Sunday, August 1, 2010

Karl Elder on "Ode in the Key of O"

To the One of Fictive Music

Grant me this: a modicum of intrapersonal intelligence allows for speculation regarding undercurrents in the etiology of a poem: canonical verse whose title this analysis borrows as its own, for example, or winning as a teenager an argument with one’s father, proving there is no perfect circle, yet subsequently understanding that, while absolutely accurate measurement is impossible in the physical world, perfection exists in and as approximation, one apparatus of reasonably seasoned consciousness—unlike Plato’s horse, his mystical illustration of pre-existing ideal forms or ideas, the claim that identification is the soul remembering a thing from heaven wholly horseshit. Only after experience is perfection manifest and only in the imagination, imagination being the empiricist’s and poet’s generator of miracles.

I sometimes think of poems as possessing both an ecto- and an endo- skeleton—the latter metaphysical—poetry then seemingly a phenomenon as much like sculpture as painting. Oh, it’s two-dimensional on paper, all right, but multi-dimensional in the formulation and in its readers’ apprehension of that latent energy before them. In making “Ode in the Key of O,” a habit of counting syllables re-emerged in me, thumb to four fingers and every fifth note thumbed, only this time I sensed the hand morphing from abacas to rosary.

So, ought I wince over the rogue syllable my student and friend Rob pointed out in stanza four? Nah, when the most quoted line of pentameter on the planet (“To be . . .”) owns eleven syllables? Now, am I rationalizing? Oh yeah. While of course content must dominate, the strictest adherence to superstructure in this piece is part of the art.

“Ode . . .” was born in the shadow of the title poem of my volume Gilgamesh at the Bellagio, in which each of its 27 stanzas ends with an “O” rime—aural, visual, or conceptual. Both poems were composed under fluorescent light on top of an up-turned cardboard box, itself atop a pool table and elbow-high, cue ball wearing blue smudges where it last rolled at an angle of about one o’clock. Opposite the box on a concrete wall, a round electric clock still clicks.

Probing for a construct, I settled on a period at the close of the first, and nine progressively smaller stanzas, doubtful I could maintain the form when, around the fifth stanza, I prematurely landed upon—after maybe two weeks of three hours per day—the final line of the poem. “Whoa. Is this negative Negative Capability or what?” I thought, confounded and elated at once, mind’s eye on something like a photo of a funnel cloud, the “endo-“ abstract but with a picture of the “ecto-“ as concentric rings or a tightly wound spring tapering to the point of the pen in my dangling forearm and hand. As to the remainder of the poem—as well as its predetermined form—I’d not known a vortex quite like this: absorbingly, alluringly laborious, as if a mason were laying block with the I-beam levitating, miraculously, above.


  1. Gerald W. BertschAugust 1, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    The genesis of a poem, and its genius, arise from depths of vision that make the inside as transparent as the outside is obvious. When so transported, the journey is magical for both the reader and the author. But who really is the author when inspiration overtakes the one who holds the pen and feels its compulsion to move it in a manner that births a new metaphor.

  2. Karl Elder's image of the poem as tornado reminds me of an insight I gained during my apprenticeship as a ceremonial magician: how we are heaven's fingers, like tornados. That point where air's intention interacts with earth, becomes our lives. Our higher selves descending. The angels of our better nature kicking up some dust! Selves as tunnels through which souls can manifest and interact with life's environment.

    And O! The poem itself! Those last three stanzas of this exploring, meandering, fully-developed train of poetic thought!

  3. Gerald, thanks. I think I've arrived not to know inspiration except as metaphor itself, the impetus to write having become a habit vaguely approaching montage or, more to the point, the product of a not-too-distant cousin, gestalt: a nexus of desire to make art, of reasonable knowledge of the history of the medium, of working deliberately, of willfully taking risks, and of making what I believe to be honest choices from the infinite reservoir that is language. Even sudden insight is apparent to me to be the result of preparation. To speak in the vein of Susan Tichy's commentary in last month's Poets Forum, I'll add that it was John Gardner's On Moral Fiction that has kept me climbing since mid-career, long after Wallace Stevens revealed a path. I'm trying to get to know the terrain.

