Saturday, April 09, 2005

 

 

I’m ambivalent about most forms of poetry contests, at best. But the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Poetry Face-Off at least seems likely to expand the number of people who are apt to hear a poem being read aloud. And one of the finalists this year is Christian Bök, whose work will be familiar to many of the readers here. Follow the link above to listen and to vote.

 

Speaking of awards, Darren Wershler-Henry of Coach House Press was awarded first place for the design of a Canadian book of poetry, Mark Truscott’s marvelous Said Like Reeds or Things by the Alcuin Society, an organization devoted to all aspects of fine press printing.

 

It must be very interesting to live in a country where work on this order isn’t automatically marginalized as it is in the United States.



Friday, April 08, 2005

 

Henry Darger Read-a-Thon

 

Susan Bee notes that on April 12, there will be a Henry Darger read-a-thon at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. That link will lead you to details. The Pat Graney Company’s dance piece, The Vivian Girls, will be performed there on May 4th.

 

 



Thursday, April 07, 2005

 

The question came up concerning the New American Poetry. I’m always referring to it here as though everyone understands the reference. Could I give, perhaps, a reading list that would capture that phenomenal mid-century confluence of poets who changed the writing of the U.S. Here’s a list with which to start. I should note that I often prefer to get the early books themselves rather than the later collected editions (I tend to have both if I can afford it).

 

The Allen Anthology, the New American Poetry, is the obvious place to start. The 44 poets here offered the first clear collective alternative to the School of Quietude since the Objectivists of the 1930s. This book to some degree rescued modernism, showing that the influences of Pound, Williams, Zukofsky et al had not come to some dead end during the Second World War.

 

David Ossman's collection of interviews, The Sullen Art, would be my second book. Like a lot of what follows, you will need to go through a rare book service (e.g. ABEbooks.com) to find this. It’s well worth the effort. Ossman, a member of the comedy troupe, Firesign Theater, talks to Rexroth, Paul Carroll, Blackburn, Rothenberg, Kelly, Robert Bly, John Logan, Gilbert Sorrentino, Creeley, W.S. Merwin, Denise Levertov, LeRoi Jones, Ed Dorn & Ginsberg. This is very much “in the thick of things,” for example trying to figure out if the “Deep Image” poetry associated then with Rothenberg, Kelly, Bly & James Wright is really a literary movement or not (not was the answer).

 

The second issue of Evergreen Review, a "SF Renaissance" issue, which includes Rexroth, Brother Antoninus, Duncan, Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller, McClure, Josephine Miles, Spicer, Michael Rumaker, Jim Broughton, Snyder, Whalen, Kerouac (“This Railroad Earth”, one of his very best pieces), and Ginsberg (“Howl”). With some critical pieces on music (Ralph Gleason) and the visual arts (Dore Ashton), photos by Harry Redl. There were a lot of copies of this & it’s not that hard to find. Possibly the most awesome issue of any magazine ever.

 

The Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Don Allen & Warren Tallman (includes pieces by Blake, H.D., Lorca, Mac Low, Stein, Whitman, Williams, Zukofsky & Pound in addition to true NAPs). Published a little later, 1973, I think this was the first book I ever owned that had Poetics in its title. LeRoi Jones has become Baraka by this time. This book was an open acknowledgement of the importance of theory to the NAP, something a number of the younger ones felt quite uncomfortable with.

 

New American Story, edited by Allen & Creeley. Burroughs, Kerouac, Rumaker, Creeley, William Eastlake, Hubert Selby Jr., Ed Dorn, LeRoi Jones, John Rechy, Douglas Woolf. The importance of prose – and of writers like Selby, Rechy & Woolf – can’t be underestimated. Everything from the new narrative to a lot of post-1970 prose poetry can be traced back here.

 

A Controversy of Poets, edited by Robert Kelly & Paris Leary. An attempt to put the NAP (and by then newer poets such as Mac Low) alongside School of Quietude poets like Robert Lowell (the only poet they agreed on, Robert Duncan, refused to participate). It's a great book. Going alphabetically let it start with Ashbery, Blackburn & Blaser, then end with Zukofsky. With only one exception, the names you won’t recognize all come from the School o’ Q.

