Friday, September 17, 2004
I’m off to the Zukofsky Centennial.
This picture was taken by Jonathan Williams, as great a photographer as he is a poet.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
Tom Pickard is a poet from the north of England who may be best known over here as the former bookseller who once tracked down Basil Bunting & got him reinvolved with the literary world, an event that not only brought the old spy back for public readings, but caused him to write Briggflats, the work many think of as Bunting’s finest. That was a long time ago & Pickard has spent the ensuing decades writing a quiet precise poetry that at times feels like the perfect conjunction of Objectivism, the Beats & some third thing I can’t quite identify (but which I hesitate to call “the North”):
Ancient Stone Dressed With Lichen
now the mushroom season is here
I remember – she has the basket
but I have the knife.
Your Recent Chill
cold Atlantic blasts
make warmer company than you
these recent months
asleep in a nest of icy
I turn to cover you
and wake alone
Now Flood Editions has published The Dark Months of May, part of its ongoing efforts to become the most well focused independent press in the United States.
Not all Pickard poems are as spare as the ones above – indeed the center of this dark book* is a long prose series entitled “Fragments from an Archaeological Dig in Gallowgate” – but all have this same intense sense of focus & precision even when Pickard’s being boisterous, as in the excerpts from his libretto on the outlaw musician Jamie Allen.
Like Tom Raworth, Pickard has an ear that enables his work to move easily across the Atlantic. With a book that’s readily available, at least by poetry standards, and a reading tour coming up across the U.S., hopefully more folks in these environs will come to know & appreciate this work.
· October 20: Brown University, Providence.
· October 22: SUNY-Buffalo.
· October 26: Harvard University, Boston.
· October 28: University of California, San Diego.
· October 30: San Francisco State.
· November 4-5th. University of Colorado, Boulder.
· November 8: Drake University, Des Moines.
· November 9: University of Chicago.
· November 10: Woodland Pattern Bookstore, Milwaukee.
· November 11: Lake Forest College, Illinois.
· November 13: Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Public Library.
· November 15: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.
· November 17: St. Mark's Poetry Project, New York.
· November 18: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston.
* Its cover follows the spirit of the title to such a degree that reading the blurbs by Fanny Howe & Annie Lennox will cause eye strain.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Robert Duncan’s concept of the Elder Poem – of the poet who prepares him or herself to embark at a reasonably advanced age – 60 and above for his modernist icons, 37 for himself – on a major project that will not just create a poem of lasting importance, but also force readers (and especially critics) to rethink the poet’s oeuvre may be the most original and important idea put forward in The H.D. Book. It’s consistent with – indeed predicated upon the parallel concept – not unique to Duncan – that one’s writing forms a Life Work and that individual poems must be viewed rather as excerpts or samples of this larger ongoing thing. The result is an implicit narrative to the poet’s life, which one might argue must inevitably form a narrative of progress, or at least of conscious development, but which I suspect Duncan would counter is really a narrative not of progress, but of struggle. Some writers do follow this evolution – Duncan proposes Pound, H.D. and Williams as instances, although the trajectories and specifics of each one is quite different – but other writers might suggest very different results – Wordsworth, for example, or even Stein. What if you’re a poet like W.S. Merwin who hasn’t produced anything of import since The Lice? Or where the history of the poem, the history of the poet and the history of reception are extraordinarily complex, as in the case of Judy Grahn – or for that matter Allen Ginsberg.
But The H.D. Book is hardly the demonstration of a thesis. Duncan, in fact, makes the point more than once that he is not, by professional standards, a scholar:
For I am not a literary scholar nor an historian, not a psychologist, a professor of comparative religions or an occultist. I am a student of, I am searching out, a poetics. There are times when my primary work here, my initiation of self as poet in the ground of the poet H.D. and also my working of what is now a “matter of Poetry” (as the Arthurian lore is called the matter of Britain) and in turn an element in the great matter of the Creation of Man, there are times when my work has given way to literary persuasions and arguments, as if I might plead the cause of my life experience before the authorities at Nicaea and have my way, no longer heretical, taken over by those food bishops who control appointments and advancements as established dogma, a place won for H.D. in the orthodox taste and opinion of literary convensions.(sic)
But just here I would admit those crossed lines, mixed purposes, almost of a literary scholar, an historian, a psychologist, a professor of comparative religions, overwriting the poet and the figure before us that we are striving to realize.
