Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Photo © 2003 by John Tranter

By any reasonable measure, the most successful of the literary tendencies associated with the New American Poetry had to be the New York School. Its members won awards, have their collected editions out from major presses & John Ashbery has even managed the magic trick of hypnotizing the School of Quietude into believing that he is one of them. Yet if your name doesn’t happen to be Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Koch, Padgett or Ted Berrigan, attention has been considerably more scarce. Barbara Guest certainly qualifies as one of the more under-appreciated poets of the first generation, even tho she became one of the most influential poets in America in her day. Peter Schjeldahl & David Shapiro are likewise members of the 2nd gen. NY School who ought to have big collecteds out from the likes of FSG, but the former is now usually considered as an art critic, tho possibly one who got his start as a poet. And Carcanet in the U.K. recently released an anthology of NY School poets that doesn’t even include Schjeldahl or Shapiro!?! Or Alice Notley, Anne Waldman or Lewis Warsh!

Such “success” creates a kind of shadow effect – everyone remembers Allen Ginsberg, but try to find the Collected Poems of Kirby Doyle. That latter edition was published by Greenlight Press in 1983, but when I searched AddAll for copies through used or rare book dealers, I could find just six copies, only one of which is going for under $100. It made me really appreciate the $4 edition I bought out in Oakland a couple of weeks back.

One poet whose reputation – tho not his poetry – has I think suffered from this shadow effect is Simon Pettet. He’s someone – not unlike Reed Bye – who just might be much more widely known & celebrated far & wide were he not always associated with the NY School gen 3. Jacket did a feature on his work in issue 25, including a lovely appreciation by Robert Creeley that had once served as an introduction of Pettet’s work translated into Italian, published in Sardinia. If it weren’t for Ed Foster’s Talisman House press, we might have ourselves to go to Sardinia to find the work. Talisman, which continues to be perhaps the largest independent press without a regular web site, issued Pettet’s Selected Poems, a surprisingly slender book, back in 1995, and more recently published More Winnowed Fragments. SPD has both books in stock.

Pettet’s sense of humor shines through that latter title, self-deprecating & wry. He was actually born in the U.K., tho the only evidence for it you might find in his work is a tendency to set a number of works into palpably European settings – which is not so different, say, from a Harry Matthews – and a willingness on occasion to rhyme, tho only in spots. Viz:


It all passes
Ah, but the lasses
These bodies
shall decompose

All’s grey
inside and outside
The bird in the bush is

the mad piper,

as are
The cows in the field .

Part of what makes me trust this poem as much as I do is the space between the final word & the period, a gap that captures the unhurried aspect of pastoral, a literary device one associates with Paul Blackburn & which is not much in use today.

My favorite poems of Pettet’s tend to be his shortest, often untitled, sometimes pure description:

La luce terra cotta olive green
Fig tree quiet Tuscan morning birdsong
Church bell toll butterfly zig-zag
(cars on the road zoom by and then returning to silence)
paving stones, dappled shadows

This isn’t an entirely successful poem – I wish Pettet had found another word than zoom to employ there, especially as it’s the first verb coming after three-plus lines of detail – but this poem’s strengths are so strong that it persuades me completely in spite of itself. Or this, literally on the facing page:

mention to the girl in the vets
about the butterflies
and she’s excited!

wants to,
but has never done it before
but is willing to try (tho)

There’s a remarkable power in that last parenthetical word, even tho the word itself at first seems extraneous, perhaps even unnecessary. What in fact it captures is that flinching second thought familiar I would imagine to all of us. I’ve never seen that pulled off in a poem before. It works perfectly here.


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