The Freedom Principle:
First Notes Toward A Poetics of Liberation

Joe Ahearn

First Improvisation

Second Improvisation

Third Improvisation

Fourth Improvisation

Fifth Improvisation

Sixth Improvisation

Seventh Improvisation

Eighth Improvisation

Ninth Improvisation

Appendix: Freely Admitting He Is Sick of the Carping of Poets

First Improvisation

Eventually nothing I wrote satisfied me.

It wasn't enough to write poems from passion and instinct and nervous intelligence as I had before.

I began to understand that what I thought about my work, what I wanted for it, what I thought I wanted, was a huge heavy unlighted territory that I inhabited against my will.

I'd spent twenty years in the thick subterrain of my conclusions about writing; carving smart highly praised little poems from wooden shoes in a muddy little village called What We Know For Sure About Art.

How had this village, once an empire, now no more than a few muddy streets dark with the scent of rain and straw, so captivated me?

And how do you leave What We Know For Sure About Art when you are What We Know For Sure About Art, that bad light, those muddy streets, that ice?

"What is my aim in philosophy?," Wittgenstein said, "It is to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle."

The poem must be released from our expectations.

The poem must be released from our silly certitudes.

The poem is BIG.

Second Improvisation

There are many reasons to write a poem. All of them are valid, but not all of them are important.

The least important reason to write a poem is to be noticed.

The most important reason to write a poem is, as Siddhartha Gotama, Prince of the Sakya Clan, put it, to "work toward the cessation of suffering by sentient beings." Brenda Hillman, thinking of the Labyrinth of the Interior, where we all fall at feet of the Minotaur, put it another way: "Write what will save you."

The long working-through of Whitman is obviously exemplary here. But so are the workings-through of all of those who descend from Whitman, even those who may not claim relation. For example, Charles Olson, who said: "love is form, and cannot be without / important substance…"

And Robert Duncan, who said: "There is no ecstasy of Beauty in which I will not remember Man's misery."


And he who was lost like a dog
Will be found like a human being
And brought back home again
(Yehuda Amachai)


Those who have suffered understand suffering and thereby extend their hand.
(Patti Smith)


Third Improvisation

The poem itself is a "liberated zone," a space or field where thought can be evolved, and where the substance of the poem, resisting the totalizing presence of metaphor and image (no metaphor or image is enough, all metaphors and all images seek to dominate the field of the poem) can be worked as a practice of liberation for both reader and writer.

No single part of the poem, no burnished image, no telescoped "universal" metaphor, no rhetorical strategy, no a priori conception of the poem, no methodology, can be allowed dominate the field of the poem. As Gertrude Stein points out:

Cezanne conceived the idea that in the composition one thing is as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole.
Or, as the painter Philip Guston puts it:

It cannot be a settled, fixed image. It must of necessity be an image which is unsettled, which has not only not made up its mind where to be but must feel as if it's been in many places all over this canvas, and indeed there's no place for it to settle--except momentarily.
This thinking extends to metaphor, which is, as Rae Armantrout says, "imperialistic."

Perhaps Ann Lauterbach provides the best statement of this sort of understanding:

…Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.


Fourth Improvisation

To work effectively, the poet must see the poem not only as liberated, but also as at least potentially liberating. The poem freed from the stranglehold of the writer's need for control and use of techniques of control (totalizing metaphor, image, method, etc.) can do important work in freeing up the consciousness not only of the writer, but also of any reader. For most of us, living reasonably comfortable lives in the United States, it is in consciousness that we suffer and it is in consciousness we need the help of the liberated poem to model and work with the practice of freedom. Beyond its effect on consciousness, however, it is not too much to hope that the poem may also help liberate the objective, or "material," conditions of suffering people by questioning the legitimacy of the ideologies that are used to obscure and justify the structures of oppression.

The poem is an exploration, an investigation, a jumping-off place, a leap, not one more numbing recapitulation of What We Know For Sure About Art, not just another defense of a favorite method, or another safe, easy enterprise with an assured result. The poem is not what it has become, a calm afternoon spent assembling texts that reinforce one's comfortable sense of self and "meaning."

As Marjorie Perloff puts it: "At the microlevel, poetic knowledge involves the interrogation of words, images, or metaphors" (emphasis added).

