Saturday, July 17, 2004

 
While I was on the road this week, Blogger made some "improvements" to its input process that makes it harder than ever to fully figure out how best to format text. Once again they did not think to tell anybody first, so that a perfectly set note -- like the one I had yesterday -- had to be reset over & over because what worked Wednesday didn't work Friday.

Actually, once I figure the new system out, it does look as though it might work better than the old one -- for me the ability to set poems that move away from the left hand margin is always the key -- but we shall see.

  So far I note four things, none encouraging:


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Friday, July 16, 2004

 

Robert Duncan’s model of the older poet as someone who takes on “in the last years of their lives, a major creative phase” is worth exploring. When Duncan makes this claim in The H.D. Book in 1960, he names three of his five favored modernist master poets – Pound, Williams & H.D. – as instances of this phenomenon.

  Was it that the war—the bombardment for H.D., the imprisonment and exposure to the elements for Ezra Pound, the divorce in the speech for Williams—touched a spring of passionate feeling in the poet that was not the war but was his age, his ripeness in life. They were almost “old”; under fire to come “to a new distinction.”

  A “major creative phase” is the first criterion then. But the second & at least as important is “a spring of passionate feeling.” What then of Duncan’s other two poetic masters, Gertrude Stein & Louis Zukofsky?

  Fifteen years Duncan’s senior, Zukofsky in 1960 is 56, right within the age range Robert identifies for his “last years” model. In 1960, Zukofsky is not only less well known than Duncan, but it is Duncan who appears to have arranged for Zukofsky’s 1958 visiting job at San Francisco State. Further, Zukofsky in 1960 hasn’t written a section of “A” since completing “A”-12 nine years earlier. The 1950s instead have been a period in which Zukofsky has focused primarily on a long critical project not unlike The H.D. BookBottom: On Shakespeare.

  Between 1960 & ’67, Zukofsky will return to “A,” composing nine sections, a period of white-hot creativity considering the 23 years it had taken him to write the first twelve sections. Then Zukofsky goes quiet again, with only Celia’s 1968 collage of “A”-24 to punctuate the silence. After a three-year silence – modest compared with the 1950s or the eight-year hiatus that took place between the two halves of “A”-9 in the 1940s – Zukofsky returns again to the project, writing what many poets in my own generation take to be the two finest sections of “A,” 22 & 23,* completing the poem 46 years after it had been begun. In the last four years of his life, Zukofsky then writes 80 Flowers, a shorter & more lyrical project, but one that partakes of the intense opacity that first characterizes “A”-22 & 23. At the time of his death, there were apparently notes toward a further project, 90 Trees, that never got written.* Zukofsky might appear to bear out Duncan’s theory – indeed, it offers different works that could be taken as “proof,” suggesting that, as a theory, Duncan’s own formula just might be too general. Yet the answer will depend very directly on the question of which, if any, of these works might best be characterized as “a spring of passionate feeling.”

  My own sense is that “major creative phase” means not merely the composition of one or more important works, but works that diverge or extend our understanding of the project of the poet, the way The Pisan Cantos transform an epic that was heading toward a leaden conclusion betwixt Van Buren & Pound’s own brand of voodoo economics, or the way H.D. breaks free as a poet from the constraints of the imagist framework others had envisioned for her (even if she had left that stage of her writing behind by 1920, spending much of the between wars period writing mostly unpublished & perhaps unpublishable novels). But if transformation is a requirement, then the second half of “A” – or even the works of “An” starting with “A”-14 don’t really qualify, tho “A”-22-23 certainly would.

  The situation with Stein seems even curiouser. Stein is, in certain respects, almost the perfect example of a modernist who both took on a major new phase in her work later in life precisely by tackling the personal in her writing – and this process made her famous. In writing the history of her partnership, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made it possible for Stein to extend her distinctive methodology – as a style – to a truly populist genre & in so doing to create a crossover publishing success unequaled among the high modernists.

  But Autobiography is a book Duncan never once mentions in The H.D. Book, even tho Stein herself shows up on 16 occasions. This is doubly worth noting because in the 1950s & early ‘60s, really until Jerome Rothenberg arrived to take up championing her work as well, Duncan was literally the lone advocate Stein had among American poets. A title such as Writing Writing is not even imaginable without her work. Yet as Duncan sits down to contemplate the project of an older poet as a model for the next stage of his work, the most popular avant-garde writer (who also happens to be the most out-of-the-closet homosexual) of the previous half century warrants only a handful of mentions, compared with, for example, novelists such as Joyce (cited 64 times in the book) or Lawrence (99). Or, for that matter, Ezra Pound, mentioned over 400 times, nearly once per page. 

