Saturday, April 05, 2003
Robert Duncan began publishing poetry when he was just out of his teens in 1939. Yet during the last twenty-five years of his life – not to mention the 15 years since his death – the primary poetry that people were permitted to see was largely restricted to writing that began in the late 1950s with The Opening of the Field. That book, Roots and Branches and Bending the Bow were the trio of volumes that were widely available during most of the last period of his life as he abstained from publishing a book of new poetry for 15 years after Bow.
had incorporated his poetry – or at least those portions he felt best about –
written between 1942 and 1950. In 1966, when the Selected was already impossible to find, Duncan permitted Oyez,
Graham Mackintosh’s press in Berkeley, to issue The Years As Catches, a more complete gathering of his earliest
work, from 1939 through 1946. Framed very much as juvenilia – the subtitle is First Poems (1936-1946), Catches was reprinted
in 1977. Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Press published a small edition of Letters,
Thus it has
always seemed evident to me that
For a new generation of young writers in the early 50s, the Pisan Cantos and then Paterson had been the challenge. But for me, the War Trilogy of H.D. came earlier, for searching out those first vatic poems of Edith Sitwell that Kenneth Rexroth had shown me in Life and Letters Today I had come across H.D.’s passages from The Walls Do Not Fall. Then came “Writing on the Wall” and “Good Frend”. When the third volume of the Trilogy, The Flowering of the Rod, was published in 1946 I had found my book.
These three — Pound, Williams, and H.D. — belonged in their youth to a brilliant, still brilliant generation that began writing just before the First World War . . . . They alone of their generation — and we must add D.H. Lawrence to their company — saw literature as a text of the soul in its search for fulfillment in life and took the imagination as a primary instinctual authority. The generative imagination Pound called it.
As if “in
From the beginning then, certainly from 1947 or 1948 when I was working on Medieval Scenes and taking H.D. as my master there among the other masters, there was the War Trilogy. In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco, I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.
The Pisan Cantos represent a disordered mind
confronting the wreckage of its presumptions – it’s less of a construction than
a record. Its closest literary kin isn’t the work of Dante or Browning, but
rather that of Hannah Weiner.
* Hebrew for miracle worker, leader, or pious man – it’s the same term that, as tzadik, John Zorn
uses for his record label. Note that, especially as the H.D. Book was written a decade before
** Between the bombing of
Friday, April 04, 2003
Worse I fear by far than this obscene war – just yesterday the world was treated to hearing a mother’s tale of seeing her two daughters, ages 15 & 12, decapitated by U.S. firepower as it ripped through their vehicle that failed to heed what may have been an unclear warning to stop at a “U.S. checkpoint” – will be the “peace” that follows.
The words of Constantine Cavafy’s famous 1904 poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” have been ringing in my ears a lot these past few months, especially its final lines:
Και τώρα τι
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.
of “barbarians” during the long Cold War were indeed a kind of solution.
I think we are only now beginning to understand what we lost when the old
Consider the present circumstances:
§ We have an unelected president whose appointment came at the hands of a Supreme Court whose crucial “black seat” was itself gained a few years back through perjury. Bush’s appointment could not have occurred without the electoral vandalism of the Green Party.
The Republicans control both houses of Congress and
the Democratic Party, for the most part, seems incapable of standing up to
Bush: three of the “major” senatorial candidates for the presidential
nomination, Kerry, Lieberman & Edwards, all support the
The authority of the United Nations, an institution
designed in large part by the
§ The sitting attorney general is a man openly hostile to the Bill of Rights.
Over 600 prisoners from the war in
§ The Republican Congress has curtailed a woman’s right to control her own body – a decision to knowingly kill some women.
§ The Supreme Court is weighing the issue of overturning any form of affirmative action & is considering whether or not to overturn the Miranda decision’s protections against self-incrimination.
§ And Admiral Poindexter wants to read your email.
The list of outrages is rather endless – and there is a serious possibility that before too terribly long we may look back on this as the “good old days.”
The best explication of
§ Argued that the world’s last remaining superpower needed to exercise its unique geopolitical advantages for its own interest
Claimed that the
Called for addressing specific threats, mentioning
Sought to ensure, as a major goal, “access to vital
raw material, primarily
This last point headed a list of key sources of potential conflict, even before the presence of “weapons of mass destruction.” When the New York Times & Washington Post reported the radical nature of the Wolfowitz draft, the White House ordered then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to rewrite the document.
