Saturday, March 22, 2003

 

I almost never think of David Shapiro as a New York School poet. Like, say, Peter Schjeldahl, Shapiro has never been associated with any other literary tendency in his career, but seems so thoroughly independent that to characterize him as part of a larger collective impulse seems somehow inaccurate. Yet, as Shapiro would be the first to remind me, that’s something of a faulty logic – I could probably theorize out every second-generation NYS poet save for Ron Padgett & Joe Brainard (who themselves are no less independent, but rather sit at or near that rubric’s bull’s eye). Indeed, Shapiro co-edited with Padgett the quasi-definitive 1970 Random House collection, An Anthology of New York Poets.*

 

The reason I was thinking of David Shapiro – beyond of course the pure pleasure of same – was the onset of Bush’s war, the death of a young woman under a bulldozer in the Gaza strip, & comments, implications more than statements, that were made on this blog last October & November that suggested that New York School poetry was generally apolitical. Thus I’d suggested then that there were aspects of Louis Cabri’s The Mood Embosser that could be read as Ted Berrigan + politics. That of course is too easy & flippant an approach to the question. So I went back & reread the title poem of A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, a book published by E.P. Dutton in 1971. Now I have to take it all back.

 

It’s important to keep in mind just how remarkable a book such as this was. Shapiro was born in 1947 & is thus one year younger than I. 1971 was the year I published my first book, Crow, with Ithaca House, a cooperative run by grad students in the writing program at Cornell.** It was also the year in which Alice Notley, born in 1945, published her first chapbook, 165 Meeting House Lane. A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, published that same year, was David Shapiro’s third volume of poetry from a major New York trade publisher. His first book, January, came out with Holt when Shapiro was just 18, his second, Poems from Deal, from Dutton in 1969. Panel was short-listed for the 1972 National Book Award***. Shapiro had received Merrill Foundation and Book-of-the-Month Club grants, the Robert Frost Fellowship from Breadloaf, something called the New York Poets Award, and the Kellett Fellowship to Clare College, Cambridge. If this wasn’t enough absolute star power, Shapiro had been sufficiently active in the 1968 student revolt at Columbia to have, in one action, occupied the president’s office & gotten his photograph – feet on the desk &, if I remember correctly, with cigar – published as a full page spread in Life magazine. In his spare time, David Shapiro was a professional violinist. Not bad for a guy who started 1971 at the ripe old age of 23.+

 

This context is worth noting, because it’s the one in which Shapiro’s work was read by poets at some distance from New York. It was a context in which it was easier to remember the photo in Life, harder to recall that it had been taken in the midst of what was an illegal activity that entailed personal risk as well as a political conscience. Similarly, I think it was possible, even plausible, in 1971, to read “A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel,” a suite contained of 18 shorter poems, without recognizing it for the political poem it is. Let me turn that around just for emphasis – half of David Shapiro’s third book is given over to a single long poem that is decidedly political, but readers may not have noticed. Certainly in far away Berkeley, where Free Speech Movement veterans tended to look at an organization like SDS, the pivotal group behind the Columbia strike, as a bunch of Johnnies-come-lately, the politics of “Acoustic Panel” proved not to be self evident.

 

The suite itself consists of 18 poems, only one of which extends as far as three pages, in a wide range of styles – so great that any specific section, singled out, would probably misrepresent the whole. Shapiro can be extraordinarily lyrical at moments & yet also uses prose here in ways that extend the possibilities of prose, really for the first time in poetry since the Williams of Kora or Stein’s Tender Buttons. Thus “The Danube Loophole”:

 

    On the ship there is an international airport.

    Here, their passports are taken away from them.

 

These walls, these acoustical bricks, protect the man holding an acoustic panel against a wave of shock and sound.

 

Ordinary microphones don’t hear it, only the microphones with “great surface” permit us to – Walls and closets will not stop it – we will take these sounds to our grave.

 

Hearts working with determined frequency like twenty hearts, hands black as glands.

 

The heart contracts to the accompaniment of electric phenomena. Here is a microelectrode penetrating into the heart of a dog.

 

The allusion to Williams in that last sentence is no coincidence. Nor is the couplet that leads off the poem – this is, at one level, a tale of coming to America. The presence of the work’s overall title, indeed the book’s title, points us directly to what this is all about: a wave of shock and sound. I’m not clear on which loophole Shapiro might have in mind here – the Danube stretches from the Ukraine to the Black Sea, running through what are now 11 countries – the number fluctuates over time – and a search on Google turns up literally hundreds of possibilities.

 

But if there’s a tale, there’s not a plot. Here is the fourth section, “Statue of a Breeze on Horseback,” just for the sake of contrast:

 

In a corner of air

On a couch built of air

We make a very little angle

Between “diode and triode lie near together

 

Are you in the corner of meteors?