  Try to imagine a work on the modernists written today that would mention Pound 400 times for every 16 mentions of Stein, a ratio of 25:1 – it’s a good index of exactly how much literary reputations change in 40 years. 

  Duncan never to my knowledge writes of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – virtually all of his actual quotations of Stein in any of his critical works come from her ten-page essay, “Composition as Explanation.” Certainly, her movement into this phase occurs before the war as well. Published first in 1933 – one year after Zukofsky’s Objectivist Anthology – Stein’s crossover hit occurs when Duncan is still just 14 years old. What this means in practical terms is that Stein for Duncan was always that woman who had written that work, who had become famous or infamous, depending on your perspective, who had achieved a notoriety as an egocentric memoirist as well as the creator of works of absolute opacity.

  Yet what separates Autobiography most from, say, The Pisan Cantos, Helen in Egypt or The Desert Music is not that they embody a “spring of passionate meaning” and Stein’s memoir does not, nor that they transform the project of the poet & it does not – The Autobiography does it more completely than any of these other three works – but rather that they are earnest where it is ironic. It may be odd for a writer who penned “Willingly I’ll say there’s been a sweet marriage” to bypass one of the first great presentations of a homosexual union, but I’ll wager that what keeps Duncan from connecting to Stein’s own “spring of passionate meaning” is what also kept him from a closer relationship to the first generation New York School – a discomfort on Duncan’s part with “camp.” Let alone the idea that one might produce great writing in this subversive discursive tone.

      * In the words on one langpo, “A”-22 & 23 “rescued” the project as a whole.  

** Causing some wags to suggest that, had Zukofsky lived long enough, he would have gotten around to 101 Dalmatians.


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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

 

Thinking of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book, which I’ve been mulling over now literally for years, it seems, one of the questions that digs at me is why that book at that moment in Duncan’s life? In 1960, when Duncan began the work, he is 41 years old & has just completed the first of the three great books of his prime years, The Opening of the Field, although – as Lisa Jarnot spells out in her forthcoming biography of Duncan – he had not yet found a publisher, or at least not yet settled on one, turning down Macmillan before agreeing to go with Grove. Grove in 1960 was known as a rather threadbare publisher right at the edge where the avant-garde and pornography crossed over into one another. Macmillan was the New York trade presses personified, the publisher (if memory serves me right) of such establishment bad boys as W.S. Merwin.

 

The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, & Bending the Bow – I think of the three volumes as a single movement or creative arc in Duncan’s life as a poet – also represent a turning away from Duncan’s earlier writing, key poems of which were collected in Selected Poems, the tenth book in City Lights’ great Pocket Poets series – and a book that Duncan apparently never allowed to be reprinted once the initial edition ran out.

 

Selected Poems came out in 1959, but gathers poems only up to 1950, including nothing from a manuscript that Duncan had planned to call A Book of Resemblances, poems from 1950 through ’53, Letters, another planned volume, containing works from 1953 through ’56 and, finally, a manuscript that, in the frontispiece to Selected Poems, Duncan still calls The Field (poems 1956-59). Instead, Duncan’s writing between 1950 and 1956 falls into a sort of limbo, coming out from smaller presses with limited print runs – Letters from Jargon in 1958, A Book of Resemblances from Henry Wenning, a New Haven publisher, only in 1966. I’ve never actually seen either of these editions, nor Writing Writing, published by Sumbooks in 1964, nor Fragments of a Disordered Devotion, published by Island/Gnomon also in 1966. Indeed, it is not until 1968 – the year in which Duncan completes his trio of great books with the publication of Bending the Bow – that a British publisher, Fulcrum, makes all of this writing generally available in an edition called Derivations.