 

An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett & David Shapiro. This was the bible of the 2nd generation NY School, as near as I can tell. It also was the book that put Schuyler first. It put Clark Coolidge second.

 

Like the above, Tom Clark’s All Stars, George Quasha’s Active Anthology and Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar Anthology all represent good collections of how this writing evolved through the 1960s. Clark’s is interesting for its joining of the NY School with Beats & some post-Black Mountain poets. It too put Clark Coolidge second, after Michael McClure.

 

Then after that, I'd be into specific texts:

 

  • Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish (then, later, from Fall of America, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” & “Wales Visitation”)
  • Wieners, the Hotel Wentley Poems – the first true out of the closet book of poems in America.
  • Ferlinghetti, Coney Island of the Mind, immensely popular because it made every high school kid think “I could do that”
  • Kerouac, Visions of Cody, On the Road Cody is the masterpiece.
  • McClure, Ghost Tantras; A Dark Book, A Book of Torture
  • Creeley, For Love, Words, Pieces. The essays from A Quick Graph.
  • Olson, The Mayan Letters, Human Universe (the early essays), the Maximus Poems, the non-Max poems first published in The Distances
  • O'Hara, Lunch Poems, Meditations in an Emergency
  • Joanne Kyger, The Tapestry and the Web – the one poet who fits into virtually every subgrouping one wishes to make of this period (she is the secret to the NAP jigsaw puzzle)
  • Ashbery, the first 3 books (then add Three Poems, but only after reading Creeley’s Pieces)
  • Ed Dorn, the pre-Gunslinger work, esp. North Atlantic Turbine
  • Duncan, his trio of great books from the 1960s: Opening of the Field, Roots & Branches, Bending the Bow
  • Spicer -- the Collected Books (esp. Language & Book of Magazine Verse, but keep in mind that almost nobody read that last one until after his death)
  • Levertov's first couple of books, ditto Guest
  • Koch's When the Sun Tries to Go On (which points directly to Berrigan’s Sonnets)
  • Fielding Dawson, Krazy Kat
  • Lew Welch, Ring of Bone
  • Jonathan Williams, any of the early books
  • Phil Whalen, On Bear’s Head (still the best collection)
  • William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Gilbert Sorrentino’s Something Said & his early books of poetry (through The Orangerie). Sorrentino was the most prolific & intelligent reviewer of the period.

 

John Wieners' 707 Scott Street is worth reading as a document of the period, esp. its configuration of a Black Mountain poet hanging out at the edge of the Spicer Circle in SF.

 

There really is a dearth of good collective books on the NAP & we desperately need an anthology of the Spicer Circle, since people know Jack, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Kyger, but not Harold Dull, Ronnie Primack, Steve Jonas or Jim Alexander. I'd definitely read Michael Davidson's Guys Like Us, on the role of masculinity in the poetry of the 1950s.

 

Pulling together this list – I keep thinking of all the books, names I’ve omitted – reminds me that by 1970, the NAP was still active (O’Hara & Spicer were the only ones who had died early, tho Olson & Blackburn were soon to follow), the NY School was already into full-blown 2nd generation stage by then & langpo had hit the streets with This, edited by Bob Grenier & Barrett Watten. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine all three as contemporary, but they were in their overlapping ways. All of this while the Objectivists were coming back into print, feminism was starting to arrive & just as Jerry Rothenberg was beginning to role out his anthologies, a major rethinking of the whole history of verse. 1970 was also the year that Harvey Brown brought out his Frontier Press edition of Williams' Spring & All, which made everybody have to rethink everything they knew about the Dr. and his role in modernism. No wonder we were all having trouble keeping it untangled in our imaginations!



Wednesday, April 06, 2005

 

Scene from The Vivian Girls, The Pat Graney Company, 2005

 

After I posted my note on the Vodou shrines of Nancy Josephson, the holocaust tapestries of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz & the ceramic installation that is Richard Cleaver’s Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House, the Greco-Australian math poet П.0 sent an email asking my thoughts on

 

the notion of the naive poet within the context of language etc

i.e. is it possible, if so who

 

But I had not used the term “naïve.” There is nothing about Josephson’s shrines or Cleaver’s complex clay craft that would even suggest naiveté. Krinitz was self-taught & her tapestries dispense with pictorial conventions such as perspective, but that abandonment empowers her at times to construct more complicated narrative structures (single panels in which, for example, figures representing herself & her sister Mania appear more than once in the same scene). There is a difference between self-taught & naïve I would think.