You’re in the crust of the earth

You have not yet extinguished the light complex in me

On my languorous couch of air

 

Air, which is alternately

Black and brilliant and crushed like a coin

That lies under the rocks at Deal

Normal as a neighbor and more clear

 

You are here

Here is the debut of culture

Here is your light face which Michelson and Morley followed

Here are the spores.” Sir Alexander Fleming.

 

Note how those quotation marks work. Note also how Michelson and Morley take us right back to the question of waves from the first poem. But how radically differently this poem feels to be set into quatrains – how much of that determines what we feel about “You” and/or vice versa? And how, or why, does it lead to the inventor of penicillin? One could do a whole little riff of the sonic effects as well, following, for example, the ten instances of a hard c in this poem, nine of which start off words.

 

It seems clear to me that one cannot sketch out the 18 works into an argument, as such – that’s not their relation. Yet the ways in which these poems invoke history, as well as discourses such as science, make it instantly evident that the social realm is what is at stake – that for me is an almost perfect invocation of the political. Yet it is not the one-dimensional landscape one associates with a Levertov or Ferlinghetti. There is, for example, a running theme in these poems of small creatures: crickets, bees, squirrels, mice – as if Shapiro were anticipating the graphic fiction of Art Spiegelman.

 

The one overtly political poem in the sequence is “The Funeral of Jan Palach.” Jan Palach was a twenty-year-old philosophy student who, in 1969, set himself ablaze in Prague to protest the Stalinoid depredations of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. In dying, Palach became a profound symbol for the Czech people & has become a permanent part of the folklore of his nation.++ All that makes this poem not just political, but overt, lies entirely in its title. The poem itself directly addresses grief:

 

When I entered the first meditation,

   I escaped the gravity of the object,

I experienced the emptiness,

    And I have been dead a long time.

 

When I had a voice you could call a voice,

    My mother wept to me:

My son, my beloved son,

    I never thought this possible,

 

I’ll follow you on foot,

    Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.

It was raining on the houses;

    It was snowing on the police-cars.

 

The astronauts were weeping,

    Going neither up nor out.

And my own mother was brave enough she looked

    And it was alright I was dead.

 

Even the lines that grammatically don’t require end stops have some sort of punctuation right up to that next-to-last line, Shapiro controlling the reader’s breathing & sense of halting rhythm. & again, the question of the microphones, which throughout this work is the question of empathy, which means both compassion & the ability to experience pain.

 

“A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel,” is a dark & brooding work composed within a genre that has never been known for its seriousness. I have no idea how it must have been received by those close to Shapiro, but I know that at the time, my own response was incomprehension – I simply did not have the critical framework in my head at the time to recognize this work for what it was, and is.

 

In an excellent interview conducted by Joanna Fuhrman for RainTaxi, David Shapiro speaks of brooding on a comment Marianne Moore once made about his work lacking “adequate starkness.” There is hardly anything inadequate about the starkness here. Shapiro’s poem, as it turned out, inspired architect John Hejduk’s monument to Palach in Prague.

 

So it’s no accident, I suppose, that I’ve been thinking about this poem this week, not only in the context of the tragedy of Iraq, but also the homicide of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old Olympia, Washington, native who was literally bulldozed to death by the Israeli army last weekend. Unlike Palach and his American & Vietnamese counterparts in the 1960s, Corrie did not plan her fate. In the wake of the media overload over Iraq, I worry that her sacrifice will disappear from our memories if we ever even take note of it in the first place. But I’m glad to note that it’s possible to write political poetry from within the framework of the New York School. It is possible even to write great political poetry there – David Shapiro has shown us how.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* A volume that includes not just the usual suspects, but others whose connection may seem more tenuous to the aesthetics of founding papas Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch & Schuyler – John Giorno, Ed Sanders, Tom Veitch – and whose introduction mumbles an apology for failing to include Allen Ginsberg & Charles Reznikoff, but remains silent over its inclusion of only a single woman, Bernadette Mayer. No Waldman, no Notley, no Guest, all of whom would have been reasonable inclusions in 1970.

 

** Ithaca House was a funky little operation, funded by a writing professor, Baxter Hathaway, as a means of instructing students in what the poetry world was really like. Because David McAleavey had then getting his Ph.D. there, writing what I think might have been the first dissertation on George Oppen, Ithaca House in the early 1970s published first books also by David Melnick & Bob Perelman, as well as Ray Di Palma’s second volume.

 

*** Howard Moss & Frank O’Hara were jointly awarded the prize that year, O’Hara posthumously.

 

+ New York trade publishers were quite open to New York poets up to a certain moment in time – thus Lewis Mac Adams, Dick Gallup, Tom Clark & Clark Coolidge all had early trade press books. I don’t understand the landscape in that part of the publishing world well enough to know how, why or even quite at what exact moment that all came to a crashing halt, but it certainly did. By 1975, the poets of St Marks might as well have been back in Tulsa as far as the trades were concerned. Ashbery, Schuyler & Koch would be the only ones to retain access to that level of distribution.