 

My argument, or at least my sense, is that something occurred. In choosing – or perhaps simply becoming able to publish with – a trade press, even one as marginalized as Grove, Duncan is positioning himself as Poet – it is often capitalized with him, in his mind even more than on the page – so that fugitive nature of his earlier writing actually becomes an advantage. The Field thus in a very literal sense transforms into The Opening of the Field. Duncan takes up his correspondence with H.D. proper – he had sent her his suite Medieval Scenes, written in 1947, either as a typescript or in its 1950 Caesar’s Gate edition, plus what he calls his “New Year Poem” in 1950, although it is not clear that H.D. read these or responded at that time. He is starting to compose Roots and Branches, whose fourth work is “A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s 73rd Birthday.”

 

The H.D. Book thus begins at a critical – possibly even the most critical – juncture in Duncan’s progress as a poet. He has had a recognition that he is now embarked upon his mature writing, and that this writing gets under way first with The Opening of the Field and he is just turning 40. Jarnot is surely right when she suggests that a good part of the connection between Duncan & H.D. can be traced to his sense of her upbringing as a religious minority, a Moravian, not so distant from his own childhood as the adopted son of theosophists in the harsh San Joaquin Valley farm town of Bakersfield. In addition, there is a second coincidence Duncan finds as well. His birth mother died when he was born in 1919. H.D. herself very nearly died in London in the flu epidemic of that year, in part because she too was giving birth to her daughter, Francis Perdita. H.D. however was rescued by Bryher, a young lesbian admirer of her imagist poetry, who also just happened to be the heir to one of the great fortunes in the United Kingdom.

 

Also important, however, is that H.D. fits not just into Duncan’s pantheon of hero-poets, those he recognizes and announces as Master, again with the capital letter, but of the modernists she is one of three who, for Duncan, achieve their greatest writing not during their modernist years of the First World War or immediately thereafter, but literally during or after the Second World War – which is to say a time when Duncan himself is already a publishing poet. Duncan himself will note this in the H.D. Book:

 

In December of 1944, H.D. had finished her War Trilogy; she was 58. At Pisa, Pound was 60 when he finished the Pisan Cantos. William Carlos Williams at 62 in 1944 was working on Paterson I. For each there was to be ahead, in the last years of their lives, a major creative phase.

 

For Duncan, a critical feature of modernism is not simply its challenge of the habitual forms of centuries of the School of Quietude, but also – at least by 1959 & ’60 – for the possibility of a new model for the poet’s career, one that need not be a long narrative of decline a la Wordsworth, or of the short-wicked candles of Keats, Shelley or Rimbaud, burning out well before the age of 40. Duncan is explicitly searching for a figure of the Older Writer. Further, what is distinct about all three – at least in Duncan’s eyes – is that their later work is characterized by a deeply personal quality. The H.D. of The War Trilogy or of Helen of Egypt is something completely apart from Pound’s somewhat fictive creation, H.D. Imagiste. Pound, living in cages at Pisa not unlike their more recent kin in Guantanamo Bay, is figured here not as the writer of The Cantos, but of The Pisan Cantos, notable not just for their extraordinary beauty but because, to a degree unprecedented in that epic’s earlier sections, they include Pound – his life at last becomes the focus of the poem. Williams likewise Duncan reads as coming to a new level of maturity – for Robert, it is the turn he locates in The Desert Music where, for the first time really, Williams has begun to compose by the phrase & is fully freed at last from counting syllables in his lines. Paterson in this reading – which is Duncan’s, not mine – makes this possible again by making the poetry personal.

 

The H.D. Book, like the poems to H.D. & like his correspondence at last with his modernist hero, which fully gets underway only in July, 1959, just 27 months ahead of her death, all occur at a moment when Robert Duncan is newly conceptualizing the project of his writing, extending out from a book he has already written toward others that at some level he must already apprehend he will write. The 1960s will be Robert Duncan’s decade. Indeed, after Bending of the Bow, Duncan will take a 16 year hiatus from publishing his new work in book form, with just two volumes to account for the final two decades of his life, a sharp & final contrast with the three great books that occupy this 12-year-arc. It is worth asking just what makes a poet of 40 turn to the conjunction of three writers who, in his narrative of the modernist myth, take on major projects in their late 50s or 60s. But it seems to me inescapable that this animates his poetry, but the H.D. Book as well. Robert Duncan is consciously seeking out how to be an older poet.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

 

Here, finally, is the last question (and answer) in the 9 for 9 Poets project:

 

You have just won the Poem to Music Award, and can choose our favorite musical group, composer, band, singer, etc. – dead or alive (our specialists can MAKE IT HAPPEN!)-- to set your winning poem to music!  Who do you choose?  What's the title of the poem/song?  Any particular line(s) from the poem you look forward to hearing sung that you would like to share with us?  You also get to help create the music video for the poem/song.  Give us a synopsis of the video.