 

Poetry differs from the visual – and especially the textile & ceramic arts – in that it employs technology – language – pretty much everyone uses in everyday life. That is one reason why so many people think writing poetry must be “easy.” One is, in this sense, always already self-taught even before one thinks to ask the question, Can I write?

 

There have always been poets who were directed by motives that seem entirely personal or outside of traditional art world concerns: John Wieners, Hannah Weiner, Will Alexander, Jack Hirschman, Julia Vinograd, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bern Porter, Bob Kaufman, Helen Adam. It would not be that hard to call any one of these an outsider artist, even when (as with Hannah Weiner or Will Alexander) they also seem completely in touch with the contemporary writing scenes of their day. Like Josephson & Cleaver, they all seem to demonstrate the distinction between being an outsider & being naïve. I never knew Frank Kuenstler, who struck me as being a street person in his own private world the one time I saw him (which, frankly, is how Kaufman always struck me as well), but it is hard to imagine that somebody who had more than a half dozen books published could have been living entirely outside of the literary scene.

 

A more complex case might be the work of Frank Stanford, given that his great early longpoem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, does appear to have been composed with virtually no knowledge of the existence of any literary scene. His later short lyrics, on the other hand, reflect the socialization process of MFA programs hard at work. Yet it’s his early poetry for which Stanford will be most remembered.

 

Leading a writers workshop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the 1970s, I worked with a number of writers who similarly were unaware of the existence, sometimes within just a few blocks of the Leavenworth Street drop-in arts program where we met, of one of the most vital & rich literary communities in this country. And some of the people were doing interesting, exciting work. Harley Kohler was a practitioner of what in those days was called gender fuck, which is to say that he typically wore both dresses & a beard. His poems were complex constructions of neologisms, tending toward pure word play. Because his lover at the time worked in the same board-and-care home where Larry Eigner first lived on moving to Berkeley, it would be wrong to suggest that Harley didn’t have some clue as to the literary world, but it was a scene that just didn’t interest him. James “Spider” Taylor (not to be confused with the guitarist from the bands Red Wedding and Smoke & Mirrors, nor with Carly Simon’s ex-) wrote long, intense fictions – a cross section between the prose of Kerouac at its most over-the-top & the sensibility of Rat Fink, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s hot-rod associated comics. While other writers associated with the Tenderloin Writers Workshop – Charles Bivens, Laura Feldman, Mary Tallmountain, Roberto Harrison – did connect up with the literary scene in one way or another, neither Kohler nor Taylor ever did. It’s my guess that there are many other people just like that around other “open reading” or “workshop” settings all across the United States (I can’t speak for other societies here). Kohler & Taylor both clearly were/are outsider artists, and Taylor I believe probably fits П’s category of naïve as well. But it’s precisely because they are writers who practiced at the margins, their work is functionally inaccessible today.

 

I’ve often wondered in this regard about the prose of Henry Darger. The bizarrely virginal pedophiliac graphics for which he has become posthumously famous, after all, were originally illustrations to his 15,145 page novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. One senses that his prose style may have been as unique as his understanding of female anatomy. While Darger himself has become a cult phenomenon, the subject of a Natalie Merchant song, the source for John Ashbery’s title Girls on the Run, the subject of a motion picture, and a performance/dance piece by the Pat Graney Company, The Story of the Vivian Girls has never to my knowledge been published. Indeed, a profile on the artist in the Washington Post by Phillip Kennicott on February 4, included this assessment of Darger’s prose:

 

The written works of Darger are so extensive, and frankly so dull, that no one has read them in their entirety. His style is filled with little Victorian asides that address the "dear reader," a perpetual inflation of excitement reminiscent of bad adventure-writing aimed at little boys, and lots of rhetorical stuffing that sounds like a child trying to imitate the style of an adult. "The accounts of the numerous stirring scenes mentioned here will, we hope, become interesting and attractive as well as fascinating reading to the people of our nation, but also highly important and valuable though unreal," reads one passage.

