Saturday, November 02, 2002


“What about all this writing?”
 WCW, 1923


When I wrote on Wednesday that

when one refers to Carl Rakosi as an Objectivist, or of Spicer as writer from the San Francisco (nee Berkeley) Renaissance, one needs to ask further: which Objectivism, which renaissance? The Objectivism of 1931 was a far cry from that of 1945, let alone 1965 or even as recently as 1985. If Objectivism (or modernism, or language poetry, the New York School or what have you) is perceived as a continuous & relatively fixed set of values, then it has become a map unanchored from the territory to which it ostensibly refers.

Which is why it is not possible to write language poetry in 2002.

Kent Johnson replied with this question:


Isn't the crucial difference of Langpo – historically specific as its "original moment" was (late 70's-80's?*) – that it set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision (in those early years of Discovery, so to speak) as a guide by which future poets might set their course? The other formations you mention never created such a determined and forward-looking atlas of theory. So the analogy you so decisively draw at the end there makes one ask: Is it any wonder Language poetry is "felt" by younger poets today in ways that you, for example, never "felt" those loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings pre-Langpo?


Which in turn presumes that langpo is thus “felt” in such ways, which I’m not at all certain is the case, given just how intensely everyone I hung out with in the 1960s used to puzzle over every single statement we could find by Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan, Kerouac, Dorn, Jones, Sorrentino, Kelly, Eshleman & others. (David Bromige & I once got into an argument with Denise Levertov, during one of her classes at Berkeley circa 1970 where we’d been invited to read to her students, over her interpretation of the length of a pause at the end of a line being one-half that of a pause for a comma – we were both convinced that the theory called for a heavier pause at a line break than for any internal punctuation other than a period. The idea that our elders might not actually have a consensus on this seemed all but intolerable.**)


The other half of Kent’s question suggests that there was/is a qualitative difference between language poetry and “loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings.” The difference, as I read this question, would be “that it did set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision . . . as a guide by which future poets might set their course.” If, by that, Johnson intends some sort of a prescriptive model – “do this, don’t do that” – then I think the presumption fails. I see zero consensus on the part of those writers normally associated with the langpo label as to “what is to be done” long term vis-a-vis poetry or society (the latter being the more complex part of that equation). Nor, for that matter, can I think of a major langpo critical piece that is more prescriptive in its manner & tone than, say, Olson’s “Projective Verse” or Zukofsky’s “An Objective” (“The need for standards in poetry is no less than in science”) let alone the over-the-top teaching tone offered by Stein or Pound. Part of what makes Robert Grenier’s “On Speech” & his other essays in This 1 stand out so within the history of langpo lies precisely in that old Biblical tone: “’PROJECTIVE VERSE’ IS PIECES ON,” referring to Creeley’s book that had proven scandalous precisely for the ways it had deployed language outside of the speech paradigm.


Rather, what I see – & I will happily concede that my perspective here is both “privileged” & partisan – is that several (not all) of the writers associated with the term language poetry saw a role for critical discourse itself that differed from the one that confronted prior literary formations.*** Gone, for example, was any defensive need for stylistic markers segregating it as discourse from, say, the institutionally territorial activities of the so-called New Critics, a problem that bedeviled many of the New Americans.+ The New Critics were (are) irrelevant as literary theory, even if they had an important social role at a specific historical juncture in American letters – roughly 1935-55.


Two other phenomena beyond the narrow boundaries of U.S. poetry were also in play in 1970 that were markedly different than the situation that had confronted the New Americans. First, the initial wave of critical theory from Europe was creating an enormous amount of intellectual frisson in the U.S. Everything from Western Marxism to structuralism (&, to a far lesser extent, post-structuralism) to Lacanian analysis went into the mix. This new wave of theory also had the unique historical advantage in the earliest 1970s of having not yet been reduced into normative academic behavior by the good folks at Duke or elsewhere.


