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Blaser, Robin (Francis)

BLASER, Robin (Francis)


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Denver, Colorado, 18 May 1925; naturalized Canadian citizen, 1972. Education: Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1943, College of Idaho, Caldwell, 1943–44; University of California, Berkeley, B.A. 1952, M.A. 1954, M.L.S.1955. Career: Librarian, Harvard University Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955–59; assistant curator, California Historical Society, 1960–61; librarian, San Francisco State College Library, 1961–65. Lecturer, 1966–72, professor of English, 1972–86, professor, Centre for the Arts, 1980–84, and since 1986 professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia. Co-founder, Measure, Boston, 1957; editor Pacific Nation, Vancouver, 1967–69. Awards: Poetry Society award, 1965; Canada Council award, 1970, grant, 1989–90. Address: 1636 Trafalgar Street, Vancouver, British Columbia V6K 3R7, Canada.

Publications

Poetry

The Moth Poem. San Francisco, Open Space, 1964.

Les Chiméres (versions of Gérard de Nerval). San Francisco, Open Space, 1965.

Cups. San Francisco, Four Seasons, 1968.

The Holy Forest Section. New York, Caterpillar, 1970.

Image-nations 1–12, and The Stadium of the Mirror. London, Ferry Press, 1974.

Image-nations 13–14. Vancouver, Cobblestone Press, 1975.

Suddenly. Vancouver, Cobblestone Press, 1976.

Syntax. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1983.

The Faerie Queene and The Park. Vancouver, Fissure, 1987.

Pell Mell. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1988.

Muses, Dionysus, Eros. Lawrence, Kansas, Tansy Press, 1990.

The Holy Forest. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1993.

Other

Bach's Belief. Canton, New York, Glover, 1995.

Editor, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

Editor, Particular Accidents, by George Bowering. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1980.

Editor, with Robert Dunham, Art and Reality: A Casebook of Concern. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1986.

Editor, Infinite Worlds: The Poetry of Louis Dudek. Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1988.

*

Bibliography: "A Robin Blaser Checklist" by Miriam Nichols, in Line, 3, Spring 1984.

Critical Studies: "Robin Blaser's Syntax: Performing the Real" by Miriam Nichols in Line, 3, Spring 1984, and "The Poetry of Hell: Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan" by Nichols, in Line, 12, Fall 1988; "Blaser's Holy Forest" by Brian Fawcett in Globe & Mail, Toronto, 29 January 1994; "A Bow to the Numinous" by Phyllis Webb in Book in Canada, April 1994; "Rootworks" by Rachel Blau Du Plessis, in Sulfur 35, Fall 1994; in West Coast Line, 29(2), Fall 1995; interview by Samuel R. Truitt, in Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 16, Fall 1996; "In the Shadow of Nerval: Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and the Poetics of (Mis)Translation" by Andre Mossin, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 38(4), Winter 1997.

Robin Blaser comments:

I have two great companions in poetry, Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. And there is a real debt to Charles Olson.

I have insisted in my work upon a poetry that in its imagery is cosmological. I have tried to include, take in, and bring over in the content of that work images of those worlds to which one is given the possibility of entrance.

I am interested in a particular kind of narrative, what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem—this is a narrative that refuses to adopt an imposed story line and completes itself only in the sequence of poems if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion that is separate from the poems themselves. The poem tends to act as a sequence of energies that run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song, in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected. I believe a poet must reveal a mythology that is as elemental as air, earth, fire, and water and that the authors who count take responsibility for a map of those worlds that is addressed to companions of the earth, the world, and the spirit.

*  *  *

Spare and reticent by the common American standards of poetic productivity, Blaser is represented by a body of work scarcely more than two hundred pages long. One might infer that he is a miniaturist, yet on closer inspection we find his lifework proposed as one long poem, "The Holy Forest." Consequently, Blaser's most engaging collection, Image-nations 1–12, is regarded by the poet as constituting "intermittent events in the narrative of The Holy Forest." Narrative here is meant to signal something akin to a "composition of the real," a poetics elaborated initially by Blaser with his compatriots Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer in Berkeley, California, in the 1940s. This principle continues to be articulated in terms of companionship in Blaser's sizable book Pell Mell, in which is introduced another ongoing series called "Great Companions." These works are narrative in that they compose a story of how the lives and bodies of poetry are "made up," fabricated, enlightened in and by the elusive partnership of language and person. They are, in Duncan's words, "the story told of what cannot be told" and thus have a stake in the invisible, the ineffable, the unknowable.

