Monday, January 26, 2004
Two radically different books that are, at some level, both involved in the process of coming to terms with a major poet are Michael Rothenberg’s Unhurried Vision, his journal for the year 1999, when he was working with Philip Whalen, and Ezra Pound’s The Saló Cantos, edited by Kimberly Filbee, a poet & critic whom I believe does not exist.
20 or so miles from
Filbee, whom I take to be the project of one or more
post-avant poets, wants to confront the problem of Pound, the idea that the
“father” of American modernism was himself as close to pure evil as one might
imagine. Yet he is also The Father. The book’s production is almost an apotheosis
of these competing visions. The volume itself is tiny – just six centimeters
wide, 7.5 high (roughly two by three inches). The main body of type is just two
points high – one-fifth the size of the type here. Quotations & footnotes
are even smaller – one-point type. With the type photo-offset, it’s hard going
unless you have your magnifying glass from the compact edition of OED handy. Yet the book is also
meticulous – it has both front & back jacket pockets, one containing the
opening of Canto 72 in the original,
the other containing all of Canto 73 (short
enough to have been printed on a single page in two columns). Each flap also
has a photo of Pound giving the fascist salute in 1958 upon his return to
is a painful little project & Pound’s own writing doesn’t improve it –
these are easily the most turgid sections of The Cantos, which is saying something when you consider all the Van
Buren ones. In fact, reading them, I am even more amazed at the transformation
that makes the Pisan Cantos possible.
Surrender, in the most literal sense, has serious psychic value. But Pound in
the cage was a different creature than the survivor who returned to
If The Saló Cantos have
the feel of an exorcism, however incomplete,
But Rothenberg's journal does much more than that & does so almost without seeming to try. Rothenberg, like more than a couple of other poets who've found themselves in Whalen's orbit over the years, adopts & adapts Whalen's own notational literary style. Although Whalen himself appears not to have written in many years (the latest journal Rothenberg finds is dated from1987), it's as if he's found a method of channeling his poetry through others. And, indeed, these are very pleasurable poems very much in the same way that Phil Whalen's poems are pleasurable: attentive to detail, just a little cryptic in places, seldom piling multiple meanings onto a single word or phrase, showing a wry wit, quite generous & yet full of irony.
Part of the pleasure, no doubt, is voyeuristic, getting to glimpse the old master with his guard down, imagining his lone kin
a sister in
smoking cigarettes in front of TV
as frail as he is
or seeing just who shows up for his birthday party, or the cranky comments of a man irritated by modern medicine. Parts too are sad, not so much the frailty of an elder, but seeing Whalen misunderstood literally (referred to as a language poet, by the New York Times no less) as if his poetry doesn’t stand just fine on its own two feet.
Unlike the effaced critic Kimberly Filbee, Rothenberg doesn't try to erase himself in this project, but it's hard to know exactly where Whalen ends & he begins (& vice versa). The project itself suggests that this need not really matter.