Where now we have only this one way to go, to the knotting and the untying of knots, moving along the line of our moving, the sometimes multiphasic sentence, we follow, trace of this coveted animal or animating power we address, crossing and recrossing its charm as if we could so bring in over into our human lot the form it is of a book we are writing or of a life we are leading, is the nucleus itself of our work which we feel as an impending lure, the turning point where we are, leading us on. (66)
Duncan wants to find the terms for his own Elder Epic and, in the same act, he wants to rescue H.D. from those critics who, as late as 1960 – and considerably later as well – took her for a poet who produced her finest writing, possibly even her only writing of note, in the London crucible of Imagism in the period 1912-1915. It’s a project he compares in the passage above to heresy, and there is no question that it was, circa 1960, a major undertaking, especially for someone who appears to have had no foretelling of the second wave of feminism that would soon sweep Western cultures, bringing H.D., Stein and oh so many others along with it.
But Duncan has other purposes here that are also important.
· He wishes to establish a solid personal connection with a major high modernist, something that has eluded him up to the time.
· He wants to articulate a critical writing – a method if you will – antithetical to the dry territorialism of the New Critics, to establish himself alongside Olson & Pound as an alternative in thinking seriously about the poem.
· He wishes to argue for a particular vision of Organic Form, one in which every element of the poem is defined by the whole, never the part – this differs materially from the work of some of Duncan’s closest peers.
· He wants to unite two discourses, theosophy and psychology, to create the grounds for a critical discourse for the poem.
There are other more local goals as well – for example, Duncan wants to rescue the mystic in Ezra Pound – but these are, by comparison, relatively minor in nature. As Leon Surette has demonstrated in The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult, English-speaking intellectuals during the first decades of the past century were certainly comfortable with the discourses surrounding world religions, mysticism and the paranormal. But it is one thing to be able to employ that vocabulary, the way a contemporary poet might employ technical jargon, and quite another to propagate what Lenny Bruce once characterized as “unscheduled theologies.” That Duncan uses Pound to build a bridge to the various experiences in H.D.’s life, from her childhood in the Moravian Church founded by Count Zinzindorf that first came to America in the 1730s – an instance of William Penn’s decision to seek out religious minorities in Europe to settle in his new colony across the Atlantic (hence the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites all abundant in Pennsylvania to this day – the towns of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz all began as Moravian settlements) – to the “Writing on the Wall” episode in which Doolittle experienced some kind of psychotic break while in Greece, an event explored by the poet when Bryher arranged for her to be treated by Dr. Freud in Vienna, to her use of Greek & Egyptian materials in her work – that Duncan uses Pound really demonstrates that in 1960 Duncan feels a need to build that bridge.
I’ve written before of the dramatic decline in the presence of mysticism as a strain in American poetry between the 1960s and the present – it’s most visible in what a poet like Robert Kelly, for example, chooses to reprint from his early books in later selected editions, and in the fact that publications that used to include significant amounts of writing related to the wisdom traditions – from Coyote’s Journal & Io to Caterpillar, Alcheringa & George Quasha’sActive Anthology – not only no longer exist, but have as a category more or less never been replaced. This in part was the “scandal” that Apex of the M attempted to call attention to during its brief moment of notoriety circa 1990.
One can point to a number of causes for this process of resecularization (if, in fact, that is what it was) of American poetry, but two in particular strike me as important here. The first is the death of Charles Olson in 1970 at the relatively early age of 60. The degree to which many of the poets who investigated such alternative discourses did so out of a sense of encouragement by Olson, or even out of a desire to in some fashion be Olson, cannot be underestimated. Without his oversized presence, that entire strain of Black Mountain poetics went silent very quickly and very completely.
The other was the rise of theory, starting around 1966, right about the moment when structuralism in the human sciences was giving way to post-structuralism. It’s ironic perhaps that it was at that moment many younger poets began to find theory, and especially to find structuralist theory and its antecedents in Russia such as formalism & futurism. Theory had a relevance that the wisdom traditions did not precisely because some aspects of it came out of, engaged with, and attempted to explain the very profound events that were then taking place in the US, Europe, Mexico and Southeast Asia. Whether one followed the Habermas-Benjamin-Gramsci-Althusser line or the Barthes-Greimas-Jakobson tradition, or the newer contrarians led by Kristeva, Lacan & Derrida, all modes of theory also offered one of the primary phenomena that had been associated previously with modes of mysticism – a difficult, convoluted linguistic tradition in which verification often mattered less than authority and prestige.
