Friday, February 06, 2004

 

My Walk with Gil

 

I had something different in mind for today, but it can wait. Everything can wait. Even though I’ve known just how sick Gil Ott has been for the past ten months – and indeed how frail his health has been during the entire 26 years I’ve known him – his death yesterday came like a kick in the stomach. Philadelphia will literally be a different city without him.

 

I first began to correspond with Gil back in 1978 (so say the archives at UCSD) & I must have known about him for a time before that, although I hadn’t run into him during his Northern California period earlier in that decade, so the tales of a poet living in a tree house in Bolinas came later & sometimes second hand. He had, I believe, asked to see some work for Paper Air & published a section of 2197 that year. Paper Air was a wonderful magazine – post-avant & political all at once, proposing a new aesthetic that was neither langpo nor a mere reflection of previous New American strategies. Here was somebody who was thinking for himself, pushing hard at his assumptions & at my own. He described the problem of his failed kidneys & it sounded horrific, but frankly I had no clue what that might entail.

 

I didn’t actually meet Gil until sometime around 1980 or ’81 when I was visiting New York. Charles Bernstein, who may have been working with CETA at the time, had set up a date to meet with the two of us for lunch in the Village &, after Charles returned to work post-lunch, Gil & I decided to take a walk together through the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that I at least had never really explored. It was an arduous process because Gil, then waiting for a kidney transplant, was weak & took the slowest steps imaginable. Still under 30, he walked at a pace slower than most 90-year-olds. I suggested that we just find a café and hang out, but he was insistent – he wanted to walk, no matter how difficult the process. So we did. Slowly. Finding our way eventually to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, some blocks of old ethnic Jewish culture that a California boy like myself had only read about in books. I bought a lambskin hat from a vendor operating out of a cart (there was a hint of snow, tho none fell). I still own the hat & have refused to throw it out, tho I haven’t worn it in at least a decade.

 

Although Gil seemed as weak as a feather – as frail as I ever saw him up to this last long hospitalization – our walk took three or four hours. As we walked, we talked about everything: poetry, politics, his illness, the emotional consequences of having to move back to his parents’ house in suburban Blue Bell while awaiting a transplant. Gil was adamant that he liked the political side of language poetry, but that there was a lot of avant-gardism for the sake of itself associated with the tendency he wasn’t so sure about at all.* We discussed Philadelphia – which at that point I’d only visited once in the 1960s --, the Bay Area, people we knew in common such as John Wilson, the ineptness of the Carter administration, writing strategies, winter on the two coasts, everything imaginable. We talked a lot about the meaning of narrative & reference. By the time we left one another, I knew that I had made a friend for life. It was one of the best afternoons I ever had with a writer & I can still say so 20-plus years later. I came away immeasurably enriched.**

 

I was working on the opening sections of The Alphabet at that time & I wanted a section that would address both the question of narrative, as such, and the trope of the poem as a journey – I thought that the project might take me as much as seven or eight years. My afternoon with Gil & our discussion in particular of narrative in what was then contemporary poetry & writing led me to reread Paul Valery & take up his example of why he could never write fiction. A version of that sentence in English opens Blue, the second part of The Alphabet. That poem grew directly out of this afternoon & was & is dedicated to Gil.

 

Gil published me three times in Paper Air, each occasion completely different from the others. The second was an essay in the year after my first contribution that would evolve into the “Of Theory, To Practice” section of The New Sentence. The third came about as the result of a day, 12 April 1986, when Krishna & I were passing through NY on our honeymoon. We stayed at the Algonquin just so we could eat the overpriced lox at the round table downstairs (Michael Feinstein’s piano had leaked out of the club there as we did this the night before). I was reading that afternoon at the Ear Inn – the same reading that is partly captured on the Live at the Ear CD – and Gil, who was teaching at the time at Temple, had come up to Manhattan with two students, Don Marks & Julia Blumenreich, who wanted to interview me. I don’t know if Gil & Julia were married by the time the interview ran in Paper Air in 1989, but when they did get married I recall thinking that this was one of those perfect combinations, two great people who strengthened one another in the best possible ways.

 

Although I’ve lived out in the ‘burbs in the almost-nine years we’ve been here & never saw Gil & Julia more than a couple of times each year, it’s not at all clear that we would even have entertained moving to Philadelphia in 1995 had Gil not lived here. I didn’t really know Rachel Blau DuPlessis all that well yet, didn’t knew Eli Goldblatt at all, had never even heard of Linh Dinh & was in full denial that Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw had already lived here for five years back then. From a distance, APR looked like a very big fact of the landscape – it turned out to be a mirage. Writers House didn’t yet exist. But the fact that Gil & Julia had thrived in this city all these years meant that Philadelphia was definitely possible & do-able for a poet. This was something Krishna & I talked about when weighing all the pros & cons of that momentous decision.

