Saturday, November 30, 2002
Robert Kelly self-published Axon Dendron Tree in 1967 as Salitter
/ 2, distributed variously through his other small press journal, Matter, as well as the legendary
Asphodel Bookshop of Cleveland, Ohio. The stapled 8½ by 14 publication appears
to have been mimeographed, a process that would have
limited distribution to the approximately 150 copies that could reliably be run
off each paper master. The process also partly explains why the 80 page
publication was printed only on one side of each page, rendering the volume as
thick as a typical 160-page book. The other part of that explanation lies in
the stapling – the book is so thick that extra-length staples have been driven
in both front & back, but in no instance make it through the entire volume
– I have to squeeze them by hand back into place whenever I read from this
volume. This is one fragile book. The title – centered on a strip of white
paper, 11 inches high but only 2 inches wide – is glued along the left side of
the cover’s brown construction paper. The brush strokes of the glue have long
since stained through on my copy.* Because of its size, this volume has spent
35 years sitting atop my book cases,
This is an awfully fragile,
fugitive publication to argue as one of the defining poetic
A note to the reader at the top of the dedication page reads as follows:
Axon Dendron Tree grew out of my reading of that issue of Poetry [October, 1965] wholly & with immense rightness given over to one section of Louis Zukofsky’s A (sic). This poem began swiftly in response & dictated in the first few dozen lines its own formal procedure. To the extent that I had any intention, it was to honor Zukofsky by letting his measure foster a like but different measure in my utterance. The concerns of this poem are its own, and have no bearing on Zukofsky’s there or elsewhere, apart from a few teasing relations.
Kelly discusses Axon Dendron Tree’s formal procedures in the notes at the back of Red Actions:
Axon Dendron Tree. A long poem organized on a numeric structure. Each section consists of 111 unnumbered stanzas; the first section’s stanzas are nine lines each, the second section’s of eight, and so on, diminishing to the last section, 111 one-line stanzas. In my own sense of my work, this is my first real achievement using any sort of compositional grid or organizational principal other than the Local Music, which has always been the self-arising guide of the poem.
The 999 line structure described here is certainly elegant. However, the opening section of Axon Dendron Tree is composed of stanzas of eight lines each, not nine. At least as published in 1967, the poem has 888 lines. Tree begins with, of all things, an image of golf:
in the book
Lazamon – there are multiple ways to spell that name & Kelly
picks one of the more difficult to cast into HTML – translated Wace’s own French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s
Latin history of
It’s interesting to contrast Kelly’s programmatic conception of form with that of his model. Zukofsky’s “A” – 14, Beginning An, starts with four stanzas, even more extreme in their verticalism than Kelly’s:
Beginning with the above italics, Zukofsky proceeds with 169 tercets, all but one line containing two words, then with 247 tercets with three words – save for two “ringers,” one a four-line stanza with one word per line, the other just two stanzas further on, a couplet, one of whose lines has just two words – before dropping back first to a tercet of two-word lines, and then two concluding stanzas of one-word lines.
Zukofsky’s formal focus is very much on the line, Kelly’s on the stanza – it’s almost as if two men looked at one phenomenon with just slightly different lenses. Zukofsky’s conception of form generates the line, perhaps, but Kelly’s sense generates the poem. It’s a critical, even decisive, difference. In Red Actions, Kelly again acknowledges Zukofsky’s relation to the Axon Dendron Tree:
The whole poem is
dedicated to Louis Zukofsky, in thanks for his creative kindness, as a poet to
us all, and as a man to me when I was beginning. He is one of the Four Masters
One name Kelly doesn’t
mention here is that of Jackson Mac Low, whose work he certainly knew, having
published several pieces in A Controversy
of Poets, but whom I suspect Kelly must have seen more as a peer, given how
late Mac Low got started publishing.** Mac Low’s sense
of program as the motive principle behind a
Axon Dendron Tree thus represents a signal moment in the history of the American poem, the point when true formal procedure “comes inside.” The poem itself is raucous & witty, perhaps the high point of the Projectivist tradition, which is so often accused of being ponderous, as just fun. Kelly of course is moving quite far from some of his masters – Olson & Blackburn – in utilizing measure rather than speech as his modeling principle for language, but that is precisely what he takes from Zukofsky & Duncan. That push-pull aspect of the Projectivist tendency, which has never been fully explored critically, is nowhere more clear than in Kelly, and almost never to greater purpose than in this poem.
When I would begin Ketjak seven years after the publication of this book, Axon Dendron Tree was one of the works that gave my own project its sense of permission & possibility. Would that every poet had the opportunity to read Robert Kelly’s long, thin book.