Not coincidentally, chapters of The H.D. Book appeared in publications associated with that earlier trend – one part Olson, one part shamanism, lots of young poets – which so rapidly dissolved. It is perhaps not surprising that of the fifteen journals which carried individual sections of the book, only four – all associated with universities – still exist. But it is also the case that all of the later chapters appeared in journals with less and less of a wisdom tradition subtext – Montemora, Ironwood, Chicago Review, Sagetrieb.
Monday, September 13, 2004
It was blogging that finally brought me to Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I was spending a couple of weeks in a cabin off an unmarked trail on the far side of Brier Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Because I was on vacation, I didn’t have a laptop with me, although I had some periodic access to email & the web through the Westport library, the little three-street town that makes up what this island knows of civilization, or through a PC made available through Canada’s federal computer access program at the whale watching station across from lone store and just down the street from the fish processing plant.
I’d loaded The H.D. Book in the “Frontier Press” PDF file format onto my Palm Pilot. And if I had any time left on my turn at the PC once I finished my email, I turned to the Blogger site, where I’d begun fiddling around with a format that looked like it might feasible. In my memory – and even at the time – the two projects feel inseparable.
In 2002, when this occurred, it had been some 36 years since I’d first come across a selection of Robert Duncan’s critical prose in Origin, Second Series, No. 1, where it was entitled The Day Book. While I’d begun reading Duncan seriously, perhaps even obsessively, by then, I found this work off-putting. Its density as prose was heightened (if not largely generated, at least as a surface effect) by my own lack of resources at the age of 20 to come to terms with this work. As new chapters of the project came out over the next few years – two in The Southern Review, for example, which called the project H.D., another in Caterpillar 7, using the name finally of The H.D. Book – I was never able to get with the program. Not only were they dense, but their order of publication was jumbled. After the selection from the second part appeared in 1963, Aion published the fifth chapter of the first section in 1964 – a poetry journal taking its name from a work by Carl Jung was very 1964 – then two years later, the first chapter appeared, this time in Coyote’s Journal.
It was at about this point that I discovered the Origin issue in the library at San Francisco State – and I was devoted reader of Coyote’s Journal, which I would have not hesitated to characterize as the best poetry publication around – but these disparate and disjointed excerpts gave me a sense of the work’s difficulty that, in 2004, seems hard to defend.
Duncan’s prose was nowhere nearly so convoluted or idiosyncratic as the critical writing of Charles Olson or the later Ezra Pound, two of my favorite poet-critics at the time. If Duncan’s tone struck me as personal, even private, it was nowhere nearly so intimate, say, as that of Robert Creeley’s critical prose – this during a period when Creeley short notes in journals were appearing with some regularity, tho nobody I knew at the time seemed to understand (as I most assuredly did not) just how substantial a critical oeuvre Creeley was putting together in those years – when Don Allen published A Quick Graph in 1970, it and Williams’ Spring & All (reissued after being out of print for four dozen years) transformed the critical environment surrounding the New American Poetry.
My own problem with The H.D. Book was mostly that I was unread at the time, trying to follow the prose of a polymath on a subject that occasionally – tho not consistently – seemed to be about a modernist poet whose work I didn’t know well – and whose aesthetic bond to Duncan I did not comprehend. There are roughly ten references, ranging from allusions to direct quotation, per page, some 5,000 in all, give or take. In the middle 1960s, it was fair to suggest that I didn’t recognize, know, or understand perhaps 80 percent of them.
For Duncan had not one, but several simultaneous agendas in writing this book. What makes Hilda Doolittle unique is that, at least in the eyes of Duncan, she is that part of the great Venn diagram of influences where such things as modernism, mysticism, homosexuality, and a concept that I will call The Elder Poem all come together. Gertrude Stein, who is curiously absent from this project, fails for want of an epic composed as an older writer. Pound was dangerously heterosexual, or maybe just dangerous, though Duncan did make an attempt in the late 1940s to establish a connection to him and does his best to yoke Pound to mysticism, mostly through his apprenticeship to Yeats. Crane didn’t live long enough. Duncan seems not have approached Williams & expresses to Denise Levertov that what he had found – and publicly advocated – in the later work of Williams had “not felt as a way opening for me in form.”* Zukofsky and the Objectivists were peers, not masters, particularly during that long period between World War 2 and the early 1960s when they had mostly dropped from sight.
Thus multiple agendas in units presented in good part out of order – presuming that the order of the actual book would have made its argument, its internal logic, somehow more clear, which as it turns out is only half true – focused around a poet whose work I didn’t know well and bringing in a seemingly infinite cast of obscure references. At some point, I must have decided, “Oh hell, I’ll just wait for the book.” And so I did.
