Saturday, October 05, 2002

One point that I’ve made three times* since I began the Blog a little over a month ago is that themes, for me at least, don’t work. That is to say, I literally can’t read them. Them, in this instance, being poems with a point. When I try, the poem invariably loses my interest before I complete the text. My experience as a reader is that it feels like coercive sentiment & I find myself physically repelled by the poem. The affect is nausea. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the sentiment or not. Nor for that matter does it need to be about war or politics – I’ve had the same problem with any number of other noble topics, from AIDS to the environment to love.

Great political poetry – & by extension thematic poetry – is not impossible. I would point to Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” and Robert Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13” as two of the finest works of the past fifty years, let alone two of the best political poems. In each instance, the devastation & viciousness that is the essence of war** functions as no more than one axis around which a much wider range of reference is organized. The experience of each poem is to move outward, incorporating a broader & much richer cross-section of the world than, say, just the political. In the process, each contextualizes (thus making a case for the importance of) the underlying theme itself.

With its massive deployment of parallelisms invoking a tone right out of the Old Testament and the call-&-response oral traditions of the black Baptist church, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is neither great poetry nor simply another commemorative bauble by Pinsky, Collins or Angelou. At one level, the poem is about the palpable but nonetheless abstract presence of evil in the world itself. At another, the dizzying juxtapositions that are yoked together via the constant question – “Who? Who? Who?” – play with the concept of paranoia itself. Anti-Semitism runs throughout the poem, not simply in the few lines that have been scattered widely about the media. So do anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism and a limited version of anti-racism. But ultimately it is the referential range of Baraka’s juxtapositions –

Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere

Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Against Racism
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of

that restricts the poet’s impulse. The poem exists entirely at the level of public discourse. There may be moments of referential opacity if you don’t get a reference, but none of intimacy. It may help some readers to know that “Little Bobby” is Bobby Hutton, the first person to sign on with Huey Newton & Bobby Seale in Oakland’s Black Panther Party, gunned down at the age of 18 by the police there on April 6, 1968, but the poem does nothing to suggest that Hutton, or anyone for that matter, has any reality or meaning beyond the headlines from which the poem is constructed. Private life is reduced to the mention of a tax cut.

The public reactions to this poem have generally missed its playful elements as well as the way in which that reiterated baseline who who echoes a genuine howl of grief that is also present & perfectly audible in the text. It is in the nature of public discourse to miss just such elements of life, poetic justice of sorts for a text that is so indebted to this same discourse. But the ineluctable problem of any thematic text almost invariably has to do with its reduction of discourse. Duncan & Ginsberg could not be more radically opposed to Baraka.

** It matters little whether or not the war can be “justified.”

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Friday, October 04, 2002

For a very long time, Kit Robinson has been one of the finest writers of the lyric around, very possibly the finest. In an age that, for reasons more social than literary, has not been particularly kind to the lyric, Kit Robinson might well be the most underappreciated writer of my generation. There ought to be a large Selected Poems and a fat festschrift or two devoted to his accomplishments, but instead Robinson has slipped quietly under the radar.

There are several plausible reasons for this – Robinson has stayed out of the academy*, seems genuinely to dislike the hustle of self-promotion, doesn't haunt internet discussion lists – but I would suggest that focusing on the lyric has itself been a contributing factor.  To the degree that this form of poetry is too often not recognized as serious or "weighty," readers miss out on what Kit Robinson has also become: the most acute chronicler of the white-collar office environment we have.

Like the best poetry anywhere, this does not mean that Robinson focuses solely or obsessively on work or the office. Rather, he employs a discourse deeply informed by these vocabularies and terrains. It percolates up again & again. In this sense Robinson is truly a labor poet at a time when, with a few notable exceptions like Rodrigo Toscano & Kevin Magee, class has been largely erased from the post-avant landscape:

The sun is like an X-ray
that deletes old voicemail messages

This simple passage works on so many levels – as humor, as science**, & finally as the incorporation of this intense "natural" Other into a scale of cultural minutiae on a par with answering machines.  It's just one moment among many in The Crave, Robinson's new collection from Atelos, which I wish I'd written.

* An interesting choice for the son of an English professor.