* www.abebooks.com actually lists seven copies available through used & rare book dealers, ranging in price from $30 to $275 (for a copy signed to Joel Oppenheimer).
** At 48, Mac Low had published just four books.
Friday, November 29, 2002
Parceled, not parceled, ever the light.
Trismegistus to Tat: our bones
will want velvet,
line decays, root your gods
in flesh & stock your flesh in
(Giordano given over
–ubi peccavit– he sinned in fire
& the beam of light
that is defining measure
–metre, the palladium
yardstick only a curio
or orifice of
measure a controlled radiance,
an infinity ‘longer than point–
Punctum in Nihilo
Sentences by nature false,
‘opinions’ momentaneous murmurings
saponification of the great poets
when it is
Addio alla madre
this serious knife
where Death is
all sharp again
wretch of dull edge
his knife I fight
of damascene sever in air
: this silken
kerchief divides the steel.
This passage, the first two out of eight pages, opens Robert Kelly’s Songs I-XXX (Pym-Randall Press, 1968). Typing these lines again after all these years – one of the real benefits of doing this blog* – I feel as riveted by them as when I first confronted this work over thirty years ago. There is in these lines of verse something I feel is almost entirely missing from most of today’s poetry – the measure of the line heard & understood as a mode of music. Melopoiea as Pound once called it. This use of sound is something that poets once took for granted as an option – there are moments in The Cantos when it is all that exists beyond the crackpot economics & dubious readings of American presidential history. Yet, somehow, after Robert Duncan, a master at this mode, you find Robert Kelly, with his exquisite conception of measure, and Kenneth Irby, with an ultimate ear for vowels, then silence. Or not silence, exactly, but rather a shift in the manner music.
It was Olson of course, along with Creeley, who heard that other possibility in Pound’s line & even more clearly in that of Williams, the intricate prosody of the spoken, the huffing of the line as breath – very nearly a poetics of asthma in Olson’s case, the way so many of his poems start out with a long line only to find themselves narrowing as the words rush, repeatedly interrupted by the need to mark line’s limit, to a literally breathless conclusion.
Thus, in the 1950s and ‘60s, American poetry found itself with not one, but three different tendencies with regards to the proactive use of sound in poetry:
rhythms of the spoken (Olson, Creeley,
§ a poetics predicated on measure (Duncan, Kelly, some of Irby)
§ a regularized metrics derived from the old formalism (Berryman, Lowell)
Of course, the great majority of poets fell into a category that could be triangulated between “a little of this & a little of that,” those who didn’t really care & those who were genuinely tone-deaf to their own writing.
Songs I-XXX was the third book published by Kelly in a two year period of 1967-68 that to this day remains not just a great burst of poetic productivity – Kelly has been the Energizer Bunny of poetic production his entire life – but also a defining moment for a particular mode of poetics, one that was grounded in sound & turned toward alternative sacred texts as a primary concern.
It’s worth noting Kelly’s trajectory in that decade – it gives some sense of how greatly the scene was changing, as well as how greatly it has changed in the 30-odd years since. Beginning to publish around 1960, Kelly within five years had brought out five books with small press publishers, been the focus of an issue of Cid Corman’s Origin, and co-edited with Paris Leary, A Controversy of Poets, published as a Doubleday Anchor paperback original. While Leary’s contributions have largely been forgotten outside of a few obvious “Big Names” such as Robert Lowell or the fans of Gray Burr & Melvin Walker La Follette, Kelly’s contributors expanded the roster of the Allen anthology, bringing Louis Zukofsky, Jackson Mac Low, Jerry Rothenberg, Gerrit Lansing & Ted Enslin to a considerably broader audience than they’d previously experienced.*** & by virtue of coming five years later than the Allen, several of Kelly’s selections, such as of “Billy the Kid” for Jack Spicer and the complete “Biotherm” by Frank O’Hara – literally in 5½ point type – were notably stronger than those included in the Allen.
So the three books that appeared more or less immediately on the heels of Controversy, Axon Dendron Tree (Salitter Press, 1967), Finding the Measure (Black Sparrow, 1968) & Songs I-XXX (Pym-Randall, 1968) effectively served to solidify Kelly’s position as a major American poet, one of the first, along with Ted Berrigan to achieve this level of recognition within the post-avant tradition who had not been a part of the Allen anthology.
* There is nothing that compares to having the words of a poem you are thinking about emerge from your own fingertips atop a keyboard, no matter than Robert Kelly may have originally drafted these in pen or that, in the late 1960s, he was almost certainly working with a manual typewriter, not a PC.
