Friday, December 09, 2005



What about all this writing?

O “Kiki
O Miss Margaret Jarvis
The backhandspring

Named references in poems have variable half-lives, as their cultural signification both erodes & fossilizes. I have been told by people in a better position to know than myself that “Kiki” & Miss Margaret Jarvis in these famous lines from William Carlos Williams – the opening to the very best poem he ever would write – are in fact two separate people. There is no apparent way to know that in 2005 from the text itself. Any more than it is possible to deduce from the text of what may be Charles Olson’s most famous non-Maximus poem, “The Librarian,” the answer to the two questions on which it ends:

(What’s buried
Diner? Who is

Frank Moore?

Dear Chris, we’ve read your name in Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets for so many years now, we feel that we know you, and we’ve been told that there are human beings that really do. But if Ted’s use of names is intimate, Pound uses them to intimidate – Pound expects us to know, in Canto LXXXIV, that Angold is a British poet who served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot, but who in the 1930s sometimes wrote on economics, Pound’s obsession, in the New English Weekly, just as Pound expects us to know that τέθνηκε means, in Greek, than Angold is dead. But even Pound’s more “obvious” references, members of the U.S. Senate such as Bankhead & Borah, have faded almost entirely from memory in the six-plus decades since both men died. Of this can work in the other direction as well, as William Carlos Williams learned including correspondence from an unknown poet in Paterson by the name of Allen Ginsberg.

I think it’s open to question whether or not the New American Poetry’s introduction of what can only be called pop culture references in the 1950s & ‘60s was more of an innovation or simply an acknowledgement that a certain region of public space, public discourse, was becoming branded around personalities, from Daffy Duck to Lana Turner to James Dean. Nor was it just an affectation of the New York School’s affection for pop art – Amiri Baraka’s turn toward Mao in the 1960s often reads in his poems as a turn toward television as a field of reference.

Since then, the gates have been open. At one extreme, you can find a work like Ray DiPalma’sPeople Out On the Lagoon,” exploring the opacity of nameness itself, a place where words are most objectified. Words in this context have the same gaudy ornamentation as Christmas tree decorations. At the other, or at least an other, extreme, Rachel Loden’s ongoing engagement with Richard Nixon is an almost Dante-esque attempt to construct a mythological (if secular) vortex around which to elaborate her work. Aaron Belz partly echoes Loden’s strategy in his own new chapbook, Plausible Worlds, engaging the E! True Hollywood Story version of Americana as a landscape. Here is “In Bed with Meryl Streep,” which first appeared in Jacket 28:

Hard to believe your first movie
Came out in 1977 — you are timeless,
Like a Dracula statue in the rain:
And now, as you rub my shoulders,
Wearing that flowered nightgown,
We hear actual rain, or is it wind,
Rushing around our Buena Vista condo.
You flip off Cheers. I know what’s next.

Timeless is the word indeed. Our recognition of the layers of irony in this poem have much to do with just how long ago we imagine 1977 to be & whether or not Cheers is perceived simply as a television show or as an endless staple of syndicated reruns, a debased television show. Like the way Frank O’Hara never once names Billie Holiday in “The Day Lady Died,” Belz’ poem depends on our own prior knowledge of what these referents mean. There will come a day in which no reader understands who Meryl Streep was, nor what Cheers implies. There may even come a day, tho we won’t live to see it, when the Dracula reference here demands a footnote.

It’s interesting to imagine what a text like this can mean when the referents have been corroded by even just one century. Imagine, instead, “In Bed with Sarah Bernhardt”:

Hard to believe your first play
Came out in 1862 — you are timeless,
Like a Dracula statue in the rain:
And now, as you rub my shoulders,
Wearing that flowered nightgown,
We hear actual rain, or is it wind,
Rushing around our Milan pilazo.
You put down Bovary. I know what’s next.

It’s hard to imagine what a 1905 equivalent of a “Dracula statue” might be, given that I don’t think Belz is inferring Vlad III of Walachia precisely. One might even wonder if “flowered nightgown” doesn’t hold some temporal increment that will seem oddly quaint a century hence.

In fact, the erosion of reference in names flags the general – and constant – transformation of language itself. There is already a sizeable quantity of verse from the first decades of the last century (for example, much of the work of Adelaide Crapsey, George Sterling, Ina Coolbrith or Witter Bynner) that sounds, at best, irredeemably quaint, not just because they often chose forms that were already sclerotic, but also the specific language they used. Thus, the “dusking land” that pops up in Crapsey’s “Hypnos, God of Sleep,” tells us less about the time of day than it does the time of century in which that phrase was employed. In a somewhat similar fashion, Belz is taking a risk when he writes, in “Famous Palindrome,”

My girlfriend has a freaking weird name: Eman

that “freaking” won’t sound every bit as quaint a few decades from now as “dusking.”

I don’t sense that he’s worrying too much about this, which itself reflects an approach to art, to the idea of the poem & the role it plays in the world, that changes (or at least becomes, to use Belz’ word, plausible) with the New Americans as well. Pound certainly intended for his poetry to be read a millennium from now, intelligible or not – I doubt that Williams felt much different. But deep at the heart of Frank O’Hara’s “personism” is a very different sense of the poem – its use is personal, even intimate. When he refers to Bill & Joe & Jane & Ashes, O’Hara really means it. He wasn’t writing it for thee or me. If the poem should last & have other uses later, great, but that is hardly what writing is about for O’Hara. Or Belz. Indeed, I think that one could even say that part of the choice Baraka himself was making, turning away from his first cohort of Black Mountain-in-Manhattan compadres, was also a decision to make his poems more relevant in the moment, albeit to a different audience.

Belz writes a clean sort of post-NY school poem with a dry wit that belies his MA in creative writing (with Galway Kinnell as thesis counselor, no less), his current Ph.D. studies at the University of St. Louis (Devin Johnston nearly as improbable as his dissertation director) nor his graduate certificate in theological studies. With Jonathan Mayhew & David Perry, one might even start to detect a kind of trend here – writers with strong NY or NY School aesthetics all across the southern half of Missouri. With a nod to Black Mountain alum Arthur Penn, I think of them collectively as the Missouri Linebreaks. It would be interesting to think about why this, why here, why now, but mostly what I do when I read Belz (or Perry, or Mayhew) is enjoy, which so often does appear to be the point.

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