 

++ By contrast, the self-immolation of Norman Morrison, a Quaker father of three, in front of Robert McNamara’s office at the Pentagon had less of an impact in the United States than it did in Vietnam, where he became a household name. The other Americans who committed such acts to protest the Vietnam War, Alice Herz, Roger LaPorte, and George Winne, at best became answers to trivia questions. 



Friday, March 21, 2003

 

Lourdes Vázquez is a poet, essayist & fiction writer, a librarian by profession who is a leader in developing resources on Latin America from her post at Rutgers,  a Puerto-Rican American living in Brooklyn, a “Caribbean in exile” in her own words. Up to this point in time, she has been primarily a name that I’ve seen on lists – for example, one of the 91 poets scheduled to read at the St. Marks New Years Day Marathon this past January – but then Jerrold Shiroma thought to send me a copy of Park Slope, number 20 in his Duration Press chapbook series. It is flat out a terrific book.

 

Park Slope, readers away from the East Coast might not know, is the section of Brooklyn between Hart Crane’s favorite bridge & the Frederick Law Olmstead-Calvert Vaux-designed Prospect Park. Developed in the years after the Civil War but relatively isolated until the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Park Slope’s economic & ethnic diversity are currently under considerable strain as it has become one of the trendiest addresses on the planet. The world of the Starbucks franchise is entirely absent from Vázquez’ view. While elements of the neighborhood – the Montauk Club, for example – enter into the text, the focus tends to be more close up. If this book were a cycle of photographs, we would see eyes, lips, elbows, hands, the corner of a chair, a windowsill.

 

The poems – it seems more of a series than a serial poem – are short & deceptively simple:

 

“Are we inside the fog or outside?” You asked.

“Inside,” I responded.

                          Like upside-down cats, we snuck away

              from the dew and the clouds.

 

              The lamp-post lit the few open bars and

               the anxiety in my face knowing that you were recovering.

 

It is the anomalies that drive this poem, the “upside-down cats” & the “anxiety” rather than relief at the idea of recovery. The whole question of being & knowledge is tucked into that figure of fog in the first line. This is a piece that, in both its density & sharpness, reminds me a little of the writing of Rae Armantrout – the highest praise imaginable.

 

Translated from the Spanish by the author & her daughter, Vanessa Acosta-Murray, the poems of Park Slope remind me also of another New York poet of long ago, Paul Blackburn. The conversational tone, use of observation, insertion of quotations & willingness to depart the left margin are all features of his poetry, although he would have been surprised at the feminist sensibility.*

 

At one level, Park Slope is a narrative project – there is a troubled relationship around which so many of these poems turn – yet not one articulated with beginning, middle & end. Rather, each poem seems an intervention, coming at the same set of questions from a wide range of different angles. Some of the most powerful are among the very shortest:

 

To close my eyes.

Let memory disappear

Let time cease and my sheets never remember.

 

One word on the translation – there is no facing Spanish, which is a shame, as these pieces in English demonstrate an excellent ear & I’m more than a little curious as to how they might sound in the original. They are in fact so well written I would not have guessed that they were translated if there were not a note to that effect on the acknowledgements page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* One suspects that Blackburn, who died in 1971, would be surprised at any feminist sensibility. Given Blackburn’s own Spanish translations – his Poem of the Cid is the definitive version of that epic – it would be interesting to find out if Vázquez is familiar with his work.



Thursday, March 20, 2003

 

Kirk Johnson yesterday encouraged me to keep going, to provide “something to read in normal circumstances,” though indeed the circumstances today are surely obscene. I’ll try.

 

Ж         Ж         Ж

 

Thinking first of Ken Irby & then of Paul Goodman & his relationship to the New American poets this past week sent me back to the second issue of the Evergreen Review, published in 1957. The issue was devoted, as the blue cover testifies, to the “San Francisco Scene.” Edited by Barney Rosset, mastermind of Grove Press, & Donald Allen (who probably did most of the work), the 160 page issue appeared almost simultaneously with Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Shig Murao’s trial for publishing Howl, but in advance of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and three full years ahead of Allen’s The New American Poetry, for which it was something of a dress rehearsal. A fair number of copies must have been printed, since one still finds copies floating about used book dealers – I saw one in Big Jar about a year ago & abebooks lists three currently available, two in the U.K. and one here, all under $50.

 

The issue contains contributions by 16 writers, plus eight photographs of writers by the great Harry Redl. Ten of the 16 will be included in the Allen anthology in 1960:

 

§         Brother Antoninus, O.P.

