Saturday, December 31, 2005

 

Derek Bailey, the great jazz guitarist, passed away on Christmas. This has been one great year for death, robbing us of so many wonderful talents & people.

Robert Creeley, Lorenzo Thomas, Philip Lamantia, Gustaf Sobin all died in ought-five. Also gone this year were Buena Vista Social Club vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, blues man & Tuvan throat-singer Paul Peña, In These Times & Socialist Review founder Jimmy Weinstein & West Wing actor John Spencer, every one of whom enriched my world. My neighbor across the street, Evelyn Hoeflein, had a stroke last February and never regained consciousness. She was 80. On the day of Evelyn’s funeral, I drove down after the service in the rain to Washington, DC, to give a reading with Leslie Scalapino. When Leslie returned to her hotel room that night, her husband was waiting, having flown cross country to tell her in person that her own mother had died. Less than three weeks ago, Audrey Rein Elwood, my eleventh grade English teacher at Albany High, a wonderful influence on me & many others, passed away.

None of which reaches the level of horrific tragedy that was the aftermath of Katrina when the entire world got to see what the cost of deferred maintenance & underfunded, incompetent government was day after day on our TV sets. We had begun the year still counting the hundreds of thousands dead & missing along the eastern half of the Indian ocean – the tsunami’s toll of more than 200,000 lives is literally beyond the human imagination. And the dying continues unabated – and barely acknowledged by our so-called leaders – in Iraq & increasingly again in Afghanistan. There is no way to support the troops & support “our administration” at the same time. Our troops have no greater enemy than George Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. And I haven’t even mentioned Darfur.

But perhaps the saddest death all year was that of Nadia Anjuman, 25-year-old Afghani poet who passed away after being hit by her husband in her hometown of Herat. Whether she died from the beating, or after having taken poison, as her husband & mother suggest, her death was needless & tragic.

Normally, I might say that we tend to look back at years more somberly because we understand the importance of those who have passed, and tend to downplay or underappreciate those whose work is just now coming to the fore. Sadly, one poet whose work I connected with for the first time this year, Marc Kuykendall, also passed away. He was just 25. I am told that his death remains the subject of an open investigation.

Poetry goes on & even flourishes. It will be interesting to see just which major poets put out their first book this year – it’s too soon to tell. I read works by many younger poets, including Laura Sims, Taylor Brady, Joseph Massey, Geraldine Kim, all of which tell me that the world is getting richer, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Big collected or selected volumes by Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch (both poetry & fiction), and David Meltzer ensure that these writers will be accessible in the coming years. Jackson Mac Low’s performance works are now available in book form. Conferences occur, reading series start up, life itself goes on. This year I realized one of my own ambitions in getting to read with David Shapiro – I’ve wanted to do that for over 35 years.

This weblog had its 250,000th visitor on January 29th and its 500,000th visitor on October 30th – it took two years and four months to reach the first quarter million mark, and nine more months to reach the second. I keep telling myself that this has to peak sometime. It’s been on a pretty even keel since May, so perhaps this is that moment.

The most common question I get of late in my email is why don’t I “cut off the crazies,” or “block the maniacs” from posting day after day to the comments section. But I notice that nobody agrees as to just who the maniacs & crazies are. Several of the people who have asked that question in one form or another have themselves been the subject of somebody else’s version of that inquiry. It has occurred to me to turn off the comments section for a period – a few days, a week perhaps – and if it continues to be abused by two or three people calling each other names, I may do just that. Mostly I think people should regulate themselves. It should be the exception, not the rule, to post twice to the same comments stream on any given day. And if you’re off topic, the comments stream probably isn’t the appropriate place to be posting.

I’m going to give the last word here this year to Robert Creeley. He was, to my mind, easily the finest poet of my parents’ generation & truly the dean of American poets at least from the death of Williams until his own in March. He was also one of the most generous of human beings, and that rarest thing, somebody who wanted truly to learn from younger poets, whether they were my age or just starting out in their early twenties. Bob was active as a poet for over half a century, and that we got to have him, his work, his presence & his example for so very long was a great gift. The following is a text that Creeley wrote for a class given by Larry Fagin in 1987 or ’88 at a junior highschool. Tho he was a guest in the situation, Bob took it upon himself to complete the same assignment given to students:

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
    vice versa.
 
I know what I am, a human, is more than what I can simply think
    or feel.
 
