Saturday, September 28, 2002
I posted something nice about Anselm Hollo to the Poetics List and two things immediately happened. A friend wrote to let me know that warm positive regard for Anselm and his poetry was not, in fact, universal. And a copy of so the ants made it to the cat food: 20 sonnets (Samizdat, 2001) showed up in my mailbox. I figure that one out of two is better than Barry Bonds is hitting this year, so I won’t complain.
The title poem of Hollo’s new book gives me goose bumps:
the ants made it to the cat food
but then you scrape them into the compost
one day we’ll set out under solar sail
to the systems of fifty new planets
discovered this year
who knows if we’ll do any better
than these ants you think
then contemplate vast grids upon grids
shifting and twisting
clashing and jelling flowing apart exploding
shrinking to this little blob of cat food
in the kitchen sink
oh it gives one the flesh of the hen
comme on dit en français. cat disappears into bush
This is a typical Hollo poem, so relaxed and straightforward that one can easily enough miss all that’s going on. It’s a domestic poem that includes both a sort of science fiction and a dose of street philosophy. But most of all, it’s composed out of the organized distribution of opposites, which might be best viewed if we followed Levi-Straus a little and itemize the imagery into categories I’ll label raw (i.e. natural &/or primitive) and cooked (i.e. cultural &/or processed):
Look at that first couplet:
ants [RAW] made it to the cat food [COOKED]
but then you scrape them [COOKED] into the compost [COOKED
BUT RETURNING TO RAW]
There is a leap in scale between the first and second stanzas that at first seems dizzying & possibly even arbitrary, as we shift from the cat food to space exploration, most definitely cooked, but notice that Anselm has chosen not one but two exceptionally raw terms, “solar sail,” to describe this process. This duality continues through the end of the stanza as he describes other worlds – a form of the raw – that can only be reached by the highest order of technology.
The third stanza returns the reader’s attention to “we” [COOKED], then back to the ants [RAW] in the second. It then proceeds through a series that begins modestly returning to “you think” – the very process by which the cooked got cooked in the first place – & then in the next line suggests that we turn our attention to “grids upon grids,” as abstract & cooked a vision as one might imagine. But line four, “shifting and twisting,” is completely ambiguous on this cooking scale. Hollo decides to “bam it up a notch,” as Emeril would say, in the stanza’s last line, a description of cosmic writhing that both harsh cultural terms (“clashing” & “exploding”) to bracket decidedly organic ones (“jelling flowing”)
The fourth stanza brings us harshly back to the cooked, literally, in the form of “this little blob of cat food / in the kitchen sink.” This last gesture literally lets us know that Hollo has given us everything in his cosmic vision, even including that. So it is right after that last “nk” sound, which a linguist would note signals closure, triply so coming at the end of the line & stanza, that Hollow appears suddenly to veer in a completely different direction. The first line may well be a literal translation of how one describes goose bumps in French – the awkwardness of it all is profoundly cooked, as (even more so) is the phrase en français that starts the last line.
The final phrase, “cat disappears into bush,” starts with an image that appears to be raw, an animal, but is by virtue of domestication, really cooked. By disappearing not into, say, the garden, however, it vanishes instead into the raw (rendered even more raw by absence of article*), completing the poem as neatly as if Hollo had put a large red ribbon atop it. It’s a masterful tour de force.
Only those little hints of polylinguality & erudition** keep Hollo’s texts from sounding like the most purebred Yankee voice since Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg & Phil Whalen left the room. And I think that it’s part of the sheer pleasure of reading Hollo’s work that his ear so acutely captures an idiom that, after all, he came to only as an adult.+
Appropriately enough, Robert
Archambeau’s Samizdat Editions published so the ants as its “anti-laureate
chapbook, 2001,” following a spirited Poetics List discussion about the
diabolically reactionary selection the Bush
* Hank Lazer has criticized the American poetic habit of dropping articles, which everyone traces back to Ginsberg although Allen probably got it from Pound, as a form of “Tonto speech.” Even as I excise articles in my own work, I consider its implications.
** The very first reference in the chapbook is to Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag. Just under half of the poems have notes attached – the one quoted here translates its French.
*** I used to compare Billy Collins with Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash, but fans of the latter two have accused me of slandering those writers.
+ Anselm appends: “One little correction: I didn't really come to the idiom "only as an adult" -- I read Moby Dick at age 14 (though didn't, then, find it quite as zingy as Treasure Island had been a year or so before) -- my "English" got started around age 10, after German Swedish Finnish (in that order). And I strongly doubt that I could have become a French poet -- French came to me too late for that.”
