Courting the Eyeball Kick
First published as the afterword to Seven Suns / Seven Moons (NeoPoiesis Press, 2016), a book of poems cowritten with Tanya McDonald. For those interested in a longer earlier draft of this afterword, and the original introduction to this book, see “Before Seven Suns / Seven Moons.” See also “Seven Suns Story.” And see also “Wherever They Will,” “Wherever You Will,” “Who Knows,” “My Word,” and their “hydrogen jukebox” poems in four free PDF ebooks available on each of these pages. See also a League of Canadian Poets review of this book by kjmunro. +
“We all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.” —John Lennon
Driven by an idea and a seven-fold structure, I wrote the original sixty-three verses for “Seven Suns” over the course of two days. Tanya McDonald’s “Seven Moons” verses, inspired by reading “Seven Suns,” were a brilliant expansion of the original concept. We decided to try writing more, producing the “Up” renku, and the “High Score” and “Torpedo” rengay.
The “Seven Suns” poems arose partly as an extension of my neon buddha series, writing many poems with that repeated phrase as a sort of personal mythology. They also arose from Allen Ginsberg’s concept of the “eyeball kick,” which he employed with the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” in Howl. My thought was to pick a double-take phrase that wasn’t quite true, thus a little surreal, and juxtapose each use of that phrase with a (usually) concrete image, ringing the changes as the poems went along. The juxtapositions aren’t quite random. And yet, as the verses shift, exploring the everyday in deliberately leaping ways, a poetic energy bubbles and boils in the seemingly haphazard pairing of images. The same energy emerges in Tanya’s “Seven Moons.” Some verses even have a science fiction vibe to them.
The idea behind the “eyeball kick” is not just Ginsberg’s of course, since Ginsberg partially got it from haiku. Haiku has employed such juxtaposition for centuries. The term “eyeball kick” has also been attributed online to science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, who has described it as “A perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image.” That’s a fitting description of haiku, but I think Ginsberg’s use of the term predates any association it may have with Rucker. Ginsberg expanded on the idea in his longer poetry by using repeated pairings of unexpected images and phrases.
This juxtapositional technique also came from Ginsberg’s study of Paul Cézanne in 1948–49. In Cézanne: A Life (Pantheon, 2012), biographer Alex Danchev explains that Ginsberg noticed “a strange shuddering impression looking at his [Cézanne’s] canvasses . . . a sudden shift, a flashing” that he called “eyeball kicks.” Danchev says that Ginsberg “sought a verbal equivalent,” and that his “favorite example was ‘hydrogen jukebox.’” In a Paris Review interview (#37, Spring 1966), Ginsberg says “I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the unexplainable, unexplained nonperspective line, that is, juxtaposition of one word against another . . . there’d be a gap between two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence. . . . Or in haiku, you have two distinct images, set side by side without drawing a . . . logical connection.” Thus, in his own poetry, inspired by haiku and Cézanne, Ginsberg combined high culture with low, the strong with the weak, and the holy with the unholy. This created what Ginsberg called “an electrochemical effect.”
I was pleased that Tanya had responded to my verses in such an engaged fashion, but more than that, it fascinated me that some sort of energy in what I had written had caught fire in what she wrote in response. Tanya’s idea to jump from the sun to the moon added yin to my yang, night to my day—the pairing of the two parts itself like an eyeball kick. For both of us, the process was swift and spontaneous. Perhaps we tapped into what Charles Olson referred to when he defined poetry itself as a transfer of energy.
The repeated phrases we used provide an obvious link from verse to verse, but we also sought to “taste all of life” the way renku does, as each verse constantly shifts away. “The moon and the sun,” as Bashō said, “are eternal travelers.” This technique informs the relationship of verses not just in the “Up” renku but also within the “Seven Suns” and “Seven Moons” sequences, and in the two rengay. However, I was not trying to link the verses at all, and tried my best to avoid that, other than with the repeated phrase. Tanya mirrored that stance in her verses. In contrast, we trust readers will find an added synergy in the riffs and relationships, verse by verse, between each successive verse in the “Seven Suns” section when compared with its counterpart in “Seven Moons.”
While the poems in this book are not necessarily haiku, they are perhaps on its fringe, and we came at them with haiku minds, minds both steeped in that tradition and open to variation and possibility. We hope readers will catch the energy that ended up suffusing our exploration of each sun and moon verse. Embrace the eyeball kick—and don’t blink!
Tanya McDonald and I read selections of Seven Suns / Seven Moons at the Haiku North America conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico on 15 September 2017, as shown in the following video.
Our reading inspired HNA cartoonist-in-residence Jessica Tremblay to create this comic. Thank you, Jessica!