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.
 
                                 ONWARD!



Friday, December 30, 2005

 

Back in the 1960s & ‘70s, Marxist theorists, particularly those who practiced some variant of Western Marxism, had a phrase for the retrograde dictatorships of the old Soviet bloc – “actually existing socialism” – the phrase at once captured the realization that there was hardly anything recognizably socialist about any of these regimes, since the state monopoly of all resources was hardly the world Marx envisaged, particularly once the state was in the hands of a murderous & corrupt elite. The term enabled some to envisage new more hopeful projects – everything from the resurrection of Gramsci as a force outside of the Italian Communist Party to student movements in France & the U.S., and it enabled some even to see the commonality between the resistance to the reactionary regimes of the west – the U.S., France, Mexico – and resistance to Stalinism in Poland & Czechoslovakia. But the phrase “actually existing” also carried within itself a certain amount of bad conscience – an implicit acknowledgement that there were things amiss with Marxist theory itself. A recognition that an objective view would have to come to terms not just with the gulag, but with the corporatist socialist parties of the western democracies. And that the blatant failure of “socialism in one country” proved Marx’s prediction that globalization was a pre-requisite.

Consider then another theoretical term nearly as broad (and amorphous) as socialism: canon. Lets see what the 1,001 most common books in the world’s libraries tell us about it. The OCLC has just updated that list. Some 53,548 libraries in 96 countries and territories belong to the OCLC, the worldwide library cooperative.¹

Two books – The Bible & the U.S. Census – dramatically outrank all other items. OCLC libraries possess just under 800,000 copies of the former, some 460,000 copies of the latter. No other item can be found in even as many as 70,000 copies. Indeed, none of the items listed at 750 or below show up even 6,000 times – which is to say that the chances of finding a copy of one of these volumes in your library are about one in nine. The bottom 250 on this list combined have about as many appearances in library collections as the top two items. But even the least of these books lives in pretty rarified terms.

Bowker, which tracks the publishing industry, puts the number of titles issued in the English-speaking world alone at 375,000 in 2004. It’s a hard road for any one volume to get up into this list at all. Only one of the top ten items was written by someone alive during my own lifetime – The Lord of the Rings. And the highest ranked listing by any living author is Jim Davis, who comes in at number 15 for his Garfield books. None of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels make it into the top 200, tho their eventual arrival in the upper reaches is no doubt inevitable. This, as you can see, is an “actually existing” canon, distinct from any one you or I or Mr. Bloom might prefer. It has no theoretical justification. It simply is what is. At the most, you could say that it reflects the reading habits of library users over time.

Not quite half the books on the list are novels, but just 61 of the 1,001 titles listed are poetry – unless you count The Bible, which the OCLC does not. Of those 61 books, no more than ten are by Americans – and that is including Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child Garden of Verses & Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass shows up at number 11 on the poetry list, right behind The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám & Shakespeare’s Sonnets. There are just two twentieth century volumes aimed at adults written by U.S. poets, and they aren’t by Eliot or Frost or Lowell or Stevens or Williams or Pound or Stein. They are Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology & John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét. Whoda thunk?

 

¹ That acronym hardly reflects the group’s global mission today – that “O” originally stood for “Ohio” – Ohio College Library Center, to be exact.



Thursday, December 29, 2005

 

Yesterday’s note on Brett Evans reminded me that I owe (and am way past deadline) CA Conrad an answer to an email I received earlier this month that read, in part:

Dear Ron,
Not long ago I interviewed Eileen Myles for PhillySound, and one of the questions I asked her was, "There must be other poets whose work you admire whose work is either out of print or difficult to find. Can you share some names or titles, and what this work means to you?"
 
This was her answer:
Susie Timmons. Always Susie. Locked from Inside. Yellow Press of
Chicago did it. She is my generation of poets who came up in the east village in the 70s and 80s. Very fast, very conceptual, funny and magical. Nobody like her. I loved her work then and now. Joe Ceravolo. Wonderful, also kind of religious-tinged work. Loose but sinewy. Spring in this world of poor mutts is a title. A guy completely unheard of is Richard Bandanza. He was in workshops with me in the 70s. He published one book under a pseudonym, Richard Nassau. It was called I Like You. He married a doctor and he lives in Connecticut. I bet he’s still writing.
 