 

I don’t know how to sum up all the ways in which I’m indebted to Gil. I’m not even sure that I understand all of them. That’s a lesson I expect to keep on learning even though he’s gone. Yesterday, Linh Dinh, a poet whom I first met through Gil in 1999, sent me an email that said, “He had the biggest heart.” That is surely true.

 

The PhillySound weblog has a series of comments & reminiscences of Gil, as well as a list of some of the best links to his work on the net. Banjo: Poets Talking has his last interview with C.A. Conrad. And anyone who doesn’t already own a copy of The Form of Our Uncertainty: A Tribute to Gil Ott, can download it as a PDF file by right-clicking & doing a “save as” on the link here. Two sites that PhillySound doesn’t include, but which I like a lot, are “The Village of Arts and Humanities,” a piece of journalism Gil did that captures his sense of community. This was part of a larger feature Gil edited for High Performance in 1994 & he wrote the introduction also. In 1998, a neighborhood newspaper, the Mt. Airy Times Express, did a feature on Gil, which can be found on the Penn website here. Penn also has a nice photograph of Gil here.

 

Below is the section of The Alphabet dedicated to Gil.

 

 

 

 

* Ironically, “The Four Protozoas,” which Gil published in Paper Air, may be the most visibly over-the-top avant piece I have ever written.

 

** When I described this day at Gil’s 50th birthday party a couple of years ago, his comment was “Jeez, Ron, it was just a walk.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLUE

For Gil Ott

 

The Marchioness went out at five o'clock. The sky was blue yet tinged with pink over the white spires which broke up the east horizon. The smell of the afternoon's brief shower was still evident and small pools of clear water collected in the tilt of the gutters, leaves and tiny curling scraps of paper drifting in the miniature tides which nonetheless caught and reflected the swollen sun, giving the boulevard its jeweled expression.

 

Government was therefore an attitude. Dour, the camel pushed with his nose against the cyclone fence. The smell of damp eucalyptus is everything! You stare at your car before you get in.

 

From here we can see the sex. They are folding the flyers before stuffing them into envelopes. Badminton is nothing to be ashamed of. Grease and old tire marks streak the road. From here we can tell the sex.

 

Rust designs that old truck door. The number of objects is limited. Some leaves on the fern are more yellow. Sooner or later you will have to get up to change the record. That buzz is the dryer.

 

Longer ones demand a new approach: there's not enough water for a second cup. These crystals are useless on a sunless day. More than that, the fence is apt to give, pulling free of its posts. Tell me the one about the fellaheen again.

 

It's a trap: they want you to think that light is Venus. Under a microscope we see them absorb their elders. A spider plant is only one design. I took the message.

 

At dusk, very little is neutral. The corner merchant, a quiet Persian, nods to her as she waits for a break in the traffic. Those who are not consigned to the prolonged con­centration of driving have already fallen asleep. At the in­tersection the sidewalks are rounded.

 

The flower closes slowly about the unsuspecting fly. The thickness of the gum limits the rhythm of his chewing. Wasn't he happy here, viewing clip after clip of that old successful launch? The glove compartment never held a glove, nor I.

 

So you go faster, hunched over, avoiding the headlines in the boxes. The taller buildings suck the wind. That butter only appears to be firm, the hood never will quite shut. Between what were once squares of concrete, anonymous weeds bunch & spread.

 

If challenged, its first response is to spit. This took place at the museum. Wires slope from the pole to the house, where they gather, entering a narrow pipe along its side. This conveys motion. I am writing in shadows. Don t you worry about accessibility too?

 

Mother simply likes to have the books. Like a serenade, only earlier. He lets the clay on his hands begin to dry. Fuchsia blossoms stain the walk, the doorknob stran­gled by rubber bands. Another thing, pepper is not a corn.

 

So what is despair? The cyclist trapped inside her helmet? The girl sent to the grocer for milk? The moment before? The mops on the old porch have begun to dissolve. Don't turn the light on till you get the shade. Atop a small house, the cartoon dog types away. Turn the page.

 

Shorter is. The fern sits, its clay pot in a pool of water. In doubles, that's called poaching. The back of the tele­vision faces the window. From here you can smell the sex. Give those socks a little more time. More narrow.

