Saturday, December 04, 2004
On Monday, I will be reading at the Philadelphia Free Library, 1901 Vine, in the Skyline Room at 6:30 PM. The event is free and I will be reading with Margot Chew Barringer. For more information, call 215-686-5322. I think I may try reading some of Zyxt in public for the first time.
Ж Ж Ж
Tonight, however, Jena Osman & Rodrigo Toscano will be reading at La Tazza at 8 PM. La Tazza is at 108 Chestnut Street. This promises to be one of the best readings of a very good year.
Friday, December 03, 2004
Well, here I am in this new anthology alongside Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney, Brenda Hillman, Thom Gunn, Czeslaw Milosz & Sandra Gilbert.
On the other hand, also included are Kit Robinson, Carla Harryman, Jean Day, Laura Moriarty, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Stephen Ratcliffe & Bob Perelman.
Then again, there’s Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan, Al Young, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha & Ishmael Reed.
Even more mysteriously, William Shakespeare, Bertie Brecht, Li Po, Ben Jonson, Rilke & Sappho have also been included.
And, for good measure, you can also find Lenny Lipton’s “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Gelett Burgess’ “The Purple Cow,” Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and Percy Montrose’ immortal “My Darling Clementine” here.
But you shouldn’t forget Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, Robin Blaser, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Larry Eigner, David Meltzer & Barbara Guest.
Nor Dean Young, Louis Simpson, Alice Jones or Sharon Olds.
Or Judie Grahn, Malvina Reynolds, Susan Griffin, Opal Palmer Adisa & Alta.
Nor Gertrude Stein, Robinson Jeffers, or Jack London.
Let alone Jack Foley, John Oliver Simon, Julia Vinograd & Ivan Arguelles.
Even, I dare say, Tom Clark.
What may be the quirkiest collection of poetry I’ve ever seen weighs – I mean this literally – three tons, making it all a tad hard to fit in your book bag. You can find it on Addison Street in Berkeley, stretching from Shattuck Avenue westward on either side of the street. This is Berkeley’s Poetry Walk, which the Academy of American Poets named the first of 31 “National Poetry Landmarks” around the United States.
Put together by Robert Hass & Jessica Fisher, with porcelain enamel texts in cast iron plates designed by David Lance Goines, the one-time Free Speech Movement organizer who has evolved into the beyond-chic poster artist for Berkeley’s famed gourmet ghetto, the Poet’s Walk is an exceptionally nice gesture on behalf of a city that has been identified with poetry ever since the days of Ina Coolbrith in the 19th century. I, for one, certainly benefited enormously from the fact that I didn’t have to travel at all to discover poetry as a teenager. It was all around me.
Not only could I literally go watch Kenneth Irby writing intently into his notebooks at the Café Med every afternoon, one of my teachers in high school even published a novel, The Softness on the Other Side of the Hole, about that establishment & did so with the same press that brought out the Donald Allen anthology. Everybody, back when I was just coming into poetry, always seemed to be pointing out just where Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” was or just where he had been living in Berkeley (tho I noted that people pointed out different houses).
Attempting to capture all of this activity in 120 plaques in the sidewalk, a street notable for the presence of the Berkeley Reparatory Theater & the large number of Berkeley High students who use it as a thoroughfare betwixt the campus & the city’s shops, is one of those impossible projects & the diversity of what & who got included shows Hass & Fisher trying nobly to play Noah to a vast ark of possibility. As it happened, people & poems were added as the project evolved so that the new Heyday Press book documenting this project has 126 poems & poets – and I believe another two others have been added more recently to the walk.
As it is, there are inclusions that make you feel that anybody who ever looked at Berkeley could have gotten in (Heaney taught there for a year when I was a student, making no dent on the consciousness of writers in the community at all, George Oppen simply lived across the bay, which is more than one can say of Shakespeare, Brecht, Rilke or Ben Johnson, shoehorned in I suspect to make the theater company happy). And there are some obvious omissions as well – Pat Parker, Robert Grenier, Robin Magowan, Paula Gunn Allen, Arthur Sze, Gary Soto, James Tate, Kenneth Irby, even Rod McKuen.
The individual plaques are spare & fairly dark, as the sample above demonstrates. The book makes no effort duplicate the look & feel beyond its cover. The volume does have background notes for each contribution, tho, so that you learn, for example, that Witter Bynner taught the very first creative writing course anywhere on the UC Campus in the spring of 1919 (two of his students, Genevieve Taggard & Hildegarde Flanner, are also included). The notes, unfortunately, are sloppy: Allen Ginsberg’s “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” is dated as 1965 (it was 1956). On my own note, we discover that language poetry is an “imitation of abstract impressionist painters” !?! Whoever they were.