Not only was I excited to learn about Susie Timmons, but others who read this interview were also quite excited, and said so, and I'm taking this question to the next step.  It's important, I believe, to ask this question of poets whose work we admire, which is why I'm asking you and a few others the very same question, "There must be other poets whose work you admire whose work is either out of print or difficult to find. Can you share some names or titles, and what this work means to you?"

At the time I told him I agreed with Susie Timmons as one such choice & I had never known that Richard Nassau was a pseudonym – I Like You is a terrific book. I, of course, have used this space before to write about several poets who fit this general description, such as Besmilr Brigham or Seymour Faust or Drum Hadley. I still have a stack of Harold Dull books atop a bookcase near this PC because his disappearance from the Spicer Circle was far more profound than, say, that of Landis Everson from the Berkeley Renaissance. You really can’t get a sense of the Spicer scene without addressing the role of its core straight male member (and, so far as I can tell, one that Spicer never tried to seduce). Dull left the writing scene behind fairly soon after Spicer’s death – Tom Mandel & I persuaded him to read in the Grand Piano series in 1977 or ’78, but even then that was in the nature of a resurrection. In those days he was working as a therapist near the UCSF campus on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco. Relatively soon thereafter, tho, Dull began to develop Watsu, literally water shiatsu, which I believe he still does himself these days at the Harbin Hotsprings Resort north of the City.

I could make the case as well for Curtis Faville, whose Stanzas for An Evening Out, is a definitive book of the 1970s. Curtis, as readers of my comments stream well know, has hardly disappeared, but works now as a rare book dealer. In addition to Wittgenstein’s Door, which you can still buy through SPD, a new volume, Metro, supposedly is about to appear. But Stanzas is the book every poet interested in the evolution of contemporary verse ought to own. SPD has no copies & Abebooks.com shows none among the Faville volumes that can be found through the rare book network.

However, the poet who best fits this description for me – someone whose work I admire whose books are either out of print or difficult to find – unquestionably has to be Jerry Estrin. Estrin started out as a surrealist poet in San Francisco some time in the 1970s & saw his work evolve considerably right up until his death from cancer in 1993. He was a student of mine briefly at San Francisco State & when I say of that graduate seminar, that there was always at least one student there ready & willing to discuss just why this or that language poet was a fraud, deficient or just not interesting, the subtext is that Jerry filled that dissident role a disproportionate number of times. Yet these poets were his friends as well – when he drove cab around the City, he would stop & give them rides if he saw them, never ever charging for the service (I once literally threw money into the front seat & jumped out before he could give it back) – and he would have been amused to see the words “language poet” used in his own obituary.

His biggest & finest book is Rome, A Mobile Home, jointly published by The Figures, O Books, Potes & Poets & Roof. The book arrived the same week that Jerry passed over & what was to have been a launch party turned instead into a memorial service at the SPD Bookstore that then existed on San Pablo Avenue. You can still get Rome from SPD as well as Cold Heaven, a slightly earlier book from Manuel Brito’s Zasterle Press in the Canary Islands. An earlier book, A Book of Gestures, published by Jerry’s own Somber Reptiles press in 1980, is worth tracking down as well, capturing as it does his surrealist years (the cover image shows Gertrude Stein conversing with André Breton). Abebooks shows just two copies of that volume to be had, as well as another chapbook I’ve not seen and an issue or two of Jerry’s magazine, Vanishing Cab.

Jerry tended to write in series – Cold Heaven is something of an exception in that regard, save for the last long work, ”The Park,” perhaps the first truly major poem Estrin wrote. A shorter version can be found in Rome. My own favorite Estrin poem, “Brace,” is likewise to be found in Rome & focuses on the meaning of Roger Maris – I don’t know if Jerry knew he had cancer when he began this or not, tho his version was not the lymphoma that took Maris in 1985 at the age of 51. The connotations around Maris’ name have changed considerably since Estrin himself died in ’93, as the two-time American League most-valuable-player enjoyed something of a renaissance of attention when Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa first surpassed Maris’ record in 1998. Here are the first two pages of “Brace,” the ellipses in the original, which focuses on the moment of the homerun itself:

During the 1961 season, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. At the conclusion of his final home run, Maris cried: I’ve taken my last swing, I am finished. I will now be visible forever.

Diary: the grass on the field, the stands, heavy with fans, the press corps, high in the sands, and Maris, connecting with the pitch, the ball, soaring over the center-field wall . . .

