “axis of common origin”—a “science-baffling star, without parallax.” For Crase, the specific dimensions of this axis are evolutionary, cosmically re-configured. An original relation to the universe is developed by perceiving the world from the viewpoint of an “evolutional sublime.” Crase presents Lorine Niedecker, whose investigations into the bedrock of Lake Superior ultimately redeem “the most expensive, precarious component of evolution, the human one,” as a poet who writes from a sublime perspective.
The universe expands, evolves, and Crase, pulling on Emerson, sees “expensive” individual perceptions as both the products and the functions of that evolution. How we perceive correlates to how we use and speak, and we “have seen how discourse alters nature itself, seen the evidence thick in our bays and rivers and flesh.” Which is why Crase takes a long, evolutionary view that allows him to call for poets to “write that Chemical Brook [a perversely named ocean-outflow that connects up to the watershed west of Emerson’s woods] ... was never so beautiful as when it ran with a trichloroethylene sheen.”
Of course, Crase is as angry as anybody about the human hand in climate change. But he argues that the lack of an appreciation of an “evolutionary sublime,” or an original relation with our “axis of common origin,” is the problem that wrecked the biosphere in the first place, and that this problem can be solved only by loving the world we’ve made in the meantime, things and streams full of “mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, trichloroethylene, nitrobenzene, and chlorinated benzenes” included. People have to want to be here, in the wreckage, for conditions to improve. Wanting to be here means embracing an evolutionary sublime that in turn embraces the Anthropocene as a cosmic expression on the way to becoming “something else.”
“If the project of the expanding universe is to evolve, to become something else,” and that something else includes the new forms of usage and subcutaneous mutations that emerge like a third eye out of new, original perspectives, “then the more memes, the more poetry, the better.” Keep doing your thing. Ultimately, Crase rejects those worldviews that reject the world as-is, or that cling to post-human self-loathing as a form of self-absolution. In 1987, he attacks the trope deployed by Ronald Reagan during the commemoration of the Columbia space shuttle disaster: “the astronauts, [Reagan] said, had ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.’” Crase takes issue with a trope that sees the earth as “surly” and “binding.” This perspective, he argues, forgets that the human is autochthonous to the earth, which is autochthonous to the universe. Crase echoes Niedecker on this point: “Why should we hurry / home”? His answer: of course, we are home. With “iron in our blood,” we are our home; our home is in us.
Perhaps this is how we can start to make sense of Crase’s development as a poet between 1981 and 2017. Crase begins his first, and only full-length, book of poetry with the long, eponymous poem “The Revisionist.” Though surely beautiful, there is latent reactionary violence at the heart of this poem in which the poet tries to reestablish an original relation with his homeland by operationalizing for himself the forces of the evolutionary sublime:
If I could raise rivers, I’d raise them
Across the mantle of your past: old headwaters
Stolen, oxbows high and dry while new ones form,
A sediment of history rearranged. If I could unlock
The lakes, I’d spill their volume over the till
I know you cultivate: full accumulations swept away,
The habit of prairies turned to mud. If I had glaciers,
I’d carve at the stony cliffs of your belief:
Logical mountains lowered notch by notch, erratics
Dropped for you to stumble on. Earthquakes, and I’d
Seize your experience at its weakest edge: leveled
Along a fault of memories. Sunspots, I’d cloud
Your common sense; tides, and I’d drown its outlines
With a weight of water they could never bear.
...And if I could free volcanoes, I’d tap
The native energies you’ve never seen: counties
Of liquid rock to cool in summits you’d have to
The stately, careful beauty in this stanza belies the cataclysm it desires and describes: an exquisite, total disaster that it rakes across the surface of the earth. Crase is starting over in this poem; he’s revising the land. By wasting it, he returns it to the “wasteland” that makes up the “commonwealth” in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government—that out of which a person may take unto himself, and fructify. After all, the world as-is is a painful place; in 2011, at the age of 66, Douglas Crase married his husband Frank Polach—but in 1985, the “Supreme Court’s perfidious Hardwick decision” had upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia law criminalizing homosexual relations. This was part of “the dismantling of liberty, of industry, the dollar, the phone service, the railroads,” leaving the next American generation “a diminished estate & fateful downward mobility.” Crase is first and foremost a patriot (perhaps even pathologically so, as his analyst suggests), but the America he loves and “wants to protect” is itself “a trope for renewal and resistance.” “What I want to protect,” he wrote on February 6th, 1987, “is America herself, the very body of her: arms, legs, swell & dip—goldenrod hills of her. It is this body that has been exploited and ravaged and vandalized by those who only think of her as an abstraction. Not the trope, but the real sunswept tilth of her—never to be ignored, to be sidelined, to be exterminated again.” Thus, in “The Revisionist,” Crase is a “vengeful Johnny Appleseed” waging war against abstractions and “combat[ing] velleity” by remaking the whole territory as his own—which is precisely the invitation he extends to all “friends and foreigners” in his commonplace book fifteen years later.
