Clayton Eshleman Critical Essays

Eshleman, Clayton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eshleman, Clayton 1935–

Eshleman is an American poet, the publisher and editor of the magazine Caterpillar, and an award-winning translator of such poets as César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Eshleman has published a number of books in the past few years, including his widely admired translations of Neruda and Vallejo, but [Indiana] is his first sizable collection of his own work. His language has evolved from standard Black Mountainese toward a more personal, driven style, rhythmically intricate, twisted, sometimes obscure and elliptical, experimental, lit by flashes of verbal brilliance; it is always interesting and often moving. Thematically, however, his poetry seems less compelling, since much of it centers on raw neurotic obsessions and Reichian interpretations that give the effect, not of depth, but of shallowness, petulance, and failing concern. One hopes for, and expects, a broadening of insight as this obviously developing poetry matures. (p. 184)

Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1970 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1970.

For some years the poet Clayton Eshleman … has been working to achieve a complex vision of himself. A revision, one might call it; his own term is "emancipation," a deliverance of the self from the nonbeing of conventionality into the being of originality. At all events it is a present aspect of the poetic rebirth known through the ages to poets of many mystical persuasions; and in his new book, "Altars," Eshleman comes near to it. Except that the very nature of his task, imposed by the changing condition of time, denies him hope of completion. His success is only the first stage of an achievement that can never rest.

Eshleman's vision is complex because his sources are complex, or at least diverse and unusual. He has lived in both Japan and South America; has explored Oriental literature and translated the great Chilean poet César Vallejo. Critics have found elements of both Japanese and Latin-American prosody in his poetry. Yet his verbal practice, based on the isolated phrase, with many elisions and enjambments, a free cadence, strange juxtapositions and extremes of diction, places him pretty squarely in our native Black Mountain tradition. Unlike some other Black Mountain poets, however, such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov or Robert Kelly, Eshleman aims less for verbal felicity or musicality than for conceptual discrimination. Sometimes this leads to mere fussiness, sometimes to genuine analytical elegance. But always his tone is tough, involuted and dense, with separate movements of feeling characteristically sustained over rather long passages.

Similarly the substance of Eshleman's poems is varied and esoteric. It is as if he had run from the ordinariness of his Indiana boyhood in a wild flight to cultural specialization. One finds in his poems references to Tantrik Hinduism, to other Oriental mysticisms, to Biblical history, the legends of American Indians, contemporary underground cinema and above all to Wilhelm Reich's philosophy of genital experience and the prophetic books of William Blake, which Eshleman has audaciously amalgamated in a sexual-religious myth of generation. This makes a huge analytical apparatus. It is applied to an open-ended system of dualisms: experience/imaginations, sun/moon, time/eternity, male/female and especially the dualism in the great gnostic analogy between concealed events in heaven and observed events on earth. (p. 7)

One's most serious doubt of Eshleman's vision arises with respect to his emphasis on poetic creation as the superior mode of human existence. Here he comes close to the old homme d'esprit, the poet as charismatic leader of mankind, an élitist relic of the 1930's that can have no place in our present world. The poet, Eshleman implies—thus carrying through his schematic sexual analysis—is the only person who can acquire real completeness or human integrity, because he completes himself in his poem. The generative interaction of poet and poem produces the only unity, which is peace, God's presence understood on earth.

Yet this is acceptable only if Eshleman will agree that such creativeness is accessible to everyone: the priest completes himself in his church, the mechanic in his machine, the farmer in his furrow. In fact the poet's creativity, no matter how firmly validated in sexual-religious mythology, will always be flawed if it does not include the wider, humbler love that is the love of all the world.

But this is—perhaps, one can't yet be sure—a cavil. Meanwhile we do not doubt Eshleman's seriousness, integrity, or ability. Together with other poets of his generation—Diane Wakoski, Robert Kelly, Gary Snyder, David Bromige and a dozen more—he is producing work of astonishing originality; astonishing because after the generation now in its forties, or for that matter the generations now in their fifties and sixties, one might almost have thought further originality impossible, at least for a while. But the thrust of American poetic inventiveness remains as strong as ever.

If Eshleman's poems were not evidence enough of this, his magazine Caterpillar, which he has published and edited since 1967, would be….