§         Robert Duncan

§         Lawrence Ferlinghetti

§         Michael McClure

§         Jack Spicer

§         James Broughton

§         Gary Snyder

§         Philip Whalen

§         Jack Kerouac

§         Allen Ginsberg

 

The four creative writers who won’t be included in the New American Poetry are every bit as intriguing as a list:

 

§         Kenneth Rexroth

§         Henry Miller

§         Josephine Miles

§         Michael Rumaker

 

According to Allen’s introduction to his later book, he excluded poets who were already firmly established, which presumably would have included Miles & Rexroth. Rumaker, only 25 in 1957, the same age as McClure, appears to have been seen strictly as a fictioneer, thus excluded along with Miller & Bill Burroughs when it came time for Allen to cobble together his epochal collection of verse.

 

While Rexroth writes the introduction to this issue, two other critics also appear. Ralph J. Gleason contributes an essay on the San Francisco jazz scene, while Dore Ashton, then the art critic for the New York Times, has a piece on the “San Francisco School,” notably Rothko, Still, Diebenkorn & Sam Francis, with a nod at the end toward David Park, Elmer Bischoff and the “return, four years ago, to figurative painting.”

 

Some of the individual contributions from the poets & novelists are worth noting as well:

 

§         Ginsberg’s Howl, Part I (a reprint from the City Lights Book)

§         “October in the Railroad Earth” by Kerouac

§         “This Place, Rumord  to Have Been Sodom” & the start of “The Structure of Rime” by Duncan

§         Seven pieces by Jack Spicer, including “Troy Poem,” “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy,” and “Berkeley in Time of Plague,” easily his most important publication in the 1950s, possibly the most important magazine appearance of his life

§         Selections from Coney Island of the Mind & the whole of “Dog Poem” by Ferlinghetti

§         Whalen’s “Homage to Robert Creeley

 

That is a huge slice of the great writing of one decade to show up in the pages of a single issue of just one magazine. Just imagine: with the exception of Howl, all of those works came into print on the same day & in the same binding. American writing is a completely different animal by sunset.

 

The longest piece in the issue is Rumaker’s story, “The Desert.” Its 41 pages are the reason why one can’t usefully do the math of 16 contributors, 160 pages & expect an “average” of ten pages per writer.

 

Gleason, a polymath & San Francisco music critic since the  1940s* – his column for the San Francisco Chronicle was syndicated by over 60 newspapers nationally, and, in his spare time, he was a vice president at Fantasy Records, host of the TV series Jazz Casual, contributed to Ramparts (the radical antecedent of publications like Mother Jones, The American Prospect & In These Times), & cofounded Rolling Stone with Jann Wenner which Gleason was active in editing until his death in ’75 – alludes to Rexroth & Ferlinghetti reading poetry aloud to jazz. Gleason’s piece doesn’t quite do justice to the degree to which the “modern” SF jazz scene, centered around Dave Brubeck & Vince Guaraldi, came out of the colleges, with Brubeck studying under Darius Milhaud under the GI Bill at Mills while Guaraldi attended SF State. But it’s a decent portrait of a world that will soon be washed over as if by a tsunami by the likes of the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead & Big Brother.**

 

Ashton, whose article contrasts the “San Francisco School” with her own local “New York” one, could have written her piece without crossing the George Washington Bridge – her most direct observation comes from a letter by Hubert Crehan that Ashton quotes in full. Both imperious & slovenly written, a bad combination, Ashton’s “Eastern View of the San Francisco School” is most noteworthy in that, in addition to Rothko & Still, she pays attention to some relatively forgotten but wonderful painters, Ernest Briggs & Edward Dugmore. Ashton’s one small concession to her work appearing alongside poets is to mention Rimbaud & Baudelaire! One might assume that Ashton’s article is placed at the end as a counterweight to Rexroth’s introduction – Gleason’s piece comes roughly in the middle (immediately ahead of Redl’s photographs) – but I think the real reason is one of embarrassment. The thought of framing all this new writing with three essays, one on the poetry, one on the surrounding music scene, and one on the associated art world, must have seemed like a great idea. But why go to New York & invite someone who thinks she’s the Mikado?

 

Yet Rexroth’s introduction is nearly as strange – he declares right off the bat that the last thing he wants to write about again is the San Francisco poetry scene &, so, for the next four pages, he more or less doesn’t. When he finally begins to address the poets of the City, he begins with Everson, whom he never identifies directly as Brother Antoninus, although that’s how he appears in the issue (his given name does show up in parentheses in the contributor’s notes). Rexroth then follows with Philip Lamantia, a poet not even included in the issue! Then, in order, he deals with the three other poets he obviously believes to be “heavies”: Duncan, Ginsberg & Ferlinghetti. He closes with a paragraph about reading aloud to jazz & thus manages not to mention nine of the writers in the issue.