Friday, September 27, 2002
I pulled out Michael Lally’s None of the Above: New Poets of the USA (Crossing Press, 1976), searching for that quote I used from Jim Gustafson in my note about Joseph Massey’s Minima St. But instead of putting the anthology back after getting what I needed, I’ve left it sitting on my desk and have been rereading it for the first time in years.
The book is a juicy time
capsule, an excellent cross section of literary tendencies that were active
among younger poets during the middle of that decade. Most visible are a
somewhat blurry, already diverging version of the New York School (Phillip
Lopate, Paul Violi & Hilton Obenziner from the uptown scene*, Alice Notley,
Maureen Owen & Bernadette Mayer from St. Marks, a pre-Texas Lorenzo Thomas,
Joe Brainard), langpo (Mayer of course, Bruce Andrews, Ray Di
Palma, P. Inman, Lynne Dreyer, yours truly) & a post-Iowa but “anti-workshop”
phenomenon of the period that for want of a better term was called Actualism in
those days: Darrell Gray, George Mattingly, Dave Morice and Gustafson. In
addition to Inman & Dreyer are three other
Twenty-six years shifts
perceptions around a bit, so that one reads these texts to some degree knowing
which writers one still reads with interest and enthusiasm a quarter century
hence. Lally’s own interests and blinders are evident
enough – that is a remarkably East Coast version of langpo, for example. And
with the exceptions of Kyger and myself, writers whose
linkage to the New American poetry is to anything other than the
What intrigues me today is
the fate of Actualism, which as a phenomenon has largely disappeared over the
past two decades. The term itself was taken from the Actualist Conventions put
Perhaps the most important thing to note is that Actualism was an -ism that never sought to be any sort of movement – the anarcho / anti-organizational impulse was very strong. If anything, the Actualist Conventions were themselves a spoof of the least attractive aspect of their surrealist predecessors+. The one other serious manifestation of the phenomenon was an even smaller Actualist Anthology (1977, The Spirit That Moves Us), edited by Gray & Morty Sklar.
On some level, Actualism
might be thought of as how the impact of Ted Berrigan resonated through
Nisbet has gone on to become a novelist of neo-noir
thrillers, Abbott & Mattingly teach at
I do still sense the impact
of the Actualist frame of mind in everything from the Coffee House Books
catalog to the Exquisite Corpse website. But if you want some feel for how
Actualism fit in back in its heyday, None
of the Above contextualizes it best. The rare book website, abebooks, lists 10 copies reasonably priced
in stores around the
* Although Hilton had already moved west and was immersed in political organizing by then.
** An email I sent to
Linda Russo on
*** Unfortunately, the anthology form, especially in this rather short collection of 31 poets in 224 pages, didn’t permit any samples of Whiting’s longer works.
+ In addition to every form of performance art imaginable, the Actualist Conventions also included every kind of poetry.
Labels: New American Poetry
Thursday, September 26, 2002
Patrick Herron writes to ask about my comment that “irresolvable conflict is the primary Spicerian theme.” It seemed to me, as I wrote that comment a week ago, thumbing through my dog-eared (indeed, nearly dissolving with use) copy of the Collected Books obvious enough – it hadn’t occurred to me that the observation might be in any way unusual. I had been skimming through the baseball poems from Book of Magazine Verse, especially the second one – they’re love poems, of course, but love poems that presume the impossibility of any successful relationship. It’s a position that Spicer held with remarkable consistency throughout his life. About god: “If there isn’t / A God don’t believe in Him.” About human relations:
They say “he need (present) enemy (plural)”
I am not them. This is the first transformation.
About poetry: “No / One listens to poetry.”
Spicer is quintessentially a poet of emotion precisely because that is the surfeit left unassimilated whenever impossible forces meet.
Not that Spicer is necessarily all that different in this – think of the underlying bitterness and anger implicit in so many of Creeley’s early love poems, as in The Warning:
love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.
Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.
Indeed, one of the secrets of Creeley’s early poems is the association it consistently makes between rhyme and violence, as though rhyme itself were an expression of force.
Conflict is the fundamental narrative engine – it is the element that insists, even in a still life, that something will have to give & that change is inevitable.* In his excellent ethnography, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (University of California, 1990), Steven Caton repeatedly notes how many ways in which poetry functions among the al-Yamāniyatēn of Khawlān at-Tiyāl as a ritualized surrogate for combat. Our own earliest texts, such as Beowulf, are replete with blood and gore.
