The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Loom is a long poem of more than four hundred pages by one of America’s most prolific and versatile poets. It takes up a thorny issue of contemporary poetry, the divided self, which is presented in many forms as the speaker ventures over the earth in search of a way to dissolve his own internal oppositions to become whole and imaginative in a new life. Robert Kelly’s voluminous output as a writer is characterized by a lush and vivid imagination and a supple writing style that is clear, crisp, flexible in its command of a wide variety of experiences and topics, ranging from love stories to allegories, fables, romantic adventures, comic absurdity, myth, and occult lore. Hardly anyone compares with him for breadth of interest or facility with language or volubility. His canon comprises over fifty volumes of fiction and poetry, and his output even includes a series of short-story collections that have commanded high praise from critics.

The Loom is an early work that establishes some of the major themes of his subsequent poetry, in particular the complex relation between the sexes, which represents for Kelly not only the dynamics of love, but the terms of conflict between soul and self, ego and world. The Loom is an exploration of the identity of man and woman, self and soul, as these terms undergo a transformation through a loosely jointed quest narrative.

The poem, divided into thirty-six segments of narrative and commentary, is written in a fluid discourse of short lines, on a border between dramatic monologue and private revery. One is never quite sure where one mode of delivery ends and the other begins. The language is sinuous and moves effortlessly between direct address and dreamy introspection as one is drawn into the life of an intelligent, humorously candid man who shares his efforts to satisfy his sexual and emotional cravings.

The loom of the title is the imagination itself, which weaves into the design of its story the various myths by which a man slowly transforms himself from embattled opposites to serene lover of several women, each of whom represents an aspect of soul, his own and the world’s. Though the quest has a long history in poetry, Kelly’s version of it is modern and original. He begins the narrative by seating himself before a table, as medieval bards would do before reciting a long heroic epic. The reader learns immediately that there are “two rhythms” to harmonize, two realms of awareness to bring into phase, which Kelly identifies as “City & Language,” “place & talk,” or world and self. The table is parsed into its psychological root as tabula, the blank slate of mind on which experience makes its marks. It is also the table of seances, where spirits are summoned and made to talk across the border of death and sleep. Finally, the table is an altar where one partakes of communion with a holy spirit, and shares the ritual with others, his readers.

Kelly appropriates many of the conventions of epic narrative, including invocations to the muse and a ritual descent into the underworld of memory, from which heroes have traditionally set forth on their mythic voyages. Having deployed this classic machinery for his own narrative, one...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although it is a complex work involving many references and allusions, the technical devices in The Loom are relatively simple. To allow for a quick flow of discourse in the poem, the lines are kept short and are enjambed in a loose, conversational rhythm of varying meters. Stanzas are irregular and can run for several pages. There is no set length of line but, on average, the lines do not exceed eight or nine syllables and are rarely fewer than two or three syllables. Sometimes a paragraph of prose will intervene. Kelly occasionally indents a line to mark a shift in tone or to separate units of thought or action in a stanza. These indentations vary and, perhaps, suggest the length of certain pauses in the flow of narrative. Otherwise, the poem is a graceful discourse, textured by occasional passages of verse from Greek, Spanish, and Provençal poetry and by the sheer exuberance of figures and place-names sprinkled throughout.

The discourse itself is a playful mixture of literal reminiscence, humorous commentary, hyperbole, and allegorical episodes. Literal and figurative events merge subtly in the language as the story unfolds; the characters are drawn realistically only to be elevated in the next phrase to their allegorical identities as gods, psychological functions, or as elements of human sensibility. Often the same figures are demoted back to their literal selves once more, as with Lady Isabella, Helen, and the protagonist himself.

The role of metaphor and symbol in the text is like the Double Axe of section 4, which has “Two blades, separate, wielded by one haft.” They signal the double lives of events and objects in the narrator’s memories, and thus bridge the separate worlds of fact and ideas, sense and imagination. Metaphors abound in the discourse as the vehicle of ambiguous reality, the double nature of things as phenomena in the sphere of mortality and death, and as ideas that live forever in the mind. Hence, gardens, flowers, women, adventures are all metaphorical in their capacity to mirror both sides of human existence.