Duncan himself made an effort in the late 1960s to bring individual chapters out more or less in their order of appearance, with only a reworked version of Part One, Chapter 5 and “Rites of Participation,” Part One, Chapter 6, appearing noticeably out of order as he brought forward six chapters of the first part, and five of the second.
Then there is nothing for another six years. At this point – and up until at least 1983 – Duncan is telling people that ultimately Part One will have nine chapters, Part Two twelve chapters, and that there will be a Part Three, a reading of H.D.’s final long poem, Helen of Egypt. At this point also, Duncan has begun a publicly announced – there is some question as whether this was planned or accidental – 15 year hiatus from publishing books of new poetry.
In 1975, Duncan publishes three additional pages to Part Two, Chapter 5 and adds the next two chapters in the magazine Credences. Then another silence of four years. In 1979, Duncan publishes the next chapter in of all places The Chicago Review. Two years later, Part Two, Chapter 11 appears from Montemora. Two years later, Ironwood brings out Chapter 10. Finally, in 1985, Duncan brings out a revised version of Part Two, Chapter 5 in Sagetrieb.
The H.D. Book is unfinished, even after at least 25 years of work. At around 500 pages total – using the Frontier Press format, which flows 187,000 words into 421 pages, inserting instead the correct fourth chapter for the first part in lieu of the one that is erroneously used for both the first and second parts of the PDF file, and adding the pages that exist in Duncan’s notes from the third section, none of which has yet to appear in print – that’s just 20 pages per year. The scale is not vast. Rather, one has a sense that Duncan worked hard on it for a time – 1961 through ’63 – then in bursts thereafter, the bursts at least partly involved in plowing through old ground, adding new elements – such as dream sequences in 1964 & ’65.
So I envision Duncan even during his most concentrated years producing roughly 60,000 words per year. A significant amount, but not necessarily a lot as a daily activity when alongside what will mount up for a dedicated blogger – in the first year of my own web log, I wrote over 330,000 words, in the second 240,000. Duncan’s production, as a daily writing practice, averages just 164 words. But what I see – I think what I saw at the very beginning – and why that first alternate title, The Day Book – resonated with me so, is the concept of a critical writing project as a means of thinking through the issues in one’s poetry, whatever they might be.
Since the book itself never actually appeared, as such, The H.D. Book over the years became more and more an object not of criticism (Duncan’s), but of memory (my own). So it was this concept of the function of a critical project that lasted with me more, in some ways, than the project itself, especially as time went by and I lost track of the original magazine issues in which it appeared. (I had, I believe, at one time or another owned all but the original Origin issue, the Aion number and the 1985 issue of The Southern Review; I’m not sure that I ever even saw these latter two.) In my memory – and to some degree in the book itself – Duncan’s critical prose comes as close to Viktor Shklovsky’s utopia of a plotless prose as any I can think of by an American poet in the Pound/Stein/Williams-Objectivist-New American-Langpo tradition.
So when I began to think seriously about the idea of blogging, it felt like the most obvious thing to me to do to finally attempt to read – seriously read – The H.D. Book.
* Williams had in fact been a point of contention between himself and Madeline Gleason. He quotes her as saying, circa 1950, “do you really think anyone will be reading him ten years from now?”
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Forthcoming Readings & Talks
Friday-Sunday, September 17-19, times vary, Zukofsky /100, celebration of the LZ centennial, at Columbia & Barnard. Other participants are listed here. I’m reading Sunday afternoon along with Charles Alexander, Bruce Andrews, Ben Friedlander, Michael Heller, Erica Hunt, Ken Irby, Robert Kelly, Hank Lazar, Steve McCaffery, Geoffrey O'Brien, Meredith Quartermain, Hugh Seidman, Harvey Shapiro, John Taggart, Anne Waldman, and Susan Wheeler
Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk
Monday, October 4, 1:30 PM: Seminar Room of the Hall Center for the Humanities, a talk on Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book
Monday, October 4, 7:00 PM in the English Room of the Kansas Union, reading
Thursday, October 7, 3:30 PM, San Francisco State University, The Poetry Center (Hum 512), talk on Robert Duncan’s HD Book
Thursday, October 7, 7:30 PM, Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin @ Geary, reading with Judith Goldman
Monday, December 6, 6:30 PM, Free Library, Logan Square, 1901 Vine Street, open reading follows
Monday, January 24, Moe’s Books, Telegraph Avenue, reading
Thursday, February 3 (2005), Georgetown University, a “short talk,” plus a reading with Leslie Scalapino