Here is a note I wrote on David's work here in 2005.
1937 - 2016
written on numerous occasions that the so-called San Francisco
Renaissance was largely a fiction, perpetrated in part by Donald Allen
in order to give The New American Poetry a
section that acknowledged just how much of this phenomenon rose up out
of the San Francisco Bay Area – a literary backwater prior to WW2, but
now suddenly a primary locale for much that was new. The other part –
and it’s not clear to me who, if anyone, could be said to have
perpetrated this – was an allusion back to the earlier Berkeley
Renaissance, which had been a decisive, thriving literary tendency in
the late 1940s, early 1950s. If you look at Allen’s S.F. Renaissance
grouping, you call still make out the vestiges of that earlier moment in
the presence of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer & Robin Blaser, the
trio that had given rise to the Berkeley Renaissance while studying at
the University of California, along with, I suppose, Helen Adam, who at
the time of the anthology was something of a Duncan protégé. Yet there
are also poets representing an older San Francisco scene, such as
Madeline Gleason & James Broughton & even – tho it’s a
stretch, given what a loner he was, at least when he wasn’t actively
channeling Robinson Jeffers – Brother Antoninus (William Everson). Then
there are a group of younger poets – Richard Duerden, Kirby Doyle, Ebbe
Borregaard & Bruce Boyd – whom it’s harder to place
aesthetically, a fact that is still true some 45 years after the book’s
initial publication, as they’ve become its
least published participants. That Allen placed Lawrence Ferlinghetti
into this grouping, rather than with the Beats, suggests just how
arbitrary these distinctions were.
that he was improvising & fabricating in search of clustering
principles in general, it’s curious that Allen completely missed one of
the most interesting & useful formations among the New
Americans, a western poetics that may have first revealed itself at Reed
College in Portland, and which didn’t fully take flight until the mid-
to late-1950s in San Francisco. Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Phil
Whalen in fact were just the first of a number of poets who came out of
this aesthetic – one could probably put Duerden & Borregaard
there as well, plus three other contributors to the Allen anthology, all
of whom joined Snyder & Whalen in Allen’s curiously amorphous
unaffiliated fifth grouping: Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn &
David Meltzer. Beyond the Allen anthology itself, one might add Richard
Brautigan, James Koller, Joanne Kyger, David Schaff, Bill Deemer, Drummond Hadley, Clifford Burke, David Gitin, John Oliver Simon, Lowell Levant, John Brandi, Gail Dusenberry
& a host of others. In general, these poets were straight where
the Duncan-Spicer axis was gay. Perhaps most importantly, this cluster
really had no leaders as such. It was not as though some, such as Snyder
or Whalen, might not have led by example, but that their personalities
were not given to the constant marshalling of opinion that one could
identify in such others as Olson, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, O’Hara or
even Creeley. This mode – lets call it New Western – perhaps reached its
pinnacle of influence during the heyday of Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal during
the mid-1960s. But without anything like a leader or a program, poised
midway aesthetically between the Beats & Olson’s vision
of Projectivist Verse, the phenomenon never gelled, never became A
Thing & by the 1970s already was entering into an entropic
period from which it has yet to re-emerge.
Just 23 when The New American Poetry hit
the streets, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer were the babies of
that project (indeed, they’re just one year older than David Bromige
& David Melnick & eight years younger than Hannah
Weiner, all of whom would be associated more closely with language
writing come the 1970s). Loewinsohn went on to become a literature
professor & novelist, but Meltzer has hung in as a poet, with a
few side forays into music, jazz writing & erotic fiction, all
these decades. Now, with David’s Copy just out from Penguin, Meltzer seemed poised to get the attention his work is due.
considering just how many of the Beat poets were treated like rock
stars while Meltzer, fronting Serpent Power with his late wife Tina (and
drums by Clark Coolidge), actually had a rock band long before Jim
Carroll or Patti Smith, it’s odd that Meltzer hasn’t become much more
widely known, celebrated before this. David’s Copy is at least the fourth selected poems he’s published, the others being Tens, Arrows & The Name, and
many of his earlier books were published by Black Sparrow, one of the
rare small presses to have had some volumes – mostly those by Charles
Bukowski – widely distributed through the big book chains.