I think about Caton’s book, which suggests without ever quite saying so that poetry itself is a kind of blood sport, whenever one of the several poetry listserv discussion groups dissolves into petty verbal warfare. If nothing else, Caton’s thesis suggests the normalcy of the problem. Indeed, it implies that if there were not combative “camps” in contemporary poetry, we might be forced to invent them.
This of course is not an optimistic view of human behavior or its potential. Right now with the political situation being what it is – as an illegitimate President crawfishes over from an unavoidable war against al-Qaeda into a nebulous “war on terrorism,” a metaphor that can & does extend outward in all directions, enabling the Administration to simply sweep away Constitutional protections of individual liberty, & also to an unrelated threatened assault on Iraq aimed at instilling a Pax Americana on the entire Middle East – the question of conflict is in no way abstract.
While it is not evident what Spicer would have made of all this, it seems likely that he would not have been surprised. I imagine that there might have been a serial poem about the crusades. If ever we had a poet in touch with the infinite sense of hurt that accompanies people who believe they are still suffering from battles waged hundreds or even thousands of years ago, for whom the logic of Kosovo, Chechnya, Kurdistan and the Left Bank exposes its lethal gears as if to a watchmaker, it was this cantankerous alcoholic linguist who once identified himself as a member of the “California Republican Army.”
* Think of Edward Hopper’s paintings, for example. This is why figurative paintings are often characterized as narrative.
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
One of literature’s great latent potentials is the capacity to take a reader to far and distant places. In my own life, I have had the occasion to share the stage in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia, with Ivan Zhdanov, a poet born and raised in Siberia, who simply shut his eyes and recited a long poem and though virtually all I could get out of it with my pathetic Russian was the pure prosody of the occasion, delivered in Zhdanov’s impeccable baritone, I was left in awe, a wonderment I still feel 13 years later.
I feel a similar sense of poetry’s great reach when reading the work of
people whose own life experiences seem radically different from my own. Frank
Stanford’s childhood in the deep South would be one
instance. Lorine Niedecker in the woods and small towns of rural
When I first began publishing poetry in the mid-1960s in little journals such as Meg Randall’s El Corno Emplumado, Brigham was one of the other poets whose work one could expect to see. The poems were spare, with a ragged, Creeley-esque line and evidenced a familiarity with such things as farm animals that indicated a life more rural than my own. Brigham was one of those poets whom I expected I would someday meet. But I never did. There was one book from Knopf in 1971, Heaved from the Earth, but at some point toward the end of that decade, I stopped seeing the poems in journals and then nothing but silence. Brigham had apparently joined poetry’s legion of disappeared, those poets whose work, though eminently worth reading, goes out of print never apparently to return. There are many poets (including several in the Spicer circle, such as Harold Dull, Ronnie Primack and James Alexander) whose work deserves to be read but which simply can no longer be found.
All of which is to explain why I felt such joy to find, finally, a volume, Run Through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham, edited by C.D. Wright and published by Lost Roads in 2000. Wright is also the editor who rescued Frank Stanford’s great long poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, republished by Lost Roads the same year as the Brigham volume. Maybe Brigham’s work would not have stayed lost forever had not Carolyn thought to take this project on – Brigham’s son-in-law is the Southwest poet Keith Wilson – but in the publication of poetry, there are no guarantees.
The poems are much as I remember them, both wonderful & modest. Like several other poets of that period – Cid Corman, Ted Enslin, James Weil, Simon Perchik – Brigham’s shorter pieces understand the virtue of never trying to accomplish too much. Where they differ from the more austere programs of some of these other poets is in their openness to detail and their commitment to the eye. It is the eye that connects her to another poet of this period: Larry Eigner. Where Eigner’s poems initially appear light and airy on the page, only to reveal the intense epistemological concerns that drove him, Brigham’s poems are more notational and relaxed even when they’re also in the same moment dark & disturbing. A good example might be “Man Found in Chiapas Woods”:
hung up in the tree
a thing that did not grow there
his body stayed for seven
until the priests found him
what he brought
climbing to the limb fork
until no rope could strangle it
pushing the tight words
deeper than the heart’s rush
who saw him after
a bauble blowing in the wind
ran from the soul strung up:
a cadaver of flesh without a cross
and crossed their souls in silence
he swung alone
except for the big caw parrots
that passed bush-deep from rain
and hot birds
shaking their feathers thick under leaves
flesh sucked out with sun
a dried leather covers his bones
like old clung bark
breaking and gummed to the dying sap
though there was a time
sucked under his clothes
before the cord sandals fell
and the faded old pants danced
a wild bird
caught in their crotch
The poem as a whole is terrific and Brigham gives it ample time to develop. Yet it is precisely the gradual pacing of development that lets in what I hear as overly hokey lines: “pushing the tight words / deeper than the heart’s rush” (the lines also sound great which may have kept them there – the added syllable in the second line is actually the third one – “than” – pushing “the” further out the line and giving a slant to the parallel noun phrases). Ultimately, I trust the decision to keep these lines, even as I suppress a shudder. The willingness to go anywhere is part of Brigham’s commitment to the reader.