Blaser's work is situated in the liminal space between himself and others, self and other, his own writing and the work of his comrades, and the written as it is complicitous with the unwritten. A narrative, then, is not so much storytelling as it is the elusive record of wandering and yearning, intimations of a gnosis. "Through the arrangement of words (parataxis)," Blaser writes, "there is a speech along side my speech, which allows a double-speech." In view of this, the relatively diminutive scale of Blaser's publications is deceptive, for his is a "double-speech" that continually evokes the charms and allure of an uncomposed otherness. Behind or beyond each poem is a fugitive other. On one level this implies a spiritual recital, as described by Henry Corbin in his illuminating books on Sufi visionary hermeneutics, but there is a practical, indeed mundane side to this as well. Blaser is the editor of his friend Spicer's Collected Books, which must be read not simply as the dutiful arrangement of a deceased poet's lifework but also as a rapturous reinscription within the field of Blaser's own poetics of a double voice. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer contains a fifty-page essay, "The Practice of Outside," that is both a thorough presentation of Spicer's poetic practice and an exposition of the nature of Blaser's own aspirations and engagement as a poet. Likewise, Blaser's volume Syntax consists almost entirely of the language of others, including graffiti, radio and television voices, and written texts, which he prefaces with the simple but momentous assertion "These poems do not belong to me."

Blaser's sense of belonging is conjugal and heartfelt. Not only does he appear to efface himself in the service of other, but even in the most secure passages of his own poems he returns to his double share, the composer being composed by a language beyond him:

   invisible   invisible   invisible   heart
   less
         the marvelous   deep   waves   or unbounded
   mountain regions
                 he effaces himself from
   his own language
                 
the composing   is
   not so simply himself   agency,
   executant   not creator   and
   ceremonies
                    of a look
             in his bitten heart
             where the heart looks out

The poet's sensitivity to the tenuous grasp of words, reflected in the awesome grip of the hidden and "bitten" heart, is accentuated by the poem's spacing. The words are semantically informative, yet blank spaces are deployed where punctuation might customarily serve. Blaser's meticulous attention to spatial detail reinforces the rhythmic allure of the images. The pages of Image-nations 1–12 are choreographies, imprints of movement that return the emotions to their transitive order in motion.

The poems in Pell Mell return to a left-margin alignment for the most part, reflecting not so much some newfound unity of the poet's own voice but assuaging the reader's encounter with mysteries unassumingly deposited here and there with all the charm of a child's first encounter with a nest of robin's eggs. Consider, for example, "The Sounding Air":

   nothing repairs, but that is the
   comfort, flowing in what system,
   the sounding air of the mind,
   refreshment, the caves, the
   labyrinthine moment always
   the universe, haunted me like
   god, but I was inside that
   complexity, in the left wrist, and
   wondered, such beauty, I said,
   where the human form drifts
   in the rivers, puzzles or dreams
   the solar origins 'see the islands,
   rare or fortunate, the work of
   chance or necessity' 'the irrational
   is mimetic' and the sacred,
   after I thought it was beauty, takes
   place constantly, ends constantly,
   to begin constantly, such violence,
   such sacred chance, so 'you' whom
   I loved would find the crystal
   without difference, would form
   and reform the perfection, the
   option and come back

Here, as throughout Blaser's work, we are in the secure hands of a most humane poet who accommodates the simple and primary gestures of feeling in a language that takes pains to avoid obscurity yet willingly risks it for the precisions it seeks.

In his early poetic manifesto "The Fire" Blaser proposed that "burning up myself, I would leave fire behind me." That aspiration is misleading in that there are no fireworks, no rhetorical hyperboles, in his work; nor is there any smoky confusion or obfuscation. "The music of the spheres is quite real," he also declared, "but the sound of the earth must meet it." Blaser's is a poetry that demonstrates the humanity of a fire kindled in the heart, absorbing the holy forest of earth in an altogether other harmony.

—Jed Rasula

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