  4. Dear Anonymous, I know where you live. I wonder whether others who have experienced your fine work will see beyond the mask (a copy of my most recent collection, The Houdini Monologues, to the first three to correctly identify you by emailing me at Thanks much, also, for your expression of appreciation. It means a great deal coming from you.

  5. Gerald W. BertschAugust 2, 2010 at 5:54 PM

    Yes, I understand, Karl, that the metaphor is the gateway--even the gate itself, the path through it, and the destination.

  6. It is a compelling and forceful poem that sends one to a dictionary. Being lazy as I am, if I do not understand a word or two in a poem I will usually just bleep over it and not worry too much about it. How important could it be? This is a dumb and misguided way to approach anything, especially a poem.
    Karl Elder’s poem, “Ode in the Key of O” contained two words that I had no idea whatsoever what they meant (eidolon and orismo) and six words that were familiar to me but if I had to articulately tell you their definition, I would have been guessing at best: nonpareil, cuneiform, annularity, alacrity, ineffable, and apogee. I suppose I am really humiliating myself by admitting to my ignorance of these words. I mean, I have a Masters’ degree and I took the SATs about 100 years ago. I should know what “alacrity” means. Well, I must say with alacrity, I do now!
    When I first read through the poem, I had a vague sense that “nonpareil” must mean, “like no other.” (Check! The definition is: “something without equal, a paragon”). But I wasn’t 100% sure until I checked the dictionary. And being an art historian by training, I remember “cuneiform” to be a kind of ancient and visually interesting writing. Well, it is “wedge-like” to be exact. Annularity = ring-like, ineffable = beyond expressed words. And I thought apogee meant “the highest point,” which it does, but it also means, “the most distant from center,” which is actually a better metaphor for being born, I think, than having achieved the highest point (“the apogee of one’s gestation” as Elder so brilliantly puts it).
    What this poem is telling me is that when we are born, we move from our centers and spend the rest of our natural lives trying to get back there; not necessarily into a warm hole (men) or a safe womb (women) but to our centers. To our O’s, our awes, our ahs. Read this poem out loud a few times and even if you never find out what the word “orismo” means, you will experience your annular center in a very satisfying way. The poem will become for you an “eidolon” (figure, representation) of the very O-ness of being.

  7. Speaking of Stevens, what we get in “Ode in the Key of O,” is both the barque of the poem and its bite. We get sound and the lips reaching behind it. In “Ode” we get marriage of shade and light—the eclipse and the Corona you’d cheers to it.

    How can one not be heady, inspired by Elder’s puns, by his navigation of the states in poetry that actually matter?

    Perhaps it was at “stickman Atlas” that I gave in; I realized this was a rare poem in that you could trust that its obscure language had not only play play and more play, but taste to back it up. It’s like the planets aligned. There’s math and science and philosophy to explain the spectacle, but you can also simply sit there and take in the poem in its barest form—like staring at moon overtaking sun (language the periscope, the OJ quart cut up and mirrored).

    And speaking of gimmicks, I can’t help but think of some experimental work I see in my MFA program, where too often our group encounters only language, irresponsible language—where words are shoved in reader’s faces as if they should be grateful for sound alone: a ship set sail with no crew. (Dear L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, leave spelling-out words to Elder: “phallic l, mellow o / vis-à-vis Eve’s cleft v v. snake eye e.”)

    For me, the beauty of “Ode” (as with K’s other poems) is that you can trace all of Elder’s howling back to a tongue desperate to give you something worth while—be it, simply, air—as if to save the reader from the feints of language itself, via “life / buoy or lasso—awe, the ineffable / grasped as we’re pulled, gasping, through h. to o.”

    In this poem we have both sound and vision. We are dragged from one form to the next, from, say, the endless drink to a palmy beach lit by a big fat moon worth you and me howling at.

    (One last note on form: The BPJ in the flesh, in Denver, could not be bested.)