In addition to her short poems, Besmilr Brigham also worked in sequences & serial poems, none of which are collected here. Hopefully another volume will appear in the future.
*Wilson himself has a collection forthcoming from Chax Press that hopefully will get his work out to a wider audience than it has had to date.
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
Ruscha himself has a cryptic, but intriguing comment right at the end of the book: “Sometimes found words are the most pure because they have nothing to do with you. I take things as I find them. A lot of these things come from the noise of everyday life.” End of comment.
So far as I know, Ruscha has not undertaken to publish these works as writing, nor in the context of writing. As visual art, these works inhabit that territory that utilizes language for its own purposes. Its closest kin in that vein may be the signage of Jenny Holzer, the paintings of Lawrence Weiner, or the poster paintings of Barbara Krueger, but the more densely textual pseudo-philosophical musings of Joseph Kosuth and Art Language aren’t entirely unrelated either. Ruscha’s prints and paintings make use of color and the illusions of depth and texture in ways that Holzer’s do not and his works often lack the overt political commentary one finds in her work and in that of Krueger’s. At its most plain, a Ruscha work might consist of white sans serif letters centered against a black background:
While Holzer has executed some pieces etched into benches, a form that has to recall the (literally) concrete poems of Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ruscha’s droll texts strike me in many ways being better writing. If, that is, they are writing at all. The last text above, for example, makes great use of the recurrence of the a, r and m sounds (not to mention the echo of the w one hears in the two instances of the u), an attention to the smallest of details that might be more apt to associate with the poetry of Robert Grenier. Microwriting such as this can invoke every pleasure one expects from the best of poetry. The first two pieces above aren’t bad either – both use the same strategy of invoking a single term that is “out of context” in its phrase (screws and musical), which functions to set the language around it into a kind of relief, classic demonstrations of what the Russian formalists called ostrananie, Brecht “the alienation effect,” and which Pound characterized as “making it new.”
In addition to reminding me at moments of Grenier, some of the more visually complex of Ruscha’s pieces, where richly textured “3D” words float in idealized pastel skies, remind me of how Hannah Weiner used to describe her visual hallucinations, words that would appear on people’s foreheads that to her seemed to be composed in “dog fur” or similar materials. Weiner used these messages to create her “clairvoyant” works, although that aspect of such found language is not carried through her writing – the closest she gets is to occasionally “erase” some lines of certain letters.
All of which makes Ed Ruscha’s texts function as an intriguing test of the boundaries of writing – how can a lone word such as “fud,” written in what looks like white ribbon on an intense red surface (onto which the letters cast shadows) function as a poem? It can / It can’t / It can / It can’t – like a Necker cube or other optical illusions, the text strobes in and out of the realm of literature (though it always remains within the realm of the visual). It may be that this flicker effect is precisely Ed Ruscha’s contribution to writing.
