Burnshaw, Stanley (Vol. 13)
Burnshaw, Stanley 1906–
Burnshaw is an American poet, novelist, critic, and essayist. The Seamless Web is his best known work, a critical manifesto which James Dickey termed "the most exciting, releasing book on the nature of poetry since Biographia Literaria." (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
"Although everyone knows that humanity is only one strand in the web of creation, one can rarely speak about man's condition as a creature without eliciting defensiveness and confusion." It is to man's condition as a creature, his need and indeed drive to regain his primary organic unity with the rest of creation, that Stanley Burnshaw's title [The Seamless Web] refers. It is to that particular drive that he connects the work of the artist—all artists, but more particularly the poet, whom Stanley Burnshaw considers to be the archetype of the artist. And it is to an elucidation of the nature of the poet's activity that The Seamless Web addresses itself…. In [Burnshaw's] investigation he considers a wide variety of approaches to art: Freud and the various brands of psychoanalysis; structuralism and the "new critics," exploring the limits of their approach with great clarity and intellectual precision. The discretion with which he uses his vast knowledge is a measure of his mastery over it….
Besides being himself a poet, willing dispassionately to examine his own activity as poet, Burnshaw is a man with a wide knowledge of his fellow craftsmen, past and present, writing in different languages from within different cultures…. But, beyond the whole range of testimony concerning the creative act gathered from the artists themselves, the volume brings to the reader a wealth of...
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[In The Seamless Web, Mr. Burnshaw] tries to show how mankind, in replacing biological evolution which was imperceptibly slow with cultural progress which is massive and speedy, lost its at-oneness with nature, its seamlessness with living things, to suffer thereafter the dichotomy between the so-called "higher" centres of the brain and the "lower" areas of motor action and instinctive response. None of this sounds very new or greatly in need of further clarification, you might say. Yet much of the first part of Mr. Burnshaw's argument is to show how it is the cultural, linguistic structuring of the higher centres that compel us to trust in the truth of this split and to make so often the derogatory distinction between primitive qualities and those we call civilised. In fact, he spends a long section on showing that the split is not so certain, nor so complete as the cultured structuring of our thoughtways would have us believe. (p. 33)
The book now proceeds to investigate the creation of works of art. And here Mr. Burnshaw's experience as a poet helps him to give one of the clearest expositions of the creative trace that I have yet read. He intends to show how the "higher" centres which so often consider themselves in charge of the creative process are in fact nudged and directed almost without their knowledge and certainly without their consent all along the line even when it comes to revision, rightly called re-vision here…. (p. 34)
Mr. Burnshaw now turns his mind to consider the thing made by the creative process, concentrating again on...
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[Stanley Burnshaw] calls Mirages a public poem, and thereby indirectly explains one reason why it is so enormously moving. The poetry-reading public has had its fill of the confessionals, who treat their psyches as though each were a complete universe. Mirages is about something vaster and deeper than one sensibility. It is a series of meditations and conversations about the fact and mystery of Israel—the modern nation, with all its hustle and bustle, interwoven with the external land of Canaan and the strong destiny of those who have inhabited it at various times. To read the book is like seeing one transparent slide superimposed upon another, and then another and another….
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Mr. Burnshaw is a courageous man but even he, I imagine, would not have wanted the slogan "A Public Poem" printed so largely as his publisher seems to have decided. And yet he would be mistaken, for what makes [Mirages] so interesting and important is precisely that it is public in a way that poems have not been for decades. The poem concerns the Israeli-Arab problem in all its complexity. Mr. Burnshaw brings to it a complexity of his own which gives him the authority to speak. His own culture is deeply American-European as can be seen from his translation-work in The Poem Itself and his The Seamless Web, not to mention his earlier poems. But The … Web is underwritten with the Paradisal...
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Burnshaw, Stanley (Vol. 3)
Burnshaw, Stanley 1906–
Burnshaw is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
The Seamless Web probably does as much as it could possibly do, given its spinner's exquisite manners. What leaves me rather disconcerted is that the reading of it took me longer and required a considerably greater effort of will than the reading of any of Dickens's longer novels or a sizable portion of Paradise Lost. For this looks like another paradox…. Art is already long—should talk about art, however intelligent, be longer? At all events, Mr. Burnshaw's readers will want to associate themselves with his estimate of the continuing importance of art for mankind. In his closing remarks on the conflict in the mind between 'diencephalon' and 'cerebral cortex', or between primal forces and civilised forces, he proposes that one truce between them is art, when 'certain innermost needs of the organism fulfil themselves through imaginative creations'. The mystery—of the needs and how they are fulfilled—remains. Perhaps it is meant to.
