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Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy     

By Keith Waldrop

Original and Current Publisher: University of California Press           

Ross Gay writes:

On the cover of Keith Waldrop’s book, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, is a reproduction of one of Robert Motherwell’s collages made with the Gauloises wrappers.  It’s significant that he chooses Motherwell’s image for his cover, as Waldrop’s book employs the collage as its primary mode.  In the introduction to The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell’s Graphics 1943-1980, Stephanie Torenzio writes: “Collage (a strictly 20th century phenomenon) evolved as a pictorial solution to convey the simultaneity, relativity, and multiplicity of the modern sensibility.”  And the Motherwell image serves as one (perhaps the first, depending on how you get to the book) of many facets of a dynamic accumulation of signifiers that accrue meaning certainly not in narrative or even conventional lyric fashion (I’m thinking Keats or Dickinson), but rather through their whimsical interaction (temporally disrupted, relative), an interaction that is very much dictated by the hand of the poet…but maybe that’s the wrong word: the interaction is suggested by, or released from the hand of the poet.  Conjured maybe.  Discovered.     

In an interview for the National Book Foundation, Waldrop explained that he discovered collage as a mode for making this book while being swamped by the burden of running Brown’s M.F.A. program.  After a while of not writing any poems, he decided to take a new approach:

“I decided to do some collage work with my poems, and the mechanical part of it, just getting words from somewhere, I thought would be something I could do without thinking, so I got a batch of books and put them on the table—the plan was very simple, I put three books in front of me, all prose, a novel, then something psychological, then whatever I happened to have around. I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five six lines. Once I had that I’d make more stanzas of the same number of lines, and when that gave out, after a page or two, I’d say alright I have this poem now and I would take it to the typewriter and type it up and in doing so I would rearrange the stanzas alphabetically. I wasn’t worried about keeping the words exactly what they were—sometimes I changed words. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage, I was trying to write poems.”

Necessity (lack of time, lack of mental energy) occasioned the formal decisions of these poems, and this book.  The pleasure, of course, is reading through the poems, which read sometimes like loosely-knit philosophical wanderings, sometimes like fragmentary descriptions, sometimes like lightly cohering lyrics, and stumbling upon or discovering gems of what, for lack of better words, I’ll call intelligence or insight or meaning (which of course does not override the fact that the whole way of the book is a kind of meaning: formal meaning, sonic meaning)—a kind of meaning that arrives despite the intentional lightness of touch.  Section five of the first part of the triptych is one of these, alphabetically ordered, apparently unconnected, but gathering as they go:

after this, the cold more intense, and the night comes rapidly up
angels in the fall
around a tongue of land, free from trees
awakened by a feeling of heavy weight on your feet, something that seems inert and motionless
awestruck manner, as though you expected to find some strange presence behind you

The poem continues like this, concluding:

while with a sickening revulsion after my terror, I drop half fainting across the end of

the bed
with a pair of great greenish eyes shining dimly out within the lattice fonts
with painting carvings of saints and devils, a small galvanic battery, and a microscope

It makes you wonder what’s in the middle.  Some of it means as we come to expect a poem to mean, and some of it does not.  It points toward or alludes to, or perhaps evades meaning entirely.  But as it turns out, meaning only evades for so long, as the arranging mind makes things mean, despite any artist’s intentions.  The final section of the book is constituted of, among other things, many short pieces, and in these I find moments that I especially want to sit with—not to “understand,” but rather to feel, or sense, to wander through and circle around.  Something the book as a whole invites as well.  I’ll conclude with an especially beautiful one of these.

The Macedonian Architect

Dark forms of belief.  I have
made a design: to shape Mount
Athos into the statue of a man.

In his left hand a city, in his right
a bowl for all the water of all the
streams from the whole mountain, so that it might
from the bowl into
the sea.

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A. Van Jordan, Cole Swensen, Kevin Young

The Year in Literature: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Keith Waldrop (1932- ) was born in Emporia, KS.
  • Waldrop composed parts of Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy using what he called a “collage method,” by pulling words from randomly chosen books and arranging them into phrases and stanzas.

Keith Waldrop receiving the 2009 National Book Award in Poetry.

Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book:

Waldrop's 2008 NBA National Book Award profile page  

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