 

What I like about this “The San Francisco Scene,” which I’ve owned for years, is how it contextualizes the community at a particular moment in time – unlike the Allen anthology just three years hence, there is no division here between the San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain and the Beats, although all are represented in the issue. The presence of Rexroth, Miller & Miles offers an aggregate sense of the world into which these younger writers were just then asserting themselves, far from the trade publishing & art gallery-centric island of Manhattan. Given the fact that Rosset’s Grove Press was so New York & Europe focused – already the American publisher for much of Samuel Beckett – it is nonetheless hard today to imagine just how far Rosset & Allen had reached in this collection. For one thing, Grove’s Evergreen imprint had, in 1957, never published a book of poems by an American author – unless you count Lorca’s Poet in New York. Within a year, however, it would bring out both Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara & H.D.’s Selected Poems.

 

Also worth noting is who is not included here – Lamantia, as Rexroth so pointedly remarks; Bob Kaufman; Robin Blaser; Helen Adam; Lew Welch; Madeline Gleason***; Richard Duerden; Kirby Doyle; Bruce Boyd; Ebbe Borregaard; Peter Orlovsky; Ron Loewinsohn; John Wieners; David Meltzer – all but Kaufman turn up in the Allen anthology three years later & were extremely visible in the San Francisco writing community. Indeed, Wieners Hotel Wentley Poems is one of the classics of the City. Presumably George Stanley, Joanne Kyger & Harold Dull were too young in 1957 – one could argue about their absence from the anthology in 1960, especially in light of the presence of Boyd & Doyle. But Creeley was in San Francisco briefly in the 1950s, as was Zukofsky. Ruth Weiss was active. Kenneth Patchen was around, if mostly immobile. Weldon Kees had been dead less than two years. James Schevill, John Logan, Tom Parkinson were teaching locally. Mark Linenthal, formerly of Harvard, the prison camp at Auschwitz & the Paris of the post-war years, moved to town in 1948 with his wife Alice Adams.

 

So it’s a San Francisco scene that Allen & Rosset offered in Evergreen Review, tho by no means the only one available. It is, as I suggested, a rehearsal for the great anthology Allen will unleash in just three years. And while that book will help to propagate the myth of a San Francisco Renaissance, the “San Francisco Scene” of 1957 makes evident that if there was any renaissance, it was one of multiple impulses, with nothing approximating a literary movement.

 

Forty-six years later, I believe just three of the contributors to the magazine are still alive. Yet the world they shaped, and which Donald Allen helped them to frame through this magazine, as well as his later anthologies & books, transformed not just the face of poetry, but even its geography. Prior to Rexroth, after all, the San Francisco poetry tradition had consisted of little more than George Sterling, Joaquin Miller & Ina Coolbrith. The great myth of the reading at the Six Gallery was functionally just that – if you weren’t there (I was just ten at the time) all you could do was imagine. But Evergreen Review was tangible & portable. And until the Allen anthology showed in 1960, this was as close as you could get.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* In 1968, Gleason lifted the San Francisco Scene line from this issue of Evergreen Review for a book on the 1960s rock music scene.

 

** The relationship between poetry & jazz and poetry & rock is a study worth pursuing in its own right. Jazz was the most popular music in America up into World War 2, but as the bebop pioneers took jazz fully into late modernism, one generation of poets followed, while the context of jazz itself was suddenly marginalized by the arrival of rock & roll and music’s new relationship to the concept of style and the marketing of generational cohorts. One generation read aloud to or (more often) wrote to the sounds of jazz. The next generation would include Leonard Cohen, Laurie Anderson, Jim Carroll, Patti Smith & Jessica Hagedorn.  

 

*** Special thanks to Alan Brilliant, who just sent me Gleason’s Concerto for Bell and Telephone, published by Brilliant’s Unicorn Press in 1967.



Wednesday, March 19, 2003

 

No message for today. I’m too sick at heart at the impending onset of the war. It really is the end of a United States that was conceived on the basis of some very grand ideas not so far from here 227 years ago, replaced by a thug state committed only to bullying the world into submission. Such an endeavor cannot long endure.



Tuesday, March 18, 2003

 

What my kids know about Paul Goodman is that their father regales them with a few lines of “The Lordly Hudson” every time we cross the Tappan Zee Bridge – one more reason not to live in Nyack. I can’t say that I know nearly as much about the man as I’d like – I read Growing Up Absurd when I was in high school but didn’t retain very much of it. And for all of his other social roles – novelist, psychologist, professor at Black Mountain College, essayist and urban planner – it’s the poetry that I think of when I hear his name. In my imagination, he and Kenneth Rexroth were the two poet-radicals who might be said to have anticipated the New American Poetry without having ever been fully invited inside by the writers who then emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Unlike, for example, the Objectivists.