** Whose sense of the uses of transcription to spatially approximate aspects of speech is perhaps the most detailed of all.
noted before that when Richard Moore’s USA Poetry PBS television series first
introduced me to the work of Zukofsky in 1966, the only volume that held any of
his poetry at Cody’s in
Thursday, November 28, 2002
A note: Monday’s total of 183 visitors to the blog was a record. Since its inception at the end of August, the blog has been visited more than 6,500 times and is currently being accessed roughly 100 times per day. The total number of individual hits is 40 percent higher, indicating that quite a few readers are accessing the archives as well as the top page. I’ve been around the post-avant literary scene for enough years to understand what those numbers imply. So today seems an appropriate moment to take a breather and just say thank you.
& a correction: more than one plant-knowledgeable reader has pointed out that tatarian honeysuckle is not quite the mysterious item I was making it out to be in that John Taggart poem on November 26. Or, as one wit suggests, I’m sleeping with the wrong dictionaries.
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
If Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides chaplet series represents the
epitome of pristine design and text presentation in micropublishing, Kenneth
Warren’s House Organ is its polar
opposite. Even though the two publications have occasionally printed the same
people, they’re as far apart in some ways as two magazines could get. Typeset
in a san-serif font that is hard-going on the page – it works far better on a
PC screen – House Organ is copied
onto 8.5- by 11-inch sheets of white paper and then stapled in a saddle-stitch
format down the center longwise to create a journal in which the pages are 11
inches tall but only 4.25 inches wide. Sent through the mail sans envelope, my
copies arrive bent, nicked, torn. Inside,
Yet in spite of all this, House Organ always has something of
interest & is often a very lively publication. It is literally the only
Projectivist publication extant in the
This is getting you
nowhere – exactly
where you were heading
once your mother fed you.
And this is Massey’s untitled poem:
stuck in peripheral
There is a way in which a short work creates its own white space, cognitively if not physically. The self containment that is possible in a work of this scale serves these pieces, which stand out in the context of House Organ more clearly than do longer pieces, even when those works are as thoroughly composed & finished as these, as in Tom Meyer’s excerpts from “Book Two”** or Tom Clark’s poems on the September 11 attacks.
Projectivism of course was
always more interested in the poem as document of thinking more than of the
so let us occupy a safe space
made by some invisible wall
arms like little legs
winged up behind Greg’s back
(Michele must be looking
right up his butt)
That Glover organizes the “g”s and the terminal “k” in that first stanza is fortuitous, perhaps the one singular moment in the three pages of the piece. But, as Michele can see, it’s not necessarily the point of this project. What makes this kind of poetry “difficult” or off-putting to non-fans of Projectivism is how much it depends on the inherent value of traced thought regardless of the quality of thinking. It’s one thing when one is reading a brilliant if undisciplined polymath like Charles Olson. As Paul Blackburn’s Journals show, even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.
Invariably, one comes across
work in a publication like House Organ
by people whose names are unfamiliar. Robert Podgurski
in the summer issue has a poem, “Insistence,” that feels quite uneven. Its
third stanza shines and the final one is technically competent, but I don’t get
anything from the first two beyond a couple of unusual adjectives – anguine, batrachian –
that would compel me to reread them enough times to really get what he’s trying
to say. I
So I get House Organ & am always interested,
but I seem to fight with a lot of what is going on – not, I suppose, too unlike
my relationship to certain aspects of Projectivism. House Organ is available from Kenneth Warren at
*Which just happened to be his 24th birthday.
** Suggesting of course the presence of “Book One” & the possibility of others. Is there a new Tom Meyer long poem in the works?
*** I didn’t know that there were creative writing classes that still did this. This wasn’t so uncommon in the 1960s.
Tuesday, November 26, 2002
One of the very best things about poetry is micropublishing. My definition of micropublishing is any book or journal done in such a fashion as to preclude bookstore distribution, even via Small Press Distribution. Two very different examples are sitting on my desk. I’m going to look at one today, the other tomorrow.
Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides are printed on a single of sheet of paper, which is then folded into a simple pamphlet. Printed on a schedule of eight issues per year, the Broadsides must just now be completing their ninth year. With a distribution list that has swollen to 750, Pollet’s series may produce small publications, but they get excellent distribution for poetry. The current issue, no. 70, is 5 Pastorelles by John Taggart. Since individual pastorelles are numbered 5 through 9, we know they’re part of a longer series. This is especially good news, because these are among the strongest poems Taggart has written. My favorite is number 8, organized around an image any Pennsylvanian will recognize:
green dress black apron translucent white prayer bonnet
strings of her bonnet trailing in the air
rollerskating down the road
by herself alone in the air and light of an ungloomy Sunday afternoon
herself and her skating shadow
the painter said
beauty is what we add to things
chainsawing in the woods above the road
say what could be added
what other than giving this roaring machine a rest.