 

At the arched door of the restaurant she checks her watch, a delicate gold bracelet dangling from her wrist. Bands of a deep orange streak a near purple sky, the brisk air shuddering in the small trees, slender branches bending back. Children begin to gather up their toys; lights on, their homes begin to glow. The host, recognizing the Marchioness, invites her in.



Thursday, February 05, 2004

 

 

 

Gil Ott

 

Gil passed away this morning. He was the first poet I ever associated with the city of Philadelphia & has been a friend now for nearly 25 years. When I moved here in 1995, I discovered that what I’d always imagined about Gil – that he was the heart & soul of the Philadelphia poetry community – was utterly true. From his work with the Painted Bride & the magazine Paper Air, to Singing Horse Press & his own books of poetry & prose, Gil was an amazing worker, as generous & intelligent & gentle a human being as ever existed. He was a good husband, a great father & a great friend.  

 




 

I can’t make it to the Boog City extravaganza early this evening in New York – it’s a fete in honor of one of my favorite presses, Chax, out of Tucson. Chax is the product of the hard work – literally a lifetime of devotion & sweat & sacrifice – of Charles Alexander, and its catalog is a great testament to what a small press can achieve if the publisher has a good mind, a large heart & a strong back. The following details have been lifted wholesale from the Boog City blog:

Thurs. Feb. 5, 6 p.m., free

Aca Galleries
529 W.20th St., 5th Flr.
NYC

Event will be hosted by Chax Press publisher and editor Charles Alexander

Featuring readings from:

Charles Alexander
Charles Bernstein
Allison Cobb
Eli Goldblatt
Hank Lazer
Jackson Mac Low
Bob Perelman
Tim Peterson
Nick Piombino
Heather Thomas
Mark Weiss

With music from The Drew Gardner Flash Orchestra, an improvised orchestra based on a flash mob, where people gather to do an instant performance in public, and then disperse quickly. It should feature tenor sax, electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, flute, voice, alto sax, sampler, accordion, and viola.

There will be wine, cheese, and fruit, too.

Curated and with an introduction by Boog City editor David Kirschenbaum

Directions: C/E to 23rd St., 1/9 to 18th St.
Venue is bet. 10th and 11th avenues

But what I really want to talk about today is a book that is not published by Chax, but by another of the presses I’ve long admired, Singing Horse Press. As you may know, Singing Horse has had a similar modus operandi to Chax, representing the labor & vision heretofore of Gil Ott, the closest thing Philadelphia has to a dean of poetry. Gil has been quite ill since last spring – in the hospital & intensive care the whole time – and for the nonce has recruited Paul Naylor, editor of Facture, to carry the press onward in his absence.*

 

The first product that I’ve seen from this collaboration is a flat-out gorgeous volume, near or random acts, by none other than Charles Alexander. The book is a single work – the first half, the title piece, consists of 70 seven-line poems, each of which has exactly five words per line; the second, “orange  blue  white  red,” might be read as a writing through, almost in the John Cage sense of that, of the first half. Or, perhaps, as a writing beyond, 20 sections having started in the same orange notebook that contained the first draft of the book’s first half.

 

Alexander, in a note at the book’s end, compares his writing process here to Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, the individual sections of the first part in particular being predetermined by a fixed form, the elements based upon numbers relating to the poet’s role as a parent, especially with regard to the poet’s younger daughter, Nora (whose name is the acrostic behind near or random acts), 80 Flowers also containing seven-line stanzas with five-word lines. When I first read this volume in manuscript some months back, I don’t think I fully got it – in part because I’m more interested in continuous forms & in part because reading the text in Microsoft Word doesn’t give the sense of the integrity of the page, each with two numbered sections of the text, in the same way that the Singing Horse Press book does. In this case, at least, the materiality of the art object really brings the text forward, even tho it doesn’t change a single word.