are, I suspect, multiple reasons for this. One is that New Western
aesthetic never really broke through, even if a few of its practitioners
– Whalen, Snyder, McClure – did. A second, more important aspect is
that old bugaboo of so many poets – Meltzer’s not a compulsive
self-promoter. As the youngest of the New Americans, his timing was just
a little behind from a marketing perspective. Indeed, as Ginsberg et al
became folk icons in the 1960s, Meltzer’s first books that decade were
from small Bay Area fine presses like Auerhahn & Oyez – his one
big trade publication prior to David’s Copy being an anthology he edited in 1971, The San Francisco Poets, a
collection notably missing the Duncan/Spicer axis, including just
Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Welch, McClure, Brautigan & Everson.
Meltzer’s first sizeable collection doesn’t appear until 1969, when he
brings out Yesod with
the British press, Trigram. It didn’t receive much distribution
stateside. Black Sparrow releases his first large collection in the
states, Luna, in 1970.
of this neglect may also be due to the fact that Meltzer is Jewish.
It’s not that there were no Jews among the New Americans – Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Eigner
all come instantly to mind. But the intersection between the New
American poetry & the New Age approach to religious experience
in the 1960s (Serpent Power?) tended to mute its presence in all but
Ginsberg’s writing. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all shocked to discover
that many readers of Eigner were late to discover the heritage of the
bard of Swampscott. In the 1960s, the Objectivists were only gradually
coming back into print. And Jerome Rothenberg didn’t really begin making
the space for an active presence for a Jewish space within American
poetics until late in that decade, during that interregnum betwixt the
New Americans & language poetry.
Meltzer – and this I think is a sign of his youth relative, say, to
Whalen or Snyder or Ginsberg or Olson or Duncan or O’Hara et al – lacked
the kind of visible trademark of a differentiated literary style that
one associates with all of the above, and even with someone closer to
Meltzer’s age, like Michael McClure. Meltzer’s work has always been in
the vicinity of New American poetics without ever being its own
recognizable brand – as such, it would be difficult if not impossible
for a younger poet to mimic. It’s not that Meltzer lacked the chops
& more as though he never saw the need per se. In this sense,
Meltzer’s situation is not unlike that, say, of a Jack Collom, another
terrific poet of roughly the same generation who has never really gotten
the recognition he deserves. In a sense, those who were a little
further outside the New American circle – like poets in New York who
were visibly not NY
School, such as Rothenberg, Antin, Ed Sanders or Joel Oppenheimer – had
an advantage because their circumstance forced them to define
themselves in opposition even to poets whose work they cherished.
if there is a defining element or signature device in Meltzer’s work,
it’s that he alone among the New Westerns has an eye for the hard edges
of pop culture, something one expects from the NY School. Often, as in
this passage from “Hollywood Poems,” it’s accompanied by a tremendously
De Chirico without Cheracol
saw space where its dead echo opened up
a plain unbroken by the dancers.
a relic supermarket nobody shops at.
Plaster-of-Paris bust of Augustus
Claude Rains Caesar face-down beneath
a Keinholz table
whose top is blue with Shirley Temple’s saucers,
pitchers. Mickey Mouse
wind-up dolls in rows like Detroit.
All tilt out of the running without electricity.
Veils of history,
garments worn in movies, hung on
steel racks at Costume R.K.O.
R. Karo would’ve used the tower’s light.
He’d wear it as a cap to re-route lost energy.