 

Yet I have personal evidence that the New Americans took Goodman seriously. In 1965, during the Berkeley Poetry Conference, one of the largest and most well-attended parties – my memory tells me that it occurred the same night that Ginsberg gave his reading of Kral Majales in Dwinelle Hall – was an affair given in  honor not of Ginsberg, but of Goodman, who was not a participant of the conference at all, but happened merely to be in San Francisco and Berkeley that week on some other business. As a hanger on at the fringes around Ginsberg, I dutifully trooped off with the King of the May and maybe 50 other souls from the campus to the nearby Victorian – the party as I recall spilled over through multiple units in the house and into the “in-law” cottage in the rear as well. I was frankly puzzled at the idea that this older guy was somehow more of a big deal than Ginsberg, but that certainly was what I picked up from Allen’s deference to him.

 

That turned out to be the only time I ever saw Goodman and the question of his relationship to these younger writers – Ginsberg was born the same year as my parents, so he didn’t seem that young, although until least 1970 everybody in that whole scene was being valorized in the media for their very youth – hasn’t crept up that often since. Michael Magee appears to be out to change that.

 

Since I never read Magee, poetry or criticism, without learning something of value, I pay attention. In the new No, he has a short essay entitled “Personal Poems: Pragmatism from Paul Goodman to Frank O’Hara.”  In it, the argument Magee makes is that O’Hara’s Personism joins the peripatetic lunch poet’s interest in black culture to the history of American pragmatism and that, thereby, the coy manifesto “Personism” is in fact “an unrecognized ‘classic’ of American pragmatism.” That is a large claim to make for a document that is all of six paragraphs long. Strategically, it’s a somewhat circuitous argument, in that Magee uses comments O’Hara made about Goodman in order to justify his thesis for O’Hara as a philosophic mind, even while what Magee is really doing – particularly in the context of No – is using O’Hara as a mechanism for relegitimating the relatively neglected Goodman.

 

It’s worth examining the text in question. One could characterize “Personism: A Manifesto” as four paragraphs debunking the theories of meaning and literature that underpinned modernism, one paragraph mostly debunking abstraction* and one that serves as a swift getaway. As in O’Hara’s poetry, the brilliance lies far less in what he’s doing than in the way, in the most immediate sense, that he does it. Certainly the poem that O’Hara is describing in the manifesto is itself far from his own best work, not the sort of thing you would normally think to build your most important critical statement around:

 

     we don’t like Lionel Trilling

we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like

Henry James so much we like Herman Melville

 

Not the most unusual lunch gab to share with a friend, perhaps, but, as a critical process, actually existing Personism seems a lot like the gate keeping one used to associate with Studio 54.

 

Magee makes the case for Goodman’s impact on O’Hara forcefully. The number of out-of-the-closet intellectuals, especially during the 1950s, was still in single digits, a significant number of them poets, such as Ginsberg and Duncan. And one can surely hear the echo of the New Americans in some of Goodman’s poems, such as “April, 1962”:

 

My countrymen have now become too base,

I give them up. I cannot speak with men

not my equals. I was an American,

where now to drag my days out and erase

this awful memory of the United States?

how can I work? I hired out my pen

to make my country practical, but I can

no longer serve these people, they are worthless.

 

“Resign! resign!” the word rings in my soul

-- is it for me? or shall I make a sign

and picket the White House blindly in the rain,

or hold it up on Madison Avenue

until I vomit, or trudge to and fro

gloomily in front of the public school?

 

Draw a Venn diagram around the various poetic impulses in O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg and something like this might in fact emerge.

 

Less clear in Magee’s overall schema is the role of black culture. Both O’Hara’s essay and “Personal Poem” take as their point of origin a lunch that O’Hara had with the then-LeRoi Jones at Moriarty’s on Third Avenue on August 27, 1959, a Thursday. Magee parlays this into an approximation of O’Hara’s poetry with jazz – not an unreasonable association given how deeply some of O’Hara’s peers (notably Creeley) were impacted by bebop and after – in which the stability of framework, really of address, that is the hallmark of modernist work becomes a far more improvisational act, predicated on the concept that the “you” of the poem is specific and therefore must change from reader to reader. It’s an interesting idea and one I’m going to have to think through – not so much the influence of jazz culture on O’Hara and the NY School,** but rather the relation of the two with regards to what Magee characterizes as the Pragmatic tradition.

 

 

 

 

* O’Hara’s example seems almost deliberately aimed at the work of Barbara Guest.

 

** The impact of post-war jazz does seem pretty minimal in Ashbery and Schuyler and Ted Berrigan’s collection of Arthur Godfrey records hardly demonstrates an ear for the nuances of Mingus or Monk.



