The animistic poets do not know where the poem is going as they write it, tapping into their subconscious so they might avoid the dry, pre-planned poem which does not surprise or engage the subconscious of the reader.  The animistic poet is typically the Romantic poet, the post-modern poet, such as O’Hara and Spicer, and the young, neo-romantic MFAers.   These are the true post-modernists.

The classical poet, on the other hand, plans the poem.  This tradition includes the Modernists, the new Modernists, or (horrors!) faux post-modernists, who merely pretend to be animistic.  This group tends to be anti-MFA and cries for less, not more, in the publishing/production landscape.

This, with apologies to Seth Abramson, is the essence of today’s po-biz divisions.



  1. Marcus Bales said,

    May 18, 2010 at 11:40 am

    On Some Contemporary American Poets

    Their writing employs all the virtues of prose
    With no meter, no music, no clef;
    Though they pose in black clothes with a rose it still shows
    They’re like mutes calling out to the deaf.

    But the deaf cannot hear though the mutes call and call,
    However their calling’s conveyed;
    They sprawl in their scrawl, and then all they enthrall
    Is each other – they’re not even paid!.

    So the deaf cannot hear and the mutes cannot speak
    Though their voices be wild as the Sidhe —
    Though they freak out and shriek for a weekend in Greek,
    Asserting they’re free, free, free, free,

    The mutes cannot speak, and the deaf cannot hear,
    Though they’ve cried out since free verse began –
    They’re sincere, they revere each career — and it’s clear
    That they’re doing the best that they can.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I’m really grateful to Seth for giving me an inside scoop, as it were, on what the young MFA-ers are discussing today, but I think this needs to be examined more closely to see if it has validity.

    The poet who mines his subconscious, so to speak, in a genuine way, how is this done? Is ‘writing for 20 minutes without stopping to think and then not revising’ the method? But how do we know the subconscious is being properly mined by this action? First, how can we be sure we are turning our conscious minds off during this 20 minutes, or, achieving the right blend of subconscious and conscious action as we type? Secondly, Isn’t the experience and the knowledge and the talent of the person who is ‘typing for 20 minutes without stopping to think’ more important than this action, or method, itself?

    Let me give an example. Let’s say I wear a sports cap in a big city and that cap is a San Diego Charger cap. However, I’ve never been to San Diego and I’m not a San Diego Chargers fan. I don’t know anything about the cap I’m wearing. But throughout the day as I walk around, I sometimes see a person who looks at me with bright recognition or looks at me with affectionate nostalgia or friendship—they are from San Diego! Or they lived in San Diego 20 years ago! Or they LOVE the San Diego Chargers! I shake my head apologetically. I’m just wearing the cap! I have the cap, but I know nothing of what the cap means at all.

    Now, is the work produced by one of these aleatory, neo-Romantics, like the San Diego Chargers cap? They produced the poem, the poem affects the reader, but if asked about the poem, these poets will shake their heads and shrug: I don’t know where this poem came from. It arrived from my inner, aleatory thoughts. I couldn’t tell you where it came from, or, what it is. This, then, would signal that the poem is genuinely from the poet’s subconscious.
    It is their poem, the same way it is my San Diego Chargers cap, but they don’t know their poem, since it came from another place.

    Or, DO they ‘know’ their poem? Is the poem THEIRS, and YES THEY HAVE BEEN TO SAN DIEGO AND CAN TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT.

    But if THIS is true, was it truly the subconscious that produced the poem? Doesn’t KNOWING SAN DIEGO mean that the poet is the sort Seth finds reprehensible, the faux post-modern? Susan Howe is an example Seth gave. Susan Howe KNOWS SAN DIEGO and if you ask her about her poem, well she knows exactly where it was going and how and why she wrote it.

    So, my question to Seth is, has the neo-romantic poet been to San Diego?

    I’m trying to scientifically ascertain what it means to say the poet uses his or her subconscious—or not.

  3. Seth said,

    May 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm


    These straw men are tiring. Is it possible, I wonder, that there’s some kind of daylight between the two false premises you’ve set up here(?):

    A) “I couldn’t tell you where [the poem] came from, or, what it is.”

    B) “If you ask [the poet] about [the] poem, [they] know[ ] exactly where it was going and how and why [they] wrote it.”

    Do we need to speak of “semi-consciousness” for this to be clearer?

    Or perhaps we drop “consciousness” altogether and speak simply of writing process — as there’s absolutely no way, Tom, you can’t see a difference between not knowing anything about the poem you wrote and knowing everything about it in advance.