 

Here one verges on the border of writing & psychiatry. Which moves beyond the question of insider/outsider art or whether or not such a thing as “naïve poetry” can exist. But I think my answer to П’s question is that, yes, such a thing can exist, in which a writer produces work without prior or deep knowledge of the literary scene, but it is unlikely that we are apt to the know the work. To the extent that we do, it tends to be the result of a social accident – Frank Stanford’s “pre-college” work turns out to be as good or better than anything that follows; Henry Darger just happens to rent his room from an art professional, photographer Nathan Lerner. If Stanford’s work reflects a level of raw genius – that’s a completely reasonable reading of Battlefield – it’s hard even to get hold of the prose of a Darger. The writing of people like Harley Kohler & Spider James Taylor tends to be lost forever.

 

This is where the question of what constitutes a “naïve” writer comes in. The category is not entirely about the absence of knowledge of literary effects, at least not to the degree that it might be in media (like Esther Krinitz’ tapestry) that are not direct extensions of thinking & speaking, as such. Rather, it is also naiveté about the organization of such effects, first within a text, but always also in the social world as well. Not being aware of (or interested in) a literary scene, or how one might enter into it, is at least as important as what goes on between the margins. After all, Emily Dickinson appears to have been no more interested in an audience than Henry Darger.

 



Tuesday, April 05, 2005

 

Robert Smithson – Hotel Palenque

 

The most important – to me at least – exhibit I saw in Baltimore last week was one I wasn’t able to get enough time to explore fully, entering as I did without much expectation just an hour before the museum was about to close. The Slide Show is something of a history of slide projection installations as they have existed in art & museum spaces over the past half century. With Kodak discontinuing the production of its last slide projector last year, the definition & future of this medium has become problematic.

 

That is, if one’s definition of the slide show is predicated upon physical slides placed into a carousel, which may or may not rotate, which may or may not be combined with an accompanying audio track, & whose projected image may or may not be overlaid with another, ranging from a silhouette on the wall to multiple slide projections upon the same white space.

 

The show itself could only be characterized as a warren of such displays – one enters & is soon wandering almost completely disoriented betwixt Robert Smithson’s coy narrative accompanying slides of the crumbling Hotel Palenque, Ana Mendieta dragging her blood covered hands down a white sheet, photographs from Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, or the hysterically dry wit of James Coleman “analyzing” (or, perhaps, “analysing”) frame after identical frame of the same photograph of a busy intersection, a photograph noteworthy for its lack of a clearly defined focal object. I don’t even recall Ceal Floyer’s projection of “pure” light through a projector whose carousel was empty, but it’s in the catalog, so it must have struck me as “between” images, which is indeed how several of these works felt as I wandered rather too quickly (with two teenage boys) through 20 or so interconnecting darkened rooms that proceed in not always obvious directions. There were works that merely presented the medium of the photograph, others that documented actions¹, still others that were works in themselves & finally those that, like Coleman’s dissertation on the process of seeing, commented on the process of the slide show itself – it didn’t have to click through the carousel to the same exact image, over & over, but that’s what it did. During the evening rush hour, Louise Lawler’s External Stimulation is projected – billboard sized – on the exterior of the museum. This, however, I did not get to see, even though we departed precisely into the evening commute. What is visible on the sidewalk in front of the wall is an encased box, podium high, outside of the building, housing the projector itself.² One might recognize this as sculpture, minimalist & brutal.

 

In a sense, The Slide Show really is an elegy to the slide projector – the catalog even has a special section on the machine, with eight pictured examples ranging from the “lantern slide” projectors of the 1870s to the recently discontinued Kodak Ektagraphic, which standardized the 80-slide carousel. But just as writing did not come to a halt when IBM discontinued manufacturing typewriters – the division was spun off & exists now as the printer company, Lexmark – there is functionally nothing inherent in the Ektagraphic that cannot be accomplished with today’s computer projectors. The only function that implicitly disappears is the irritating auditory click between slides – an element that only James Coleman actually did anything with in the examples I’ve cited here. In spite of the tone, one suspects that the projected installation is really still in its infancy as a form.