Maris, striking the ball, gives the home run its form.

People running, the ball, invisible, in the single movement of the swing . . .

Perfection of the swing, white-out of the ball, a surfeit never extinguished, asymmetrical to the distant epiphany of its form.

Crowds intensely draw all stories to themselves, are capable of any form. Violence of the swing, then a roar.

Without inside, Maris, after his final hit, would not speak, or rather, there was the sight of his swing, caught on camera, repeating itself, forever.

Maris’ swing, its constancy.

Night, Maris, under Yankee Stadium light, the crowd.

The crash of the ball, and Maris, caught in that instant, without inside, opening, to the evening.

Goodbye, he says through the night of the stadium air.    Ah, I am finished.

During of the game, a player’s ration.

Image of Maris, flap of pinstripes, under shadowless stadium light.

Image before, Maris at the plate, bat about to explode into ball.

The roar, the sound of bat on ball. The swing never post-game

but prior to definition, to description

to our agitation.


Repose, words of prose, existing once and for all, removed from bat and ball.

If you look at that grainy QuickTime movie linked above, you will note how much this piece itself is a construction of memory: the home run went over the right-field wall & there were no people running to greet Maris or fetch the historic horsehide (a conflation perhaps with Bill Mazeroski’s World Series’ winning home run the previous autumn). The perfection of form – what this poem is truly about – is entirely Platonic, regardless of how temporary or complex.

Estrin creates the poem out of equal doses of cubism & Objectivism – the idea of a writing “without inside” is the point at which both join – yet his own position is outside of either. The poem’s last page shows Estrin offering a critical, rather than figurative, frame:

Think of a film, an unmoving Roger Maris, whose doll eyes never flicker. Shot of the street, of rhythmical crowds, of Roger there.

Maris the modernist, sufficient to himself, has become the paradoxical hero of an instant that endures without a future.

That last sentence might have been written by Guy Debord, had the French philosopher-vandal only known baseball.

In a way, Jerry Estrin’s own poetry likewise occupies this paradoxical space, still the writing of a young man, but forever a work that is finished, if never complete. I miss him personally a lot, but I know also that the world of poetry never has fully understood just how much his poetry has to offer.



Wednesday, December 28, 2005

 

The absolute antithesis – in publishing terms, although not in spirit – of the UC Press 750-page impeccably hardbound Ted Berrigan Collected Poems is a tall skinny chapbook in an edition of 108 copies from CA Conrad’s new Mooncalf Publications, a series of ten untitled works (or is it one work in ten stanzas?) called Ways to Use Lance by Brett Evans. Evans, as I understand it, was a Philadelphia poet of Louisiana extraction who decided about a year ago to move back to his home town of New Orleans where he lived on Bayou St. John until the waters rose. His acknowledgements page sort of suggests what happened next:

This book is dedicated to the inhabitants of the Noah’s Ark/Hotel Rwanda krewe from the American Can Company – Val, Jonathan, Greg, Kimberlee, Suzanne, Jem, Jordan, Christina, Cha-Cha, Grover, K-Doe, L’il Lu, Murphy, and Whisper – and all the strangers with kindness that helped us walk the water – especially Bill and Nancy for key toy boat hookup; Jose with the pig report; Richard and Robert, who rescued the three dogs; Sherry Doty for Houston magic; Cara, David and Daniel for deliciously needed dry Xanbar there; and for Zee, Monir, and Hernan for their total bravery. Also karmic arm extension to the two Mexican dudes in the boat without whom I’d be dead right now. And those with rescue intent on the e-waves, such as Frank Sherlock.

Additional shout-outs to Theresa,
Hamm, David, Marcella, Bernadine, Anjela, and Vernel, and to Duane, Ahi, and Jenny from the roof.

Nastassia R.I.P.

As a bio note says at the rear of the book, Evans “is now semi-happily displaced / pilgrimated in sunny Philadelphia.”

Still there is more to a book of poems than simple relief that the guy made it out alive under circumstances where not everyone did. Happily, the real news here is the poem (or poems). Evans turns out to be a fine writer, here using a taut line, usually seven or eight syllables long, a long stanza (anywhere between 17 and 29 lines), and a vocabulary that is, as you might imagine from that acknowledgements page, tres street circa ought-five. No two of the ten stanzas here are really alike, tho terms & themes carry over – I do, I realize, read it as a single work – but here is one sample that I think carries some of the flavor of the larger project:

Light saber talks light
baguette – read to be
lost bread fresh out
the baggin. The Krewe of
Tilting at Windmills is watch
ing you, watching your every
lighthouse to
Columbus
move. Snakes of old Havvaii
’R’ ready to be speared.