  8. This is a fascinating addition to your body of work,Karl--I can see Gilgamesh, of course, but also going back to The Minimalist's Handbook, the fascination with how form and content connect from on multiple levels--from the pattern of the stanzas which suggest a vortex, as you say, down to letters, sounds, and even symbols. Meaning is located in language at every fractal-like level, it seems, and yet there's a sense of humor, of fun & adventure in the words that works on the reader, too, so that it's not just about the words.

  9. You've brought to mind, Lisa, a facet of the process of making poems that strikes my curiosity--how it is that words in one's passive vocabulary, even words that one does not know he or she knows, sometimes spring up out of nowhere like mushrooms following a good rain, surprises that much more rarely occur with prose. I suspect that my habit of deliberately writing on blackboards words I imagine to be unfamiliar to some students when I'm talking with them may have transfered to writing formal poetry, although I certainly can't recall being conscious of it with pen in hand instead of chalk.

    I must confess that not all of the language of "Ode , . ." was in my head before I began the piece, however. I often pour over Roget during initial drafts when I sense a trope or theme developing. As for "orismo," literally it sprung from nowhere. Perplexed with the inability to find it even in the OED, I couldn't conjure what seemed to me a more appropriate word for the moment and/or movement of the poem, and if I read you correctly, I think that your suggestion that "orismo" itself is a moniker--and, as such, a physical entity, an eidolon for the ineffable--is as fine as any interpretation of it there can be.

  10. I am pleased to read that the poet senses my awe and accepts my interpretation of his words. I do believe that a poem should help a reader do this: expand thinking, push him into new areas of consciousness, nudge her to be more of who she is. Or at least encourage more frequent use of the dictionary. Your poem does all this and more, Karl. Thank you from the bottom of my O!

  11. After being totally delighted and thrilled by this poem, I also needed to do some dictionary work and found it strangely satisfying and appropriate— and totally in keeping with all that has been said above—to find out (via Eric Partridge’s Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, and borne out by a Greek-English dictionary) that “orismo” comes from Greek “horismos” meaning “definition”—very apt for the irreducible essence of love in this context, and truly inspired! An amazing experience of a poem.

  12. Dear Anonymous number two (August 4): Forgive my belated reply; besides having run into computer woes, shortly after you posted your comment, my wife and I were joyfully occupied for three whirlwind days with our three-year-old grandson, Owen (often called O. for short), whose presence on Earth and in the life of my family was surely the "spark?" for "Ode . . . ," a thing akin to Robert Pirsig's "seed crystal" in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my head writing the poem and now, except that I wasn't attempting so much to solve a problem as I was trying to make something worthy in celebration of the gift of life and consciousness.

    I'm grateful for your artful response to "Ode . . ." (I admire your sailing conceit), which has led me to this recollection, something I believe I mentioned rather obliquely during the BPJ 60th anniversary reading in celebration of the life of Marion Stocking at the AWP last April in Denver--oblique because I was on the verge of choking up at the time, as I couldn't shake from my head that John Rosenwald had just introduced me as one whom Marion thought of as a younger brother--Marion, whom I said I loved like one loves one's mother, though I know this was a different kind of affection. Politics aside and apart from her incredible knowledge, looking into her mind was like seeing a mirror of mine. (No surprise that she was nuts over my favorite bourbon either.) But I'll spare all who read these words from a litany of personality attributes as well as spare myself from this tiny tributary of grief and turn to a more important consideration here, one that I believe Marion would consider important also, Dear Anonymous number two, that you so rightly believe: a poem that "means" is inherently more valuable than one that simply "is."