 

So it’s not really clear what is being celebrated. Unlike a show of, say, nudes or even paintings in monochromatic tones, there is very little that these artists have in common save their employment of this device, which can range in its contribution to the overall work from marginal & almost accidental to being the focal point of it all. The painful earnestness of Mendieta’s work contrasts sharply with Coleman’s deadpan irony which has more in common with the comedy of Andy Kaufman.

 

Which in turn points up an inherent issue within the conceptually oriented community that is drawn to the idea of installations in the first place – there is surprisingly little in the way of a common aesthetic palette or shared discourse. The feeling one gets is that this must be a community that is terrific at talking, but which is full of terrible listeners. Very little actually builds. One could argue of course that there are ways in which some of these artists do connect – that one could draw a line between the off-centered photojournalism of Nan Goldin & her influences (Weegee, Robert Frank or Diane Arbus), as well as her contemporaries, Larry Clark & Araki Nobuyoshi. But that’s not the tale told here – the closest we’re allowed to get is Helen Levitt’s warm pictures of urban scenes & Jack Smith’s overlit drag queens.

 

Even if individual works of art attempt to thwart narrative, exhibitions never can – The Slide Show makes a vain attempt in setting up its world in a confusing this-way/that-way kind of path. It’s a bit like a maze, but not a terribly serious one: the curators want you to see all the work. What they don’t seem to want to do is make a strong argument for the form. The closest they get is something along the lines of Well, the first people to use slides just did, employing them instrumentally, while later on people started to notice the tool itself, which led to metacommentary & a more painterly formalism. Yet the most striking instance of the latter is Jan DibbetsLand/Sea, a series linked images forming a broad panorama, half being a beach scene, half a meadow – and this is one of the earlier works in the show, dating back to the early 1970s.

 

Yet it’s exactly the show’s confusions that made me think of this exhibition as important. The curators haven’t got their content sorted out because they’re still intellectually & emotionally in the middle of it & from their perspective it’s all still new & rapidly evolving. I’ll agree with them on this last point, if not necessarily the others.

 

This show will continue at the Baltimore Museum of Art until May 15. It then travels to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati for a July to September run, before heading to the Brooklyn Museum where it will be up from October until next January.

 

 

 

¹ Raising the inevitable question of how else does a performance or installation artist create anything that could be exchanged for value, i.e. sold? It’s all about the documentation.

 

² Elsewhere in the museum but not a part of this show, Kara Walker has a particularly strong piece that entails a slide projected against a wall containing a silhouette.



Monday, April 04, 2005

 

 

A student at Penn writes:

 

For my individual project I have been asked to assess whether the contemporary poetry avant-garde accept and embrace Adrienne Rich as part of their aesthetic, and whether these poets view Rich’s work as important – formally, aesthetically, or poetically – to their movement.  If at all possible, I would greatly appreciate hearing your opinions regarding Rich’s poetry in context of your personal artistic goals and the goals of the larger avant-garde movement. Are there any poems or essays or actions of hers that you particularly respect or disrespect, and why? What did you think about her refusal of the National Medal of the Arts, and how do you view her decision in regards to her concept  of “American” poetry? Does her concept differ with or complement your own? When you have a chance, please let me know  your opinions on these questions. I very much look forward to hearing from you.

 

In the grand scheme of things, Adrienne Rich has always been one of the “good guys” in American poetry, somebody who not only wrote well, but who worked to define the possibilities for audiences that had not previously existed as fully self-acknowledged communities, and who always has positioned her writing within a larger vision of the world & social justice. She is one of the very few poets of her generation who arose within the framework of the School of Quietude whose poetry I actually feel the need to own & on occasion read. She is also the only such person whose essays I also keep nearby.