** The sun really does give off rays & solar storms can erase data from magnetic media

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Thursday, October 03, 2002


O for Opacity:
I have been devouring the poetry of David Bromige with interest ever since I first went to hear him read with Harvey Bialy in 1968 at the Albany Public Library, a series curated by Manroot editor Paul Mariah. Having gotten to know the man and his work reasonably well in the ensuing 34 years, one might think I would not be surprised the nature of any new book by the British-born, Canadian raised author. One would be wrong.
As in T as in Tether (Chax, 2002) shows yet a new side to the bard of Sebastapol* as this master of erudition turns instead to mount arguments so densely packed as to resist yielding beyond the surface domains of the signifier. It's hardly accidental. The book, which I've thus far only partly completed (and am reading most slowly because I don't want it to ever end), is composed of four sections, the first subdivided into five sections, the remaining three each containing 16. The poems in the last three sections are numbered 1 through 15: each section contains one poem numbered 7.5. Of the 53 sections or pieces, only one (to which I have not yet gotten) is in a format other than the centered stanzas that we have most recently come to associate with the poetry of a very different Bay Area writer, Michael McClure.
Bromige announces the language as signifier theme in the first of the four sections, which the first piece proposes as an alphabet, literally:
A as in alphabet
B as in baffled
C as in congress
D as in delicate
E as in elephant
F as in fornicate
G as in grass
H as in hands-on
I as in idiot
J as in jouissance
The arbitrariness of the logic of the assignment of meaning is never more brutal than in the "obviousness" of any children's alphabet book, and gradually the poems in the first section turn up the heat:
P as in elocute
O as in excitement
N as in Z
M as in breast
L as in party
K as in Whitman
The second section, "Initializing,"** is by far the most dense, reminiscent almost of Jeremy Prynne's work, as in this excerpt from "To a Drawing Board (2)":
Slate roof drive impel
Hot brown register
Clever-fingered want to fall
Bird-nose valentine
Seizes rainy day
As long as you're there
Reclination monkey
So close as to shut
The trap is studded
Not this the lost access
To a final run
Then, gradually, the text opens up again almost as though it were a natural process that was being observed. Observe how, in the final piece in the second section, "Stands the Pencil on its Point," Bromige permits sound to gradually organize the ongoing text, which in fact arrives at a moment of absolute lucidity:
Lists supplicants
Names the soul
Whereon one stands
Church clock at ten to three
Mentions mellitus
Orders weight be brought
As if to tea or table
Stranger amendment
Checks off by fives
Hot bodies in a hayloft
Combustion baby
Lists pains
Plants punishments
Options death or drunkenness
Insists that choice
Opens in the voice who
Utters numbering
Halfdone figured
Criminal reform
Grants immunity
From mortal
Upshot o love
Pen is sans relation
To its neighbor pencil
Feathers and lead
Islets of almost
Life's no narration
Mentions isolation
Subordinates particulars
Up against the insulation
Poised on the links
Hands touch the keys
Print finish or begin
Write meet again
The process begins almost inaudibly with "Lists pains," that first p starting a run of three, the latter two of which end on the same ts as "lists," the word called up again in the echo of "insists" followed finally by that clearest of indicators, the rhyme betwixt "choice" & "voice." One can follow these details through the sly exploitation of Latinate endings right to the end of the text with its remarkable equation of "Write" with "meet," the role of the poem that absolute confrontation with a reader (who might also be oneself).
The use of centered lines mutes variations in line length, since the longer ones literally "stick out" less by moving out in both directions***. But what I think Bromige is ultimately after here is maximizing the verticality of the language experience, the way in each line does function as though it were a phrase flashing ever so briefly on an LCD screen. Writing/Meeting is exactly what this book is about. Tether is a thrilling, challenging & occasionally sad work, the poet confronting how the body, particularly one that has long battled diabetes, tethers the soul. It's one of those books that lets you see poetry responding to its highest calling. We have far too few of these.

* & current poet laureate of Sonoma Country, steering one hopes a solid middle course betwixt the nonsense of Mr. Collins and that of Mr. Baraka.
** The second, third and fourth sections, "Initializing," "Establishing" and "Authenticizing" derive their names from the stages of Bromige's computer's process of booting up.
 *** Bromige alludes to the “spine” of the text, a spatialization of the left margin (and one that suggests that a poem “faces forward” when centered, and is viewed “in profile” when left as that normative left column).