More likely, roll the holebook
to candy a fly. Spin cane 45’s
til your late show dignitaries
forgo the standing O and let
you have the train to rose
fungus. Methinks it is
the contested lane of
Dead
Sea
has everyone taking a square
peg from necking flowers.

This sort of text is the perfect love child of Louis Zukofsky & Linton Kwesi Johnson, two poets for whom the relationship of English to exile & displacement is not merely coincidental. In fact, tho, this isn’t a Katrina Survivor text any more than it is a tome against the Iraq War or, for that matter, a love poem. Which is to say, all & none of the above. Rather, what happens here occurs word to word, even syllable to syllable, choosing, say, the voiced v in Hawai’i, rather than the scripted-but-"correct" w, a mark that echoes also the entire history of print itself. The poem is driven by sound, yet concerned most with sense, albeit not in any way Billy Collins would see it.

This text is just ten stanzas long, one to a page, easily read in a single sitting, tho if you’re anything like me you will find yourself reading each stanza two & three times before you move to the next page. Read aloud, they have a great feel in the mouth – just try that final sentence above & you’ll sense what I mean – the sensuality of sound being physical & not merely alliterative.

I have only one concern with this book, and it’s one I have with a lot of small press runs, which is that 108 copies is nowhere near enough. Hopefully, Evans will get a collection together soon enough for everyone to have access. As it is, you could write to CA Conrad c/o Mooncalf Press, P.O. Box 22521, Philadelphia 19110 (or at MooncalfPress@aol.com) and see if any copies remain to be had.



Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 

On several occasions of late – for example, when looking at the poetry of Ray DiPalma – I’ve suggested that the writing calls out for a “a honking huge selected or collected poems,” a book that shows not just a few gems or “anthology poems,” but which gives a sense of the scale of his or her life project, the arc of it, the depth. All too often when such a volume occurs, tho, it feels half done, or even done on the cheap. If a book of poems is an inherently problematic publishing venture, nothing is quite so risky as the big book thereof.

Which is why it is great to see it done right, when it is. Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems, when it first came out, set such a standard, tho in fact there were a number of poems that escaped & a revised edition would not be such a bad idea. Which, soon enough, we should have for the work of Jack Spicer, whose own Collected Books was itself a watershed collection. And which we now have, finally, for the work of Ted Berrigan.

It feels hard to suggest that a book of poetry that costs $49.95 is a must-have volume for every serious library, but The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan is absolutely such a work, just as is Jackson Mac Low’s Doings, which costs 5¢ more. 2005 is the year in which the $50 book of poems became something other than a fine press project. The upside is that both of these are great books & a bargain at twice this price.

Some of the things that make the Berrigan wonderful are predictable – the completeness & editorial care given to texts is assured. Ted was unbelievably lucky to have so many good poets in his life, and having Alice Notley, Anselm & Edmund Berrigan as editors is a level of fortune that Ezra Pound & William Carlos Williams never got to have. Page after page, it really shows –for example, in the printing of Train Ride, a 43-page poem recounting just such a trip in 1971, where spatial configuration on the page is essential & the usual collected poems compromise of multiple poems per page jamming things together has to be abandoned. The editors here have followed Robin Blaser’s example with Spicer, to create a collected that is organized around the published books, here including black title pages for each section. Sections for unpublished work are included at different points throughout, with the “Early Uncollected” coming at the end, not the beginning, which makes great sense. As does starting the book with Ted’s classic The Sonnets.

The editorial notes at the end – such as a piece on the use of names in The Sonnets – are detailed & useful. In fact, I have only one editorial quibble with this project at all, the decision to withhold from publication nine sonnets from this sequence as “not strong enough to be published.” I really don’t care if Ted & the editors were right in their judgment – I see no reason to think that they wouldn’t be – I would love to see them in context & The Sonnets complete as written. Someday we are simply going to have to have a variorum edition of that book, just as we do with The Waste Land & Howl.