Monday, March 17, 2003

 

When I was but a pup, still in high school or just barely out of it, I would frequent the South Campus environs of the University of California in Berkeley, where in the Café Med on Telegraph Avenue almost any given afternoon, I would see a bearded fellow sipping a cappuccino & almost invariably writing intently into a notebook. Somewhere along the line, somebody pointed out to me that this fellow was a poet. “Oh,” I thought, “so that’s how they do it.” Soon enough, I had my own notebook & table at the Med & was gradually getting accustomed to choking down the strange bitter taste of cappuccinos.*

 

It would be several years, literally, before I would muster the courage to introduce myself to that poet – he seemed so much older, at least 25, & his sense of concentration amid the chatter, sound of dishes & coffee house music – the Med in those days favored classical – was truly awesome. It seemed as though he were contained in a bubble of perfect focus. His name, it turned out, was Kenneth Irby, and he had some sort of grad student or post-grad job with the University, operating, if I recall correctly, a mimeograph machine.

 

It also took me awhile to understand fully what a wonderful writer Irby was. As was evident even with his early books from Black Sparrow, Irby was completely persuaded by the poetics of Projectivism, perhaps because he came to it with the most exquisitely tuned ear of any poet I have ever encountered. It was as perfect a marriage between a poet’s gift & his practice as one might imagine.

 

For all of his obvious & intense devotion to the process of poetry, Irby never did demonstrate much of the anxious attention to publication, fame or the “career of the poet” that, in fact, enables many a lesser writer acquire a far wider reputation. Plus, Irby was part of a difficult generation, too young to have appeared in the New American Poetry, too close in age to really separate out fully from those older guys into something identifiably new & marketable. While some of the poets from that “tweener” generation did go on to establish themselves in their own right – Ronald Johnson, Kathleen Fraser, Joanne Kyger, John Taggart, Clayton Eshleman – many, such as David Schaff, Seymour Faust, Jonathan Greene, Gail Dusenbury, Harold Dull or Robert Parker, dropped out of sight entirely while others transformed their aesthetics in some dramatic fashion, as did Daphne Marlatt & David Bromige. Some, like Irby and George Stanley, have continued to produce excellent work, but have done so at a considerable distance from any major scene: Irby has been in Lawrence, Kansas, for years; Stanley taught for a long time in the northern reaches of British Columbia.

 

So when I found a poem by Ken Irby in the new issue of No, adrenalin rushed through my system. The poem, “[Record]” – the brackets are part of the title – recounts, as I read it, a dream in which Irby confronts the dead, specifically his mother & Ed Dorn. While Irby has always liked dreaming as a source for his poetry, “[Record]” is in some ways an unusual work for him, using a good deal of the parallel construction one associates more with the Beats:

 

And when you die, or when you think you’re dead, or when you dream you’ve died

your feet are turned backwards and your legs and loins but not your waist

and your arms embrace your head and backwards too and one of them waves goodbye to the air in the air

and the dancer on your belly whirls and reaches to regenerate the sun

and rides your body like a boat curved on into the sun

holding all you’ve ever done up like a ticket from amongst the snakes

and blossoms sway to tickle your navel, the entrance and the exit, the swivel and the plug, the cast and the release, and the call

 

That’s just a taste, just one of the poem’s eight sections, but typing it up here, reading it aloud as I do, makes me want to holler with excitement. The rhythms capture perfectly an otherworldly sense of ecstasy, death not as loss but as passage. Whether or not this should be what eventually greets us – or greets us only in dream – is to a large degree not relevant, because Irby’s use of rhythm makes it credible, one hears it in the body as well as in the mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Some of the terminal hipness of all this drained away when a high school teacher of mine, Ken Davids, published a novel with Grove Press about life at the Med, The Softness on the Other Side of the Hole. Having come full circle, Davids now writes about coffee. I, on the other hand, haven’t had a cup in 13 years.



Sunday, March 16, 2003

 

I want to give a hearty Yes to No, the new book-sized journal from Lost Roads Publishers, edited by Deb Klowden & Ben Lerner. It’s a rich panoply of writing & visual art, packaged in a binding sturdy enough to go through the mails without a cover or package & arrive in perfect shape.*

 

No is also a reminder that pumping money into the design process isn’t the same as good design. The publication goes out of its way to make it hard to figure out who its contributors are. The pages containing their work list only the last names along the bottom – which is fine if your name is Armantrout or Lauterbach, but a problem if it’s Wright or Johnson or Nelson or even Waldrop. The table of contents only makes matters worse, listing works – with two exceptions – only by their titles, although – a test to see how unreadably busy a contents page can be  – putting contributor’s notes under each such listing.