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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

I will be giving three readings in two days in New York City this month:

October 15, 2002 at 8:00 pm, New School, Tishman Auditorium at 66 West 12th St., NYC. Free

. Short Fuse Launch Reading featuring Simon Armitage, Charles Bernstein, Glyn Maxwell, Bob Holman, Patricia Smith, Ron Silliman, Willie Perdomo, Todd Colby, Regie Cabico, Emily XYZ, Robert Allen, Edwin Torres, DJ Renegade, Zoe Anglesey, Adeena Karasick, Fortner Anderson, Prageeta Sharma, Wednesday Kennedy, Penn Kemp, Guillermo Castro, Mary O'Donoghue, Richard Peabody, Victoria Stanton, Vincent Tinguely, David McGimpsey, Helen Thomas, Barbara DeCesare, Corey Frost, Ian Ferrier, Joshua Auerbach, Robert Priest, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Catherine Kidd, Kevin Higgins, Rosemary Dun, Tug Dumbly, Ben Doyle Jill Battson, Kélina Gotman, Andrea Thompson, Dawna Matrix Jason Pettus, Heather Hermant, Larry Jaffe, Sean M. Whelan, Lauren Williams, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, Silvana Straw, Srikanth Reddy, and MTC Cronin. Hosted by Todd Swift and Philip Norton.
October 16, 2002 at 6:30 pm, Jefferson Market Library, 425 Ave. of the Americas at 10th St., NYC. Free
. Featuring Simon Armitage, Ron Silliman and Stephanos Papadopoulos.
October 16, 2002 at 7:30 pm, Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery & Bleecker, NYC. $5.
Featuring Srikanth Reddy, Ron Silliman, Fortner Anderson, Adeena Karasick, David McGimpsey, Penn Kemp, Kevin Higgins, Robert Priest, Rosemary Dunn, Todd Swift, Philip Norton, Sean M. Whelan, Helen Thomas, Richard Peabody, Joshua Auerbach, MTC Cronin, Barbara DeCesare, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, David Hill, and Bob Holman.


Monday, September 30, 2002


A note: I shall be traveling the next few days and am not certain how, or even whether, I shall be able to post here until my return.

The death of Darrell Gray ensured that Actualism could only meet a very different fate than Objectivism. Death enters the equation as well with the disappearance of another literary tendency of the past sixty years: the Spicer Circle. If ever there was a phenomenon that cried out for a large, well researched anthology, this is it.

The Spicer Circle had a significant impact on poetry, both in the U.S. and Canada, but characterizing or analyzing that impact is difficult because so little is adequately understood about the phenomenon by anybody other than those who were there. I wasn’t – I first heard of Spicer at a memorial reading held at Shakespeare & Company books (it may still have called the Rambam in those days) in Berkeley that was held, as best I can recall, around what must have been his birthday in early 1966.

Soon, three key associates of Spicer’s – Robin Blaser, George Stanley & Stan Persky – would move to British Columbia. In the ten year hiatus between Spicer’s death and two events that were to transform his place in literary history, the publication of his Collected Books by Black Sparrow press and the special issue of Paul Mariah’s Manroot magazine that was to place Spicer alongside Whitman & a handful of others as a founder of a gay aesthetic, only Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar 12 was to focus in any serious fashion on the Spicer’s work. While Caterpillar published over 150 pages of Spicer’s early poems, correspondence, a chapter from his detective novel and the first Vancouver lecture, it also positioned Blaser’s own poetry first, with the sole other contribution a four page essay on the pair from the issue’s guest editor, Persky.

In addition to that long silence & Spicer’s own dogged reluctance to permit his work and that of his friends out of the immediate physical confines of San Francisco (refusing, for example, to send his short-lived magazine J by mail), the period between 1965 and ’75 was one of extraordinary transformations in American culture and politics could not help but to reverberate throughout poetry. Spicer, who wrote about the war in Vietnam and the Beatles, was actually one of the first to sense these changes. But others that were to come soon, from Stonewall to Watergate, might have proven more difficult for him to digest and it is not hard to envision a later Spicer in the sort of reactionary alcoholic stupor that befuddled Kerouac before his death just a few years hence.

But the Spicer Circle was something more than just the poetry of Jack Spicer & something other than a Mattachine Society of verse*. Poets as diverse as Joanne Kyger, Larry Fagin and Jack Gilbert actively participated in events that were central to the Spice kreis. Poets who were not primarily San Franciscan, including Steve Jonas & John Wieners, could also be said to have played roles as well. An anthology such as the one I imagine would have to develop a serious & critically defensible definition of what the Spicer Circle actually was before it could go about the task to tracking down and collecting the poetry.