The Wolfowitz DPG precedes by eight years the report by the Project for a New American Century, entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which has sometimes been described as evidence that the plan to “finish what we started” in Iraq was not a consequence of the September 11th attacks nor related to the so-called War on Terror. However, even if the attack on the Pentagon & World Trade Center was the “trigger event” that caused the old DPG to be put into action, it has little more to do with the plan itself than does Bush’s argument, one of several briefly advanced then later abandoned in the run-up to the invasion, that the United States was threatening war in order to protect the integrity of the United Nations.
If Cirincione is correct,
the question is not whether the United States will proceed to attack Korea,
Iran, Syria, Cuba or any other nation that stands in its way, but rather when,
at what pace & in which order. It is a foreign policy not without precedent
in the history of the world – the major difference between, say,
Historically, every attempt
at empire has eventually failed. The costs, both economically & in human
terms, are too high. The “governed,” as
Thursday, April 03, 2003
The poem tells a simple
enough story, one with which virtually anyone who has visited
The title of the poem is
“The Wasteland (A Translation)” & I found it over the weekend in At Andy’s, George Stanley’s book of
poems from the late 1990s published by New
Star Books. In spite of its title, I read the poem initially as a text of George
Stanley’s, as surely it is. My first thought was that
The title itself should have
told me otherwise –
Actually, I was through the poem before the title, which I merely glanced at, rather than read – an old habit I’ve discussed here before – sank in. Ignoring thus the obvious, I envisioned Stanley, a youthful looking gay man in his 60s, experiencing precisely the scenario depicted in the poem. As a narrative, it’s completely reasonable. So that it’s only when I get to the end of the poem and see it clearly marked “Adapted from the Russian of Arkadi Tcherkassov.” Slap of palm against forehead!
Just to exacerbate the point
& to suggest just how much
I don’t know Tcherkassov as a poet &, when I hunt around for him on the Internet, trying out multiple possible variations of his names – Cyrillic doesn’t move smoothly into the Roman alphabet – I come across only a single mention, a characterization of him in French on Radio Canada from the year 2000 as a “canadologue marginalisé d’une Académie des sciences appauvrie,” a marginalized Canadoloist of an impoverished Academy of Science. The description is ironic, in that one can see Tcherkassov as a serious Russian patriot in this poem.
Reminders such as this are
useful – always – at the gap between the “I” of the text & that of its
author, whether we envision it here as being Stanley or Tcherkassov.*** Rereading the poem, it’s full of touches, such as the
breaks in this opening stanza, that are identifiably
I’m going to tell you a story –
but it’s not really a story –
it’s not all in the past –
it’s happening now.
Finally the poem settles into what I would characterize – in a literal, rather than “new age” sense – as a transpersonal space, the “I” ultimately serving as a shell inhabited by more than one person. There’s an irony in this, given that At Andy is presented as being very much a literature of referentiality, “reflecting,” as the anonymous jacket blurb puts it, “his idea that a poem after all about something” & quoting Stanley:
What’s wrong is somehow
I think there’s something to write about – instead of writing.
* One of those typos one sees far too often in the world of American poetry, like the misspelling of names, Ginsburg for Ginsberg, Olsen for Olson, Zukovsky for Zukofsky.
** Stalinists were forever calling Trotskyists “Trotskyites.” Trots rejected the label because of its parallel with the binary “socialist/socialite.”
discounting Meney here not because he didn’t play a
key role in the creation of this work – he clearly did – but because he sits at
neither end of the chain, neither at the front with Tcherkassov, nor at the end
Wednesday, April 02, 2003
I got a few notes about my absences the past few days – been traveling & my access to the web has been constricted. When I was online yesterday, the Blogger “publisher” server was down.
Ж Ж Ж
I want to say simply today
how sad I am at the sudden death yesterday of Ric Caddel at the age of 53. I never got to meet the man in
person, but as editor, poet & correspondent, he was a marvel. The volume of
British & Irish poetry since 1970 that he co-edited with
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Tim Yu credits Stephanie Young for posing a question about my blogging style: that in choosing the miniature essay form rather than, say, the pseudo-chat room blip, I’m involved in a curious (implying, I suppose, nefarious) “centering” aesthetic move. I.e., by making coherent arguments – to the extent that I do – I push poetry in the direction I want, as distinct from either the direction somebody else might see or want or even just the directionless evolution of that ever infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards.