 

Oh ambivalence! If there is a form that has always struck me as universally cringe-making, it’s been the setting of poems to music. Steve Reich’s setting for William Carlos Williams’ Desert Music is one of the giant “don’t get it” announcements – that poem completely eludes him. Oh, and I’ve heard the various settings that have been done for poems by, say, Charles Bernstein or Charles Shere’s settings for Carl Rakosi’s work. And these people are friends of mine, Shere as well as Rakosi & Bernstein. But if there is one experience for my poems I do hope to avoid – this one is it.

 

I think my aversion here has to do with the fact that my poems are – always already – musical compositions. So the only thing I could imagine would be something that accentuated that element of it. For example, I have thought of a “reading” of Ketjak in which each sentence is read not only a different person, but also by twice the number of people as the previous sentence. You start with just one voice and end with thousands – it would be almost inaudible by the end, a giant roar (in this regard it might sound a fair amount like a much earlier – and far better – piece by Steve Reich, Come Out, in which he uses the tape loop of a boy describing his beating by the cops during a riot – “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” – focusing just on those last five words with the different tapes phasing ever so slightly out of sync until it also presents a very powerful aural wave).

 

Now there are, obviously, other ways to do poetry & music – Kenward Elmslie’s musical theater is brilliant comedic work, and the music of Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson & Jim Carroll have always reflected their roots as writers. But song is a different discipline – it’s not like a baseball player moving from second base to shortstop so much as one moving to basketball or golf. Or architecture.


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Monday, July 12, 2004

 

Here is the eighth question in the 9 for 9 poets project.

 

Most poets seem to have at least one poet they've read and admired who is not well-known, a poet whose work we like to share with those who will appreciate the work. Is there such a poet's work in your life? If so, who is this poet? Tell us something about how you came to discover their work, and how it inspires you. Maybe share some favorite lines, and titles.

 

One? I can probably think of hundreds who might fit this definition. Particularly if I were to choose those poets who might be well known, might even be famous, but whose reputations don’t meet up to my own sense of their excellence. Certainly Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Barrett Watten are hardly unknown, but if I were to proclaim this the Age of Watten, say, I would not necessarily be kidding. Rod Smith should be a household name, as should Rae Armantrout & Graham Foust & Linh Dinh. Or David Melnick. Or Lee Ann Brown, or Simon Ortiz. Or Kenneth Irby.

 

One of the reasons for me to have a weblog is that it presents me with an opportunity to talk about my enthusiasms. I’ve already written about most of the above, as well as such unlikely characters as Besmilr Brigham, Judson Crews & of course George Stanley. Thinking of Stanley, I’m reminded that a project that desperately needs to be done is the creation of a compleat Spicer Circle anthology. It’s one thing to know the work of Spicer, Blaser, Stanley, Joanne Kyger & maybe Steve Jonas – the folks most everybody knows – but Harold Dull was a singular presence on that scene. He seems to have stopped writing in the 1970s, tho Tom Mandel & I were successful in getting him to give a reading at the Grand Piano. Nowadays, he’s one of the leading aquatherapists in the world. Also part of that whole mix were people like Stan Persky, part of the scene in British Columbia for almost 40 years, active in the gay community and with the New Democratic Party there. James Alexander and Ronnie Primack have disappeared from view & I see from Joe Torra’s “Chinese” poems that Joe Dunn must have died. Someone else from that scene who passed on far too early was James Herndon, tho his wife Fran (with Joanne one of the few women in the mix) seems still to be around the Bay Area. I have friends in the California Federation of Teachers who speak of Jim Herndon with great reverence, so his work there must have had lasting impact. Lew Ellingham was there & we’re very lucky indeed that he was taking notes. Another poet who was part of the world at Gino & Carlos, but who is not often thought of in San Francisco terms at all, is Larry Fagin. Then there were the others who were “around” it, but never really part of it. Duncan, for one. Ron Loewinsohn for another. Jack Gilbert for a third. That would make for one hell of a book, but I’m not the right person to edit it.

