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Organic Poetry

The North American Origins of Organic Poetry: American Green Man, Walt Whitman


Poetry Workshop Outline presented by Paul Nelson

at Robert Morris College, Du Page Campus, Wednesday, January 3, 2007:

The goal of the workshop is to discuss the cosmology on which Organic poetry is based, how the Celtic Green Man is referenced in the work of Walt Whitman, with examples, and to allow participants to experience the state of consciousness in which organic verse is composed through simple spontaneous writing exercises. Through this a sense of community is created and the state in which one is connected to something greater than one’s self is experienced, creating a frame of reference for future practice.

I.          Introductions - name, expectations.

II.         Summary of workshop:

 a) - Discussion of evolving ORGANIC form in North American poetry, starting with Allen Ginsberg’s quote about Whitman[1], and mentioning William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, Robin Blaser & George Bowering and others, interspersed with:

 b) - A writing workshop using the First Thought/Best Thought writing dictum of Allen Ginsberg and employing right brain writing strategies of surrealists (exquisite corpse) and other exercises. Audio selections from interviews Paul has done over the years will be a part of the workshop, and

c) – Illustrations of the paradigm shift from the Mechanistic world-view to the Organismic.

Walt Whitman began writing poems in the mid-19th century in America, free of European influence: meter & rhyme. His was an open verse w/ a sense of PLACE as American poetry, as a way of communicating a profound spiritual experience.  He was developing his free verse ORGANICALLY, utilizing his intuition & his reverence for the senses.

William Carlos Williams composed spontaneously out of necessity, as he was a general practice physician. He was the first to suggest the links to field theory and said: “Most of my life has been lived in hell, a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration when a poem such as this or that would appear.”


Charles Olson made extensive use of the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, the “Father of Organismic Thought.” Olson knew the spontaneous composition process was one that was natural and led to a change in the content created by the author. His essay Projective Verse is still the most detailed example of Open Form and its strength. “Art does not seek to describe, but enact.”

Robert Duncan in correspondence with Denise Levertov, called this stance toward poem-making ORGANIC and said: The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it. In articulating the basic world-views underpinning Conventional, Free Verse and Organic poets, he said the Organic poet understands: the universe and man are members of a form. Freedom lies in the apprehension of this underlying form, towards which invention and free thought in sciences alike work. All experience is formal – We feel things in so far as we awake to the form. The form of the poem is the feeling (and where form fails, feeling fails.)

Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman began to investigate Buddhism and incorporate such wisdom into their work.

Michael McClure created the most refined Projective Verse, incorporating his Zen practice and hunger for liberation into his work. He has also created some of the clearest extensions of Olson’s poetic theories with a cosmology based, in part, on Hua Yen Buddhism, the interdependent origination of the universe.

George Bowering and Robin Blaser were present when a nexus of this lineage became centered in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the time of the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, and extended the theories of Olson and created some of the strongest work in this lineage.

There may be works by other poets included, such as Gary Snyder, Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, Jack Spicer, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Ed Sanders and others.

It is my feeling that writing with this process allows for a deepening of one’s consciousness and aids the urge toward individuation though homeostasis. Many essays clarifying the examples of individuals in this lineage are linked at:


Cernunnos is the mysterious horned deity worshipped by Iron age Celts across Europe until the end of the first century. Very little is known about Cernunnos except his name and his image, which appears on numerous stonecarvings and other artifacts throughout Europe. He appears crowned with stag's antlers, is often seated in a meditative position, and is almost always depicted with images of wild animals.

His Celtic name is unknown, although he may be associated with Derg Corra, the early Celtic "Man in the Tree." Cernunnos is a Roman name meaning "horned one." He is often associated with Herne the hunter, a character of British folk myth, and the "Green man" of European architecture. [2] Viridius is another deity to whom the Green Man may refer.