I had intended to offer the reader an account, first, of the specific circumstances out of which this composition grew and, second, of the Argument of the work, according to the practice of ancient authors. However I find myself faced with a dilemma. When I consider the first of these, the “origin” of the work, I am like a man who stumbles through a house of his own making in search of the lost blueprint; the man checks his diary and finds that his rendezvous with the architect is listed as occurring some years in the future. Thus to speak of the genesis of the work would be to embark on a journey that no sane man dare impose on his reader. On the other hand, when I consider the second of my intended accounts, the Argument of the finished product, I am like an architect gazing at a house he has built and wondering which three out of four available blueprints can usefully be applied today. No doubt a familiar situation in our Aquarian age, but not one I am comfortable in. And yet isn’t it so that even the most “genuine” architect sometimes likes mysterious houses and blueprints, however partial? If I were an architect, I would be of that kind.
So I’ve occasionally been tempted to draw up a plan of at least Book One, to aid the reader along what sometimes seems a very clear pathway. But the instant I sit down at the typewriter or sketchpad I hear a sort of voice. It says: “Fool! Do you think to give away secrets you do not know?” To be caught redhanded in this way is like they say a humbling experience. One feels exposed. One willingly returns to the expectation of receiving mere “metaphors for poetry”; that is, as against making claims about the Universe in order to speak “with authority” on the works one executes. And yet I hasten to ask: can one trust this important task of self-description to linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, literary critics, and the like? At this point in my intrapersonal dialogical situation, the voice, returns to say: “Of course not, you fool!”
I begin to get the point.
If I read the message right (and I do not pretend to do so) then I’m free to tell at least this: If, as modern logicians contend, it takes two to tango, then, when the poem says One Two Three, I may or may not say Four. [See below “A note on counting and knowing what counts.”] In other words we are given to understand that despite the pressures of this idolatrous age we are allowed a certain prerogative of torsion. In poetic terms this vine-like freedom of choice implies a way, as Milton says, of permitting the “sense” to be “variously drawn out from one Verse [i.e., “turn”] into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory.” Some may find it a little presumptuous that we expect to recover such “ancient liberty” and to deliver ourselves of more than one “troublesome and modern bondage.” To these suspicious individuals we can only say: You are correct. “Certain presumptions are very definitely being made, even if I cannot spell them out in a blueprint,” says the aforementioned architect.
Thus I ought to apologize for being unable to satisfy that minimal expectation in every honest modern reader, namely, that of hearing a straight forward personal account of the meaning of the poet’s work. I can speak this morning neither of the origins of somapoetics nor of Her Argument, if I may further the inevitable abuse of gender with misplaced concreteness. Woman is Change, in the meta-allegory. She says in the accompanying cartoon: “Write me a poem in 99 cantos that makes my wardrobe feel like new for 99 days running.” She says it in such a way that one takes Her desire as a sort of courtly obligation. To hear her voice is half to believe that the 11th century and the quatrocento and the 16th and the early 17th and the late 18th are just around the corner, talking it over. Any moment now they will decide: “This time we’ll get it right.” And, lo, they do it, and reveal to the world that we the poets are still the first to get the news that barely gets into print. Etc.
I have provided a sort of glossary at the end of the book for those who find certain key terms strange or incomprehensible and whose own dictionaries fail them. A dictionary is also a kind of woman in the aforementioned meta-allegory, and I sometimes think our poems are written to that kind. She’s hard to impress, harder to get into. She wears our jewels around her ankles to test them on her lowest lovers. How not to be grateful?
The reader who has trouble “getting the picture” in somapoetics may find it helpful to regard these poems as proposed illustrations for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (first edition, 1969), a book at once reactionary in origin (opposing the “promiscuous” Webster’s Third) and revolutionary in its inclusiveness (Indo-European roots), not to mention its excitatory impact. Thus if you look at the facing pages 824 and 825 of that marvelous wordbook (from Messiah to metanephros and metaphor to meteor), you can hardly help seeing a sort of Ideogram, or rather Tetragram, for the self-interfering brain behind the Mother Tongue. One watches the leap from picture to picture, intersecting the shuffle from word to word, and eventually one thinks: Metapoetry! And so it is: metamorphosis as 6 snapshots of the monarch butterfly from egg to adult; metacarpus as outstretched hand within which the wrist “turns into” 5 white bones; meteor as 6 photos (taken at 24 frames per second) from a TV monitor in 1963; metacenter as a diagrammic ship showing the “intersection of verticals through the center of buoyancy of a floating body when in equilibrium and when tilted.” Now we note that metasomatism, metastasis and metempsychosis are not explicitly illustrated, nor for that matter are metalinguistics and metapsychology. And yet—long Wittgensteinian meditation on these two pages has led me to wonder whether the unillustrated terms aren’t somehow active in the “metastatic” jumps, the “sudden transition from one point to another” like unto a “geological process.” Consider the implicit story in the alphabetical progression of images: An egg cracks, and the queenly butterfly counts to 6 and flaps her wings vigorously; a transparent hand waves its bony pentagram in greeting; a “shooting star” appears overhead as a hexagrammic luminous trail; a wobbly boat, obedient both to “buoyant force” and “gravity,” half-heartedly tries to follow. If this transgenderizing ark gets to the next page, it might encounter metonymy or Mexico, but what are the chances of reaching, say, Venus? There “she” would take her revenge on our ab/usage.
Now if somapoetics be viewed as a would-be “illuminated ms.” of our engenderizing dictionary, then one might suggest the following equation as expressing the meaning latent in the above:
Sophia in a star-car =
the hieroglyph or spangled banner advertising a new way to travel
One ad says: Learn to write while you ride in the astral light beside a picture of a green fountain pen that looks like a vine.
Another: Learn the Art of Levity, or Lifting the Lady’s Skirt, or Making Things Levitate by Verbal and Numerical Means beside a photo of a nude beauty conjuring The American Heritage. The book sprouts wings, designed by Leonardo and the Nolan (O Giordano, man of fire), and begins crossing a deep, very deep blue sky being painted by Jan van Eyck and René Magritte. On the horizon a sign appears, bearing the words:
There is a god
Whose sole function is to say:
“Read all of it
Or none of it.”
At this point we give each other knowing looks and decide to do our will.