Second, feminism, the gay rights movement & some aspects of the black power movement demonstrated the potential power of individuals & groups actively discussing the relevant issues of the lives of their participants. This contrasted dramatically with the situation around the Pound/Williams tradition generally & the New Americans specifically. Forms of academic malpractice, such as M.L. Rosenthal’s construct of “confessional poetry” attempted to invent a level of interest & complexity for the work of certain writers – Sexton, Lowell et al – by yoking them to the visibly exhilarating work being done by the likes of Allen Ginsberg.++  Similarly, Pound scholars of that period evaded the “Mussolini problem” by simply not investigating it. Far from helping Pound, the conversion of fascism into an invisible 500-pound elephant distorted all discussions of his work, a circumstance from which his poetry has not yet fully recovered.


What seemed most clear, in the early 1970s, was that there were an enormous number of possible discussions to have about poetry – this Blog suggests that the number has not dwindled – and that there were obvious benefits to be had if it were poets themselves who had these discussions, rather than leaving them to even the most well-intended of critics.


If this constitutes a “kind of critical map,” as Kent puts it, there would seem to be four possible vectors, one turned toward the past, tracing all the possible routes of how we got wherever we are, a second trying to figure out where it is we have arrived, a third turned toward the future – “where to go & how to get there” – and a fourth focused on traveling as a process. A great deal of the critical writing associated with langpo appears to me as related to the first vector: think of Watten’s great essay Crane & Eigner in Total Syntax. A good deal of energy has also gone into the second vector, although less than has been devoted to the first. Little if any energy has gone into the third. But virtually all critical writing by poets, not just of the langpo brand, can be read as a demonstration of method, “how to improve.” If there is a value to other communities of all this critical fulmination, it is to be found in this last dimension: in the idea that poets conversing about their common interests & enthusiasms, their problems & aversions, will ultimately add up & push thinking to further insights.





* A periodization of language poetry would be an interesting project, given that I’ve always thought of it as a moment, not a movement. The shorthand version I tend to keep in my head is this:


§         A period of “anticipatory” phenomena (e.g., 0-9, the journal edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci; Aram Saroyan’s minimalist period; John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath; Clark Coolidge’s first short abstractions; Joglars, the journal edited by Coolidge with Michael Palmer; Robert Grenier’s Dusk Road Games) all in the late 1960s

§         The formative period around This 1970-73, carried out variously in Berkeley, Iowa City & Franconia, NH (Tottels would fit in here as would the Coolidge issue of Margins), lot of intense conversations among many key players

§         A middle period with increasing numbers of people gathering first in SF-Berkeley, then in NY, phenomena like the Grand Piano poetry series, the emergence of talks, journals such as Hills, Streets & Roads, A Hundred Posters, Roof, Kit Robinson & Erica Hunt’s KPFA radio program In the American Tree, the poets-&-performance artists series at The Farm in SF, the first collective presentation in Alcheringa, the emergence of publishers including The Figures & Tuumba, roughly 1974-78 – this was the period of the greatest activity & intensity

§         A late period of much broader public response, the keys being the start-up of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tom Mandel’s tenure directing the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, the period of language-bashing gets under way in full force in Poetry Flash, the San Francisco Chronicle, Partisan Review, roughly 1978-1981

§         A moment beyond which langpo was so fully integrated into the broader scene of writing and culture that it becomes functionally meaningless to talk about it as a separate & distinct phenomena – I date this in my own head with the publication of the first issue of Poetics Journal in January 1982. PJ was directed outward to the general culture in a way that none of the earlier publications had been.


** Carl Rakosi’s comment on the Penn webcast that he & Basil Bunting “didn’t get along” would have seemed shocking to me in my twenties. Within a year or so of that argument with Levertov, Duncan would go through a period in which he counted out loud to three after every line break in Passages!


*** Perhaps one-third of the contributors to the anthology In the American Tree have produced substantial amounts of critical &/or theoretical writing. But two-thirds have not. I would argue that it is a mistake to privilege those poets who produce critical writing over those who do not.


+ Scar tissue that was duly marked whenever an older poet argued that langpo was but New Criticism with a human face.