So dense with details that it rides like a list (& sounds
like a Clark Coolidge poem), this passage is actually a better
depiction of a De Chirico landscape than those one finds in John
Ashbery’s poetry. David’s Copy is filled with such moments, which makes it a terrific read.
might squabble with the fact that the book is not strictly
chronological, or that the first 25 years of his writing gets more
weight (over 150 pages) than does the last 25 (roughly 100), tho I
suspect that’s because more of the recent work is still in print. On the
whole, such squabbles are few. Editor Michael Rothenberg had done a
first-rate job here, smartly including bibliography & a decent
two-page bio note from Meltzer & an excellent introduction from
Jerry Rothenberg. Toward the end of the introduction, Rothenberg notes:
Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything. It
was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young
poets – the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that
attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and
his world.” Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small
or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to
critic-masters who were themselves, most often, nonpractitioners & nonseekers.
my perspective, it’s a shame that project never took hold, but then I
don’t think there’s any contradiction between such scale & the
desire to “think small” (or, as I might put it, to write in the present)
– that’s one lesson one takes from Zukofsky’s “A.” Throughout,
there are works that evidence an impulse to “go long,” almost in the
sense of a football quarterback, but most often they come back to the
compilation of shorter works that one might expect to see from the likes
of Whalen, Welch or Snyder. The whole of David’s Copy offers us a deeper link into that New Western poetics, even as it connects that world outward, toward the New York School & the poetics that would emerge in the 1970s & ‘80s in a journal like Sulfur. The
key, as it is in New Western poetry in general, is precisely that
desire to “think small” as Rothenberg puts it, to write in the complete
present. Meltzer is less openly Zen-like than, say, Whalen or Joanne
Kyger, but the pleasure can be every bit as deep.
Paul Blackburn and Me
It’s been thirty years
since I finished editing the Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn. I still can’t
Paul Blackburn died on September 13, 1971 — exactly
forty-five years ago today. He was forty-four. I never met him, but I spent
more than half a decade with him, writing my dissertation and editing his
collected and selected poems. When I started this three-pronged project, it
seemed to me that Blackburn had lived a reasonably long life. By the time I
finished, I thought he’d died tragically young.
As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. Bear with me
here. I never wrote down this story before, so I’m relishing the details.
I first encountered Blackburn in the late 1970s through M.L.
Rosenthal, whose Yeats seminar I had taken as a grad student at NYU. I’d been
contemplating writing a thesis about one of the confessional poets, Rosenthal’s
specialty, but when I went in to talk to him about possible dissertation subjects,
Rosenthal said, “What do you think about Paul Blackburn?”
I hadn’t thought about him at all. I’d never heard of him. Rosenthal
explained, “Blackburn’s widow asked me to edit his collected poems. I don’t
have the time but I told her I would pass the job along to a qualified graduate
student.” He added, “If you do the scholarly edition for your dissertation, you’ll
end up with a published book when you get your Ph.D.”
I got hold of The
Cities, the book Rosenthal had recommended as quintessential Blackburn. Many
of the poems were about the BMT subway line, which I’d grown up riding in
Brooklyn. I admired Blackburn’s technical skill, his musical score-like
notations of the works, his ability to make the writing look easy. I shoved down
my doubts about his attitudes towards women. A published book... Now there was
a shiny object for an aspiring academic.
The project turned out to be far more complex than I’d
anticipated. First, I had to come up with a criterion for inclusion in the
edition. I opted for poems that had been previously published. But what
constituted publication? A lot of Blackburn poems appeared only in mimeographed
editions. Should those be included?
I next had to decide on an organization. Should the poems
appear in the same groupings as the published volumes? There was too much overlap,
and many poems were published in poetry journals but not books.
My choice of a chronological arrangement led to other
questions: Should the date be based on the first draft of the poem or the
published version? And how would I determine the first draft date? And if
Blackburn revised the poem after it was published, which version should I use?
I became a poetry detective, interviewing ex-wives and
friends, identifying typewriters, tracking down biographical clues in the poems
(luckily there were a lot of those). The process was fascinating, but time
consuming. It didn’t help my efficiency that I was commuting between New York
and San Diego, where Blackburn’s widow, Joan, had sold his papers to UCSD’s
Archive for New Poetry.