Still, living 2,853.7 miles from the location of my plaque for the past nine years, it pleased me to discover that I’d been selected for this. If the town you grew up in (or in my case, next to) is going to have something as schmaltzy as a “walk of fame,” it’s nice to be remembered.
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Typing up the poems of others, as I suggested yesterday, works a lot better with poets who wrote in the age of the typewriter. Typing either version of The Prelude won’t really give you the same sense of what Wordsworth must have felt to have had those words flow from his quill. Mark Twain has been said to have been the first creative writer to have used that Civil War-era phenomenon called the typewriter, Ezra Pound the first poet to have composed with it.
As history would have it, however, Pound produced what may well have been his finest writing in pencil on scraps of toilet paper in the wire cages of the prison camp at Pisa. Reading The Pisan Cantos, you don’t sense that. Or at least I don’t. After having worked for some 40 years on the typewriter, Pound had no problem writing “as if” the machine were still at hand.
I can testify to just how that works. Back in the 1960s, when I was a student at San Francisco State, I committed the worst of all writerly sins – I dropped my typewriter while moving it between desk and table. It instantly disassembled into a gazillion components, more than a few of which were now misshapen & a couple of which also conveniently rolled under the refrigerator never to be seen again. I had bought that typewriter with my very first paycheck on my very first job post-high school – that will give you some sense of its importance in my life – but by this time I was married & living on my own, so it took me a few weeks before I was able to cobble together enough cash from my job at the U.S. Post Office to take it to the typewriter shop that existed in those days on Bancroft Way directly across from the University of California campus in Berkeley & get a new machine.
Back in those days, I was in the full flower of my reading & rereading of Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches, Pounds Cantos & whatever I could get my hands on of Olson’s. It was Olson that year whose work I thought my own writing most resembled & I needed – or so I felt – that typewriter to recreate the page as field I wanted my own writing to have. But I just didn’t have it, and I couldn’t imagine going to one of the rooms available at SF State, where I was then a student, to sit at a bank of typewriters with others in my situation, paying quarters by the hour in order to compose poetry. So I resorted to legal tablets, whose yellow paper & 14 inch page seemed attractive enough. My poems of that period are forgettable enough & I don’t think any ever really got published, but when I did finally purchase my new machine, I began to type up my legal pad poems only to discover that each was virtually exactly one typed page long. I had somehow internalized the form.
Robert Creeley says somewhere in an interview that switching the physical constraints of your writing practice is a great way to work oneself out of a writer’s block. If you type, write by hand. If you use notebooks, try free sheets of paper, or just change the size of the notebook, or go to the computer, whatever. Just change the instrument that makes the marks and the kind of paper on which these marks are made. And it’s true – altering these things even just as a test will show you all kinds of little things about what you think you are doing when you write a poem.
When I was at SF State a year or so before my typewriter died, I had a teacher who tried to make that point as well. Brother Antoninus, as William Everson was then calling himself, insisted that we write in a method different from whatever it was that our own poetry sought to do. I think ideally he wanted us to write like Robinson Jeffers, but really he just wanted us to think. I tried something in a declamatory mode &, in fact, had used legal tablets then also. I hated writing in some mode that I thought of as an exercise – I remember Antoninus telling us that these wouldn’t be “our” poems, so not to worry about that. But I just hated the idea of it. I was emotionally invested in the idea that my poems were my poems. The idea of producing something other than that at the direction of some crazy monk irritated me no end.
Yet the experience of it must have stuck with me. When I taught a weeklong summer workshop at Naropa in 1994, I had the students basically recreate that experiment. If they wrote in the morning, I wanted them to write at night. If they wrote with music on, I want it silent. If they wrote only in solitude, I wanted them to write at a bar or on a bus. If they used a computer, I wanted it in a notebook. Etc., etc. I wanted them to break down and look dispassionately at each of the elements of their writing as a physical act just to understand what it meant to them, not because I was hoping to change anything. It was a great workshop, tho, as is so often the case, a good part of that might have to do with the students, who included Mary Burger & Chris Vitiello. One student, a recovering heroin addict, really took it as a challenge to his ego & bit me. Remembering my class with Antoninus, I understood how he felt.
That second typewriter I bought in Berkeley back in the sixties lasted me for a dozen or so years, until I got my first fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. With that money in hand, I went out & spent big on a “real” professional writing system, an IBM Selectric typewriter that cost something like $800. This, I was sure, would last me for the next twenty years. As it happened, I would begin to use computers in 1982 & have no idea any more what even became of that machine. You can’t buy them anymore, save as museum pieces. The old IBM typewriter company was spun off by Big Blue & now manufactures printers under the name of Lexmark. Lex stands for Lexington, Kentucky, the headquarters city (and site of the old typewriter manufacturing plant). Mark, well, I understand what that term mark means. Something about that sounds exactly right.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Typing up the Muriel Rukeyser poem the other day, I reminded myself of the salutary functions of typing up somebody else’s poem as a step on the way to understanding the text itself. Part of this is a sort of magic – simply by repeating the process of typing these words in this order, one duplicates the process of the author & gains some intuitive sense for the feel of those words as they roll out across the screen or page. Part of it is simply having to type every word forces one to acknowledge the roll(s) being played by those that appear on the surface to be the least important – articles, for example.