The Manroot issue remains the only hint of what such an anthology might look like**, containing as it does work by Harold Dull, Lew Ellingham, James Herndon, Jonas, Persky, Stanley, Wieners & Spicer, as well as a collaboration by Spicer & Stanley with Ronnie Primack and Bruce Boyd.***

Dull is a good example of what we are missing in not having a far better sense of the Spicer Circle. He published several small books in the 1950s and ‘60s, including The Star Year, The Door, Bird Poems, and The Wood Climb Down Out Of. Then in 1975 he published A Selection of Poems for Jack Spicer on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death. Since then, Dull has only published texts about Watsu, his aquatic bodywork practice that evolved out of Zen shiatsu. Herndon, Primack, James Alexander and Joe Dunn are other members of the Circle whose writing is even more difficult to find.

In 1967, I heard Jack Gilbert introduce George Stanley as “the finest poet now writing.” Today, their work seems worlds apart. A good anthology would in fact demonstrate a world in which that contradiction might not occur. It would have to sort through some infinitely thorny issues, including Robert Duncan’s relationship to the circle (not to mention Blaser’s). I’m not the person to mount that effort, although perhaps someone like Kevin Killian, who helped to shape Lew Ellingham’s drafts into the masterful biography that is Poet Be Like God, is.

* The Mattachine Society was an early gay rights organization, contemporary with Spicer & likewise headquartered in San Francisco.

***Abebooks, the rare books network, lists at least dozen copies of the Spicer issue of Manroot as well as a couple of complete runs of the journal available for sale.

*** Boyd is himself noteworthy as the participant in the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, who disappeared from the scene completely.

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Sunday, September 29, 2002

In 1969, Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Society published a volume of Lorine Niedecker’s poetry entitled T&G. The book’s subtitle was The Collected Poems (1936-1966). Unpaginated, the text ran all of 60 pages, a number of which were devoted to A. Doyle Moore’s plant prints. Thirty-three years hence, it seems stunning that we can now have a book entitled simply Collected Works (University of California, 2002) whose gathering of Niedecker’s poems and prose totals 362 pages, with over 100 additional pages of notes and indices to lend the volume heft.

In my mind, I had linked Niedecker with Besmilr Brigham, connecting the pair to a larger Dickinsonian tradition of women writing in isolation. But now I think that the parallel feels forced. Brigham & Niedecker share two important dimensions:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Each lived precariously on the economic margins at a considerable geographic distance from major literary centers
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Both held a visible relation to the Pound/Williams tradition – more to Williams than to Pound – and connected to the scene primarily through the mail. 
Beyond that, though, they are profoundly different poets. Part of it may just be generational – Niedecker was ten years older, having been born in 1903, with her earliest poems have been written in the 1920s and her connection to Zukofsky and the Objectivists dating from the early 1930s. Brigham may have been a late starter by comparison – her first publication in El Corno Emplumado in 1966 occurs when she is 53 (although apparently telling people that she was ten years younger).

It’s worth considering what the curious history of the Objectivists meant not just to Niedecker but to all of the writers usually associated with that rubric – active and working together in the early 1930s, but not quite jelling in terms of public response, followed by an erasure from public view in the 1940s & ‘50s, only to return again, this time triumphant, in the 1960s. For one thing, Niedecker’s own position vis-à-vis the participants in the famous February 1931 issue of Poetry & subsequent anthology had changed by the mid-1960s. Fully mature as a poet, she was in no way outside the circle by the time of their collective re-emergence.

Furthermore, Niedecker had benefited from the long silence as did several of the Objectivists as they became a far more disciplined and cohesive group of poets than they had been in the early 1930s. Without any wider audience for so many years, the Objectivists had only themselves and a few others as readers for nearly 20 years.* The work that came out of the long silence was more spare than that which had gone before. Consider the florid tone of this passage by Carl Rakosi, which actually led off the Objectivist issue of Poetry, the first stanza from a piece entitled “Orphean Lost” from a larger serial poem called “Before You”:

The oakboughs of the cottagers
descend, my lover,
with the bestial evening.
The shadows of their swelled trunks
crush the frugal herb.
The heights lag
and perish in a blue vacuum.

