Friday, November 14, 2008
My thrust on Tuesday was not that Words in Air, the correspondence of Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop, wasn’t a worthy book. It almost certainly is. Rather my problem is/was two-fold, first with the omnipresent wave of publicity in mainstream media, a consequence not of the book’s value but the book’s publisher, FSG, a brand these days of Macmillan, and with the patently false historic framing that was being accorded the two poets in order to justify the attention being given.
The flip side of this sort of unwarranted excess is that good, even great books end up not receiving the attention they deserve. Case in point: The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader, just out from Black Widow Press in
Part of the genius of this book is that it’s not a selected poems. Every Eshleman does – has been doing now for some 45 years – fits together, from his poetry to crawling around the caves of Southern France, from his attention to fine food to editing & translation. This book captures what came from his pen, meaning that it’s not the whole of the Clayton Eshleman Experience, but it is those facets that come forth as writing.
I’ve been fortunate to have been a reader from the beginning. Eshleman was born in 1935, making him more properly the peer of the likes of Robert Kelly or the Waldrops than my own generation. But he waited until he was in his late twenties to start publishing, or at least to start publishing the work that shows up here. If memory serves me right, I first saw a version of “The Book of Yorunomado,” the earliest poem collected here, in Poetry back in the heyday of Henry Rago’s editorship in the mid-1960s. It was an audacious beginning, announcing Eshleman’s endless intellectual – and emotional – ambition, his engagement with the work of the Projectivists, particularly Olson, and with the psyche, as well as his fascination with world cultures (he was teaching military personnel for the University of Maryland in Kyoto at the time) and especially with the poetry of César Vallejo. It’s all right there at the outset, tho he had yet to set foot in a cave or meet his second wife & lifelong companion, Caryl.
Soon thereafter, Eshleman began the journal Caterpillar, which very rapidly established itself as the premier
If you go back & look at the Caterpillar Anthology, Eshleman’s selection of greatest hits from the first 12 of that journal’s 20-issue history (by the time Clayton & Caryl made their way to Cal Tech, the caterpillar had transformed not into a butterfly, but as Sulfur, the journal which more (most?) of the readers here are apt to remember), what that collection reprints first of Eshleman’s own work is not his poetry, but rather a test of translation he did of versions of Bashō in the second issue. Tho none of Eshleman’s “tests” are among the 20 prose pieces – taken from five volumes – collected in The Grindstone of Rapport (nor is Bashō among the eleven poets translated), that choice for critical thought & for the act of translation is reflected here also. Rather than taking what I think would be the expected path of poems, translations, critical prose, Eshleman puts the prose right in the middle, so that the volume is bracketed by the creative drives of poetry & poetry-in-translation & Eshleman’s critical prose is squarely in the middle where it can’t be ignored as treated as though it were an appendix.
Tho there are moments, absolutely, where you just might take Eshleman’s prose for his poetry – and he writes at length of translation. For Eshleman, the critical dimension is always active, always present in poetry and the poetic / creative dimension is no less active in the prose. If you don’t get that when reading Eshleman, I suspect he must appear to be hard sledding indeed. And it leads to some marvelous nuggets, such as this first paragraph from a piece entitled “Remarks to a Poetry Workshop”:
Many creative writing students put too much of their energy into defending what they write, forming a resistance to change which occurs while attempting to write in a way that depends on change as its primary characteristic.
That’s an assertion I suspect almost any creative writing teacher would endorse, regardless of their aesthetic commitments. As Olson put it in another context, What does not change / Is the will to change, an aphorism apt for so many occasions in our lives. What Olson does not show us, however, is the flip side of that coin: What does not change / Is the fear of change. It is worth noting here just how often in Eshleman’s work – poetry, prose, translation – these competing impulses are at the absolute heart of the drama.
Not surprisingly, Eshleman does not stop with this single-sentence paragraph, even if it is one that should be tattooed on the back of the writing hand of every MFA student. The next paragraph swerves sharply enough to give many a reader nosebleeds:
Rimbaud tells us that I is another. He means by this that the I one brings initially to writing poetry is at best a chrysalis for incubating an imago, an imaginatively mature, or monstrous I whose life is in the poem. To achieve this second I one must translate the first I, moving it from the language of experience and memory to the language of imagination and inspiration.
You can envision any number of readers, and especially writing teachers, on both sides of the avant line, stepping off the bus right here. And yet Eshleman has said nothing more dramatic than that a poem might be described as a machine made of words. It is how we get from here to there that so engages Eshleman – it’s the driving force of so many of his explorations. If Robert Grenier might be said to have embarked on a lifelong quest to articulate how it is that words emerge in thinking, Eshleman is just as active – and just as obsessive – in tracing what happens to the I, the self in that very process. As Creeley, echoing Rimbaud, once wrote: When I speak I speaks. Eshleman wants to open up that territory between the first verb phrase & second, and to bring the whole history of that transformative dimension & how & why it takes place. This accounts for his work on psychology as well as his fascination with the first paintings, the moment man was first able to record this journey from I speak to I speaks. You can, if you read it rightly (I nearly wrote writely), find the whole of human history here, from Galileo to Michelangelo to Pol Pot.
So translation is the key, and not just in the rendering the work of others into our own tongue, tho perhaps that affords some of us the best possible rehearsal of this drama. The final third of Eshleman’s volume includes of course translations from Vallejo & Césaire – work for which he has rightly earned acclaim & awards – but also those French poets who are quite close to his own vision, Rimbaud & Artaud and, to a lesser degree, Deguy & Bador, as well as Neruda several Hungarian & Czech poets.² It is these latter poets who are news to me in this edition, just because I am unfamiliar with their work.
This is a wonderful book, but not without its limitations. Eshleman is not unaware of this himself, and actually offers – a great idea – a list of 13 other projects that would need to be included in a “gargantuan-sized collection” of his writing. As it is, you can tell just how carefully this volume has been put together, with roughly 250 pages of poetry, 170 pages of prose, 160 of translation. I have just two quibbles: one is that a poet whose work so entails a critical intelligence, and which includes so much prose, ought to have an index; the other is that the footers at the bottom of each page would be far more functional if they had included, say, the title of the volume from which they were taken and that of the individual work, rather than just the title of this book and “A Clayton Eshleman Reader.” You can see just how trivial those quibbles are.
I do hope that someday we get to have the gargantuan selection in print. Eshleman’s work warrants it. Ideally, that volume should be published by the likes of FSG and should go to market with the same full-court press we’ve seen for this recent volume of letters. It would be interesting to see FSG publish not just successful books, but important ones.
¹ I have in the past suggested that Caterpillar took over this role from Coyote’s Journal, Jim Koller’s publication that went on hiatus right at that moment & which employed a fairly similar look as publication, only to have Eshleman correct me, noting that his model had been Cid Corman’s Origin. This is unquestionably true, and it is true also that Coyote’s Journal, with its New Western / Zen cowboy aesthetic, offered a very different take on the New American poetries than Caterpillar. Yet it’s worth noting that Origin was a hard publication to find if you weren’t already plugged into the scene fairly deeply, while you could find both the Journal and Caterpillar at several Bay Area locations, such as City Lights, Cody’s, Moe’s & Serendipity. If Robin Blaser had not subscribed to the second series of Origin when he was the poetry buyer for
² The works I would love to see Eshleman translate is Lautréamont’s Maldoror, followed perhaps by some of Ponge’s prose poems.
Labels: Clayton Eshleman