D. J. Enright, "O Altitudo!: Poet, Poem and Reader" (1970), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 156-62.
In "The Seamless Web" Stanley Burnshaw made a courageously original statement about the physical basis of art, a work which I quite firmly believe to be the most exciting, releasing book on the nature of poetry since "Biographia Literaria." His central thesis is that "poetry begins and ends with the body," and maintains that "even Mallarmé's symbols of abstract essence lead back to the bones, flesh and nerves." With massive, strange documentation, Mr. Burnshaw shows how the poet and the long-jumper in the air are engaged in the same gesture of exaltation. One is sedentary as he writes, the other in violent motion as he suspends himself by his muscles above the earth. But in both the body is paramount: the fluids are running, and the deepest center of animality is engaged. The words of the poet come from that center.
Mr. Burnshaw has now collected his own poetry; and when I got it ["In the Terrified Radiance"], I was afraid to open the book. Liké most writers, I had seen too many theories exploded by the theorist's practice, too many statements-of-policy come to a sickening nothingness in the writer's attempt to give them a habitation and a name.
But not this time. Mr. Burnshaw is not only as good as his word; he is as good as his body. And what is even better, he is not enslaved by his own theories; he goes around them, above them, inside them—and, above all, beyond them. His refreshing openness results in a kind of all-embracing nature-mystique, an adventurous sharing of the earth with … well, with the others….
This is creature-poetry, and the human imagination, in its desperate latter-day effort to get back its animal inheritance, needs it now more than it needs any other kind of communication….
Burnshaw has plenty of mind—"The Seamless Web" is surely one of the most learned literary works of our time—but his mind is in a tremendously exciting kind of balance with his body: both can feed each other, and consequently both can speak as one.
And there is also Burnshaw's intense caring for the literature of other languages. He is a master of tongues and he has done a remarkable thing for all of us in "The Poem Itself" and "The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself" by showing us how to come into the spirit of poems in other languages than our own which we, in our linguistic laziness, don't and will never know, and to come into that spirit with little pain and much delight.
And so we have it here: a remarkable man's life, and the best of it. "In the Terrified Radiance" is a poetry of the "whole creature," all languages, all cultures contributing, mind and body leaping and singing, writing like a beast.
James Dickey, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 24, 1972, p. 4.
[In his collection In the Terrified Radiance,] Stanley Burnshaw … writes from an inner fire he sees no need to put out. In fact, although the repetition of theme and image in his short lyrics suggests something deliberate and even contrived, Burnshaw's goal is to create pure intensity, to proclaim "terrified radiance" for its own sake. He is as uninterested as Roethke in the outside world and chooses to ignore the problem of perspective in favor of commiting himself to the single creative moment of beauty and awe. Is it because Burnshaw is an established aesthetician that one finds these poems very theoretical? In any case, they are best taken a few at a time. They would read like a developing inner spiritual diary were it not that they so lack outer context and variety. Burnshaw always looks for the same demon and finds and faces up to it only once or twice….
The problem in reading Burnshaw's finest poems is that they make the majority of his poems seem, not inadequate, but unnecessary. One assumes that writing them was good exercise for his metaphoric muscles, but they are not very important to the reader who can see his best creations.
Robert Weisberg, in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 167-68.
From cover to cover in short order is not the ideal way to read Burnshaw. Even as I recognized the power of individual pieces [in In the Terrified Radiance] I found myself eventually chilled by the absolute humorlessness of the book, by what comes to seem a constant portentousness of tone. The same words turn up as if by ritual repetition: flesh, blood, bone, flame. The book is undeniably impressive but, at least to my taste, forbidding. I would have to admit that its demands on patience are recompensed not infrequently by passages of great eloquence. One may admire something without being charmed by it, and that is how I feel about Burnshaw's poetry.
Robert B. Shaw, "No Strokes of Lightning," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1973, p. 350.