 

But the other part of it is that 80 Flowers & Zukofsky don’t strike me as the best possible comparison. For one thing, Alexander’s numbered section is very different from Zukofsky’s named verse. Contrast the ninth section of the book’s first half:

 

two heads loose hair curls

out to sky space Sun

Ra reels in multiple dreams

and bases everything on strict

musical principles invented step by

otherwise a program wilts as

self becomes self erased mark

 

with this poem from 80 Flowers (which I discussed in connection with Jack Collom back on 17 November 2003):

 

Poppy Anemone

Poppy anemone chorine airy any
moan knee
thinkglimpsing night wake
to short-wages no
papàver world-wars
opiate bloodroot
puccoon indian-dyed fragile
solitary gloss-sea
powderhorn yellow-orange West
earthquake-state sun-yellow tall-khan poppy corona
airier composite
eyelidless bride bridge
it
uncrowned
birdfoot spurs dayseye

Alexander’s poem centers, as does so much American poetry**, on the single-syllable word – the total stanza has just 52 syllables, a hair under 1.5 per word. He uses just 167 characters, compared to the 286 Zukofsky employs for the same form. Zukofsky uses 81 syllables, more than two per word &, in fact, does more than a little fudging to stay within the seven-line, five-word line constraint. Finally, Alexander’s vocabulary steers as far from such exoticisms as papàver, puccoon or tall-khan as can be imagined. Overall, the feel of these two projects could not be more different, regardless of any exoskeletal similarities.

 

Rather, the project which near or random acts most reminds me belongs to another of my very favorite sequences, Francis Ponge’s The Notebook of the Pine Woods, which can be found in Cid Corman’s selected Ponge translations, Things (Mushinsha/Grossman, 1971), too long out of print. Ponge’s work not only focuses on a fixed form – he’s writing the same sonnet over & over whilst hiding out literally from the Nazis during WW2 – but also (& this is a big But Also) commenting on the process as he does. It’s the commentary that makes the difference.

 

Alexander gives it to us both ways. The first half, near or random acts, presents it “straight,” just the poems separated by pristine numbers. The second half, orange  blue  white  red, gives us the text with a running commentary, a form of linked verse in which the poems don’t illustrate the prose but, if anything, just the opposite, each revision seemingly noted, e.g.

 

 (changed by hand from “a hole blows the wall”)

 

appended just to the right of a “new” sixth line in a stanza: a tree falls through the. Indeed, we learn the meaning of this piece’s title in just such a parenthetical aside:

 

(the poem was originally composed by hand, in an orange notebook, a blue notebook, on white cards, and in a red notebook)

 

I don’t want to overdramatize the impact of these notations – they are far fewer than the ones in Ponge’s piece, although in his defense Ponge is writing the same poem over & over, tweaking, tweaking, so his commentary is almost necessarily dense. My reading of Alexander’s piece is that it feels situated in a life in a way that a “pure” text – that overly pricey wrought urn thingie – could never be. The notes illumine not only “orange” but the title work as well, giving us not just poetry but a proposition about the relationship between poetry & life. How, say, poetry & parenting come together.

 

It’s that conjunction between life & writing that Alexander has focused in on so successfully in all of his work – one might read it as the secret underlying principle of Chax Press’ remarkable book catalog & it certainly is alive & well in these poems as well as in Alexander’s other books. I take it as one marker of the way I want my own poetry to exist, for to do so is to thrive.

 

 

 

 

 

* Banjo: Poets Talking has an excellent, current interview with Gil by C.A. Conrad.



Wednesday, February 04, 2004

 

Q: How does one pronounce the title of kari edwards’ new O Books volume?

A: Iduna.

 

Sorry about that.

 

Iduna, if one hunts about the net using wild cards & the like, turns out to be a variant name for Idun, the Norse goddess of eternal youth who married Braggi, the god of poetry. Guardian of the golden apples of youth, Idun was once kidnapped by the storm giant Thiazi, only to be rescued by Loki, who changed her into a nut. Yeah, I like Braggi as the god of poetry too.

 

I’m reading with kari next Saturday at La Tazza & will be curious to hear whether (& how) this San Francisco poet reads from iduna, as it’s spelt here (edwards has a thing about capital letters, shared with the likes of e.e. cummings, David Antin et al). The book, as I view it, is an extended meditation on how do you read this? Page after page of problematized texts, more often fascinating than not, but not exactly given, at least as far as I can tell, to the ear.

 

If ear-driven poets, such as Stacy Szymaszek or Graham Foust often start with a page that seems absolutely empty, silent, white before syllables rise up off or out of it, edwards seems not to believe in the existence of blank pages at all. Thus on the page to the left of the table of contents we find one quotation from Catherine Clement pretty much where & as you might expect to find a quotation. But there is a second one from Deleuze & Guattari in the upper left hand corner titled at a 90° angle. At the page bottom is a line of type that reads

 

yo-yo    fact    iman    whiz   lobe kept lira   kook salt size land

 

A similar bit of verbal scat runs along the top border, upside down, starting with the words “book deep hell….” Behind all of this lie two or three layers of lettering, almost as a watermark – except that the background changes page by page – some of the letters in a solid gray pseudo-script font building along the left & right margins into syllables (gens, to, skev), others merely in outline & so large they’re hard to get a visual sense of. This is as functionally close as we get to a blank page – even the table of contents has the upside-down top border & the pseudo-watermark scripts crowding the text. Ah, but then there is the detail that there appears to be no discernable correlation between this page labeled “content” & the contents of the remainder of the book – it’s a work like any other. Palimpsest, anyone?