++ Eliot Weinberger falls for this line when he claims that “Lowell considered himself a Poundian; he loved WCW; everyone remembers his famous ‘raw and the cooked’ as referring to him and Ginsberg, but in fact, RL thought he was one of the ‘raw,’ compared to Wilbur etc.”

Friday, November 01, 2002


A correspondence rather in the Open Letter tradition on the “Canadian/New York School Question” has sprung up.


Tom Orange:




very interesting exchange on the absence of ted berrigan and the NYS in canadian poetry.


reminds me of a thread that came up on a discussion list stemming from remarks christian bök made a few summers ago when he and natalee caple were in town and i put together a reading for them. amidst the post- reading chit chat christian claimed not to have much knowledge or interest in recent work by american contemporaries like lisa jarnot or anselm berrigan that problematizes the idea of "lyric voice" in their own interesting ways. some folks here found that claim to be problematic, whereas i insisted that while we here may hold lisa and anselm in a certain position of esteem there's no reason to assume that christian is working in a similar position or with a similar set of values -- both lisa and anselm can be seen in fact coming out of a NAP tradition that someone like christian would have very affinity with or use for. additionally, there's the very real matter of the distribution of small press poetry from the states to canada: i can say from experience that without SPD or bridge street mail order it's very difficult and costly to get small press poetry from the states in canada, literally get the books let alone follow what's coming out.


(along these latter lines, it strikes me that one book in the ted berrigan bibliography that would have had the best distribution opportunities in canada wdve been the grove press sonnets.)


so louis' initial responses aren't all that surprising to me. and i think the formula "canpo = NAP - NYS" is interesting as a thought- experiment (and i'd have to think more about louis' compelling notions of "second-order commodification" and metalanguage), but what it gains in immediate intrigue is lost almost as soon as you get into particulars.


to me, the particular figure absent from these discussions of absences, a presence that might be seen filling the NYS/berrigan absence, is bill bissett. born in 1939 (same year as coolidge, two years before grenier, three before padgett and greenwald) in halifax, bissett left the maritimes for vancouver and ran blewointment press from there, though also kept close ties in terms of publishing poetics and friendship with the toronto scene. his work seems to me to combine the countercultural hipness and attention to dailiness of berrigan with a black mountain poetics of speech (more duncan's than anyone else, tho you'd have to substitute duncan's gnostic/heretic mysticism for a kind of free-love pantheism) taken to an orthographic extreme that bleeds directly into the concrete, visual, sound and performance work of the four horseman.


he thus problematizes coastal alignments (toronto-vancouver being homologous, in a pretty loose sense and again with substantial qualifications, to NYC-SF), generations, schools/lineages, and issues of voice, speech and text in ways that are compelling and utterly unique in canada or the states. and in ways that make me wish bissett had a greater readership in the states.






*          *          *


Loui Cabri:




For now let me just say, in relation to bill bissett, whom you raise as a potential example in Canada of NYS influence, that there’s no denying the idiosyncratic and wide-ranging reading lists of individual poets, and the many influences discernible on their work (so for example in the case of bissett, NYS may be one of them); but that to me is beside the point of how to understand the relation of influence, context, and socially-constituted metalanguage formations such as KSW, TRG – and NYS itself (a name obtains at least to a degree of metalingual function). It really comes down to this for me: If you’re in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, whatever, why would you care at all about the poetic expressions of any other city’s “lifestyle,” unless you were a tourist flaneur, especially an expression that is at times (to focus only on the critical for a moment) as self-involved (the word “American” in one of my emails to Ron should have been in quotes), gloriously vain and willfully naive as poetry from the “school” of the City of New York can be?* What saves NYS from such a critical dismissal is the function of the social in its work (but “NYS social” provides, also, its own unique limit). So much of what is great about NYS is the coterie feel, address to friends. Who does it worse than NYS? Who does it better than NYS?


You can make it anytime.


Words, sentences. Suffering


Is not where it’s at, in 1969.


Now, the heart. A breath. Holding back.


Is it necessary to spend long periods of time alone?