Ted’s greatest value as a poet – he has several – lies in his use of directness. Directness of address – “Dear Marge,” “Dear Chris” – directness of statement – “SLEEP,” “I go in & / sit down / at this desk” – directness of feeling – “It is important to keep old hat / in secret closet.” This may be something that Berrigan learned from Frank O’Hara, but I don’t think it’s quality that can be taught, if I can make that distinction. And it’s what O’Hara got out of Williams (traceable, I think, back ultimately to Whitman). It’s like a brush-stroke in painting, like having the lightest & most flexible of wrists to enable you to carry the paint from hither to yon effortlessly. If, as a reader, you get it, Berrigan’s work can be breathtakingly gorgeous page after page. But if you don’t – and I think this is possible also – it may sound just like an overweight druggie talking through cigarette smoke.

The test, to my ear, is that, for all of the Berrigan students & influencees in this world, nobody, but nobody, sounds anything like him. He’s virtually impossible to imitate, because the closer you come to the unguarded plain speech his work projects, the more you will sound like yourself, not him. It’s almost like a magic trick, but at the heart of it is an ear for the demotic & a sense of particularity that is absolutely rigorous. Rigor is the secret sauce in all of Berrigan’s work. Secret, because Berrigan’s stance of utter casualness appears to be its antithesis as do some of his lifestyle choices. But it’s no accident that so many of his students ended up as serious publishing writers – no other poet over the past half century comes close – and it’s absolutely consistent with his idea of poetry as a total life commitment. Case in point: a seminal work like Robert Creeley’s Pieces isn’t even possible without the prior example of Berrigan, which is especially interesting when you consider that Creeley’s other major literary influences – Williams, Zukofsky, Olson – all were known for their formal innovations and that Berrigan functionally is a generation younger than Creeley (albeit chronologically just nine years).

Notley, in her introduction, notes that Ted’s characterization as “second generation” anything suggests that the innovation has all taken place before he got there, a comment that made me think back to Jordan Davis’ attempt at a “nameless” history of the NY School in the new mag Vanitas. Part of what made the 2nd generation second was its loving embrace of the first, plus some key shared enthusiasms – painting, for one; France, for another – but part of what made it 2nd was that this new group of poets were in fact radically different from their predecessors – none more so than Berrigan. What a nameless history of that school would have to eventually articulate is just how completely different the poetry is from one gen to the next – and that fact that none of the first gen poets looked to Berrigan (unlike, say, their peer Creeley) where all of gen two did is an important part of this. I’ve always felt that we were (are) too close still to Ted’s presence to get a handle as yet to all that his work actually means for American poetry – it’s hard to fathom that he would be 70 now if he were still alive. The UC Press book is a huge help in this regard – it not only gives a far better sense of the whole terrain of Berrigan’s writing, but in giving us this great big brick of a book, it may even objectify the writing in some fashion, thus letting us get a sense of our own bearings. That probably is the next step in our coming terms with thisgiant talent who wrote poems, as we can now see, really for just 20 years.



Monday, December 26, 2005

 

Twenty or so years ago, when I first began to seriously contemplate preparing my early archives for sale to a university library, I sought out the advice of George Minkoff, one of the premier dealers in such materials. One of my questions to him at the time was just how many letters between poets constituted a major correspondence, at least in the eyes of archivists. His answer – 30 – surprised me. Rae Armantrout and I, for example, have sent one another hundreds of letters. And in the days of email, thousands of electronic messages, often several a day. The idea of thirty letters constituting a major correspondence seems like an odd idea, at least until you to stop to consider what that much letter writing would signify – a relationship that extends over time & probably consists of more than one phase, something with an arc to it. Some important correspondences in literature – Robert Duncan’s with H.D., for example – are considerably less than thirty letters total.

Even by such modest standards, the correspondence between Jonathan Greene & Thomas Merton that is at the heart of On the Banks of Monks Pond is not a major correspondence. Jonathan Greene was a young poet, more or less fresh out of Bard College, when he met Merton after moving to Kentucky. Greene signed on as an unofficial contributing editor to Merton’s journal, Monk’s Pond – Keith Wilson & Jonathan Williams did likewise – but appears to have met Merton just three times before the Trappist monk died at the early age of 53. The correspondence as published is just eighteen letters long – ten of them by Merton – written over eleven months. Some of Merton’s are short enough to anticipate email:

Gethsemani
Friday
[June 7, 1968]

Dear Jonathan:

      Hoping this gets to you. Sat. morning. Lax is not here yet. Don’t know when – maybe next week. I’ll call you when he lets me know. We can get together then.