 

My immediate instinct is to register anxiety – there are more details here than I (& very possibly anyone) can absorb. Yet almost instantly, edwards lets you know that the author is fully conscious of the effects this kind of text creates:

 

[this can be no salvation – there’s
no moderation in the details]

 

reads a stanza on p. 8, on what, if “content” really were a table of contents, would be the first poem (save for the fact that its printed on the left-hand page – no blank space here!). The lines jump out no just for their content or the parenthetical markers, but also because it’s the only one that strays well to the right of the surface text’s left margin. The title of this text is it’s the sounds that ignites a thought. Beyond the sheer irony lies a second layer revealed, quite accurately, by the grammatic disagreement in number here.

 

On one level, these are identarian texts that remind me of first-generation gay liberation pamphlets produced by such poets as Judy Grahn or Aaron Shurin. On another, however, these are identarian texts for an identity totally up for negotiation:

 

I am a man being a woman

I am a woman being a man

I am a homosexual being a straight woman being a homosexual man –

I am a homosexual woman being a straight man being a homosexual woman –

 

reads the first stanza of “november 28th’s carrier pigeon” (which may or may not be an allusion to Thanksgiving, but definitely is playing with multiple available connotative schemas for those last two words). The second stanza continues:

 

I am a tree in disguise
         with an edge predicament

I am a young boy being a young girl being

whatever for gazing elder eyes

I am licking an envelope over and over and over

 

Suddenly the bald proclamations of the first strophe take on a whole new light. Typical example: where the long lines of the first stanza were allowed to flow over to the next, like prose, edwards introduces a stepped line – with an edge predicament – precisely in order to accentuate the fact that the third line’s turn is not, in fact, more running over but is enjambed – an edge predicament indeed! Nor is it any accident that disguise sets up the rhyme with eyes in the fourth line. But it is the complete unpredictability of the last line here that resounds most strongly for me. edwards is capable of moving, almost instantly, from the most over-the-top melodramatic agitprop to quiet utter specificity & back again, and does this well as I’ve ever seen it done.

 

The days when a Gertrude Stein (or even a David Melnick) would use avant forms to enable a double discourse – one in which gender & sexuality was at issue, one in which it need not be seen – feel closer now to Whitman & Wilde than they do to our own time. Post-Kathy Acker, Nicole Brossard, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Camille Roy & Aaron Shurin, everything is up for grabs. What edwards does, to a degree that I haven’t seen since Acker’s early works, however, is to posit the instability of the text as the critical medium for addressing all the possible instabilities of the self & its cognates. Where so many poets find one aspect of language (sound, image, etc.) to zone in on, extending out from that “home” base into whatever new territory might be at hand, edwards seems to me most interested in that territory between linguistic (& human) fundamentalisms. All this conscious clutter – the upside-down texts, the giant fonts alongside the rest, is neither accidental nor coincidental – edwards is aiming right at the joints that hold up the entire house of cards. As almost panic inducing as some of these texts feel to me, I’m dying to see/hear how edwards gives voice to that which, as I read it, would seem to lie precisely between all the characters in this crowd.



Tuesday, February 03, 2004

 

The 100,000th visitor to this website arrived at 5:23:26 pm EST & looked only at the top page. He or she has an IP address of 128.114.159.79, but has as yet not come forward to claim the prize.



 

It may be impossible to overstate Robert Creeley’s influence on American writing. When the New American poets came of age in the early 1950s, they were intervening into a world in which American verse was as close to moribund as it had been since the Andrew Jackson administration in the 1820s. The Objectivists were out of print & several were on extended leave between poems. The modernists were dead or in Europe, save for the notable exception of  Pound & he was in a psychiatric hospital, still eligible at that point to be tried for treason, the death penalty a distinct option. Otherwise, there was Williams & the School of Quietude (SoQ). I know that’s overstating the circumstance a little, but really only a little. Williams’ rather desperate affirmation in “The Desert Music” –

 

I am a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet. I reaffirmed, ashamed.

 

– speaks to the circumstance. That last word rings out: to be a poet in 1950 was a hard claim to make. The number who were writing well in America at the time could be counted on your fingers. After an industrial accident.