"A Caterpillar Anthology" is the best cross section we have of the Black Mountain movement from 1967 to 1971; or at least of the remains of that movement, which by 1967 had already passed its peak of maturity and begun to split into more strands than one movement can contain. Today the name is at best a historical label. And already we look at "A Caterpillar Anthology," in affection and without regret, as a kind of epitaph. (p. 26)

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 13, 1972.

I think one of the most serious and complete and whole books of poetry I've read has just been published this year. It is called Coils and it is by Clayton Eshleman. I am not ready to talk about it critically and I never write book reviews. I would simply like to take this space to say that Coils is a book about process—the poet's process of creating mythology out of self—and about energy. I do not believe that most people are capable of change, even when the world tries to force them to. However, most human beings base their lives on the possibility of it. Adrienne Rich has written a fine book called The Will to Change which demonstrates that rare people can change, living under an obsession and creating remarkable energy from their minds. Eshleman's book, Coils, really documents how this can happen. It is not an easy book but by now you may have gathered that I do not like easy art. It is a dense rich book about that will to change from an insulated, unthinking, indiscriminately feeling product of the middle class world into a powerful, sensitive real person. It is a book which gives me great faith in the poetic process.

Diane Wakoski, "The Craft of Carpenters, Plumbers, & Mechanics: A Column," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Diane Wakoski), July/August, 1973, pp. 17-18.

Eshleman's poems [in Coils] have an intellectual veneer; they are studded with references to Japanese religion, Reichian psychology, Blakean mythology, and fellow poets…. Moreover, Coils has a narrative pattern; it tells the story of one man's break with the "White Indiana Protestant world of 'light'" (i.e., "day/clarity/good") and the painful process of "giving birth to myself or more accurately, my SELF," which Eshleman associates with Blake's Los or the Japanese deity Yorunamado.

The journey out of the self, the painful process of death and rebirth, is, of course, a central theme in contemporary poetry; one thinks particularly of Roethke, Wright, Ammons, and Kinnell. But Coils trivializes this potentially important theme from the start by defining the poet's main problem as follows: "I was committed to someone I was not sexually turned on to"…. (p. 101)

"The House of Okumura VII" is the epitome of Corn-Porn Poetry [an uneasy mixture of noble sentiment and sexual explicitness]. Its dominant quality, aside from its "spontaneous" language and reliance on four-letter words, is its tone of weighty revelation, its pseudo-profundity…. "Letter from New Paltz," a nine-page prose section roughly at the center of Coils,… is the kind of letter most of us have written at one time or another, but to publish it in a volume of poetry is something else again. It is difficult to see why anyone but the two people involved should care why their relationship will or will not work. There is no poetic patterning of any kind here—no selection, no defamiliarization, no repetition of phrase, image, or rhythm that might transform life into art. (pp. 102-03)

[This] depressingly trite book … is, unfortunately, wholly representative of our time and place…. The one redeeming feature of Coils may be its unrelenting honesty. Yet the poet's feverish, intellectualized obsession with sex as a panacea for all evils,…[and] his prosaic, tendentious style … dissipate the power of Coils to move us. (p. 103)

Marjorie G. Perloff, in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975.

Coils is a demanding book. Clayton Eshleman has a probing, original mind, and once he has you into his poems (and if we can appropriately see a book of poems as female, receptor) he doesn't let go until you finally drop off exhilarated and spent, exhausted and nourished. And nourished is apt for Coils. Eshleman is a creator of personal myth par excellence. His energy is contagious and undiminishing. His absorption of Whitman, Blake, Vallejo, and Reich is feeling, encompassing, resolved, and astute. And as he spins out psychic explorations and ravishments his voice is his own. Few poets seem to grow so impressively within the pages of a single book. Coils is a living through of the sexual, cerebral, metaphysical, mythic love coils of a single, complex, creative life. (p. 50)

One of Eshleman's masters Whitman insisted that the poet be a conscience for his time. Gifted with psychical insight beyond the ordinary, the poet writes large, to use one of the Walt's favored words; his own private experience symbolizes the harrowing strivings of his age….

In this Whitmanic sense of large-writing, Eshleman's scope makes most poetry today look anemic….

Poets who haven't resolved their sexuality cripple themselves as artists; or, poets who've become too comfortable with their sexuality stifle themselves. Resolving our sexuality is essential, and the resolving is a perpetual almost spiritual discipline/exercise. We move nowhere as artists unless we free ourselves from the emasculations of past centuries, reassemble our genitals, and then move as integrated selves, honoring, as Eshleman puts it, the energy on the body as well as the energy within it. Coils is, in these senses, a catalyst work.