 

Then of course there are the poets of one’s youth. David Gitin was the writer who convinced me to start Tottel’s, simply by virtue of sending a submission of work that had to be published, even tho I thought at the time I didn’t have a journal. He’s still around the Monterey area, writing lovely poems that sometimes make me think of what George Oppen might have done if he had been a Buddhist.

 

Another poet from that same period who meant a lot to me was John Gorham, a one-time student of Robert Kelly’s at Bard, from the same 1960s generation of Kelly students that gave us Tom Meyer (whom Gorham first introduced me to) and Harvey Bialy. Gorham was a grad student at Berkeley for awhile, then dropped out of the scene altogether. He’s a freelance writer now, doing features for trade magazines. He was somebody who had read Dorn (another person to whom he first introduced me) very deeply. Once, when I’d been billy-clubbed by the Berkeley cops at a demonstration – they’d made a point of going for my kidneys – he got me to a hospital, for which I’m eternally in the man’s debt. There are still a few lines of his that pop up in various guises in my work – waylaid by brigands on a voyage to get millions – I love the measure of that, always will.

 

A good poet from that scene, now gone, was d alexander – d (no caps) was his full first name, which frankly he resented. He was the first poet I ever knew who worked in the computer industry, tho he died long before the dot com boom & the rest of that sillyness. He was living somewhere down the peninsula from San Francisco, in the hills behind Stanford, La Honda or some such, and had been a college mate of Clayton Eshleman’s. When he’d heard I was starting a magazine, he showed up at my front door one day with his address book. His address book! He knew that I would want to know how to reach poets & once, when he’d been younger, Paul Blackburn had done the same for him. I barely knew the man at the time, but it was a great act of giving.

 

A final poet from that era who disappeared altogether was Seymour Faust, a Brooklyn poet as I recall, who I first met through Cid Corman. Cid & I may have been the only people ever to publish him.* But it was the 1960s and he was a hawk on Vietnam, which neither Cid nor I were, and our relationship couldn’t survive that conflict. Here is a poem of his I published first in Tottels #6 in October, 1971:

 

With Reservations

 

1.

old books

words polished for a hundred years

and put away a thousand

stories polished for a thousand years

odyssey, logia of jesus,, and of kung

how you have been true to us, and false

 

2.

in this century

how you have been false

how the airplanes have made liars of you

the nuclear piles in the pressure hulls

electromagnetic waves

how you are undercut by the spectroheliograph

the cardiogram

optics

guidance systems and gunnery

how advertising puts you down

and the unions and the powerful

the whole radio audience knows better than him

whom you mislead

 

3.

how your paradoxes pall

your parables and fables

your modular stories

how your symbols fail

techniques of dialog

stream-of-consciousness

points of view

figurae

 

4.

better anything than you

better to strain your eyes on protoplasm

s it flows indistinctly in bright or darkened field

under the lenses of the turret

in the utter silence of concentration

at your cosmic distance

                   or

close at hand

to trace the rockflows of the maria

the traces of devastation that radiate

from the circular maria

or film the solar prominences in hydrogen light

 

5.

better the doctors lifetime

the lifetime of the assyriologist

the searcher of beach terraces of the north

at Denbigh or Krusenstern

or Onion Portage

     disinterring flints and cores

already seeing man as something over

or one at work

     on the improbable future

the designer of high speed high altitude aircraft

the meteorologist

     tracer of clouds

or at opposite poles

the observer at Byrd Station

 

The mix between rhetoric & vocabulary here is unique to my experience, yet I don’t believe he ever published a book. I have no idea what became of Seymour Faust, and I know that Cid lost touch as well. What I have of his, as with Gorham or alexander, is an echo I can hear in my head to this day, utterly articulate, completely unlike anything – or anyone – else. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for all I was given.

 

 

 

* No, I see that Frank Kuenstler – another one of the lost strange bards, a New York street poet if ever there was one, halfway between Bob Kaufman and Khlebnikov – and Tuli Kupferberg (better known as one of the Fugs) published Faust also, in an issue of Bread&, published in 1960. You can find references to him in the selected letters of William Bronk & in Corman’s papers, but every other mention of Faust on the web is actually by me.


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Sunday, July 11, 2004

 

Today, I finished The Alphabet.


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