    Still, I offer a twist on that theme for any who may care to pursue it. I invite you to the following link:

  13. It's a pleasure to note that Wendy Vardaman has joined the conversation--among the most perceptive critics of contemporary poetry, poet, and co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. Her observation here that "Ode in the Key of O" incorporates panning for whatever gems I can find among the most fundamental elements of language (my "Alpha Images," for example, archived on the BPJ website and the first poem of The Minimalist's How-To Handbook) along with the sonic auras of words and phrases (as I imagine the mode of Gilgamesh at the Bellagio to be) is recognition of much of my intent. I'm reminded, also, of a desire while making "Ode . . ." to fuse connotation with denotation, of leaning toward a more rhetorical poem, and suddenly I'm thinking--glad to be among a half dozen poets Verse Wisconsin has invited--that “Ode” is a poem I ought to read (September 30th at Avol's in Madison) during the Wisconsin Book Festival, for which this year’s theme is "Belief."

  14. Hi Karl,

    I finally got around to reading and listening to the poem. At the risk of sounding simplistic amidst all the incredible articulation here (including your own), I have to say I love it: The way the sounds roll off my tongue, the humor (!), and the weight of the last stanzas.

    I'm a lover of language and have no problem going to the dictionary--I find it exciting though I'm aware some hate having to do it. I also ascribe to "meaning" over "being." But I don't have to grasp the full meaning to love the poem. I like it when a poem holds layers which I can go back to again and again.

    I seldom break poems down to the extent that you and others here have. I'm much more inclined to simply allow myself to feel the whole of it and this one left me breathless with delight! Thanks.

  15. The poem not only as metaphor and imagery but as vocabulary lesson. I love it. To derive multiple benefits ("multi-dimensional" as Karl terms it) from the reading of a poem is what more people I hope can realize. "Ode" offers, as Gerald Bertsch put it, a magical journey - perhaps a wind-borne journey on which one is carried, like Dorothy, upon a cyclone, twisting, turning, seeing images and metaphors and puns here and there until one pirouettes to earth, dazed, somewhere strange and wondrous.

    Also, the psalm-like vocabulary, though I had a smirk on my face for much of the poem, forced me to read in reverence: Yea, Lo, behold, Thus.

    I enjoyed the cleverness in the last line of stanza 5. It is reminiscent of an old brain teaser I've used on my students.

  16. I'm certainly in your camp, Susan, with respect to the manner by which you read poems. Yet, I'm of a mind that believes, as my father often said, "There are many ways to skin a cat." That old adage applies as much to the process of reading as to writing.

    Knowing your work and even having held it on occasion before students as a model for emulation, I suspect that the pleasures that are to be had by you in either venture are not equal, however, that you gravitate toward the greater challenge--writing. Indeed, there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but is it not the case that in the act of composing serious poets will have read their own poems dozens of times more than any one from the hand of another out of a passion for making the work as strong as possible, motivated by the superlative tradition of this particular art form that exists across all cultures and by the power of it to affect but even more so through reverence for its unmatched ability to expand the capacity to think, imagine, and learn?

    No wonder the exodus in numbers from graduate literature programs to writing programs. Still, we can only hope for the sake of younger poets that self-actualization will become subservient to excellence and innovation, which will require more reading.

  17. Ah, Dave, thanks for zeroing-in on what I think to be among the three or four most risky aspects of the piece--the archaic interjections.

    Of course I have no tally of the number of times "yea," "lo," and "behold" caused me to hover over them in the act of revision, but, be assured, I kept asking myself, "If I were the editor of the poem, would inflated language like that make it past my desk?" I arrived at a thought that without the elevated "yea" at the beginning of the second stanza, without some preparation for the hyper-elevated language to follow, "lo" and "behold" might at the very least sound like stray notes, if not pompous imperatives, especially because they were nearly on top of each other (note the reverberating O sound) and despite the pun to be found in "lo," which felt right and sounded more natural than it otherwise might because of the content of the previous stanza.

    Now, back to earlier stages of revision involving "yea"--I tried "yes"; I tried "yeah"; I tried affirmatives in foreign languages. Nothing but "yea" seemed to fit in the context of the tone of the first stanza. Furthermore, I sensed that I had already boxed myself in with the first four words of the first line. They had arrived in that order without warning seemingly from nowhere before anything else in--or stricken from--the poem, and I wasn’t about to abandon any of them. I simply had a hunch it was a phrase I should try to build upon and that it belonged in the beginning.