Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The nature of influence changes over time. I have sometimes thought that the New Western poets who came along after Snyder, Whalen, Dorn et al were simply too close in age to their own masters & that this, as much as the problems of poetry distribution from – for the most part – the American Southwest – had much to do with why such names as Drum Hadley, Bobby Byrd, Bill Deemer, John Brandi & Jim Koller aren’t more widely known today. Similarly, I’ve felt the Actualists had the same problem of proximity to their masters, most notably Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo, and that this had as much do to with their fate as, say, the lethal alcoholism of Darrell Gray. Even for the finest poets, too close a relationship to a present master can make it much harder to establish themselves as genuinely independent figures. Michael Palmer’s proximity to Robert Duncan, for example, proved as much a handicap as a blessing, especially during his early years. Similarly, Norma Cole’s proximity to Michael Palmer – the title of her book Mace Hill Remap is an anagram of his name – made it hard for some readers to recognize those aspects that were uniquely her own perspective (her two works in the giant Poetry and Its Arts retrospective at the California Historical Society in January 2005 were breathtakingly original, combining poetry, installation art and, in the case of the “room,” performance, albeit in the most casual, anti-performative manner). Another way of looking at this same issue is to note that the success of the second generation of the New York School was in good measure due to the distinctly different sensibility of Ted Berrigan, who guaranteed that what was to come could not possibly be read merely as “the acolytes of Frank, John & Kenneth.” A little distance does a world of good.

The name Michael Palmer also percolates up repeatedly from the work of Ben Lerner in Angle of Yaw, published by Copper Canyon. From the organization of the book itself, the multiple sections that have the same title as the volume, to individual stanzas, such as the opening passage of “Didactic Elegy”:

Intention draws a bold, black line across and otherwise white field.

Speculation establishes gradation of darkness

where there are none, allowing the critic to posit narrative time.

I posit the critic to distance myself from intention, a despicable affect.

Yet intention is necessary if the field is to be understood as an economy.

The only major difference between a passage like this, which seems committed to a referential terrain that, like Palmer’s, one wants to call philosophical geometry, or perhaps geometric philosophy, that plane that in painting underscores so much of the landscape of the surrealists, is that Palmer’s commitment to beauty as decadence invariably leads him toward a lushness of sound this passage seems to avoid. But that is a telling distinction, which looms up large in other works, such as many prose passages in the twin “Angle of Yaw” sections. Consider:

THE AUTHOR EXPOSES HIMSELF IN PUBLIC like film. Every surface secretly desires to be ruled. A faint hazy cone in the plane of the ecliptic precedes the tabulation of a body by a train. Read only to resist the temptation to write. Skew lines and slickensides in an era of polarized light. The zip disk of snuff films your son defends as research has divided the community into infinite subdistances. Born losers born ready to be born again, we await the mayor’s address in metal chairs. Then it hits me: I’m the mayor.

Humor in Palmer’s work ranges between dry and droll, and appears sparingly, like a silver thread of scandal. It’s frankly goofier & closer to the surface in Lerner’s work, a heritage possibly of that same second generation of the New York School. Further, Lerner is willing to expose the issue of polished surfaces as a formal dimension of the work of art, as such. Literally on the facing page preceding the work above is this, also quoted in its entirety:

THE PHENOMENA OF EXPERIENCE have been translated into understanding. Plug the exposed voids in the veneer cores to eliminate nesting. We live in the best of all possible worlds. Stain the compound to match the plywood finish.

This poem offers a marvelously daft recasting of the history of literary devices. The third sentence – a generalization that sweeps the particulars of the foregoing away – is a deep echo of Rilke’s last line to the torso of young Apollo, undercut here precisely by its anticlimactic position. The last sentence underscores what is merely implicit in the second: that the found material here comes from some do-it-yourself woodworking manual. Now it becomes evident that the first and third sentences might themselves be derived from external materials, including just perhaps an Rilke-for-Dummies close reading guide.

There is a confidence here that one almost never finds in Palmer’s work &, interestingly enough, it’s the one thing that gets Lerner in trouble, as in:

NO MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE A TOY, a child will find a way to put it in his mouth. There is scarcely a piece of playground equipment that has not been inside a child’s mouth. However, the object responsible for the greatest number of choking deaths, for adults as well as children, is the red balloon. Last year alone, every American choked to death on a red balloon.

