(Poets and Poetry in America)

Robert Kelly’s first book, Armed Descent, showed some indebtedness to Ezra Pound’s balance of line, presentation of a numinous world through direct images, and rhythmically modulated musicality. Most striking, however, was not the debt but the originality and the confidence. It was a sensuous poetry, a demonstration of Kelly’s proclamation that the fundamental rhythm of a poem was the rhythm of images. Each poem contended in its own way for the proposition that visible realities be read as spiritual clarities. The spirit made flesh was the manifest mystery, but there was a practical injunction as well: “The gateway is the visible; but we must go in.”

Kelly’s imaginistic skills might have easily been directed toward the production of autonomous free association. It was within his means to become a giant among American Surrealist poets. He was engaged in a quest that could not rest comfortably on surfaces, however, nor reside in a simple succession of images. In his 1968 retrospective pamphlet Statement, Kelly stressed that the significant term in Deep Image poetry had been the word “deep”: It was depth that was striven for in poems. Images were simply material agencies and were to be regarded as cues, clues, tangible signs of spiritual intensity.

The sense of depth, in conjunction with the concept of the image, led Kelly to postulate a location “behind the brain” where human lives as experienced through sense and image are “slain/ minute by minute.” The Catholicism of Kelly’s childhood has persisted in his poetry in the form of guiding images. This epiphany of “the place of the death of Images” is, suitably, from the poem “In Commentary on the Gospel According to Thomas” (in The Alchemist to Mercury), and it should be noted that the epigraphs to Armed Descent are also drawn from that apocryphal gospel. Kelly was fascinated with the image as something that is born or appears (is a “phenomenon,” from the Greek word for “to appear,” phaino), dies or lapses, and then reappears or is resurrected. Kelly’s Christian roots go deep in this image cycle, of which Christ and the grail chalice that holds his life’s blood are the sustaining images. Kelly’s is a patently antiauthoritarian Christian vision, however, informed by pagan rites, gnostic and Neoplatonist philosophy, heretical sects, and alchemy.

Summoning the dream world

The sense of depth for which Kelly was striving in his early poetry soon became associated with what he called “The Dream Work” (in In Time). By linking the production of images in a poem with that productive energy of the dream world, Kelly was able to ground his poetics in a mode of recurring psychic creation. This certainly facilitated his orientation to poetry as daily practice. Unlike such previous poetics as that of the French Surrealists, who were fascinated with dream imagery, Kelly’s poetics was concerned with drawing psychic energy from the depths from which dreams speak, and not with using the poem as a means of reporting on or approximating dream states. Kelly’s success is most evident in the narrative passages of The Loom, where such dreamlike images as the detached skull or a notch of coffin-shaped sunlight seen through a keyhole become the stimuli for meditations that are somnambulistic yet acutely conscious at the same time.

The alchemical quest for intimacy

Given Kelly’s training as a medieval scholar, it is no surprise that his poems evoke the world of the books of hours, the body as a zone of astrological inscriptions and humors, and the spirit as a vehicle for ascent through the plectrum of the harmoniously organized stars and planets. “Finding the measure” (the title of his most acclaimed book), in its literal sense, refers to the process of modulating the rhythms of attention to the shape of the language in its shapely apparition as a poem. Finding the measure for Kelly has all the force of a...

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