As it happens, I discovered, when typing the poem, that my single most favorite moment was the one-word sentence “Airport.” One might argue that it’s there strictly to pad out the line, but it’s rare to find that at the start of a line & so otherwise unmotivated by the actual sense of the text itself. Rather, it stands on its own nominal integrity, not unlike the way nouns are used in the work of Larry Eigner.
In the case of “The Road,” typing served a second salutary function. Tho the volumes in the American Poets Project are slightly larger than mass market paperbacks, 4½ inches across, 7½ inches high, their generous 9-point type size combines with the narrow page to create a text with very little white space – indeed, if it weren’t for run-on lines, the text would be nearly as dense on the page as prose. In that tight frame, you can’t really see the poem, certainly not as clearly as in the version I put up on my blog Monday.
You can tell when a book designer either doesn’t read poetry, or else doesn’t “get” it. But it seems ironic, to say the least, that the American Poets Project (whose title is almost as pompously overstated as that of the parent Library of America series) should be such an obvious example. Doubly so given that “the American Poets Project is published with a gift in memory of James Merrill.” Well meaning, ill spent. The one real justification these books might claim is to return a disappeared poet to broader circulation. In the case of Kenneth Fearing, the series can make that claim without much difficulty. But what about a poet broadly available already, such as Williams?
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Imagine, if you will, The Selected Poems of Robert Lowell as edited by Larry Fagin. Fagin is a serious reader & would no doubt attempt to arrive at the best possible selection. But, let’s face it, he’s not whom you might think of if you were doing a selected Lowell, simply because they don’t share the same aesthetics.
What about, as an alternative, Robert Grenier? As a poet, Grenier is undoubtedly an extremist. His scrawl texts seem to be having an impact in the art market – you can get them from the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea at a pretty penny (the poem above reads, if you look carefully, A / RED / HOUSE / BORN). As an editor for Robert Lowell, Grenier has an advantage over Larry Fagin – not only has Grenier demonstrated his ability to produce a major selected through his work with Robert Creeley (you can see his selection, which was never published, in the 1978 issue of boundary 2 dedicated to Creeley’s work), but Grenier was a student of Lowell’s, an influence he has never rejected.
Am I the only person who thinks that there might be a bit of a hubbub should FSG or The Library of America or whomever make such a choice somewhere down the road? I suspect not.
Yet I haven’t heard any such fuss in the other direction with regards to Robert Pinsky’s editing the work of William Carlos Williams for The Library of America’s American Poets Project. Like Fagin & Grenier, Pinsky has always struck me as a smart, open-minded, serious person. The fact that he did not rush off some patriotic doggerel in the wake of September 11th when, as Poet Laureate, he might have been expected to do so has always struck me as a sign of great integrity.
But Robert Pinsky’s aesthetics are not those of William Carlos Williams. Not even close. And given (a) that there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of qualified editors in this country (one example, Bob Creeley) whose aesthetics do have some perceptible relationship to Williams and (b) that Williams was himself a militant opponent of the School of Quietude that Pinsky represents so well, the choice of an editor here is, shall we say, revisionist at the very least? I’ll leave it to others to suggest the more paranoid or conspiratorial adjectives.
It is, at minimum, inappropriate save as an act of audacious reframing, as in “This is the School o’ Quietude Williams.” There is actually nothing wrong with that, just as there would be nothing wrong with Grenier or Fagin editing Lowell. What might be wrong, however, or at least duplicitous, would be to pass the project off as any other than as a radical reinterpretation.
It is not that Pinsky has done an especially dreadful job, yet there are just six of the 49 poems from The Wedge here, the 1944 book that most influenced the generation of poets who emerged in the 1950s, just four poems from The Desert Music, whose title poem is not included. Nothing of Paterson appears to have been included, and none of the prose poems of Kora in Hell. “Black winds from the north,” “What about all this writing?” and “The universality of things,” are missing from the selection taken from Spring & All. I would have to sit with this book awhile, yet my gut feel at this point is that one could read Pinsky’s Williams without having to confront exactly what is most special about Williams: the artist utterly willing to overturn any convention in his quest for meaning. Given the wide distribution that this series is apt to get, especially via Barnes & Noble & Borders, an emasculated Williams is a tragedy.