Here, the joke overcomes the use of the joke and the poem collapses into a one dimensional plane we may associate, say, with Russell Edson. But it’s done so well is the obvious rejoinder, and there’s no question that it is. All the more reason it should have been left out. What in Lerner’s best pieces functions as a disruption of the poetic here simply lies flat. Lerner’s best work comes at the other extreme, when the frame of reference appears to change on an almost sentence-by-sentence basis:

THE SMUGNESS MASKS A HIGHER SADNESS. We are unaware of the patterns we generate. In the carpet grass, the snow crust. When we don’t know a word, we say, Look it up. Up? And the Lord withdrew his thumb, trailing delicate, rootlike filaments, leaving a hole in my chest the size of a polis. From which I address you, Hamsun. If you dig deep enough, you hit water, then hell, then China. So why not fly? Getting there is half the fun; the other half: not getting there.

And Lerner shows that he can do this also in a way where disparate threads weave almost seamlessly:

AN IMAGE OF ULTIMACY in an age of polarized light. Will you marry me, skywrites the uncle. A pill to induce awe with a side effect of labor. A lateral inward tilting and the aircraft pushes its envelope. A minor innovation in steering outdates a branch of literature. Envelopes push back. The way a wake turns to ice, then vapor, then paper, uniting our analogues in error, intimacy’s highest form. Jet engines are designed to sublimate stray birds. No appears in the corn.

That probably is my favorite piece in the entire book because so much is going on here, and at such finely tuned points of precision. The word awe thus rhymes with a word that doesn’t appear in the piece at all (yaw), tho it is immediately (and obliquely) described. The word uncle rends the whole sense of romance implicit in the first half of its own sentence – and is that final sentence a reply? Or the second, more overt rhyme: vapor, paper. And what is the relationship being staked out here between error and incest? As the diagram at the top of this note (from Wikipedia’s definition of the yaw angle) suggests, this is in some ways the title poem of this book. Tho Yaw also is the Levantine god of chaos. And rivers. So I hear the word labor at the end of that second sentence principally around the denotation of childbirth – maybe that’s the echo from all the references to pushing. But one senses, reading & rereading this poem, that it may not have been written in exactly this form. Rather it feels that it began deep inside – maybe with the sentence Envelopes push back – and then moved outward in both directions, as tho there were concentric circles of connotation rippling outward.

So ultimately Michael Palmer is just one of many influences visibly threaded here throughout the text, as this book attempts many things Palmer would never think to do and fails to take up battles that are central to Michael & his work. The difference between Lerner’s relationship to Palmer & that of Cole seems mostly to be one of time. Much like the New Western poets in their relation to the New Americans, Cole is only a couple of years younger than Palmer, who was born in 1943. Lerner, however, was born in 1979. Lerner’s mother, the well-known psychologist Harriet Lerner, actually is younger than Palmer.

Harold Bloom has rather poisoned the well of influence in recent poetic discourse, partly because his theory of strong & weak misreadings equating to strong & weaker poets is wrong – both Cole & Lerner are by any test strong poets – but even more because, like the very New Critics against whom Bloom’s work was a reaction, he has misused his critical position too often to promote and defend minor or marginal characters – Geoffrey Hill, A.R. Ammons – largely missing out (the exception’s would be Ashbery & Duncan) on the major poets of his own time.

It’s true that there will always be acolytes and poets who are but pale photocopies of their heroes, who take their attendant master as limit rather than as suggestion of possibility. But the difference between Norma Cole & Ben Lerner is not that one is a strong poet, the other not, but rather a factor of time. Cole had to win her critical distance and, because she’s good artist, she did. But Lerner I suspect just finds it easier at the outset to have such distance with a poet who is roughly the age of his parents.

Indeed, someone like Jack Spicer might have had his career aided somewhat by being mostly out of print for a decade after his death in 1965, many of closest compatriots scattered about British Columbia, rather than concentrated around the scene in North Beach. Particularly given his reputation as a difficult personality, a little distance here may well have been the difference between utter disregard (cf. Ferlinghetti’s relatively recent “Do people still read him?”) and the recognition of Spicer as a major figure of the mid-century period that is in fact now becoming common.

All of which is to say, perhaps, that, yes, I do see/hear Michael Palmer’s hand floating not so far from some of the work of Ben Lerner. But it’s not something Ben Lerner has to worry about, “get over,” or “go beyond.” In some ways, he was born already having done so.


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