Clark Coolidge is useful here:

I had thought the writer must first have it all in his head and only then put it into words, but no. I began to see how it was really excitingly done: You wrote from what you didn't know to whatever could be picked up in the act.
As is Rene Magritte:

People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking 'what does this mean?' they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things.
The first practice of the liberated poet is emotional honesty. The first purpose of the liberated poem is to provide exactly what is so lacking in the general culture, a zone of real emotion. Emotion, so unfashionable now, is the direct road to what is repressed in the individual, and in liberating the individual we liberate everything. Strong emotion (not "feelings," but the great storms of the depths) also provides the fuel for a poem that leaps and moves, surprising our expectations. Tom Clark notes that the word "emotion" comes from "…emovere, to move out…. Writing possessed by the fire of imagination is writing that moves."

And, as Jerome Rothenberg adds:

The vehicle of movement is imagination. The condition of movement is freedom.
The second practice of the liberated poet is attention. What do we mean by attention?

There is the romantic sense of attention best defined by Allen Ginsberg:

(Attention is) …an absolute, almost Zen-like, complete absorption, attention to your own consciousness…. So that attention does not waver while writing, and doesn't feed back on itself and become self-conscious.
Attention, however, should not be understood as a looking limited to the "self." By examining the consciousness, which is not importantly limited, we examine not only the "inner" world (which always intrudes on the "objective"), but the "outer" world (which always intrudes on the "subjective"). And, more importantly, we examine (if we look with any vigilance) the discontinuities of consciousness, which are always knots of great tension and energy, and which, once mediated, provide tremendous material, both intellectual and emotional, for the continuing liberating work of the poem.

Attention also denies closure. The drive toward closure is one of the great dishonesties of our times.

Fifth Improvisation

One of the proper studies of the clarified attention is, to put it simply, ideology. Poets working in our culture and circumstances, like other intellectuals and "knowledge workers," are often uniquely equipped to investigate and critique the prevailing ideologies, which are power structures built of language.

As the byproduct of ideology in this century has been on all sides unbelievable terror and repression, the poet who intends to write a poem must understand that it is impossible in our times to write a work of any importance that does not investigate ideology, and that, further, the critique of ideology, whether statist, religious, or personal, is necessarily liberating.

Why is this so important? I quote here at length from Milton Rai's Chomsky's Politics:

Despite self-serving illusions to the contrary, Chomsky argues, Western intellectuals have typically been, in Gramsci's phrase, 'experts in legitimation.' The role of intellectuals has been to 'ensure that beliefs are properly inculcated, beliefs that serve the interests of those with objective power, based ultimately on control of capital in the industrial societies.' Many devices figure in this process of legitimation…. Chomsky remarks that 'Ideas that circulate in the faculty club and the executive suite can be transmuted into ideological instruments to confuse and demoralize. As other means of social control become less significant, 'such ideological weapons are matters of no small importance to poor and oppressed people here and elsewhere.'
…. It is not difficult to understand why the intelligentsia should choose to serve power rather than truth…. 'If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision-making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change…. The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power. (Consequently) the level of culture that can be achieved in the United States is a life-and-death matter for large masses of suffering humanity.

Sixth Improvisation

The poet should attempt everything. The poet should attempt to get everything--all thoughts, all dreams, all of history, all personal thinking, all narratives, all confessions, the great goals for the times, pettiness, contingency, fear, everything--into the poem.

The poet who makes this attempt cannot rely on "technique," or commentary, "beauty," description, narrative, figurative language, or "method," none of which, finally, can complete the poem, but must follow instead her sense for the fullness and inexhaustibility of INFORMATION. The important poem provides INFORMATION that can be gotten in no other way. "Meaning," for example, is a type of information. The poem that is not soaked in information will not last. Information is hard, where rhetoric is soft and always what must be excised. Information lasts, where mere figuration is the dust that must be brushed away to reveal the enduring artifact, which is always most importantly code, signal, information.

Information is "that which forms within." Information describes the complexity of a sequence. The contemporary problem of design, whether of computer systems, poems, or architectures, aims to provide, reliably, a high information content.

The deep root of both our biology and our consciousness is information.

There is no information without discernment.

Information is consciousness is freedom.

"Information is that which changes us." (Gregory Bateson)


Seventh Improvisation

There is no single method sufficient to write a poem of the first importance. All methods are useful as they advance the project. None of them is enough.

As David Antin says, the reality of the poem "cannot be exhausted by its representations because its representations modify its nature."

Reliance on a single method, no matter how new or seemingly complete, is fetishism.

It may be that every poem of importance will require the invention of a new method, or multiple methods, or the abandonment of "method" entirely.