 

The New Americans changed all that. The Beats got most of the press, combining as they did their open return to romanticism with a lifestyle antithetical to the “man in a gray flannel suit.” & the Allen anthology itself may only have been the tip of an iceberg by the time it arrived a decade hence. But the gauntlet flung down by Ginsberg in “Howl,” as by Olson in “Projective Verse,” to reimagine poetry’s meaning & place in the world, was a challenge taken up by literally dozens of writers intent on disentangling the nets of being that the SoQ had thrown over the possibility of vision & action in the poem.

 

Of the New Americans, nobody promoted good writing by example more clearly or passionately than did Robert Creeley. The relation of the clean, spare poems of his early books, gathered into For Love, to the whole of New American poetry was not dissimilar from that of imagism two generations earlier to the larger landscape that was modernism. Yet Creeley’s spare, often rhymed verses were not simply a demonstration of the elimination of any extraneous matter – tho I think sometimes these poems were taken as such, especially by SoQ types who wanted to bring him in as their token New American when discussing their blinkered view of American verse. In fact, if you read Creeley’s fiction, which he wrote quite a lot of during the 1950s, you see the very same logic that operates in the poetry to create such “clean” effects extend in prose & come across as something far more modular & convoluted. In each what is being tracked is the sensuality of thinking. In his work, it’s a physical, almost erotic presence, even when created entirely out of grammar & voiced hesitation.

 

Words, Creeley’s next large collection from Scribners, proved more controversial for the simplest of reasons: the poems were longer, even if the lines were somewhat leaner. As the poems extended themselves, it became hard not to notice how, like in his fiction, Creeley’s process followed thinking as a physical process. The disembodiment of pure exposition was of no interest to him.

 

Pieces, which followed close on Words, demonstrated once & for all how profoundly radical Creeley was as a poet – more so, actually, than any of his fellow projectivists. If Words can be said to reflect the visible influence of Louis Zukofsky, Pieces reflected two influences new to Creeley, Ted Berrigan & Gertrude Stein. Further, they were entering into his work in a different way, not simply as surface color. Instead, Creeley seemed to be distilling the underlying principles of their poetry & casting them into his own work in ways that I don’t think could have been anticipated by either writer. Perhaps even more important, in looking to Berrigan’s use of linked verse (which Ted in turn had taken from John Ashbery’s “Europe,” transforming it into something more supple), Creeley was demonstrating an ability to look to & take seriously the lessons of younger poets, an exceptionally rare quality among major poets.* Pieces proved as radical to the New American Poetry** as that literary phenomenon had been to the somnambulant scene of the 1940s.

 

Creeley’s later poetry coincides with his association with New Directions. Its defining feature over the years – and, realistically, this has been the actual bulk of Creeley’s production as a poet – has been a more relaxed torque to the syntax & a contentment in general with the lyric form (tho not always deployed to traditional lyric uses). At a point when most projectivists had thoroughly bought into the idea that one works toward that Major Poem – for Olson Maximus, for Duncan Passages – the third major figure of the Black Mountain Three went in a completely different direction.***

 

With Pieces (& its prose cousins of that period, Mabel & A Day Book), Creeley could claim to have changed poetry twice in his lifetime, something only John Ashbery among his peers could honestly have been said to have done as well.+ Which is to say that Creeley had written in such a way as to expand the possibilities of poetry for all writers, not just him alone. One consequence of this, it’s worth noting, has been that he has been held to a different, harder standard than almost any other poet or his or any generation. I’ve heard, far too often, that Creeley’s poetry has been in some form or other deficient in recent decades, when objectively I don’t think that’s the case at all. Rather, having changed poetry twice, his work since the mid-1970s has been a part of poetry rather than a radical overturning, extending, or undermining of what’s already there. In that regard, he’s been like almost every other major or minor poet. But, having set an expectation that any given book of his might, in fact, change the world, books that fall short of that particular goal are seen as being not his best work. This almost feels like some kind of curse, in the general “no good deed will go unpunished” category.

 

So it’s worth noting that the poetry in If I were writing this – note the particular uses of capitalization here++ – is changing. These poems, composed over the past half dozen years, seem more insistent on audible increments of form than much of Creeley’s poetry over the previous twenty years. Consider this stanza, the first in an elegy for Allen Ginsberg,

 

A bitter twitter,
flitter,
of birds
in evening’s
settling,
a reckoning
beckoning,
someone’s getting
some sad news,
the birds gone to nest,
to roost
in the darkness,
asking no improvident questions,
none singing,
no hark,
no lark,
nothing in the quiet dark.

