Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Deductive vs. Inductive Poetry II

My nascent thought posted last night regarding inductive vs. deductive poetry needs some fleshing out. First, I did not give any examples of inductive poets. William Carlos Williams has to lead the pack, with Gary Snyder, Frank O'Hara, Charles Bukowski, Wordsworth to some extent; Robert Lowell late in his career (Life Sketches), and from what I've read of Franz Wright I might include him, and certainly the entire canon of Chinese poetry, where emotion is provoked by events or surroundings. That is, events and surroundings are not used to support an emotion; the emotion arises from them.

Keats was a deductive poet. We should not be fooled by his "Ode to a Grecian Urn," where he is not responding to an experience so much as transmogrifying an icon. "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "Lamia" are more typical--poems organized around a legend or narrative, not in response to experience.

Hopkins tried to get at nature through "inscape," but even so his work is so doused in Christianity that he cannot be considered inductive.

Basically, confining ourselves to the west, deductive poetry ruled until the twentieth century. Donne and Milton and Jonson were all deductive, so was Herbert. Sir Walter Scott epitomizes the deductive poet as he strives to communicate romances in verse. Ginsberg is an odd duck; "In a California Supermarket" is certainly an inductive poem, though a paean to Whitman; but Ginsberg is best known for his deductive work, as in "Howl," where images are used to support his emotion, that emotion not being a response to immediate experience, but to years of psychic pain.

Whitman is another odd duck; he seems to be writing inductive poetry, reacting to nature and man, until he assumes that mystic voice where he merges with all, indeed, becomes all. So he is inductive and deductive, because of the strong influence of Transcendentalism throughout his work.

Pound championed Eastern verse in his youth and wrote some inductive poetry, but his Cantos are primarily deductive, where his substance becomes almost preachy at times (not to mention disconnected).

In summary, then, like rhyme, deductive poetry ruled poetry in English until the late twentieth century, with Williams and Lowell as pioneers and Snyder and the rest following behind. What I read in current literary journals strikes me as 90% inductive. Nowadays inductive poetry is expected by teachers of creative writing; "That's not real," they may say; "That doesn't ring true;" or, "Have you ever actually seen an otter? Then you have no business writing about one."

I satirized this view in my poem, "At the Workshop."

Anyway, I'll continue to flesh out this thought until I can cobble an essay out of it. I've never written an essay this way, except for the interlocutions of my dear wife. But here in a blog format anyone can help me, provide further examples, or simply tell me I'm full of shit--which, of course, I am. But just because my opinions may stink doesn't necessarily make them untrue. ;-}




  1. When you talked about Bukowski a while back, I decided that I am by poetry as a lot of people are about theology--they have not really studied, but they spout their opinions as though they are valuable in spite of their ignorance on the subject.

    Much of what you write about poetry is above my head. I am sure I have not studied it intensely enough to offer solid opinions. I know I liked some of the little bit of Bukowski I read, but I did have sense enough to think as I read, "I can't believe they let him write this stuff and call it poetry".

    I'm looking forward to reading what else you have to say about this subject.

  2. Annie, did you find the link to my essay on Bukowski? Here it is again:


  3. Interesting post CE. Where does Plath figure in this? Her late work makes me think inductive.

  4. I did read the essay on Bukowski, and even went back and read it again. It is very interesting to read your observations on him and his style of writing. It also makes me very aware of how little I really know about the craft of poetry.

  5. yes I also wondered where Plath would fit according to this schema, and Ted Hughes for that matter.

  6. Plath, in "Daddy," is inductive, certainly, but she stretches it to surreal proportions. In "Crow," Hughes starts with the premise of a creature that does not actually exist except in his poetic imaginings, so that would be deductive. I'm without a computer now; I was looking at Frost, who does both, but his inductive poems I think much better than his deductive ones. I will develop this theme further with more examples when I get my computer back. I'm at a cafe now.

  7. I guess I qualify as primarily a deductive poet. Interestingly I am also strongly (though not exclusively) committed to formal poetry.

    If there is a connection btwn formalism and the inductive/deductive dichotomy, it may be that deductive poetry is a process of creating form/imposing order on the world, and formalism naturally lends itself to such an endeavor. Or, that the forms help lend shape and substance to the poet's somewhat inchoate (Speaking for myself!) inner world.

    Have you read Gabriel Guddings' essay about the history of creative writing programs? (The link was on Ron Silliman's blog back in the summer sometime.) That seems to be where the ascendancy of "have you ever seen an otter" poetry began. I wrote a fairly extensive rant about why I thought the whole creative writing program was off base from its own stated aims.

  8. BTW that "At The Workshop" is hilarious.

  9. I am definitely deductive. In fact, I play with the whole idea in many of my poems - you could say I'm self-consciously deductive. One of my poems sets out a ridiculously, fictional scenario as if it's fact, and ends with the line, "They say every poem is autobiographical."

    I've found it interesting that some criticism directed at my poems was because, essentially, they weren't inductive.

    Have you read After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham? - essays looking at all sides of these issues and more besides. Some very good ones.

    You have some interesting thoughts on the subject, CE. Keep at it.

  10. Thanks, Rob. Just saw this comment. My essay on the subject was published in Blue Fifth Review in more polished form, but I always have trouble findilng that link.

    Do we shape almost ex nihilo (deductive) or are we shaped (inductive) by ex substantio?

    I do both types of poems, but I agree that formalism leads to deductive poems pretty regularly though not always, as Frost showed widely.



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