 

Rich comes out of the Boston Brahmin tradition that we normally associate today with Robert Lowell & his closest associates – Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, George Starbuck, James Merrill, Richard Howard, John Hollander & a whole host of less compelling folks – but also with a number of poets who in the late 1960s & early ‘70s turned away from that Anglo-centric & largely establishmentarian tradition seeking new & more vigorous modes of writing. Robert Bly, James Wright, W.S. Merwin & even Donald Hall can be read as variations of this same basic narrative, driven externally by the great social upheavals of that period – the Vietnam War, for example – and aesthetically by the challenge to their writing posed by the New American Poets. One can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for well-trained “professionally” oriented poets of that period to realize that their work paled in comparison to the drug-besotted verse of a Gregory Corso, let alone the more complex writing of an Olson, an Ashbery or a Ginsberg. Or to realize just how one-dimensional their sense of form & tradition seemed when placed alongside a Zukofsky, a Creeley, an O’Hara or a Duncan.

 

To poets of my generation – young enough to their children (Rich is three years younger than my mother) – watching the Brahmin tradition break apart was a terrific spectator sport not unlike watching the Johnson & Nixon administrations unravel in succession, a parallel instance of “the straight world” crumbling from its own internal contradictions. A book like Bill Merwin’s 1967 The Lice – still his best (and perhaps his only “important”) volume – riveted younger poets precisely for the ways it blasted apart everything we thought we knew about the poet of The Drunk in the Furnace or A Mask for Janus, collections of rigidly regimented conformity. It was one of those volumes you kept in your book bag during those years, alongside Dorn’s Gunslinger, Creeley’s Pieces & Duncan’s Bending the Bow.

 

At the same time, there was a second revolution starting to happen that was – at least in 1968 & thereabouts – invisible to folks with male genitalia like myself. Women in the civil rights & antiwar movements had begun to compare their own circumstances to those people on whose behalf they were often making great sacrifices, both in the U.S. and abroad. One merely needs to look back at the anti-draft poster popular in that era that featured Joan Baez & other women pictured above a slogan that read “Girls Say Yes to Men Who Say No” to see just how unreconstructed gender relations were then. 1968, after all, was the year in which Jane Fonda starred in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella.

 

The rise of second-wave feminism would impact every branch of American poetics (indeed, every branch of American life). In some ways, the three most instructive examples for the world of poetry might be Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich & Denise Levertov. It was Grahn who first gave voice to this phenomenon in 1964 with a simple chapbook called Edward the Dyke and Other Poems. There is a rawness in Edward the Dyke even today that neither the Brahmin Rich nor the New American Levertov could ever approach – and that was no doubt necessary in just getting people to sit up & pay attention. It was not as tho no American poet had written of lesbian relationships before – Gertrude Stein’s crossover hit, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, after all had been published 30 years before & everybody knew that Toklas & Stein were more than (wink wink) two spinster ladies the way they were presented during that era by the likes of Time and Life. But it was Grahn who first insisted that desire had a political dimension.

 

Levertov, in contrast, became one of several New Americans – all associated with Black Mountain or Projectivist poetics, as it happened – who consciously turned away from that writing during this same period. LeRoi Jones went so far as to transform himself into Amiri Baraka while Ed Dorn, whose Gunslinger (it had not yet morphed into ‘Slinger) was read as a scandalous rejection of the Olsonian aesthetic, not unlike Merwin’s Lice in its relation to Lowell’s version of the Bos-town sound) put him into a position whereby, in 1973 when I put him onto a reading bill alongside Joanne Kyger & Robert Creeley, he was not even speaking to those other poets. The Projectivists I knew all thought of Levertov’s anti-war work & the writing that surrounded it as humorless & one-dimensional. I remember Robert Duncan saying, when I asked him if he was still in touch with her shortly after her departure from Berkeley circa 1972, “What would I have to say to her?” The feelings vis-à-vis Baraka were even more pained.

 

If Rich’s first two books, A Change of World (1951) & The Diamond-Cutters (1955) were documents of precisely the kind of conformity to the School of Quietude tradition that had marked the earliest Merwin or Bly (see his works in Poetry during the 1950s, for example), there were already undercurrents that would carry her elsewhere soon enough. Consider, for example, “An Unsaid Word” from Rich’s first book:

 

She who has the power to call her man

From that estranged intensity

Where his mind forages alone,

Yet keeps her peace and leaves him free,

And when his thoughts to her return

Stands where he left her, still his own,

Knows this the hardest thing to learn.