 

Ten commas, 17 lines, a welter of sound patterns cascading through it, the primary structural elements of this 42-word sentence come down to just five tucked well into its center: someone’s getting / some sad news. It’s as if the generality of these lines is accentuated, as if to say that’s not what this is about. Indeed, I would argue that this poem is, in fact, about all the other stuff here – the sound particularly, so insistently reiterative that it works against what one might think of as rhyme’s zero degree of harmony – here it comes across as plaintive, even despairing. Indeed, with six of the lines ending on -ing, the use of sound in the remainder of the lines is magnified. I might be willing to argue, in fact, that the most important word in the stanza doesn’t appear here at all – rest. We anticipate it after nest & the alternative roost calls it further to mind (as its present/absent rhyme magnifies the -es in darkness). The absence is an interesting instance of what form can do to/with philosophy & vice versa. The whole power of the word roost lies not in the physicality of birds settling, but by the degree that our mind has to move from expectation to actuality. That palpability of absence mimics of course the elegiac experience itself. These are hardly the characteristics of a poet lightening up or coasting. If anything, one might argue that there’s a renewed intensity in these poems.

 

Many of these works have appeared previously, a fact that New Directions carefully avoids acknowledging on the verso. Readers, tho, who have acquired Creeley’s collaboration with Archie Rand, Drawn & Quartered, or with the great photographer Elsa Dorfman, En Famille, already own a substantial fraction of this new volume. But I’m one reader who thinks that you need a both/and strategy when it comes to the works of Robert Creeley, not an either/or. All my life, he’s been the closest thing we have had to a dean of American poetry, and our world has been & is the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

* Perhaps because it so clearly violates all three laws of Personal Literary Teleology:

1.        “The history of literature leads directly to me”

2.        “The history of literature reaches its apotheosis with me”

3.        “After me, literature has no need to evolve further”

** Note to self: write blog on how the New Americans evolved beyond the New American poetry. Viz. Dorn’s ‘Slinger, Baraka’s renunciation, Ginsberg’s harmonium, etc.

*** Note to self again (related project): contrast Maximus & Passages to ‘Slinger & Paul Blackburn’s Journals as alternate models of the longpoem.

+ First with The Tennis Court Oath, second with Three Poems.

++ Not to mention the implied presumption that maybe I’m not writing this.



Monday, February 02, 2004

 

BKS, the large block letters that adorn – indeed, that are – the front cover to a chapbook whose actual title, if you but look inside to the appropriate page, is really Jai-Lai for Autocrats, is in fact a brand as recognizable in post-avant poetics as IBM is in computing. Brian Kim Stefans, whose initials these are, is one of the most tireless & inventive culture workers of our time. As readers of Free Space Comix – the weblog – & this space will recall, Brian & I have not always agreed on matters of literary politics*, but this doesn’t detract from my joy at his work as a poet.

 

Jai-Lai, which was also the name of a class Stefans gave (& may still be giving)**, consists of two short series of poems. The first, “The Skids,” consists of eleven free verse poems, none more than a page long, each of which takes its first line as a title. The second, “No Special Order,” is a series of four unrhymed (and untitled) sonnets. The look & feel of the book’s two halves could not be more different. In one sense, this is a project that calls to mind Hank Lazer’s Doublespace, a similar attempt to bridge the two main tributaries of American poetry, a work that I will never forget Susan Howe blurbed rightly as “important and eccentric.” I read Jai-Lai, the game, as a direct allusion to the cognitive dissonance generated by Stephen’s chapbook’s two halves.

 

But, but, but… I want to sputter, the fix is in. & this is true for both Stefans & Lazer, actually. One can virtually – and accurately – weight Stefans’ comfort with these modes by their page count, 11 to 4, & he is indeed at least twice as comfy & into it in “The Skids,” an often brilliant sequence of pieces that process disparate bits in rapid succession, as he is in “No Special Order,” where he seems to slow into a more restrained (quietudinous?) pace that feels as tho it’s forced rather than felt.