    There’s also something else you need to stop doing if we’re going to converse: attributing things to me I didn’t say. I get myself in enough trouble without having you attribute to me the belief that the New Modernists are “reprehensible.” That’s not worthy of you — I went out of my way both to say that I’m fond of several Modernists (I mentioned Stevens and Moore specifically, as well as Eliot’s earlier work, but there are other examples) as well as many New Modernists (including both Howe and Kenneth Goldsmith, and I said too that I see the value in conceptual writing so long as the same exercise is not repeated; I mentioned flarf as an example of this potential for exciting post-avant work, and here too I could have provided many other examples, Anne Carson being one that I mention below but there are dozens of others).

    Sarcasm is also a second language for me, so “I’m really grateful to Seth for giving me an inside scoop” is unnecessary — I get the condescension, and I can deal with it, but you don’t need to ham it up. You made a bunch of pronouncements over the past two days that no one here appeared to agree with, perhaps in part because the history you offered in support of your view was one of the wackiest romps through American literary history imaginable. But you didn’t see me rushing off to my blog to post an entry entitled, “Ransom and O’Hara: Bosom Buddies?”

    You are trying to have your cake and eat it too. You describe the preferable process for writing a poem as one in which the poet knows in advance the poem’s theme, topic, conceit, structure (lineation and shape), and so on, where each metaphor is carefully crafted to be perfectly and instantly recognizable as just the right one for that position in the poem, &c &c, and when that view is criticized you act as though *any* involvement of the conscious mind in the writing process would be consistent with your preferred method of composition. Well, no: you’ve described two very different writing methods, and you should own up to that. The painstakingly crafted poem, which will be a locus for all the types of foreknowledge referenced above and will take weeks or months to write and which will be the subject of endless revision, in which the goal is “perfection” and an exhibition of mastery of craft through the deployment of exemplary tropes, &c, is a Modernist meme. It is also a New Modernist meme. Not every post-avant is a New Modernist in disguise, to the extent that not every post-avant method of composition is as deliberate as this. The New Sentence is, I imagine, largely aleatory, but works of collage (e.g. flarf) are not, nor is the research-based poetics of Susan Howe (or we might add Anne Carson and many others; we could add, too, many mainstream lyric poets like Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey and Kevin Young and Gabrielle Calvocoressi, all of whom have recently written “topical” books). Conceptual writing is the very definition of a classicalist (i.e., High Modernist) writing process. So is New Formalism. Again you have to distinguish between that element of poetics having to do with method of composition and, by comparison, aesthetics — otherwise you’re going to crawl down my throat over putting Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Goldsmith, Ezra Pound, and Anne Carson all in a single category (and if we were speaking of aesthetics, you’d be right to do so). I could go into how the pedagogy of an MFA program fits into all this but that’s a separate study.

    John Ashbery is an extreme (very extreme) example of the other end of the spectrum, as is Frank O’Hara and possibly Jack Spicer. Robert Creeley is slightly less extreme an example. Charles Olson would have been an extreme example if he had practiced anything he preached in his Projective Verse manifesto of 1950, but instead his method of composition appears to have been an odd admixture of the aleatory and the High Modernist. (And yes, there are elements of one’s aesthetic that can point to writing process; allusion, for instance, is far more common — far — in classicalist writing than animist writing, as is “description” and simile, all for obvious reasons) But if you’re looking for animism in its more common mode, not an extreme example (as conceptual poetics and Anne Carson, for instance, would be extreme examples of the classicalist mode of composition), you could read Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, or Joshua Beckman, or Jesse Ball, or Michael Palmer, or Catherine Wagner, or Abraham Smith, or Anthony McCann, &c &c. The options are endless. Is it possible there are some poets whose aesthetics appear to be the product of an aleatory writing process whose associative imagery, juxtapositions, disjunctions, neo-surrealism, quick diction-shifts, demotic language, frenetic pacing, prose rhythms, and atemporality/atopicality are incredibly studied and planned out? Sure, that’s possible. It’s possible in the same way I’ve often seen MFA poets write a poem in twenty minutes that everyone who read the poem believed had taken weeks.

    So we’re discussing processes here, not results — this spectrum of process does exist, which we know because we are now far enough along in history that essays have been written about the poets of the sixties, many of whom (I’ll add Ginsberg here as perhaps the High Priest of aleatory writing) were animists. Twenty years ago we probably couldn’t have had this conversation because we hadn’t gotten all the biographies and collected letters of the sixties poets yet. And undoubtedly twenty years from now, when the history of today’s poets is written, we will get confirmation of the Modernist/New Modernist vs. post-Modernist distinction I’m making, as well as the way that the old dichotomies (e.g. SoQ versus post-avant) masked an attempt by certain poets to seize a history that was not theirs because they liked the work of animistic poets more than they did the work of the High Modernists — in part because they admired the politics and counter-cultural instincts of the former group more — even if the New Modernists’ fundamental view of poetry was, natch, Modernist in nature. It’s hard to imagine Ginsberg moaning about there being too many poets, isn’t it?