This is not the first time that Williams has been ill-served by a selected poems. All of my kvetches about this edition could more or less equally be laid at the door of the volume done by Charles Tomlinson, first in 1963 & later in 1985. Tomlinson at least was under Williams’ spell when first embarking on the project – his own American Scenes remains the editor’s best book, at least to a Yankee’s ear. But like Pinsky, the British Tomlinson comes to American letters with a sense of it as a tributary of English (read British, read Island as Charles Bernstein has so usefully characterized it) writing. That is a view & understanding of literature that Williams forcefully refuted his entire life. And that has gone missing once again.
Monday, November 29, 2004
Has anyone ever written in depth on the relationship – or lack thereof – between Muriel Rukeyser & the Objectivists? Only two women are included in the Objectivist issue of Poetry that Louis Zukofsky edited in February, 1931, Joyce Hopkins and Martha Champion, two of the writers Eliot Weinberger once characterized as “Forgotten Objectivists.” Niedecker came later.
But why not Rukeyser? Objectivism’s political bent was not unlike her own, in the circle of the Communist Party & hence not like the Trotskyists among the New York Intellectuals. Further, there is a specificity in her best poetry that clearly identifies her not only as a major poet, but also well within the broader aesthetic frame implicit in the writing of the Objectivists, especially in the 1930s. Consider, for example, “The Road” from “The Book of the Dead,”
These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,
reading the papers with morning inquiry.
Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light
chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights
indicate future of road, your wish pursuing
past the junction, the form, the suburban station,
well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.
Past your tall central city’s influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.
These roads will take you into your own country.
Select the mountains, follow rivers back,
travel the passes. Touch West Virginia where
the Midland Trail leaves the Virginia furnace,
iron Clifton Forge, Covington iron, goes down
into the wealthy valley, resorts, the chalk hotel.
Pillars and fairway; spa; White Sulphur Springs.
Airport. Gay blank rich faces wishing to add
history to ballrooms, tradition to the first tee.
The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pine
in the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,
crosscut by snow, wind at the hill’s shoulder.
The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,
rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,
and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.
Now the photographer unpacks camera and case,
surveying the deep country, follows discovery
viewing on groundglass an inverted image.
John Marshall named the rock (steep pines, a drop
he reckoned in 1812, called) Marshall’s Pillar,
but later, Hawk’s Nest. Here is your road, tying
you to its meanings: gorge, boulder, precipice.
Telescoped down, the hard and stone-green river
cutting fast and direct into the town.
Specificity is perhaps the simplest test of a good writer: this is a variant, demonstrating its possibility without necessarily committing oneself to specificity’s fuller implications. The particular remains subsumed under a declamatory second person, a holdover from the Victorian dramatic monolog. One sees similar approaches in writers such as Hart Crane or Marianne Moore, modernists a generation or more older than Rukeyser. One sees it in Pound also, tho notably only through Mauberly.
I’ve wondered if Rukeyser’s disinterest in the Pound/Williams tradition – visible enough just in the poem above – or possibly even her having won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1921, then as now a School of Quietude seal of approval, didn’t create a distance between her & the Objectivists. Even her success – her work was already receiving wide distribution, they were trying to get George Oppen’s small press off the ground – could have made it harder for those young men to imagine her work in relation to their own.
“The Book of the Dead” clearly anticipates Reznikoff’s As Testimony & Oppen’s Of Being Numerous. It’s not at all a work calculated to garner good wishes from the agrarians who were then coming into dominance among the School of Quietude – and it’s an especially gutsy project to lead off with after having won something like the Yale. I don’t think Rukeyser’s ear is as good as any of the major Objectivists, largely because her idea of the line seems never to have accepted the impact of Pound. Given the context of her times, that’s not much of an indictment. Yet she’s not mentioned even in passing in the Williams-Zukofsky correspondence.
Was she too successful? Not successful enough? Is there some Stalinist factional dispute I’m not seeing at 70 years’ remove? Was it her sexuality? For the life of me, I can’t imagine how the Objectivists wouldn’t have benefited from closer contact with Muriel Rukeyser & her poetry. From her perspective, it no doubt would have been nice to have had a few more left-of-center poets around.
Yet that connection seems never to have been made. From this many decades’ distance – and no doubt aided by my own ignorance of the larger contexts of Rukeyser’s work & life – it comes across as one of those curious seams in the history of poetry. Something here doesn’t fit right. Can anyone tell me what I’m not seeing?
Sunday, November 28, 2004
Suzanne Frischkorn is the 400th listing on the Alphabet of Blogs. My guess is that about 97 percent are literary. In August of ’02, I knew of only four literary bloggers: Joseph Duemer, Laura Willey, Brian Kim Stefans & your humble correspondent. Nicholas Downing would add others (see comments below). I would agree that about half of that list makes sense, tho they were of folks like Mark Woods whom I wouldn't learn of for a few more months.