 

There’s an irony here, in that the more manic episodes of “The Skids” can in fact accommodate more of the positive elements of the SoQ than do the sonnets. Viz

 

blue citizens conform
to green animal wishes
above yellow flutes
roll the red, anonymous pastures
of the chartreuse-tinted sky
we drink black fire
from it, lavender smoke
emanating from the pink tails
of the violet
cyclone fish, their beige eyes
inspired by visions of paisley intestines
filled with puffy, lithe cucumbers

in argentina, where they smoke
apple juice by the bushel
in porcelain cars
imported through a straw urethra
from the dominant superpower (vietnam)
listening to haitian speeches
by danish war criminals
on the combo air conditioner/radio
made of refurbished, petrified elephant dung
laughing in hoarse tones
at the slips of cartesian grammar
that erupt from the photogenic, sad doctoral student

a geographer of gertrude stein
awash in maps of orcs
piecing together middle english vocables
from neck-operated chimps
lumped in grant’s tomb
they had been baked while he was suffering
just prior to being born
in a rush of lascivious paranoia
other commentators on stein think that this wasn’t important
neither lust nor sleep frenzy impacted
the role furry, breast-eating edibles played
on the writing of “in youth is pleasure,” or of “hotel lautreamont

Each strophe here appears to respond to a system as thoroughly as any villanelle. Colors organize the first, while a principle of inappropriate conjunction sets up all of the synapses in the second. But it’s the third, which both continues the process while, at the same time, commenting upon it, that demonstrates the degree to which this poem is rich with pattern. How much of a system is this? Every single poem in “The Skids” is composed of three twelve-line stanzas.

 

Metacommentary dominates “No Special Order” as well, but now the tone is entirely different. Here is the first sonnet:

 

And so the old new order and the new old order
have called my bluff: I don’t have moods
clinging to the cot – for pretty much the entire match
squirting eighty percent of the style.

 

there were fractions of a name, bar/cafe doggerel
with signals influenced by historical speech, but
statistically unkempt, a spastic honesty
in twelves. Didn’t think about it a lot, just wrote

becoming the tradition, massive in someone’s
delinquence, leashed to the inquisitive
and howling. Like you, I liked, tried to make it
a book – capsized by life, but only for the century.

 

          Feet were hung, and for an instant

my passions sprang from a gaudy intent.

 

This isn’t bad work by any means, but it has an almost valium-like air to it, as if Stefans is having to work to quiet it down, minimizing all the local color (literally!). The four sonnets can (& probably should) be read as a single argument. “I don’t have moods, though am particularly alive / in my distractions,” Stefans writes in the final sonnet, ironic for having bled any distraction – exactly what makes “The Skids” so wonderful – from the text.

 

Jai-Lai is an enormously ambitious undertaking, especially when one considers how modestly it presents itself. Stefans is capable of taking on the most difficult – and most important – literary challenges before us. Note that, unlike Lazer, Stefans doesn’t present the reader with a sequential narrative of form in which the post-avant triumphs over one’s initial conformist instincts – Stefans doesn’t want either side to win & wants to confront directly the problem that a “third way” doesn’t really exist, save perhaps in Stephen Burt’s imagined ellipticism***. That Stefans is up to taking on this challenge, even if he comes nowhere near untangling the Gordian knot, is why you have to take him for the major American poet he’s become.

 

 

 

 

* Brian’s rejection of the major divisions within literary history may seem admirable, but the “let’s everybody be great to everybody” approach strikes me as self-destructive  in face of the considerable institutional power of the School o’ Quietude (SoQ), which is virtually uniform in its desire to see BKS (and others, many many others) disappear. The clearest way to assess different strategies for relating to the 160-year-old School of Quietude, I think, is by analogy to the Civil Rights Movement, which similarly had to contend with an entrenched elite intent on controlling resources & legitimation that simply preferred to pretend that problems did not exist or, if they did, were simply the complaints of malcontents. Instead of Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Billy Collins, Poetry, John Hollander, The New Criterion, FSG & Ed Hirsch, think Orville Faubus, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond & Bull Conner. When viewed thus, I think everybody’s positions & problematics become quite obvious.

 

** Just as Free Space Comix was the name of both a book & a blog – Stefans recycles everything.

 

*** Every time I mention ellipticism, someone sends me a note telling that no such literary movement exists. As a movement, I would agree – and would go further to suggest that this is the side of it that reflects its SoQ heritage – yet its importance as an intellectual concept (even more than as a readily identifiable literary style) lies in its desire to stake out just such a Third Way. 



Sunday, February 01, 2004

 

Countdown to 100K

 

Sometime within the next week, this site will greet its 100,000th visitor. The actual number of each visit is posted at the bottom of this page. If you’re the 100,000th, let me know and I will send you a copy of my latest book, Xing, just reissued by Factory School Books.

 



 
Follow the bouncing calendar to 21 February, also a Sunday.


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