San Diego – now there was another shiny object. A typical
Easterner, I went there expecting to find a smaller version of Los Angles. The
freeways were there, and also some of the congestion, but so was a seascape of
surprisingly pristine beauty, and a string of coastal cities, each with their
own distinct character. USCD resided in the poshest —and probably most stunning
— of them all, La Jolla.
I was hired to catalogue Blackburn’s archive and thus was often
on the scene for the groundbreaking reading series created by poet Michael
Davidson, the Archive for New Poetry’s director. I became part of the inner
circle of the graduate students and young academics in the UCSD literature
department. I also got friendly with the local writers in town (Rae Armantrout
and Jerome Rothenberg, for example), as well as visiting writers like Lydia
Davis and Ron Silliman. By no means was this project all work and no play.
I never quite pinned down how I felt about Blackburn’s
poetry, but after a while it didn’t matter. The editing was an end in itself
and Paul Blackburn was part of my life, day and night. He haunted my dreams.
Sometimes the scenarios were sexual, sometimes as everyday as my kitchen
cabinets. Kind of like his poetry.
Finally, I had a scholarly edition of 623 poems. For each, I
detailed the decisions that went into the editing and dating. I added a
critical introduction of maybe 50 pages, discussing Blackburn’s biography and
his place in the poetry pantheon as well as the editing theory.
Seemed like a wrap to me.
The powers that be at NYU disagreed. Now that his oeuvre had
been established – by me! – they argued that I had a basis for a “real” dissertation, a 200-page critical introduction
about Blackburn himself, rather than about the editing process. Who says irony
When I finished this next Sisyphean task, I brought eight volumes
into the office of the recorder at NYU. She said, “You’re only supposed to
bring in two copies of your dissertation.”
“That is two
copies,” I said.
I’d had it with academia by then. It wasn’t just the hoops
I’d had to jump through at NYU. By the time I took my qualifying exams, my prose
style had been pulverized; I had the sentence structure of Henry James and the
verbal clarity of Yogi Berra. A decade earlier, I was writing college papers
praised for their lucidity. Next thing I knew, I was submitting a proposal for
a dissertation titled “From Apocalypse to Entropy: An Eschatological Study of
the American Novel.” I switched thesis topics and advisors but didn’t kick the
jargon and passive construction habits.
Which was a problem, because what I really wanted to be was
a writer, not a literary critic.
My not so-brilliant career plan had been to get tenure and
then, in my spare time, devote myself to my craft, in whatever genre that
turned out to be. Being a teaching
assistant at NYU had cured me of any desire to teach, which I realized would be
the main part of my job description. And that published book that was going to
help me secure my place in academia? It wasn’t going to do the trick or even
come close. Paul Blackburn, I now understood, was a “dead white guy,”
academia-speak for someone representing the establishment. My untrendy
specialty would consign me to the boonies before I could—maybe, possibly, who
knows? — snag a job in a decent city.
Nor did I want to give up my Greenwich Village apartment.
I grew up in Brooklyn and had finally acquired what every
bridge-and-tunnel brat aspired to in the days before the boroughs became hip: a
rent-stabilized place in Manhattan. Call me crazy, but I didn’t want to move
someplace I didn’t want to live to do something I didn’t want to do.
I helped with the publication of the Collected Poems by Persea Press in 1985. I tackled the Selected Poems next. Somewhere in
between there were small Blackburn books – The
Parallel Voyages, The Lost Journals
– and a few journal articles.
Slowly but surely I opted out of my role as the keeper of
the Blackburn flame, handmaiden to his reputation — and as a potential academic.
First, I happened into a job as a guidebook editor at the
travel division of Simon and Schuster. It took two more travel publishing jobs
and a move to Tucson in 1992 to finally jumpstart my long-delayed writing career.
This time, I had fewer qualms about leaving New York.
My retreat from all things Blackburn continued until 9/11. My
niece had phoned from San Antonio to make sure I was okay; though I was living
in Tucson, I often visited New York and my old digs in lower Manhattan.