This overwrought text, which initiated a revolution, is not to be found in Rakosi’s Collected Poems.** If anything, the text reflects a love-hate relationship with surrealism that shows up both in Poetry, which included two Rimbaud translations by Emanuel Carnevali as well as a little symposium on the “gratuitous and arbitrary” poetry of Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford, and in the anthology where Zukofsky literally rearranged the lines of a Kenneth Rexroth work in seemingly random order, to the latter’s considerable vexation.

All that deliberate excess is gone by the 1960s. Thus we can identify a second factor separating First and Third Phase Objectivism*** – a new emphasis on a spare, unadorned style not always evident during the 1930s. This was reinforced by the return to writing of George Oppen, who had had the most austere aesthetic during that first decade.+

Niedecker may have been isolated geographically, but she was integrally part of this literary cabal and it is this community that created the foundation for her broad acceptance, especially after her death in 1970. Brigham never had this – the poets with whom she is said to have corresponded, Duncan & Creeley, were already famous by the 1960s. Older than either of them, Brigham never made the transition from correspondent to peer. While the work of those two men was associated with Black Mountain College, where each had taught, they had always been completely different poets and, by the 1960s, each was evolving according to impulses and demands that had little to do with one another, regardless of their mutual admiration. So it turns out that it is Brigham far more than Niedecker who was truly the Outsider poet.

This is true in other ways as well. Place is important to both of Niedecker & Brigham, but Niedecker inhabits the Wisconsin of her poems with a sense of its presence, very nearly its omnipresence++  compared with the far more tentative landscapes the peripatetic Brigham confronts in Mississippi, Texas, Mexico & Arkansas. I sense Niedecker truly in her environment whereas Brigham carries the perspective of someone who appears to have been an observer more than a participant, regardless of the context…just passing through, taking notes.

My impression of this is heightened by the fact that Brigham is a poet of the eye, whereas Niedecker thinks and proceeds by ear. A distinction like that is simply a part of one’s human chemistry – it’s not a question of right or wrong decisions – but the distinction plays out in important ways for poetry.  There is a tonal logic in Niedecker’s work, as there is, say, in the poetry of Larry Eigner, which is extraordinary to read. The poetry as a result possesses a cohesion that communicates as total life prosody – you are never in doubt that you’re in the presence of a major poet with Niedecker. Brigham’s poems are no less intense or intelligent, but tonally they’re more diverse – the range is from straightforward narrative, rather like the piece I quoted on September 25, to highly enjambed. You can see & feel all of her directions, but never quite sense that presence of an overwhelming unifying force.

On the other hand, a true Collected Poems of Besmilr Brigham might tell as different a story as Niedecker’s Collected Works does from T&G: The Collected Poems (1936-66).

* & even this overstates the case. Oppen had dropped out almost entirely, working as a political organizer, fight in the Second World War, then choosing exile in Mexico during the McCarthy era. Bunting, more of a sporadic than a prolific poet, was off in the Middle East occupied with espionage.

** Two of the four sections of “Before You,” have been preserved: “Fluteplayers from Finmarken” and “Unswerving Marine,” both of which show up in the section of the Collected entitled “Amulet,” albeit not in the order they appeared in 1931. All four sections can be found as separate poems in Poems 1923-1941, Andrew Crozier’s admirable excavation of Rakosi’s work from Objectivism’s First Phase.

*** See “Third Phase Objectivism,” Paideuma, Vol. 10, No. 1, “George Oppen Issue,” Spring, 1981, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, pp. 85-89.
+ The noteworthy exception to the austere style is Zukofsky. To a significant degree, the commitment to “A” pushed his own poetry in different directions than the rest of the Objectivists, although his shorter pieces often reflect the stripped-down aesthetic of his cohort.  A test of my thesis about the impact of “disappearance” of Objectivism in the 1940s can be seen in the work of the two younger poets from that issue of Poetry who continued to write and publish: Rexroth and Ted Hecht. Their poetry evolved in ways different from the core Objectivist group as well as different from one another – neither adopted anything like a spare style.

++ Interestingly, when Niedecker turns to place as Other, in the four-part poem “Florida,” she too emphasizes the eye – both opening and closing sections focus on the visual aspects of the state – the birds, the older women wearing slacks.

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