Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
English, General Literature, and Rhetoric
William B. Stein
Christian P. Gruber
The following work is the result of several coincidental events, all of which led to the ultimate event—this poem. The first draft consisted of ten pages of poetry written within a two week period during which I was living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. At this time, I was suffering isolation and a new confrontation with the land which took me back into my own rural past. The dying into winter and then winter itself has always been my time of the year—paradoxically the time when new voices speak to me. Moreover, I was beginning to study Olson, Pound and Williams; and it was their grappling with the local which set me off in a new direction entirely. For a long time I had been struck with how static a lot of poetry seemed—I sensed a need to somehow infuse my writing with a kind of “drama”—to lend the speaking voice and the dramatic gesture to language. The serial or long poem seemed to be the perfect solution for material I was developing. The remainder of this Introduction briefly describes the various ideas and forces at work in Houses.
In an important sense, Houses is concerned primarily with the juncture that occurs between physical space and psychological space—the way in which each world informs the other. Taking a step back from Charles Olson’s insistence on “the local” in a geographical sense, I began to write a poem which would investigate the sources of language and perception. In that way, the Self in Houses replaces Gloucester and Paterson as the locale of discovery; yet I have attempted to maintain a sort of balance between the outside and the inside by always placing the Self within a material context. By shifting the emphasis of the serial poem in this way, the Persona or Voice in the poem assumes the primary interest and pivotal position mediating between all parts of the poem. Not only that, the Voice in this manner provides the essential connective between interior (psychological) realities and exterior (physical/material) realities. I think that we can safely assume that most modern poetry is engaged in what Matthew Arnold called “the dialogue of the mind with itself,” and that the appearance of multiple voices in poetry can be attributed to this development:
My use of multiple voices or selves (all fragments of the larger Self of the poem) in Houses was an attempt to convey or to create that experience of life which is both continuous and fragmented. Information flows into the brain in a series of discrete message units which are spatially layered in the mind—we comprehend the universe in any one glance and yet are confused and burdened by the multiplicity of its forms. Each of the six sections of Houses is keyed by a different voice, speaking in an appropriate tense, grammar, etc. These speaking voices represent or rather present the various levels of fragmented experience and perception which operate at any given moment within the mind. Further, the notion of multiple voices is carried into the creation of characters who are present in the form of historical analogues and semi-hallucinatory figures which people the pages of the poem—moving in and out of the edges of action—as the named and nameless of a street scene in film. I refer here to all of the ancestors recorded from the family books: Merriweather Lewis, the ladies, and Howard as well as the immediate family members who speak through letters or whose presence is conjured up in memory. All of these characters have, by their very existence in the imagination, voices, which speak through actions, physical appearance, or language to impose a dramatic tension in their interaction with each other and as objects within the actual field of the poem.
In any exploration of the Self, there is an absolute congruence of that fragile figure called “self” with all other possible selves which are budding and dying off continually. There are no absolute limits of Self. We, like the world around us, seem always in the process of coming into being; we are in many ways, the products of everything we touch, see, hear or experience. We are a conglomeration of the responses of our senses to the physical world, of whatever we have experienced either “factually” or imaginatively and of those other people with whom we inhabit our psycho-physical space. Any voice a poet creates is, therefore, necessarily fictive, and any belief is a created fiction that can be used to explore the universe. Houses is an attempt to record these voices, to map out the psychological space of a woman at a given moment in time. It is also an attempt to define the conflicts which are generated by such a process of exploration. At the same time that the poem records a psychological history, it also presents a struggle on the part of the persona to strip away preconditions and to destroy the fictions which have been imposed upon the poet by an essentially alienating culture. But coincidental to this struggle is the equally important theme that new fictions must be invented and that they must also remain fictions, never fact.
A primary tension of the poem arises in the conflict between the authority of an established, absolute reality taught by family and society and the radical stance that all knowledge must be incomplete and that nothing is absolute.
The poem becomes a dramatization of the need to escape, to liberate the Self from the weight of historical and cultural fact—to demystify, to discover what “truth” there might be in any set of “facts.” This is a quest which of necessity must end in failure—the facts will never become clear and the truths will never integrate themselves into anything more than another fragmented, contradiction-ridden version of existence. But what is finally uncovered by the persona in the poem is that it is the idea of process itself, the recognition of multiple potentialities, and of the interrelatedness of all elements in human perception, and by extension, in the universe, which generates the Self. Further, the persona realizes that the process of perception, like that of creating a poem, is one of discovery, of a revivification of the world over and over again toward an ultimate integration of all possible voices, i.e. phenomena.
Agee, Jonis, "Houses" (1976). Graduate Dissertations and Theses. 140.