Why does it matter so much where poets were and are? Is much gained by naming the actual streets where they walked, the countries they visited, the housekeeping details of their lives in all of their non-visionary splendor? Are poets who incorporate such details being self-indulgent?…

In Eshleman's earlier book Indiana I felt such detail indulgent, meant for friends, better kept in journals. I felt excluded. In Coils, on the other hand, these good housekeeping details work. That they do has led me to some postulates about this kind of poetry. First, if the poems in a single book lend energies one to the other, backwards and forwards, downwards as well as upwards, no details are irrelevant; and interdependent energies create larger energies…. Second, the plain and the humdrum must constitute a base for more encompassing concerns; i.e., if a poet remains commonplace the poems will mire there. Coils gleams Blakean overtones of the mystical, rife with Vallejo's pains translated into Eshleman's, burgeoning with Whitmanic force. The synthesis of these energies occurs, I feel, because Eshleman folds them all in skillfully with the albumin and yolk of himself….

The considerable stress of Coils is directed towards (or resolved into) a far more original consummation: what I call the cutaneous self, or what Eshleman sees as the energy on the body, is both male and female; similarly, the energy within the body shares this duality.

To score with a female is to score with the female in both one's psyche and in one's physical self. One senses that Eshleman feels because his body cells are both biologically male and female, and that only recently has he allowed them a balanced interplay. (p. 51)

The conflict to identify and honor these stressful thrusts, both physical and psychic, in Coils assumes vital metaphysical overtones. The surge here is exactly of the sort more contemporary poets should be making; the result in Coils is a poetry of scope. (p. 193)

Robert Peters, in Margins (copyright © 1975 by Margins), September/October/November, 1975.

There is a struggle [in Realignment]: so much in each poem is strong, clear-cut emotion, a willingness to give to the lover, to be frank and bare himself before the reader. Then there is the drawing back, the hiding oneself, the image thrown in to stop us right there or to draw us back into the intellectual state where both poet and lover are secure. None of the poems exist wholly in one state or the other, and yet the struggle itself (or the process of the poems—I think of Enslin's "Forms" or much of Robert Kelly's work) is what becomes important here. With the book closed and sitting on the shelf for weeks at a time, what I remembered was the tenderness—and I was drawn to return to find it again, or to assure myself it was still there. It is present to such an extent that Eshleman runs the risk of being called sentimental, yet that same intellectuality which holds the poems from fully realizing themselves also saves them from becoming too familiar. (p. 140)

This is a complex book. Eshleman is determined to make a personal statement as well as an intellectual one. It might well succeed by failing, or fail because it succeeds. Either way, it deserves the careful attention of any reader who would hope to attempt the same some day. And otherwise, what do we write for? (p. 141)

Rochelle Ratner, in Margins (copyright © 1976 by Margins), January/February/March, 1976.

"The Gull Wall" is a sprawling, unwieldy book which almost repels the reader with its broken syntax and deliberately private images. Despite Whitmanesque invocations in several titles, the energy of the poems is strangely solitary, as if it did not care to share itself….

The impression, finally, is less one of individual poems, than of a pressing flow of images, fragmentary scenes, autobiographical recalls, sprinkled with cultural and historical references which bob through—Lascaux, Japanese movies, medieval gargoyles—like faintly glimpsed road-marks of the space Eshleman's "creative spirit" gallops through.

Often the poems seem to out-run their own words, as if Eshleman believed that grammar were too small and narrow to accommodate the inner lava which he claims as his poetic domain.

Yet, in the end, the unrelenting intensity of the poems holds one's attention. The images have a disturbing originality. The reader seems to be witnessing the most private, most tropical of obsessions revealed to him in an exhibitionistic dance. Eshleman's dance may be grim and narcissistic, but it contains all of a man's being; it holds nothing back, and the reader looks on, uncomfortable, a little irritated, but still looking.

The high point in the book is a lucid prose meditation on Eshleman's friendship with the late Paul Blackburn. It is a moving tribute to Blackburn, and the presence of a mediating subject matter brings out qualities of grace and sympathetic intelligence which the book lacks elsewhere. The meditation ends with a brooding poem which gives a sense of what Eshleman can do when he allows himself time and restraint. (p. 27)

Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1976.