At first, it’s jarring to compare The Revisionist with The Astropastorals (2017), the only book (or, in this case, chapbook) of poems that Crase has published since 1981. Now, the frame is no longer the land—it’s the planet. Crase has wandered from Stevensian particulars and a Niedeckerian evolutionary sublime to a more cosmic milieu that tracks with the trajectory of his interpretation of Emerson. And yet, it is precisely the planetary view that allows Crase to meditate on the limits of the American province and the autopoeisis that reproduces it. The first line of the first poem in the chapbook is also its title: “Once the Sole Province”:
of genius here at home,
Was it this, our idea of access to a larger world
That invented the world itself (first, second,
Third), past accuracy we are bound to inhabit now
As targets, positioned in a trillionth
Of the smallest measuring—microresults
Made in the least, most unimaginable chronology?
No more time-outs. For we are either ready or
We must be ready or not, an expensive mix
Of life-based chemistry perpetually on the verge
Of going to heaven in a vapor, and almost making it,
In these latter-day “astropastorals,” Crase posits a poetics that follows up on the promises of Niedecker’s “ferropastoral”—an iron land is a land of the dense hearts of stars. The poem that brings us back to the land brings us back to the deep, imperceptible axis of common origin: the quantum probabilities that sparked the cosmos. Of course, seen in one light, this shift toward what Crase describes elsewhere as the “new cosmology” feels like a contradiction of the poetics he has been formulating his entire life—it’s hyper-erudite abstraction and neo-colonial expansionism par excellence. In another light, Crase’s new poems give us a glimpse of a way out of a poetics that recapitulates its own provincial and protectionist vigilance by asserting an original relation to the universe:
The aim of every reverence:
That outside ourselves there be a scale more vast,
Time free of whimsy, an endless unbended reach
In which to recollect our planet, our hours, ourselves.
The scale more vast outside ourselves is actually discovered on the inside. The geologic timescale of the interior, in the ferropastoral stretches of the Revisionist, necessarily displaces us “beyond” the “Day” (notably, Crase has described James Schulyer’s ultra-daily poems as decrees from the “voice of Day”), beyond the “goldenrod hills” of the American territory, and there tethers us to a science-baffling star without parallax. But it is from this new perspective that Crase is able to turn back and “recollect”—not just the planet, but hours and selves. The land redeems the planet and the planet redeems the human subject, which is the occipital province of a perspective it leverages to evolve.
In the end, Crase does not entirely replace a poetics that fetishizes an original relation to the universe at the cost of all other relations. But he does show how more fully dwelling in that original Emersonian claim might prefigure a post-Emersonian poetics—that is, a poetics not leaving behind, but following up on, a bicentennial and a half in which poeisis has been mobilized often to add to our stock of available reality, wasting the land into a commonwealth. Just so
The mitigation remembers the mischief,
And nothing’s repaired except to engender it
To revise is not to rewrite. It is rather to see the same text anew, a new perspective that furnishes the universe with the means of its becoming something else. Indeed, “we are here for the view,” but it is not a view untrammeled of the forms of destruction we have wrought upon it, like “the refuse truck wheels” that “tear up Valley Brook / Road.” We are only a “success” inasmuch as “this is our scene:
Tracks, turnpike, a pipeline, the landfill,
Amenities meant for the wildlife in
The error-prone acreage between. No habitat
Scans like a wasteland, but by what unmistakable
Eye? The truck stirs the mice, the hawk
Heart stirs, and rodents in motion resolve
In fast-focus foveae. Life lifts from, it
Harries the ground, and the study a species
Must turn to is that earth
Where the dump and the refuge are relations under the sun.”
Through Crase we learn that re-reading Emerson today will not save us—a return to our transcendentalist past will not reverse the damage done during the American Century. In The Astropastorals, Crase does not look to the stars in order to ignore the heartbreak of pipeline and landfill, or of the Hammond 1V exploratory well drilled by the Hess Corporation at the top of Kingsbury hill, which the artist Mark Milroy has painted as part of the distant skyline lying behind Crase in his portrait. Instead, Crase recognizes that, in the course of a single day, the same “subject Milroy portrayed,” that is, Crase himself, “could protest fracking in Pennsylvania and return home to a hot shower in Chelsea fueled by the fracking he hates, and subsidizes.” In response to this “forced hypocrisy,” our most Emersonian writer looks to the dump itself for refuge, for a space of new relations in its own right. It is a difficult, dirty, and partial kind of redemption and it doesn’t have its terminus in Crase’s lifetime, or in mine, or on any human timeline. The poems that emerge out of a poetics of this hard promise may be characterized with language that Crase has used to describe the poems of a close friend: they are “invitations to the unending contemplation of ourselves, and things beyond us, that makes the human species a window on creation.”
In the end, Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” is not for looking from the inside out, but rather from the outside in. And it isn’t me who does the looking. Thing looks at thing through me, and, in the process, becomes something else.
Blackmur, R. P. “Statements and Idyls.” Poetry, vol. 46, no. 2, 1935, pp. 108–112.
Crase, Douglas. AMERIFIL.TXT : A Commonplace Book. University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Crase, Douglas. The Astropastorals. Pressed Wafer, 2017.
Crase, Douglas. Lines from London Terrace : Essays and Addresses. Pressed Wafer, 2017.
Crase, Douglas. The Revisionist : Poems. Little, Brown, 1981.
Wynter, Sylvia. “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition.” Black Knowledges/Black Struggles: Essays in Critical Epistemology. Liverpool University Press, 2015.
Kylan Rice has poetry and prose published in the Kenyon Review, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere.