Saturday, April 02, 2005
L-R: Allen DeLoach, Tom Pickard, RS,
Community. I use that term rather a lot & I know that it irritates a few folks who prefer to see writing as a more solitary endeavor. Yet in this past week, there have been impromptu – almost spontaneous in one case – memorial services for Robert Creeley in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas & no doubt elsewhere. At UC San Diego on Sunday, the new poetry radio program being set up by James Meetze & Matthew Shindell will devote its first hour to Bob – you can link to the show at 4:00 p.m. Pacific time here. (Remember the switch over to daily savings starts Sunday also). At least 33 media outlets have publicly noted Bob’s passing. Some of the ones that did more than simply run the Associated Press story include The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Times of London, NPR & MyWestTexas. In Boston, the Phoenix will run a piece in its next issue by Bill Corbett with a photograph by Elsa Dorfman. Lance Phillips has asked people to send him responses, stories, etc. for his Here Comes Everybody website. There will no doubt be many, many more memorials over the coming weeks, months, even decades.
As Steve Vincent noted on his own blog, such events & tales are comforting – they’re an active form of coming together. The Poetics List in particular has been filled with such tales – Harry Nudel offered an account from 1972 that I especially enjoyed, as I did many of the contributions there. My own blog received just under 1,800 visits over the last two days of March, the heaviest traffic this site has ever had.
Of course, nobody told tales better than Bob – he was an indefatigable conversationalist & could make the largest auditorium very much like an intimate space. There are some excellent sound files to be had both at his PENNsound & EPC pages. Hopefully somebody will eventually post his wonderful remembrance of Louis Zukofsky from last year’s LZ/100 conference at
Larry Fagin sent me a note Thursday night worth repeating here:
In the late 1980s, Teachers & Writers Collaborative received a grant for their writers-in-the-schools program, which paid for one-day visits by writers not working in the program. One year, Paul Auster accompanied me to a residency I was doing in
WHAT I KNOW ABOUT MYSELF
I know I have been alive for over sixty years.
I know some people love me and some don’t.
I know I am like all other people because I have the same physical
life – as hens are like hens, dogs like dogs.
I know I don’t know a lot that other people may well know more
about but I’ve got to trust them to help me – as I need it, and
I know what I am, a human, is more than what I can simply think
I know I love dogs, water, my family, friends, walking the streets
when things feel easy.
I know this is the one life I’ll get —and it's enough.
Friday, April 01, 2005
My nephew Daniel reminded me that I posted this review here a little over a year ago. It certainly feels relevant today.
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
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
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,
some sad news,
the birds gone to nest,
in the darkness,
asking no improvident questions,
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.
Thursday, March 31, 2005
I walked around all day yesterday with a huge ball of emotion inside of me, feeling completely bereft at the death of Robert Creeley. I arrived early at Kelly Writers House for the excellent John Tranter reading only to discover that an impromptu memorial service for Robert was already in progress. While I was there, Bob Perelman read “The Plan is the Body,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis told a marvelous tale of a time, many years ago at the University of Maine, when Robert showed great solidarity with her plight attempting to be on a panel & care for a rambunctious two-year old at the same time, I read “Le Fou,” Tom Devaney read part of a larger piece by Andrei Codrescu, then a poet whose name I know only as Andy discussed his students' reaction to the news at Temple & read “The World.” Tranter himself concluded with “I Know a
I’m sure that at some point I’ll have something more intelligible to say about Robert’s enormous contribution to poetry, and about the person as well. But right now I am not able to do so.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
John Tranter is reading tonight at Kelly Writers House at here in
The reality is that, even in this age of the web, English language poetry is still largely a series of national literary traditions that don’t always mesh, for reasons that are linguistic, cultural, historical and political. This is of course changing – the web has a lot to do with that. And John Tranter has a lot to do with that, perhaps more than any other individual poet. Jacket, the e-zine that Tranter has been editing since 1997, has been – and remains – the very best example of the web’s potential for literature, bringing together as it does the mostly post-avant literary traditions of Australia, the U.S. & the U.K. Clean & consistent in its design, comprehensive in its presentation of back numbers, forward-thinking in its approach of building each issue online¹, deftly combining poetry with critique & memoir, there isn’t one editorial position that Tranter has taken I can find fault with. If anything, he sets the standard by which I judge my own efforts in this rather different form here.
It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that Tranter is the co-editor of the best anthology of Australian poetry I know, The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry, on which he collaborated with Philip Mead & which came out a decade back. Beginning with Kenneth Slessor & A.D. Hope, the book contains over 80 poets born between 1901 (Slessor) & 1963 (John Kinsella), and even includes Ern Malley, the fictitious poet whose spoof of modernism’s intelligibility had a lasting impact down under. I’m sure that someone closer to the scene than might argue as to which poets were included, or to suggest that the relatively few aboriginal authors included is too few or whatever, but for somebody operating at a distance like myself, the volume is comprehensive, lacking only introductory paragraphs for each poet to add a little context.
But if Tranter-the-editor is how he most well known in the
To an American ear (I have two), Tranter’s interest in Ashbery might prove the easiest road into his own verse. For one thing, Tranter has a similar sense of humor in his work: dry, eye-rolling, over-the-top, wry aspects that might seem at odds with one another until you actually see them in practice. Dig “Sonnet: Lullaby”:
I'm not jealous of your pet executives -
their coma therapy, their new guitars.
The latest boyfriend's hardly seventeen,
isn't that what the tabloids say?
In the cheap hotel, the heaps of magazines -
You Can't Go Back to Woop Woop, sobs
the big print. And the speed jerking
up the spinal column to its spasm above.
Now the sea heaps itself on the pillow
with its wacky promises, and you're floating
through the ceiling again. Tell sex to go
back to the playpen where it came from. Your
future's waiting: suburbia loud with radios,
telling you to wake up now, and do the shopping!
Harder to hear, because the dialect & enunciation really are different, continent to continent, are Tranter’s more subtle (or at least less flashy) works – it’s really those that I hope to hear at Writers House. An example might be “Elegy”:
in memoriam Martin Johnston, 1947-90
Not the smoke from the truck driver’s cigarette
wreathed with gold by the early morning sun,
a delicate arabesque of light and shade —
he’s unloading flagons of moselle,
hock, white burgundy and claret
in the driveway of the Toxteth Hotel —
Not the scent of meat hissing on the grill
at the Balkan — the tables are filling up —
early one evening somewhere in the seventies
as the shops along Oxford Street come alight,
buses winding through the traffic, and
Nicholas puts up the Mickey Mouse poster
in the window of Exiles Bookshop
advertising a poetry reading —
Not the sound of his wife’s voice — ‘Oh,
put out your bloody cigarette
and stop snoring!’ — as she
tucks the blanket in — late winter,
the cat curled at the foot of the bed —
Not a tricky ploy with a bishop in the final moves
of a game that seems to have fallen into a pattern
remarkably similar to Botvinnik’s closing tactics
in the 1949 Russian Chess Championship — don’t you
think? — the party still going at ,
an old Miles Davis record on the gramophone,
the ashtray spilling over — your move —
Not the pop! as the cork
comes out of a bottle of cold retsina —
Malamatina brand, the green and yellow label
picturing a little man drinking
from a tilted glass, the rays of sunlight
blazing down from a Mediterranean sky —
None of these things can now delight
Martin Johnston, his journey at last
written out in full, Sydney to Sydney, via
Greece, love, alcohol
and the art of poetry.
Might be, I say, because even Tranter’s least flashy work can dazzle the mind. So Tranter’s presence at Kelly Writers House today represents the peak of its programming this term – something an American audience rarely gets to hear & see, up close & personal. I’ll be curious to see just who shows up.
¹ The current issue, for example, is number 26, yet you can see the gradual composition & construction issues 27 through 30 currently on the web, with 27 close to completion & 30 barely sketched out at all.
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Just around the bend from
AVAM’s focus is outsider art, a category (like “visionary”) that is open to a lot of interpretation & latitude. Over its ten year history, the museum has shown all of the usual suspects, the gradually emerging canon of self-taught, inner-directed artists who operate, in large part, outside of the economy of the gallery system: Henry Darger, Howard Finster, the Philadelphia Wireman (so called because nobody knows his or her name, the oeuvre having been discovered literally discarded in a vacant lot), Grandma Moses.
The theme this year is water & the majority of the galleries in AVAM’s main building – it has three, all of which need to be seen – are devoted to works somehow entailing the role of water in life & culture. The absolute centerpiece of the exhibition – tho not necessarily the best or most moving work – is an extensive series of Vodou related works focusing on La Siren, “the Queen of the Sea,” mostly by Nancy Josephson, a Vodou-initiate from
But to suggest that Josephson is in any way an outsider in her art is something that calls into question the nature of such categories. Curtis Faville, my constant commentator, thinks I’m completely nuts on the subject of categories, but in fact schema, frameworks provide all the extraneous detail that converts raw image into a meaningful construct – it’s the social dimension of any work of art. I would insist on the integrity of that social dimension & I think that Curtis largely wants to negate it – he would love for the work to be the thing in itself, the purely self-consuming artifact. It’s the impurities that interest me. So a border case like Josephson is especially compelling.
Josephson’s art may be driven by her interest in Vodou, but she herself is hardly a naïf in the world of the arts. A one-time musician whose son literally learned to walk on Arlo Guthrie’s tour bus, Josephson is married to David Bromberg, another musician who abandoned the on-the-road-all-the-time lifestyle of contemporary folk for a related discipline with a saner lifestyle, the design & manufacture of violins. The multiplicity of their aesthetic concerns reminds me a lot of the dynamics that underlies the great show of Poetry and Its Arts, which is still up for another three weeks at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. That show is at its best when it explores poets as photographers (Allen Ginsberg), painters (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who paints at least as well as he writes) & installation artists (Norma Cole). If one were to explore poets as painters, one would not put somebody like Ferlinghetti or the late Stan Rice alongside the truly self-taught, as one might Bob Dylan. Josephson likewise may be a visionary but she is hardly an outsider.
The other blockbuster collection currently being shown at AVAM underscores the difference. Not a part of the Holy H²O exhibition that otherwise dominates the museum, the tapestries of the late Esther Nisenthal Krinitz eloquently construct a powerful tale, the years of the Second World War when Krinitz, then a 15-year-old girl living in a Jewish town in Poland, & her younger sister Mania hid, sometimes in the woods, sometimes in plain sight, as their family was shipped off to the extermination camps & the Nazis plundered Poland. The thirty-six tapestries of this narrative were sewn by Krinitz to explain to her own children & grandchildren just what she and her sister had undergone during those years & her concern is with the story, the simple wall-hangings devoid of pictorial perspective, presenting horrific details in the most matter-of-fact manner, each picture underscored with a short explanation of three or four sentences:
September 1939. My friends and I run to see the first Nazis entering our village, Mniszek. They stopped in front of my grandparents' house, where one got off his horse to rough up my grandfather and cut his beard as my grandmother screamed
Sewn in the mid- and late-1990s, this is folk art in the best Popular Front sense of the term, conveying an almost unbearable story with extraordinary grace & dignity. It is precisely the gap in tone between referent and the material signifiers of Krinitz’ craft that gives her work its great power. The entire sequence can be seen on the website linked above, which is maintained by her family.
The next day I saw another work elsewhere that further emphasized the ambiguous border implicit in the concept of outsider art. Only this piece wasn’t presented as tho it were any kind of art brut experience. Richard Cleaver’s massive clay installation piece, Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House at the Baltimore Museum of Art, contains over 100 hand-built and painted ceramic figures mounted on a series of white risers that gives the whole project an air not that dissimilar from Josephson’s shrines. (The detail below contains perhaps half of the top layer.)
Though Cleaver began as a child whose parents disapproved of a boy making, literally, dolls (he had to hide them under his bed), he has gone on to get his MFA and is thoroughly embedded in the world of contemporary ceramics, able to support himself from his work. Part of what is unique about this installation, however, is that Cleaver has envisioned the community that once lived & worked on & about the old Oakland Farm estate in Baltimore, whose spring house – a building for keeping food cool,literally by placing it in or by the water of an underground stream allowed to surface there – was constructed complete with columns. That spring house was rescued as the estate turned into a development, and sits today on the grounds of the
At what instant did Cleaver – whose project has as much of a community focus as does Krinitz’ or Josephson’s – stop being the self-taught boy interested in making art & become the knowing professional? Once he got a formal education? Once he was able to support himself entirely by his work? That latter definition would exclude Howard Finster. Cleaver’s art school training is not that removed, frankly, from Josephson’s ability to travel to
So there isn’t ultimately a single definition, so much as a web of implications that places one in, on the edge, or beyond a series of plausible concepts: is/is not visionary; is/is not professionally trained; is/is not professionally situated in the discipline; is/is not producing for a community, etc., etc., etc. And how, when you come down to it, is the world of art buyers moseying the streets of
Monday, March 28, 2005
To understand the accomplishment of Susan M. Schultz, you have to realize that it is – or always has been, up to now – virtually impossible for a writer to go to
So Schultz has definitely done it the hard way. Part of Schultz’ secret is that she must have the energy & drive of three or four human beings hidden away inside of her. In addition to teaching, parenting & writing, she has been the force behind Tinfish, both the journal & the ongoing series of exceptionally quirky & eye-catching chapbooks. One of these latter I’m happy to say is Schultz’ own Portraits : Parables, a sequence of 14 prose poems in the manner of Kafka.
I think that the parable may be the most difficult of all currently active genre to take on, simply based on the number of bad ones a reader comes across these days – Lydia Davis has a few excellent ones, but she is very close to the only writer over the past two decades to consistently do well in the form.
Schultz now is the second instance of somebody who really gets it as to how parables work & what their potential might be for writing. First, her poems here have the precision of the best analytic philosophy. Second, she understands that the dynamics of the parable must play out in the referential world. Typically, poets who focus on the latter forget the importance of the former & a few of those who get the former tend to neglect the gears of causality in the latter. Schultz gets all of it & does so with a wit & tenderness that made me stop just to wonder at it all. Here is “The Untraumatized Man”:
The one untraumatized man refused to turn on his television that day. he did not see the people falling, or the towers falling, or the ashes falling, or the falling of light into grief. Perhaps he saw some shadow of it in the faces of those he passed on the street, as if the rays of other people’s televisions permeated their skin, backlighting their silences, their stumbling. How does the untraumatized man define the word “neighbor”? To what nation does he belong if his memory has not failed, but does not in the first place exist?
One imagines the untraumatized man playing ball with his son in the park. It is just spring, and the purple and the yellow flowers blossom. If the newspaper is his daily prayer, he has failed to utter it. If there is an ethics of memory, his is incomplete. If we are bonded by our trauma, he stands alone. Guard the untraumatized man, for he precedes and follows us.
This poem, I would argue, is built around a single sentence: It is just spring, and the purple and the yellow flowers blossom. It is the detail that does not otherwise belong in this narrative &, as a result, it throws light against every other element here, providing contrast & context. Precisely what the untraumatized man himself lacks.
Memory – that linkage (or perhaps spillage) between presence & context, between here & meaning – is a major theme in Schultz’ work – it shows up again & again, both in these poems & elsewhere. Perhaps that is what jumps up for a woman from Virginia who finds herself building a life in the South Pacific, but I think it’s more also – the phrase an ethics of memory strikes me as very close to defining Schultz’ project as such. It’s as political as it is poetic & that double dimension combined with ear & mind that are both razor sharp should ensure that what we are witnessing are the first stages of a major writing.