Guilty as charged on the point of being deliberate in choosing a style that allows me to develop more of an argument. When I first encountered blogging a little over a year ago, the diary snippet aspect of the weblog put me off. But then my nephew, Daniel, who I think shares in the family trait of utter seriousness, started using an adjunct to his primary blog to post some of his college papers. That set my inner carillon off. It was that aspect of his blog that, as I mulled the question over on Brier Island last summer, set me to thinking.
If there’s a distinction between what I’m doing & the “average blog,” at least with regards to poetry, it’s not that my pieces are “centering” & others are not, but rather that mine are conscious that this function is inherent in the act of articulation, that I’m interested in exploring it, where I think some (not all) others seem more ambivalent, sometimes even embarrassed at the notion. By inherent, I mean that the immanence in any address registers exactly that, the presence of a point of view as a point. From the perspective of any writer, the act of writing / speaking / thinking invariably is one of organizing the world around that point, articulating proximities & distances – as I noted Monday, a cartography of poetics. From the perspective of the reader, the challenge is really no different. One navigates between the blogs of various poets much in the same way one does between poems or books. What totalitarians invariably forget (or pretend not to notice) is that these points differ for every individual. The world of literature is not a pyramid at whose pinnacle sits the mind of Harold Bloom, but rather an ever-changing sea of constantly moving relationships. Navigation is exactly, and only, that.
Monday, March 31, 2003
A back-channel comment from a blogger out in my old stomping grounds of the Bay Area made me sit up straight:
One thing that’s been really striking is discovering that for many younger poets, you are “Silliman’s Blog”; while they’re familiar with you in that role, they are often not familiar with your work, having only a general sense of you as an “elder” or as representing “language poetry” (understood as an institutionalized orthodoxy).
Big sigh. Permit me to suggest that readers might start here. The bibliography has over 700 items & one could literally start anywhere, even with Wet: The Journal of Gourmet Bathing, which once published an excerpt from Sunset Debris.
But, seriously, the problem of younger poets in particular lacking much sense of recent literary history is one of those unending tasks every writer confronts. When I taught my seminar in the graduate writing program at San Francisco State back in 1981, I had as good a class as a poet/teacher could want – Susan Gevirtz, Cole Swenson, Jerry Estrin, Terry Ehret, Margaret Johnson were all participants. At the first session of the class, I passed out a list of book titles & a second list of poets and asked the group to match the books with their poets. This wasn’t an obscure list – it had Plath’s Ariel & Dorn’s Gunslinger, volumes by Ginsberg, Levertov, Creeley, Ashbery & the like. Not a single student was able to match even 20 percent of the poets to their books.
My own experience at the Berkeley Poetry Conference some 16 years earlier reflects that same circumstance, except that I knew even less at the time. I had opportunities to see Spicer, even Olson, but didn’t know enough to understand that they were opportunities. Spicer only lived a few weeks beyond the conference. While Olson lived another five years, I believe he only gave one other reading in the Bay Area after that. I missed that one too. In retrospect, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have seen writers like Lew Welch & Paul Blackburn, poets who died far too young, & who were heard by far too few in their lifetimes.*
In this blog, I’ve generally
focused on writing from the 1940s to the present (or maybe the near future).