Talk about wake up calls. Suppose I were to die suddenly –
and intestate? I was divorced, had no children, and my parents were no longer
alive. Everything would have gone by default to my older sister, from whom I
was estranged. I didn’t have much of an estate, except my literal estate. I
loved the swirled stucco home near the University of Arizona that I had bought for
a song – and I still loved literature. I decided to will my house to the UA’s
excellent Poetry Center, where it would be a residence for visiting writers. It
would be named for Paul Blackburn.
More time passed. My writing career thrived, though it was
diffuse. I authored three guidebooks, published hundreds of travel articles, became
a restaurant reviewer, wrote a dog book, became a dog blogger, discovered that
my great uncle’s butcher shop in Vienna had been in the same building as
Sigmund Freud and became a genealogy blogger [www.freudsbutcher.com].
One day, maybe two years ago, a friend tagged me on
Facebook to join a poetry discussion about Paul Blackburn. It was like
attending my own funeral. One of the participants wondered what had happened to
me. Another chimed in, authoritatively, that I had “become a professional dog
person.” Clearly, my dog blog had better SEO than my genealogy blog.
This public erasure of my career between the Blackburn years
and the publication of my dog book was one of the many things that inspired me
to finish a memoir that had been on the back burner for about a decade, called Getting Naked for Money. Traditional
publishing had by now hit the skids and I wanted more control over my work and,
especially, over my royalties. I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money
to publish it myself.
It was through that campaign and reconnecting with old
friends from my poetry past that I discovered there had been a combined
celebration of the digitizing of Paul Blackburn’s archive at UCSD/surprise retirement
party for Michael Davidson—to which I hadn’t been invited. Well, fuck. Now even
that accomplishment had been erased.
I thought about my bequest to the UA. Why was I still holding
on to any connection to Paul Blackburn? Others around me had clearly moved on,
abnegating my role. I still wanted to will my house to the university as a
writer’s residence, but now, I decided, it would be reserved for women over 50
writing in any genre. Women that the world tended to ignore, in spite of the
good work they were doing.
I contacted the UA and said I’d like to change the terms of my
This was about a month ago. Here’s where the story gets really
At around the same time, I had dinner with a woman whose
acquaintance I had made earlier this year at a Seder, another single ex-New
Yorker. I started telling her about changing my bequest to the UA. She
interrupted me mid-sentence. “Did you say Paul Blackburn?” she practically
Yes, I said, Paul Blackburn. I thought she was confused.
Blackburn had always been a poet’s poet. In my experience, the publication of
the Collected Poems and Selected Poems hadn’t done much to widen
She knew exactly whom I meant. Paul Blackburn had been her
first lover. She had been 17; he had been in his mid-thirties and married to
his second wife, Sara. They saw each other for about a year. She eventually left
New York and married someone else but always thought, somehow, that Paul would
turn up in her town, maybe to give a reading. She was shocked to learn that he
died, about a year after the fact.
She sent me pictures that she and Paul had taken in a photo
booth, he preserved in amber with a little goatee, she in a fresh-faced
youthful incarnation that was equally mythical to me.
I wasn’t surprised at the revelation of the affair; his
poetry had always hinted at infidelities. I was saddened because I’d liked Sara
Blackburn the few brief times I’d met her, but I was hardly one to judge. Mostly,
I was appalled at the age — and power —difference. As my friend said, if it was
today, he might have been charged with statutory rape by her parents.
I felt like I was in a weird time loop, doomed to relive a
past that was no longer relevant to my present over and over.
But the incident sent me back to The Collected Poems
. I looked at my introduction.
graduate school hadn’t robbed me of all lucidity after all, though I’d had to
work harder to achieve it. And I realized, again, that what I thought and think
about the poetry makes little difference. The collection exists, beautifully
presented by Persea, painstakingly edited by me.
It brought pleasure to Blackburn’s many
admirers. That’s no small accomplishment to claim.
And, I figured, if you can’t escape your past, you can share
your version of it – with a little help from your friends.
Labels: Edie Jarolim, Paul Blackburn