In haste,
      Tom

Considering just how slim this volume is – just 64 pages – it’s surprisingly satisfying, perhaps because it does such a good job of capturing a moment in time from so many different angles. Since there are just 18 surviving letters – you can sense where another half-dozen or so must have been written but have gone missing – the volume is filled out with a brief memoir by Greene, publisher of Gnomon Press and a fine poet in his own right who is now older than Merton was when he died; an introduction to the journal Monks Pond, Merton’s four-issue journal; photographs taken on the occasion of a picnic that included Greene, Merton & Robert Lax, a poet who shared Merton’s hermetic ways; the letters themselves; and finally an elegy for Merton by Greene.

Merton is one of those poets who could easily have been included in the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry – Merton’s absence, like those of Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen & Louis Zukofsky, has all kinds of literary consequences that one might regret some forty-plus years later. The first issue of Monks Pond shows Merton thoroughly embedded in the New American framework. Besides Merton, contributors included Greene, Williams and Wilson, John C. Wu, Paul Metcalf, Margaret Randall, Shen Hui, Ad Reinhardt, Lorine Niedecker, Wei-Wu-Wei, Ernest Moncrief, Simon Perchik & Alfred Starr Hamilton. One might note further that all, or almost all, of these also operated in terms that kept them from running comfortably with the larger groups amidst the New Americans. Williams was the local kid who stayed on in Ashville, and is in the area to this day. Wilson has become a poet of the Southwest – one might associate him with the New Western aesthetic. Meg Randall at this point was publishing El Corno Emplumado from Mexico City – at least until the aftermath of the riots & protests surrounding the Olympics drove her underground & eventually to Cuba. Niedecker’s cred as an isolato needs no rehearsal here. Perchik’s legal work kept him from hanging out with poets & Alfred Starr Hamilton made Niedecker look like a big city social organizer. Monks Pond, in short, was a gathering of the ungatherable.

One result is that Merton often seems to be one the least classifiable of our most influential poets. The number of anthologies he is not in – the Library of America American Poetry, which cuts off right before he was born, Cary Nelson’s Modern American Poetry, neither volume of the Rothenberg-Joris Poems for the Millennium, Hayden Carruth’s Voice that is Great Within Us – makes it seem unimaginable that this poet is the focus of multiple societies, foundations & other institutions all built around his work, as if he were only a Christian mystic, Father Louis of the Abbey of Gesthemani, a Catholic practitioner who published the best-selling Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 & was a friend of the Dali Lama, who lived in one of the strictest & most monastic of Catholic orders, and who died when he was accidentally electrocuted in 1968 in, of all places, Bangkok. What is best about On the Banks of Monks Pond is precisely the opposite – it places Merton thoroughly within the world of poetry, hoping to meet Anselm Hollo (in those days a British-based translator who worked for the BBC), thanking Greene for passing along an article on Barthes & Lacan, worrying about a contributor’s note for Wendell Berry.

Nor is Merton alone in the avant-/post-avant tradition to be directly & profoundly involved with spirituality & religion. From Brother Antoninus (William Everson) through Phil Whalen, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Sister Mary Norbert Körte, Hozan Alan Senauke, Fanny Howe, Elizabeth Robinson & Lew Daly, there are enough poet-priests, poet-monks, poet-nuns & poets just plain on a quest all their own involving language & spirit out there to constitute a phenomenon that seriously warrants a closer look. It is not, I would suggest, any accident that the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics grew up at a school founded by a lineage holder of both the Kagyu and Nyingma Buddhist traditions. But just what kind of non-accident is it?



Sunday, December 25, 2005

 

For many years now, Sheila E. Murphy has been offering a poem as her holiday card to friends. Her text for this year is worth reading a dozen times or more, its logic, phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence, is so intense & hard-edged. I thought to share it here.

 

Toward the Year 2006

One whittles something, perhaps to reckon with an atmosphere in which the strategy remains produce, send forth, consume. From the cold the wild geese fly away. In a pattern of advance/recede, velocity’s amended. The human spirit falls to virtuosic silence. As if to shift the factual in favor of the show. Perception’s inexperience informs oncoming history, whose viscosity inverts clear thought during deliberation of a wood quintet.

A trellis poised mid-snow, hosting the myth of climb until it’s so



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