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics identifies the
A genre of lyric poetry most frequent in OF [Old French]. In the classical type the narrator, who is sometimes identified as a knight, recounts his meeting with a shepherdess and his attempt to seduce her. Sometimes the narrator is humiliated, even beaten, or the shepherdess makes a clever escape; in other poems they make love, either with the consent of the shepherdess or by rape. (888)
Taggart’s pastorelles seem
more confrontations with an Other, capital O, as with
this poem, the first of two parts to “
the appearance of veins
close vein against close vein vertical and
between the blue-grey veins
each trunk each small trunk woven a woven fibre
of exposed veins
against early March snow still remaining
venous fiber bark
of the tatarian honeysuckle.
Tatarian is a mysterious word, not found in the online version of the American Heritage Collegiate, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, nor the OED. The latter volume, however, suggests that it is a plausible variant of tartarian, which can mean alternately
related to the
Tartar people of central
§ a cloth like silk
To use an unknowable, or at
least undecidable, term in the focal position of the
final line is an interesting strategy. This poem is a verbal equivalent of
close photography – by choosing a term that is itself Other right next to the
final word, Taggart manages to render the reader’s sense of referential focus
both so close as to seem verbally “blurred” right before it snaps back into sharp
relief with the brilliant honeysuckle, a
word as important for all its lush & contrasting sounds as it is for the
familiar image. And while I have a
much more positive association with the Tartars (owing to a friend who has such
heritage) than one might
Taggart has woven in his signature use of repetition into what is otherwise reasonably straightforward description, an approach that feels to me more grounded than the works that carry reiteration to a dervish-like intensity. I’m also intrigued about the extra leading between lines, which give the stanzas a more open and ethereal feel than they would have had single spaced. He’s not the first poet to do this (think of late Oppen, for example) but I always find myself wanting to pull these lines together, as though they were starting to drift apart.
Monday, November 25, 2002
Sometime in 1967, Jack
Gilbert introduced George Stanley to his creative writing class at
This may be about to change
as Qua Books prepares A Tall, Serious
Girl: Selected Poems, 1957-2000, co-edited by
When I read this poem I
When they dug up
flower-like and fragile in the stone,
giving nothing to the stone,
honey alloyed to the stone,
making nothing sweet.
The eyes of the matrons burned on the dark blue walls,
under their eyes in shallow pools,
the bell of a xylophone, silver,
bell of an ambulance,
bell of a burglar alarm,
a trying to watch the slowest of motion,
a grinding explosion,
change everything in the complexity of a second.
When I read this poem I
They were unready. It came at the wrong
hour for them, the silver bell.
Some little dignity argued a minute with the enclosing,
and all that was left then was the gesture,
virginity, the little lost dog come home
leaping and leaping caught as in a cartoon.
When I read this poem I
I know we are moving easily into frenzy,
I feel like taking off my
It is the Spicerian touches,
the ambulance & the burglar alarm, the Buster Keaton-like
gesture in that last couplet above, that keep this poem from being what, on
another level, it actually is: a shadow of
Like any Spicerian monolog,
There was a time for consolation
in the morning of the state, you and me, Republicans,
read, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
That could console us. But now we cannot
get consolation from Greek maxims
when everybody is licking his lips, expectant.
Now time has fallen into our hands
out of all the clocks. You look to me
for consolation, and the hot wind
pours by unconcerned, flushing our steepled faces,
and the thick flow of death winnows down the window like grass.
The “Greek maxims” that are
being rejected here can be read I think precisely in terms of
This is dying, to cut off a part of yourself
and let it grow.
The whole self
crawls at the thought of being mutilated,
even self-mutilated, as occurred to me
when you mentioned you had never looked at
the poem about Attis, and neither had I
nor at where in a poem feeling dries up –
A waterfall-filled Sierra canyon dammed
Hetch Hetchy of our spirit. Attis’s
cock, in some tree, in some jug of wine
or beautiful lips mouthing Who we love
So the fireflies go, with small lunchboxes,
mooning around trees. We cut
our conversation off, too, in sacrifice
our whole environment, out to the farthest star
you can never reach
(because of light’s unchanging speed)
and so your dying can never reach either –
not sinking into the ground, mysteriously,
but in the Roman sewers, forever, our home town.
There is a moment of grief
in that last phrase that Spicer could never have managed, and
Because Davies & Fagin
generally steered from including work that is still in print, A Serious Girl offers something akin to
an entropic reading in
Poetry means (a) I’m going to die – & (b) this notebook will be read by someone who will see how lacking I am – unless I destroy it – & I can’t do that – that would be worse than keeping it – that would mean thinking of it.
As this prose passage
* Even in
the late 1970s, George Stanley’s star power in