    So yes, the post-avants “get” the Objectivists, for instance, but they can’t also claim lineage from the New York School, that’d be a contradiction in terms. Ron also wondered why the so-called SoQ never articulated their poetic lineage — and I always told him it was because he had co-opted the poetic lineage of 90% of poets for his own post-avant history, so any articulation of a mainstream (or a third-way) poetics would require first battling all the post-avants over their revisionary historianship, and who wants to do that?


  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 18, 2010 at 7:20 pm


    You argued explicitly and strongly for the value of the aleatory poet qua aleatory poet, and you also made explicit the notion of the new Modernist who fakes an aleatory nature. Innocently attempting to glean this—and it is new to me; I intended no sarcasm in my “scoop” remark—I find that you then water down your argument (re: the subconscious) until it no longer exists.

    I suppose I’m the sucker here, but every day we learn something.

    I suspect by not responding (really) to my philosophical analogy, and then proceeding to list thousands of poets you admire, that you are simply trying to regain your footing as a ‘people person,’ or a businessman, or something, which is great, and understandable, but I much prefer your instinct which you keep running away from—sharp philosophical wit.

    It is just as crucial to establish our ignorance as it is what we know (and there’s a venerable philosophical tradition which says our ignorance is all we really can establish) but instead I’m sensing just another desire to mystically hint at a great deal that is known without bothering to do the work to show if it is, in fact, known.

    If we cannot establish when a poet is being conscious or not, or what it even means (where do ideas, impressions, impulses, designs come from, etc?) should we really build up gigantic edifices of poetic history based on this idea? This is all I’m trying to establish, yet you seem more concerned that I intuit what you are really not ready to defend, and that I call a poet “reprehensible” in a merely abstract, philosophical way.

    I hope you don’t think I’m soaking wet,


  5. Seth said,

    May 18, 2010 at 8:12 pm


    Well, I’m sorry you’ve taken that from what I’ve said. When “aleatory” is used in the Academy it means what I’ve said it means (though as I said before, there has been a movement of late to recast the term to fit a different agenda within the Academy); it does not mean, and has never meant, a poet who has no idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next and writes directly from the “unconscious.” And when Gary came along and made the point he did I conceded that in me using that term — as a way of responding to your original comments about consciousness and poetry-writing — I was using it inaccurately, and that having “an element” (I explicitly said “an element”) of the psyche, or “subconscious,” in one’s poetry-writing process was necessary to perform “surprise” in the finished poem. In one of my first comments I cited Creeley — in fact, Tom, in my very first comment — for the proposition I later called aleatory, which is “thinking through the poem,” the idea (I said) that the thought and the poem could be concurrent phenomena. You interpreted that the way you did, probably because you didn’t understand it, probably because, as you’ve said, you’d never encountered the idea before.

    There is not a “new Modernist that fakes an aleatory nature,” I said that there are New Modernists who falsely claim heritage with/from aleatory poets. But I think they’re pretty forthcoming about their methods, they just don’t want to call them what they are — a craft-based, mastery-based mode of composition we’d associate with the Modernists. I’ve backed off from, and back off, nothing.

    Tom, this is an online forum — you and I are not “interacting” in the way people do when they speak face to face. So I don’t have any interest in trying to appear to be a “people person,” because I am that. I have been ever since I started working in a people-oriented profession in 2001. And I’m not a businessman — I never have been. I tutor young poets. So does FW. And he’s no businessman either, as I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you. I took piano lessons between the ages of 8 and 14 — and my piano tutor, whose name by the way was Marty, was also not a businessman.

    So let’s just focus on the facts: the fact is that anyone can read what I wrote and understand what I’m saying, and that I gave specific examples of aleatory/animistic and Modernist/classicalist poets to help clarify things even further — for you to say, “I’m sensing just another desire to mystically hint at a great deal that is known without bothering to do the work to show if it is, in fact, known,” and then, when I try to provide precise examples of everything I’m discussing, you immediately get personal (me trying to change my image? What is this, high school?)… well, that’s simply the sort of circular discussion I’m not interested in.