 

The two exceptions to the no-name in the boldface table of contents listing belong to graphic artist Che Chen, whose work appears in four-color glossy format in different spots of the journal as well as on the Jasper John’s homage of a cover, and Keith Waldrop, whose booklength contribution, Songs from the Decline of the West, is published on gray chapbook stock quite different from the eggshell white of the rest of the journal.**

 

The editors would do well to take a look at Kiosk, noted here previously for an example of what elegance in publishing can be. But even Conjunctions, the publication that No most closely mimics in look & feel, stands as a perfectly good model of how a table of contents page ought to function. The self-indulgent cutesy approach undercuts the seriousness with which the rest of the issue is produced.

 

And the content, once you get past the packaging overkill, is terrific. Not too surprisingly for a publication that has its roots at Brown (even if the editors live in New York City), the core of No is ellipticist: virtually everybody associated with that term save for Jorie Graham – at least I couldn’t find any work by her in the issue – is represented. But, if ellipticism is it’s core, No extends outward in quite a few different directions, some of them surprising, to make what editorially is a significant argument for its literary vision. Thus we find John Taggart, Michael Harper, Jean Valentine & even Eliot Weinberger alongside Rae Armantrout, Nate Mackey & Frank Stanford, plus younger poets such as Jen Hofer, Lisa Jarnot & Michael Magee, amid the broader mix. As a statement of a coherent poetics, No could not be stronger.

 

One person whose work made me terrifically happy to read it here is Michael Davidson. Davidson doesn’t publish a lot of poetry & that has combined with his geographic distance from the rest of the literary scene to keep him from becoming nearly as famous as he deserves to be. His poem is entitled “Bad Modernism”:

 

“Suddenly all is / loathing”

        John Ashbery

 

and there’s plenty to be unhappy about

if I can just get the reception area festooned

in time for their arrival, paper cups

and those little plastic whatsits so that,

gorged on meaning,

they troop through the glass doors

seeking interpretation, first floor

mildly historical, second door on the left

desire matrix, parents accompany

their indiscretions straight

to the penthouse and someone

hands them a phone, “turtles”

they’re called, heads bobbing

as though they had a choice

to be party favors, deep structure

on your left follow the clicking

to a white cube, we only work

part time the other part

we illustrate profound malaise,

I like these cream filled versions

so unlike what we get at home,

having said which

we rewind the tape,

slip it through a slot marked “aha”

and take the El home,

the smell you smell afar

is something boiling over.

 

Langpo historically is supposed to be a far cry from the New York School &, on those occasions when one sees a list of exceptions to that generalization, Davidson usually isn’t on it. So it’s fascinating to see the number of devices & little touches here that one could find not just in Ashbery, but in poets such as Bill Berkson or Larry Fagin as well. Davidson has always had a superb ear – his apprenticeship amid the Projectivists certainly must have helped – but he hardly ever has used it to such deft comic effect as the word “festooned” at the end of the second line. I can tell already that I’m going to be inserting that term into conversations wherever I can over the next several days as a result of this poem.

 

The title “Bad Modernism” is worth thinking through more carefully. The body of the poem itself is a full deck of postmodern devices, or at least of devices that get associated with postmodernism. I think it seems evident enough that Davidson’s own relationship to both text & title is significantly bracketed by layers of irony (i.e., I don’t necessarily believe he really does “like these cream filled versions”), but at what level does he appear to be saying that one definition of the postmodern might, in fact, be “bad modernism?” Davidson carefully doesn’t answer that, but rather leaves it for us to decode.

 

Ellipticism’s preferred New York School poet is Barbara Guest, included in the issue with one of her patented painterly poems. There are other ellipticists close to individuals & aspects of the NY School’s many generations, such as Marjorie Welish (included) & Ann Lauterbach (included), but as a whole the more raucous elements of the downtown scene around St. Marks aren’t visible in No, although Michael Magee offers a tremendous essay on Personism & Paul Gooman tucked way in the back. Also not visible in No are any of the Social Mark poets who recently gathered in Philadelphia. Of Brian Kim Stefans’ roster of Creeps, just Lisa Jarnot is included.

 

Is this a sign that literary formations are starting to gel for the first time in over 20 years? I still don’t see the evidence. Like Stefans’ theory of Creeps, Ellipticism has been more of a description of impulses than an engine of collective behavior. It may be, however, that No will have an impact on this. Younger poet/editors can do that at times. Tom Clark was far more militant in his advocacy – and border patrol – of the New York School when editing poetry for the Paris Review, first from England & later from Bolinas, than any of the first two generations of NYS insiders. *** It will interesting to watch how No evolves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Kenneth Warren, take note.

 

** Thus it’s Rosmarie who gets the “bottom of the page” last name treatment for her work. Actually, the clearest roster of who is included in the issue is the arty-but-alphabetical way they’re incorporated into the design of the rear cover.

 

*** Do you think George Plimpton realizes that the most significant thing he ever did in the poetry world was to hire Tom Clark? We suspect not.



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