Dear friends: you have all been very good to me.


How to remain in 1 place for more than a few minutes.


Bill is snoring. It’s 6 in the morning.


Reading to learn to enjoy yourself.


Please stay where you are at all times.


What you do is draw everything together, Ted.


Reveal the dark side & the bright side too. Don’t


            be afraid to reveal what you’re feeling.


Ron, it’s a good time to be leaving New York.


It’s more difficult not to change than to change.


The problem thinking of you, Anne, is who am


            I thinking of?


----------------is thinking this?


That spells “Release” from Lewis Warsh’s Part of My History (Coach House, 1972) found the other month here in Calgary at one used bookstore for $10 and at another $20.


You don’t get that kind of enacted and taken-for-granted social address to intimates in bissett – instead you get the stretched, still somewhat formalized, “I,” and the political concerns, of NAP. It’s indeed a great “American” thing, NYS’s idea of a democratized coterie (compared to previous European notions of the salon), and is absent up north in part because of the, now I’m ranting, &%!!@#! British influence that NAPoets Davey et al griped about and that is still prevalent in public media (CBC announcers are still too frequently British accented, uniformly – sort of like a series of CBC regional antennae – across the country). bissett is great for reasons separate from the question of NYS.


Instead, in Canada the social is represented as a “concern.” Charles Reznikoff’s techniques of manipulating a historical document is affiliated with a long-standing documentary genre in Canada, and is evident most recently for example in Kevin Connolly’s title poem in Happyland (ECW, 2002), which was “very pointedly inspired by Hilton Obenzinger’s New York on Fire (The Real Comet Press, 1989)” and “published a year before the East Tremont fire,” which the poem is about, “modeled on a Roman Catholic novenario, a nine-day period of prayer preceding an anniversary mass”:




In another city they might have

bulldozed it into the ground.

But this is New York,

the building is still sound,

and the loft craze may yet wind

its way through the Bronx

to Southern and East Tremont,

where the Hondurans used to

dance to Los Gaetos Bravos,

Tito Puente and the Garifuna Kids,

and blue sky about home.


At Happyland the single door

remains boarded, the sign

that smiled over the bodies,

shoulder to shoulder, taken down

the day after, the irony

lost on no one, and with everything

else, too much to take.


There’s even a memorial,

though rarely flowers – most

of the families went home

after the settlement in ’95.

It’s ringed by a high fence,

the names etched

onto a concrete obelisk:

Alvarez, Denny; Alvarez, Hector;

Alvarez, Jose; Benavides, Victor…


From a distance, they resemble

sticks, or the strokes made by sticks

to stand for numbers:

Castro, Janeta; Chavez, Carla;

Colon, Elias – not frightening in

themselves, just rows of names

with a memory looming over them,

an item list, in inverse order:

obelisk, fence, street,

sidewalk, threshold, boarded

door, hallway, stairwell,



Addressing the social in this poem involves structuring and setting a narrative scene. The “item list” of nine narrative elements mirrors the nine sections of the poem – sections which are also structurally presented in reverse order, beginning with section IX and working forwards to section I. The address to the names mentioned in the poem is necessarily moot. The narrator’s knowledge is not owned by any particular person – who knows “where the Hondurans used to / dance”? (The narrator of City Confidential would claim to know...) The implicit and very modest social critique of New York finance capital in Connolly’s poem is nevertheless derived from a traditional metalanguage of what constitutes “a social address.” This metalanguage is not, however, reflexively tied into a specific poetics at the level of form, and the reason is because of a Canadian understanding of “the social.”


That is, I want to convey a sense of how the divide between Warsh and Connolly on the question of how to address the social, and on what scale (from intimate, to omniscient, narrator), is historically shaped by the border.