The poem must always be what escapes and cannot be gathered in by any method.

In the final analysis, method matters only as a technology; that is, a method is useful only as it helps either to produce important poems or as it leads to a better method that will.

Methods that do not produce important poems should be allowed to die.

The wise poet studies methods like a scientist studies experiments; the foolish poet criticizes methods in an effort to be fashionable.

The great casebook of method is the corpus of poems from all times and cultures. Knowing the casebook thoroughly is the first job of a serious poet.

Irony is fashionable, but it is not sufficient. Similarly, primary reliance upon, and familiarity with, the contemporary American and European poem, is not enough.

Technique is "the test of a man's convictions," as Pound put it, but it and a dollar will get you a condom in a bus-station bathroom.

In our time, given the many fascisms of method that exist, the impure is to be valued over the pure.

Eighth Improvisation

Investigation of the implications of the "unified voice," "the bourgeois subject," etc. is critical in investigating the current dominant ideology.

But arguments about whether the poem should contain a "speaker," or about the alleged failures of the "voice poem," the "confessional poem," the "personal poem" (or "the postmodern," the "fragmentary," or the "authorless") are pointless.

Neither a poem's subjectivity, full-strength or diluted, nor the lack of it is really to the point; subjectivity matters only insofar as it advances the project of an important poem.

Bickering about subjectivity as a point of style is trivial.

It isn't true that a poetics of inwardness, or the poem of inwardness, inevitably leads, as some would have it, to galloping self-indulgence; neither is it true that the poetics, or poems, of exteriority lead, as others would have it, to callous "objectivity."

Trying to distinguish, or privilege, "Emptiness," or "no-self," on one hand, versus "Personality," or "self" on the other, is an egregious dualism, a profitless misunderstanding, just another obstacle that stands in the way of liberating the poem (and maybe its author).

The liberated poem is always empty of personality, just as it is always already fully and incontrovertibly subjective. The liberated poem is free to explore all of the objects of consciousness, whether "inner" or "outer," and is not constrained by method or fashion to deny one class of objects at the expense of the other.

All of the following questions are more important than worrying about whether or not a poem is "confessional," or "objective," or "authorless": Is consciousness indivisible? How do objects arise in consciousness? How do they fall away? How does the world persist? How are the world and the imagination related?


Ninth Improvisation

The idea that we should value mere novelty in poetry is an accident of culture.

In other conditions; for example, those of Russia in the 30s, Eastern Europe in the 40s and 50s, El Salvador in the 80s, we learn that poets and the people reading poems may prefer news, information, and the building of community (especially resistance community) to the search for stylistic novelty in their poetry. That is, as we see in the laboratory of history outside our own relatively comfortable epoch, poetry has many uses, and the search for newness, "originality," etc. may not even be the most important of these.

On the other hand, not all forms, treatments, and approaches are equally useful to any given task.

Where the poet must invent, she must invent; where she can steal, she should steal, reserving her time and energy for the solutions only she can develop. That is, if it works, use it; if it doesn't work, invent it.

In any case, invention is important only in the sense that it helps a poet complete an important project.

Invention for its own sake is interesting, but not important.

The poem must be liberated from all pre-existing ideas of content, timeliness, fashion.

The poem must be liberated from all conceptions of novelty, invention, newness, currency, and it must especially be liberated from facile conceptions of the "avant-garde."


Appendix: Freely Admitting He Is Sick of the Carping of Poets

Criticism is best practiced inductively, not deductively.

Reasoning "upwards" from the reading of many poems may have merit; reasoning "downwards" from general statements, theories, principles, ideas, and abstractions results in egregious displays of "intelligence," but little information.

No poem is "good." No poem is "bad." Poems are useful or not useful to the poet as they help that poet realize a project.

Judgements made regarding the "goodness" or "badness" of poems, poets, and poetries, especially poetries different than one's own, usually develop from the need for ego reinforcement, political squabbling, or personality issues. These pronouncements, no matter who makes them, are best filed as gossip. The time and energy spent pronouncing on the general uselessness of poems, poetries, or poets is much better spent writing poems.

The only valid way to demonstrate the inadequacy of a particular poem is to write a better one.

Any specific criticism that helps a poet write a better poem is valid, and useful. Criticism that does not proceed from such generosity is not criticism worthy of notice. Obviously, there is no helpful criticism that is not highly specific.

Praise for what can be praised is the poet's obligation.

Silence, "judgement," envy, and grudging admiration are the behaviors of a real bastard.

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