    If you’re wondering whether “gigantic edifices of poetic history” can be built upon terms whose meaning “we cannot establish,” I’d suggest looking first to your own initial messages in the last thread, which the Poetry Police (as it were) rightly called you out on as simultaneously not saying anything and also not saying nothing (either) particularly well. You said good poetry requires that thought precedes poem — you were wrong. It need not always. But I don’t think you see that or, if so, you’re not willing to re-visit your own initial (wrong) comments, preferring instead to harp on everything I say, however clear. I could have turned all my attention to trying to get you to revise your initial (wrong) comments, but clearly that wouldn’t have been a good use of time.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t be clearer with you. I’m online to discuss poetry, not to play socializing (or word) games or to meet people or to try to shape what people think of me. If I haven’t met someone in person or spent substantial time e-mailing with them privately, I don’t consider that person to be a person I know. I don’t know you, Tom, but I do wish you the best. Cheers,

    Take care,

  6. thomasbrady said,

    May 18, 2010 at 9:46 pm


    I suppose I should let you have the last word (sigh) because that’s obviously what you want.

    You are wading into philosophical/psychological issues way over your head and then browbeating me for not ‘getting’ what you, yourself, obviously don’t have a handle on. Creeley’s idea, that the poem and its thought are the same, is not worth discussing; it’s too vague to mean anything. I let it pass because too many things were going back and forth between us. You ignored a lot of what I said in my long “Willie Mays comment” but that’s part of the process; we pick and choose what to comment on when a lot is being said. In my comment before you cited Creeley, I said that IF the poet believes the idea in his poem is the same as the thinking behind the poem…making a necessary qualification which you chose to run over, anxious as you were, perhaps, to agree with Poetry Police…Philosophy is a lonely task…name-dropping won’t take you far…

    You don’t have to lecture me on the nature of this medium. I’m doing quite well here. You were clearly concerned that people reading this would jump to horrible conclusions about your feelings re: certain new Modernists. That’s why you objected to “reprehensible,” isn’t it? You said “I get myself in enough trouble” Trouble with objects? Obviously you meant people. People reading this site. The distinctions you are trying to make re: face to face and on-line…meh…

    Here’s what you said initially…

    Some poets are “animistic” rather than “classicalist,” to use some terms increasingly being used. These poets will tell you they literally do not know where the poem is going to go as they’re writing it. And yet by no means can these poems be said to be obfuscatory, as there is more than one type of sense in the world, Tom. Any poem that does not tap into the unconscious as it is being written is unlikely to appeal to the unconscious of the one who later reads it, and in failing to do so will ultimately be unsatisfying, as it ignores perhaps the most mysterious and magical element of human existence. Indeed, a lack of attention to the unconscious is why so much poetry is dry — the poet of such verse knew where it was going all along, s/he was not “surprised” by the work, and thus (voila!) there is no surprise in the work for the reader, either.

    After I specifically challenged you on the notion that the subconscious surprises better than a conscious plan to do so, you began to realize that your whole thesis was untenable and became uncomfortable with the whole discussion, back-tracking like mad, and this unfortunately became your total m.o. to the very end.

    So this:

    These poets will tell you they literally do not know where the poem is going to go as they’re writing it. And yet by no means can these poems be said to be obfuscatory, as there is more than one type of sense in the world, Tom. Any poem that does not tap into the unconscious as it is being written is unlikely to appeal to the unconscious of the one who later reads it, and in failing to do so will ultimately be unsatisfying, as it ignores perhaps the most mysterious and magical element of human existence. Indeed, a lack of attention to the unconscious is why so much poetry is dry — the poet of such verse knew where it was going all along, s/he was not “surprised” by the work, and thus (voila!) there is no surprise in the work for the reader, either.

    Became this:

    When “aleatory” is used in the Academy it means what I’ve said it means (though as I said before, there has been a movement of late to recast the term to fit a different agenda within the Academy); it does not mean, and has never meant, a poet who has no idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next and writes directly from the “unconscious.”


  7. Bob Tonucci said,

    May 18, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Yet there will still be bards. Though fame is smoke, its fumes are frankincense to human thought; and the unquiet feelings, which first woke song in the world, will seek what then they sought. As on the beach the waves at last are broke, thus to their extreme verge the passions brought dash into poetry, which is but passion, or at least was so ere it grew a fashion.

    If in the course of such a life as was at once adventurous and contemplative, men who partake all passions as they pass acquire the deep and bitter power to give their images again as in a glass, and in such colours that they seem to live, you may do right forbidding them to show ’em, but spoil (I think) a very pretty poem.

    — Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto IV, 106 & 107

  8. Seth said,

    May 19, 2010 at 12:24 am


    Look, I invite you to post after this. It’s not that I want the last word, though I can understand and sympathize with you thinking that, I know how this looks, it’s just that you’ve just taken two quotes from opposite ends of a conversation, and each of those quotes was in response to something *you* said — precisely the context you’ve (oddly) removed here. Each of those bolded quotes makes two submissions, and there is only even an apparent contradiction in one instance. I said first that poems need to “tap into” the unconscious, which I later amended and self-corrected (per Gary) to “subconscious,” and then in the second quote I said that an aleatory poetics does not write exclusively (as you’d suggested) “directly from” the unconscious. There is a difference between tapping into something and having that something literally direct 100% of what’s written. “Tapping into” something means drawing from it as a constituent part of a larger whole; writing “directly from” would refer to having something guide 100% of the final product.

    As to the second perceived “contradiction,” you’ve got me — unless you write back into the conversation the dozens of lines of text attributable to *you* that came between the first quote from me, above, and the second. When I said that an aleatory poetics “literally do[es] not know where the poem is going to go” I was responding to your initial comment that good poetry requires that a poet know in advance *exactly* what’s going to happen in the poem — it’s mapped out in advance. I was saying, and still say, that there is a poetics out there in which/for which there is no pre-drawn map. You then decided to read that statement as meaning that poets write directly and exclusively from the unconscious, i.e. there is no conscious thought involved at all. I wrote — again and again and again — that that was not what I had said or meant by “aleatory,” and that in “tapping into” the subconscious one doesn’t become a slave to it, conscious thought still occurs but (per the Creeley quote you tossed so casually aside!) that conscious thought is contemporaneous with the writing process. It is second-to-second, not something mapped out before the poem is written. So when I said, at the very end of the conversation, “[an aleatory poetics] does not mean…a poet who has no idea whatsoever what’s going to happen next,” you know very well I was referring to your intentional misunderstanding of “aleatory” as referring to poetry written directly and *exclusively* from the unconscious [sic].

    Tom, you are false, and you know this. Repeatedly you threw into your comments gratuitous assurances that you took me and these ideas seriously, when you obviously did not — I’ve never heard these words or ideas before, you said gravely, but hey, let’s throw Creeley out the window! — and I just resented that you couldn’t stick to speaking plainly. Your first posts were very clear — your ideas got fire-bombed, and rightly so, and suddenly it was all sarcasm and condescension from you from there on, and willfully mangling things I’d said to make them seem preposterous. If *you* don’t know what the subconscious is, that’s fine, because fortunately Karl Jung has some idea. If *you* don’t know what “thinking through the poem” means, that’s fine, because a generation of readers and scholars of Creeley *do*. If *you* don’t know what an aleatory process looks like, that’s fine, because those of us who’ve read the letters and essays of O’Hara, Ashbery, Olson, etcetera are perfectly well aware of what these terms mean. I’ll admit I’m over my head once you’ve read *any* of the works necessary for this conversation (up to and including your shameless dodge upon not having read *any* of the poets I’d mentioned: name-dropping, you said! Zounds — in a conversation about *poets*, to mention poets! What will they think of next?).

    I don’t think blogs should ban posters unless they get to be consistently threatening, racist, sexist, et. al. — but Jesus, Thomas, you do try a man’s patience. If I really believed you were trying to understand what I’d written, as you claimed again and again, I’d have sympathy — but it’s your constant, nauseating *drumbeat* of sarcasm that dispirited me from thinking we were having or could have a real conversation.


  9. thomasbrady said,

    May 19, 2010 at 2:15 am


    I’m glad you’re still willing to talk about this idea of the subconscious and poetry, because we’d do much better to examine the issue ourselves than to rely on Black Mountain crackpot ideas which have never passed any sort of scientific peer review test. Let’s be serious here; if poetry is ever going to get out of its ghetto and be taken seriously beyond very narrow academic swamp puddles, it must stop giving itself up to crackpots and crazies. Charles Olson? Didn’t he believe in UFOs?

    Let’s treat this issue seriously. It deserves it. Please promise me you’ll ponder this problem without any more mention of Black Mountain. There’s no philosophical legitimacy there. There isn’t. And I, in turn, will not mention any other poet or thinker, either. Let’s agree not to name-drop.

    Here’s the question. Let’s keep it simple. One scientific investigation of one question.

    How do we know, when looking at ANY poem, any poem at all, which part or parts of that poem spring from the subconscious, or which part or parts of that poem have been put there consciously?

    How do we know this? Can we know this? Let’s say you are looking at the poem of one of your students. How or when, pedagogically, do you say to that student re: his or her poem: HERE you are being too conscious, or HERE you are being too unconscious. Is this sort of practical criticism (let’s forget the theory for the moment) viable? I’m not trying to ‘catch’ you. I really am curious.


  10. May 24, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
    And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! 🙂

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