While I myself didn’t awaken to poetry really until the 1960s, the writers who
were then defining the literary landscape were themselves still actively
engaged with the writers & issues of the 1950s & ‘40s, so all those
elements were very active still. For example, I think that one could draw a
reasonably coherent line from the poetry of Robert Duncan in the 1940s to the
Canadian Louis Dudek & the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow – all three come
out of a writing in which, say, both Yeats & modernism are active
influences. After the impact of Olson & Creeley in the 1950s, however,
The forty years between then
& now have seen a bewildering array of different threads & strands mixing
together, unraveling & often going in directions that seemed unimaginable
up until the very moment when somebody did, in fact, imagine it. I can recall,
for example, the first time I saw Judy Grahn’s Edward
the Dyke and Other Poems, the satire struck me as overwhelmed into
artlessness by the rawness of the pain it reflected. Today, I read that work
totally differently & see Grahn’s early writing as literally inventing its
audience through the most careful acts of craft conceivable, confident that if
she writes it, they will show up. One seldom sees Grahn mentioned in histories
of langpo or more broadly within postmodern writing, yet Kathy Acker’s
self-publication of her first novels, chapter by chapter, just putting the work
out there without regard to the fact that there was “no place” at the time for
anything even remotely like her writing could not have occurred in a world in
which Grahn’s poetry did not already exist. Acker in turn had an enormous
impact on language writing, even if she herself always tended to keep it at
arm’s length. Nothing that
But such linkages aren’t always obvious and context matters. If you want to read Jack Spicer, you at some point need to know not only the work of Robert Duncan & Robin Blaser, but also Joanne Kyger, George Stanley & Harold Dull. Writers who have long since stopped publishing, such as Ebbe Borregaard, as well as others who did not begin to publish until later & at a considerable remove from, say, the Spicer Circle, such as Larry Fagin, also need to be factored into the equation. This is, as Spicer himself would have recognized, a cartography of poetics. Tracing such routes is not just good discipline, it’s a lot of fun. Rereading George Stanley’s work over the past year has been some of the most enjoyable time I’ve spent with poetry in ages. There is also both pleasure & information to be taken by constructing imaginary lineages, such as one Annie Finch & I have concocted that runs Sara Teasdale → Helen Adam → Lee Ann Brown.
One question is always how far back does one need to go. For the blog, I’ve generally drawn the line at the 1940s, although there are a few writers – Pound, Williams, Stein, Zukofsky, possibly some of the other Objectivists – who could cause me to go back a little further. But reading, say, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ marvelous essay in Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry: 1908-1934, on the Hoos of Hooville, specifically the use of that nonword “hoo” by Lindsay, Stevens & Eliot in various poems, constructing whiteness – DuPlessis borrows the term “blanchitude” – out of their own depictions of an Other, I realize that to even approach this sort of topic I would have to construct a mental configuration of a world in which Vachel Lindsay is not déjà toujours a joke. & even if I could do so intellectually, I can’t get there emotionally – it never feels right.
While I enjoy older literatures – my kids have heard me reading Chaucer in Middle English & I sometimes listen to a tape by J.B. Bessinger, Jr. reading Beowulf & other Old English texts in the original, a wonderful antidote to Heaney’s reduction of that text to Bad Sports Writing of the Gods or whatever he imagines it to be – my own sense of the importance of completely reconstructing those prior periods is that it recedes with each preceding generation. Conversely, the process of emasculation that occurs whenever one takes a work out of its historical context – the inherent problem with Straussian approaches to education – becomes even more acute as one approaches the present. Thus while it may not be more important in the larger scheme of things to understand the impact of Richard Duerden than it is Keats, the failure to do so can have consequences that are just as serious, perhaps more so. On one level, I plan to keep blogging until I understand all the ways in which Alexander Pope → Adelaide Crapsey → Talan Memmott make sense. On another, it’s that latter connection that matters most.
There are of course poets in any generation who seem to do their work with no sense of the larger parameters of literary context – and some of these folks do interesting & valuable work. But in fact most people don’t seem to work that way – at some point, the Cole Swensons, Jerry Estrins & Susan Gevirtz’ of any given group of promising & talented young writers seem to make a decision to take responsibility for understanding where & how they fit into the larger scheme of things, which entails gaining a far better sense of what their own personal map of traditions & influences might be. Indeed, that decision seems to play a significant role in the transformation into a “successful” poet. It’s a commitment, among other things, to some hard (albeit pleasurable) work.**
If I am my blog, and perhaps I am, it is because, for some readers, this is the easiest way to make contact with my writing. These bite-size pieces are nowhere nearly as forbidding as the 79 page paragraph that concludes the new edition of Tjanting. Nor do you have to be anywhere near a bookstore to access it. On occasion, this blog might have the added advantage of being about you. All are incentives to turn here first. Yet the poets of the next generation – and the one after that – who will get to define how all of this makes sense, will almost always be the ones who go out & do the work.
* I even got to hear Lew Welch do some of his “Motown” version of The Waste Land in that silky smooth tenor of his.
Interestingly, neither of the two women in my class back in 1981 who struck me
at the time as being “the most talented” of the writers there seems to be
producing poetry now, or – if they are – at least not at all publicly. One,
last I heard, was becoming a school teacher; the other appears to be a
full-time member of a Buddhist residential community in upstate