Some of Ruscha’s word works can be sampled on the web at the following sites:
Monday, September 23, 2002
The World in Time and Space arrived in the mailbox yesterday and it’s a big fat
wonderful collection of essays & interviews about contemporary poetry, or
more exactly, poetry from the New Americans of the 1950s to the present. My first
thumb-through (which took a couple of hours) tells me that there is a lot in
here to make me think, learn, laugh, cringe & want to argue. Ed Foster
· Bruce Andrews, Making Social Sense: Poetics & the Political Imaginary
· Edward Foster, An Interview with Gustaf Sobin
Michael Baughn, Olson's
· David Landrey, Robert Creeley's and Joel Oppenheimer's Changing Visions
· Leonard Schwartz, Robert Duncan and His Inheritors
· Norman Finkelstein, cc: Jack Spicer
· John Olson, The Haunted Stanzas of John Ashbery
· David Clippinger, Poetry and Philosophy at Once: Encounters between William Bronk and Postmodern Poetry
· W. Scott Howard, 'The Brevities': Formal Mourning, Transgression, & Postmodern American Elegies
· Mark Scroggins, Z-Sited Path: Late Zukofsky and His Tradition
· Burt Kimmelman, Objectivist Poetics since 1970
· Jeanne Heuving, The Violence of Negation or 'Love's Infolding'
Peter Bushyeager, Staying Up All Night:
· Stephen Paul Miller, Ted Berrigan's Legacy: Sparrow, Eileen Myles, and Bob Holman
Thomas Fink, Between / After Language Poetry and the
· David Clippinger, Between Silence and the Margins: Poetry and its Presses
· Linda Russo, 'F' Word in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Account of Women-Edited Small Presses and Journals
Standard Schaefer, Impossible City: A History of Literary
· Marjorie Perloff, After Language Poetry: Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents
· Daniel Barbiero, Reflections on Lyric Before, During, and After Language
· Christopher Beach, "Events Were Not Lacking": David Antin's Talk Poems, Lyn Hejinian's My Life, and the Poetics of Cultural Memory
· Andrew Joron, Neo-Surrealism; or, The Sun at Night
· Dan Featherston, On Visionary Poetics, Robert Kelly, and Clayton Eshleman
· Peter O'Leary, American Poetry & Gnosticism
· Michel Delville, The Marginal Arts: Experimental Poetry and the Possibilities of Prose
· Stephen-Paul Martin, Media / Countermedia: Visual Writing & Networks of Resistance
· Mary Margaret Sloan, Of Experience To Experiment: Women's Innovative Writing, 1965 - 1995
· Edward Foster, An Interview with Alice Notley
· Aldon Lynn Nielsen, "This Ain't No Disco"
Kathryne V Lindberg Cleaver,
· Brian Kim Stefans, "Remote Parsee": An Alternative Grammar of Asian North-American Poetry
· Brent Hayes Edwards, The Race for Space: Sun Ra's Poetry
· Julie Schmid, Spreading the Word: A History of the Poetry Slam
· Steve Evans, The American Avant-Garde after 1989: Notes Toward a History
· Loss Pequeño Glazier, Poets | Digital | Poetics
· Alan Golding, New, Newer, and Newest American Poetries
Talisman House has done a tremendous job of promoting American poetry in recent years: Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, in 1996; An Anthology of New (American) Poets in 1998; and Mary Margaret Sloan’s monumental Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, also in 1998. In 2000, Talisman House published Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry. All are “must-have” volumes for any halfway decent collection of contemporary poetry. These are available through Small Press Distribution.
Labels: New American Poetry
Sunday, September 22, 2002
Rereading “Bean Spasms” in The Angel Hair Anthology does so many different things for me:
- Reminds me of what a great poet Berrigan was, something that for me can slip when not recalling the range, depth & delicacy his work was able to reach all at the same time
- Makes me realize yet
again that it was this poem & not “The Sonnets” that truly made Ted
poet, rather than, say, merely a brilliant Providence Army vet who got to Manhattan by way of Tulsa New York
- Causes me to note how
Part 3, with 13 lines, is in its own way a variation of a sonnet – “you
string a sonnet around yr fat gut” he says only two lines in the section
led “4,” Berrigan actually playing in the poem with the role of subsection headings. Later he will say, midline (and with no stanza break on either side), “Right Here. That’s Part 5” labe
- Makes me remember how, reading Louis Cabri’s The Mood Embosser (Coach House, 2001) last summer, which is really a fine first book, at times made me think “this is what Ted Berrigan would be like with politics,” but that, now confronting Berrigan directly, seeing how the great range of reference inherent in Ted’s best work could not/would not restrict itself to a domain such as the political & that it is precisely how the social, the intimate & the purely fanciful interact that made Ted Ted
- Reminds me yet again
of what an important an influence Berrigan has been for so many of my
favorite poets –
Kit Robinson, Bob Perelman& Alan Bernheimer in my own generation, Cabris more recently – and why this is a good thing
- Which in turn reminds me that, betwixt the poets of the Allen anthology & my own cohort, there were really two significant strains of innovation in poetry: the “second generation NY school,” around Ted, Padgett, Berkson, Schjeldahl, Gallup et al and the poets around Caterpillar, Robert Kelly, Jerry Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, Diane Wakoski, David Antin
of the most memorable moments co-curating the Grand
Piano poetry series in
the scene divided literally into two parties that could have been characterized
as straight/gay or NY/SF, although there were exceptions to all such axes of
division. At the Berrigan’s affair south of Market,
some epigone made a point of telling Ted just how much better he had been than
“that other poet.” Ted stopped that person – I’m not naming names because the
miscreant has been edited from the memory card – instantly and went into a terrific
impromptu lecture on what an excellent poet George Stanley was and how
important it was to fully understand the