I think that there are lessons to take away from the Fukushima disaster besides the usual stuff about Modern Man’s hubris. It’s also a lesson on transience. It’s a lesson about just how long the things we make can last. Waste from a nuclear reactor can be radioactive for thousands of years, never ceasing to be radioactive. Ionized particles decay into eternity.

But how long do our poems last? And what does Robert Kelly have to do with all of this?

Kelly was a Deep Image poet. More than just a member of the club, he actually helped to name it. And if academic poetry in the 50s was still caught up on the formalism of high modernism, the Deep Image poets wanted to reach back to the more accessible and sensual poetry of people like Rilke and Lorca. They wanted to be more romantic and surreal than the modernists. As Robert Bly said:

“Lorca conveys his emotion not by any “formula” but by means which do not occur to Eliot-by passion. The phrase ‘objective correlative’ is astoundingly passionless. For Lorca there is no time to think of a cunning set of circumstances that would carry the emotion in a dehydrated form to which the reader need only add water.”

A professor at Bard College since 1961, the Brooklyn-born Kelly produced works in this relatively short-lived school of poetics with a wit and moral seriousness that’s just exhilarating to read. It’s challenging without being smug. His poem “Looking”, taken here from Poets.org, is one of my favorites:


Once when I read the funnies

I took my little magnifying glass
and looked too close.

Forms became colors and colors
were just arrays of dots
and between the dots I saw the rough bleak
storyless legend of the pulp paper
empty as the winter moon

and I dreaded it.
I had looked right through,
when I wanted a universe
that sustains
looker and looking and the seen
forever, detail after detail
never ending. And all I had found
was between. But between
had its own song:
Find it in the space between—

it is just as empty as it seems
but this blankness is your mother.

Note that you don’t need to be fluent in Classical Greek to “get” what Kelly is saying. You don’t need a passing familiarity with 600 year old theological arguments. And in the 50’s and 60’s, with so many academic poets aping that dense and allusion-filled style of the modernists, reading Kelly must have been exciting. It must have been as exciting as watching a young Mike Tyson strip the ornament away from his sport, square his feet, and start knocking people out.

So what does this all have to do with Fukushima? How is a Robert Kelly poem like an ionized alpha particle? Origins. You cant separate a culture from its products. There’s no such thing as cultural fission. Modern poetry is a product of the same culture that made Fat Man and Little Boy possible. Not even just possible, but inevitable. Nuclear bombs can only exist in the same world as Robert Kelly’s poems, mega-churches, and David Lynch movies. I just hope that the most beautiful and humane parts of the whole thing have as long a half-life as the most radioactive ones.

Anyone interested in learning more about Robert Kelly should attend the “Logic of the World: The Poetics of Robert Kelly” on Saturday, May 7. The event will take place at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. and will include readings by Robert Kelly himself.



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