Sunday, May 18, 2008

Discovering Hyam Plutzik

Thanks to Edward Moran, I just discovered Hyam Plutzik. Son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he became an English professor at the University of Rochester, and, though he died in 1962, a poet at large. His words quoted on his homepage immediately resonate with me:

I once looked at poetry as little more than beautiful language. Later it was a way of communicating the nuances of the world. More recently I have begun to look at poetry as the great synthesizer, the humanizer of knowledge.

The three ways of looking are not three different ways, but each rises into the next, as beauty becomes nuance, and nuance becomes synthesis. Or, to see the interrelationship from a different end, synthesis is valuable so long as it depends on nuance, and nuance must rest on an appreciation of beauty. The goal of synthesis echoes that of Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, in which the game is to unify all knowledge. Whereas Hesse's master-language is music, and his chosen form the quest novel, Plutzik's seem to be science, and poetry. His last phrase "the humanizer of knowledge" implies knowledge needs humanizing. I read "knowledge" here as scientific knowledge, which, in some view, is abstract, general, legalistic. Poetry then, in this view, provides the human context, or, more accurately, translates symbols into symbolism.

Plutzik does this brilliantly in his poem "The Equation." The fantastic transformations begin with mathematical variables, and end with nocturnal weeping. The poem argues like a sonnet, but the last two isolated lines equate the sestet to the octave, uneasily.

An Equation

For instance: y –xa + mx2(a2+ 1) = 0
Coil upon coil, the grave serpent holds
Its implacable strict pose, under a light
Like marble. The artist’s damnation, the rat of time,
Cannot gnaw this form, nor event touch it with age.
Before it was, it existed, creating the mind
Which created it, out of itself. It will dissolve
Into itself, though in another language.
Its changes are not in change, nor its times in time.
And the coiled serpent quivering under a light
Crueler than marble, unwinds slowly, altering
Deliberate the great convolutions, a dancer,
A mime on the brilliant stage. The sudden movement,
Swifter than creases of lightening, renews a statue:
There by its skin a snake rears beaten in copper.
It will not acknowledge the incense on your altars,
Nor hear at night in your room the weeping…

The website gives a detailed biography, and a poetry sample. There is also a trailer for a documentary on the poet, directed by Christine Choy ("Who Killed Vincent Chin?"). Interviewed in the film are Hayden Carruth, Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, and Grace Shulman.


Anonymous said...

Greetings Jee Leong Koh,
I'm happy to report that Wesleyan University Press has just published a new edition of Hyam Plutzik's Apples From Shinar with a new afterword by David Scott Kastan. Please see for more information about the book and Centennial activities. We would be happy to send you a review copy. Please let me know your mailing address. Thanks, Edward Moran

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Edward. I'd love to have a copy of the new edition.