 

One might read the trajectory of her career as a long unlearning of that “lesson.” Unlike Merwin or Dorn, however, her move away from her inherited aesthetic wasn’t voiced as a sharp rejection all at once. One can see it starting to happen as early as Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law in 1963, whose title poem is a sharp indictment of then-contemporary gender relations, but envisioning really no way out of what Rich herself terms the “solitary confinement” of marriage.

 

If each successive book was to take Rich further away from any role as an adjunct to male ambition, the point at which I noticed her abandonment of the Brahmin world didn’t come until she published the title poem of Diving into the Wreck in Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar magazine towards the end of that journal’s run. The whole idea of Rich in a publication edited by Eshleman was, circa 1971, so radical as to be unimaginable. Caterpillar was not only the last review that could honestly be called projectivist in its commitments¹, it was still quite militant about it in ways that no New York School journal would ever have dreamed of being. The symbolism of the quiet instant of self-repression visible in “An Unsaid Word” now becomes one of coming face to face with the visage of someone who has drowned.

 

Rich had in fact already arrived at this moment some years earlier (look at the title poem of Leaflets or “Pierrot Le Fou” in Will to Change – probably my favorite of all of Rich’s poems – but Eshleman’s publication made this apparent now to a wider range of folks, myself included, who, still grouping her in our minds alongside Lowell & Merrill, had not been paying much attention. And as Rich had become politicized, her poetry had moved away from the reductive well-wrought urns that confined her early writing, taking on essentially a post-Williams variation of free verse.

 

If it was Grahn who made the emergence of a women’s poetry audience possible – and I would argue that it was – Rich & Levertov both helped enormously to make this phenomenon accessible & even safe to a broad spectrum of readers who approached this new thing from previous aesthetic understandings & commitments. That is not an insignificant accomplishment. It changed writing in America, even for troglodyte straight white males like myself.² If you look at the anthology I edited 20 years ago, In the American Tree, you can’t help but notice that the ratio of male to female poets is nowhere near the parity that reflects the world of writing today. On the other hand, it’s much better a ratio than you will find in the Allen anthology – published 20 years prior to Tree. While the women who participated in the Tree certainly had the most to do with this, it’s impossible to imagine the world in which any of this writing took place without the active examples of Judy Grahn & Adrienne Rich.

 

 

¹ Indeed, this to my mind was the fundamental difference between Caterpillar & Eshleman’s later (and more eclectic) journal Sulfur. It was not as though Eshleman broke with the Olsonian tradition, but rather that he acknowledged that a moment in literary history had passed.

 

² In the 1960s at least, I simply was replicating the gender roles I had learned, but what, in all honesty, was I thinking? On my mother’s side, my mother, my great-grandmother & my great-great grandmother had all been single parents (in my great-grandmother’s case, of a family with 11 surviving children). My great-great grandmother had apparently been a sex worker early in the 19th century – at least this is how I read her late husband’s family’s attempt to wrest control of her children after his death. My grandmother, the only one in four generations to successfully hold a marriage together for half a century, was psychotic & I knew that four of her sisters had had abortions by the end of World War I. Did I really imagine that family life was portrayed accurately on Father Knows Best?



Sunday, April 03, 2005

 

(Some hours later): Paul Adrian Mabelis notes that there are 23 different Creeley recordings available on the Naropa archives website. I’m downloading a panel discussion with Robin Blaser & Michael Ondaatje as I type.



 

 

One of the great guilty pleasures over this past week of complicated emotions was seeing the New York Times print Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” with all of its post-Poundian projectivist abbreviations of words: sd for said, yr for your, & of course my own favorite, the ampersand. Did I ever expect to see such configurations in the self-appointed “paper of record”? I did not.

 

The scope of Creeley’s impact as a poet can be sensed by the presence of memorial sites for him up already in both New Zealand & Finland. Brad Morrow’s web memorial for Creeley is terrific – it is currently the home page for Brad’s journal Conjunctions. That in itself tells you quite a bit.

 

Finally, both Joseph Massey & Charles Bernstein pointed me to the site that includes a video file of Robert’s talk at the Zukofsky centennial. It’s absolutely a must-see experience.

 



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