The only poetic good thing that ever came from Britain to Canada before WWII is socialism in its 30s variant in the work of Earle Birney and a few others connected with the formation (by many Europeans) of the CCF, with a Trotskyist critique of Stalin, and eventually the NDP (these three elements are related). But their poetry – the tradition that Connolly is tapping – is, for all that attention to social address, either direly ornamental in an uninterestingly clarified sense, or else unabashedly conventional in its use of (well-crafted) dramatic narration. That very British influence of the social as in socialism (as distinct from idealist German socialism which prevailed more extensively in the US) prevented modernism from ever establishing itself in Canadian poetry except as decorative stylization (that belated decorativeness, as in F.R. Scott’s imagism, a sign of the important function that Cdn. poetics plays as metalanguage clearinghouse – in critical terms, part of its colonial heritage). There is no equivalent here of “the New York intellectuals” – the closest you get to Partisan Review is Montreal’s Canadian Forum, and that’s a stretch (I mean there is no endorsement whatsoever of “revolution” in form: socialism actually existed in Canada as a social program, and had a tempering effect on word-world homologies).


Circling back to the question I started with, idiosyncratic reading lists and habits, I do think I only read Berrigan in the 90s, and with some difficulty. Ashbery however was one of my first great motivating interests in poetry. I read all of Ashbery right through to his early eighties work, including The Tennis Court Oath and Three Poems, the aforementioned having a tremendous impact on me concerning what poetry could be (as did the devastatingly hilarious spoof in A Nest of Ninnies concerning “Canadian heritage”) – well before I had ever heard of Language Poetry. Actually I did not think of Ashbery as a “New York School Poet,” but read him within the Canadian English/French bicultural divide as someone who, like Hamburger’s translated anthology of surrealist poetry, was reawakening the France-French traditions of Artaud, Roussel and others, including the Surrealists (I was reading these French traditions well before hearing of McCaffery or Nichol).


As to the worldly Christian Bök and his Toronto Oulipoian cohorts, aside from the connection they extend in their work to conceptual art (via McCaffery, Fluxus, etc), their poetic word is stridently a-social. The social is neither enacted “NYS style,” nor represented “Cdn style.” The social as such has been Haussmannized (Brecht considered "asocial" far worse than "antisocial") through their avid absorption in “the new medium” of internet computer forms. That distinctly a-social word results again, to me, from the metalingual inter-border role of Canadian poetics, which can often reduce the social complexity of differing tendencies to their most essential (unreal) terms with success (for example, the role of Oulipo in the literary history of France: there, Oulipo was arguably intended to subvert the role of author as genius, but here, Bök’s reception in particular has been largely in terms of his genius for conceiving a project such as Eunoia and for his seven-year steadfastness at scratching its numbers). A precedent I can think of for the a-social poetic word of the Toronto boysy boys is found in what I call the “inertial word” of Zukofsky’s index (largely of nouns) to ”A” and these words’ roles in the book.





cc Ron, Kevin


* Why NYS caught-on in other areas of the US is another question entirely – and worth exploring. Is that wildfire a form of US regionalism (regionalism needs to operate within a proud national frame)?

*          *          *


Kevin Davies:


I offer here only the abstract-with-footnotes of the argument I would make if I had more time, primary materials, and brain cells:


* The first two generations of the New York School (I will argue another time about why I believe there are _only_ two) have had significant and widespread effects on vanguard Canadian poetry of the past forty years. * These effects are unlikely to be registered at the level of the archive, present-day scholarship, or institutional formation, for reasons that have a lot to do with the nature of the NYS itself. * Only one Canadian poet -- David McFadden(1) -- is unimaginable without the existence of the G1 NYS, but several other poets -- Artie Gold, for instance -- and at least one local formation -- the Vehicule (sp.?) poets of (Anglo) Montreal - were decisively "influenced" by both generations. (I hesitate to use the "I" word for reasons that should be apparent to all of us.) * Though often difficult to disentangle from the various strands of projectivist, SF Renaissance, Beat, (latterly) Langpo, and other forces at play, the work of poets as diverse as George Bowering, Victor Coleman, Christopher Dewdney, Robert Fones,(2) Gerry Gilbert, Alan Davies, Dorothy Lusk Trujillo, Erin Mouré, Peter Culley, Lisa Robertson, and Stephen Cain shows unmistakable markers (stylistic and otherwise) of decisive engagements with the poetry and (implicit) poetics of the NYS. * While I agree that the work of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery can, for the most part, be coherently related only to the Oulipolian fringe/extension of NYS practice,(3) two things need to be noted: -1- the collaborative ethos of their early work has clear precedent in the well-known collaborations of the NYS, and -2- the extreme radicality of _The Tennis Court Oath_ had a powerful influence on the entire English-language avant-garde, and its surface dynamics can be seen in the work of both poets, particularly McCaffery. * Canada, despite being the most urbanized country in the world, is a land of hicks (takes one to know one), and any "influence" of the pseudo-cosmopolitan NYS is likely to be sifted through a hick filter that will obscure its provenance, though it is no less real for all that. * Two poets -- Paul Blackburn and Clark Coolidge -- need to have their positions in relation to the G2 NYS refigured, and when this refiguring is effected the lines of (if not influence, then) relation will highlight different relations to Canpo. * Finally, the poets of NYS, particularly O'Hara, Ashbery, Berrigan, and Mayer, were crucial to the emerging poetry and poetics of _all_ the older members/associates of the Kootenay School of Writing, and their influence (there, I said it without scare quotes) cannot be importantly distinguished from that of early(ish) langpo.(4)




(1) I don't mean to imply that David McFadden would not be a poet without the NYS. He would. His major influences would have been Al Purdy and Irving Layton. He would have hanged himself at the age of 37.


(2) Fones is, I believe, no longer active in poetry, devoting his labours instead to visual art. He was a major poet of the 70s.


(3) At least glimpsed in, for instance, Locus Solus.


(4) Mayer, of course, "invented language poetry." I'll leave her claim alone for now. In my own case, Berrigan was crucial to my education. The first thing of his I read, in the year after high school (while working desultorily at the local mill), was "Tambourine Life," in an anthology at the local community-college library. This event was, I think, similar to what Ron describes when he first encountered The Desert Music: the sense that there was a writing practice that could account for the vagaries and particulars of the life I was living, one that was not tied to the prosody of either the Romantics I adored or the academics I abhorred. Not long after, Peter Culley was writing a long series of "Things to Do in [Nanaimo, Kabul, etc.)" poems, Gerald Creede was poring over Mayer's Studying Hunger and insisting that everyone else do the same, and Dorothy Trujillo was reading everything.


*          *          *


Louis Cabri:


McFadden, of course! I knew there was somebody major overlooked (had thought the other year of pairing McFadden with Luoma, in a PhillyTalk). Already knew, though, I had a myopic view on Canadian poetry: Gold, Fones (as poet) I, the hick, don't know. Are you thinking of Moure's early work, Empire York Street, and Wanted Alive, for instance? All my books are in boxes in Philly, frustratingly, and it's been a long time since I looked at a Vehicule book, but I remember them as performance group orientated. On the rest, would love to read now, including your own work, in view of these questions of NYS influence and of metalanguage. Pause Button already makes more sense just thinking about it from this angle (the social porousness of the "I"). But "influence" is such a bugbear! In my case, no greater set of poets than the Language Ps has "influenced" "me" -- but can or should one "tell" this in the book?




Thursday, October 31, 2002


Yesterday I posed the question of time on literary formation in terms of how individuals inevitably position themselves differently as external circumstances change. Today I want to turn that question around. As I suggested in an email recently, maybe the question shouldn’t be what the role is of Jack Spicer as an influence on, say, Brian Kim Stefans, but what is the role of Stefans as an influence on Jack Spicer? Influencing the dead is just the sort of topic I’d expect Spicer to get jiggy with.


Let’s look again at Spicer’s 1958 constellation, with it’s inner quadrant of “Robin/Duncan/X/To be found,” surrounded left & right by six intermediary boxes: Pound, Cocteau, Dada, Vachael (sic) Lindsay, Yeats & Lorca, then an outer ring containing (Josephine) “Miles, Untermeyer’s Anthology, The English Dept., The Place.” Since 1958, the gay rights movement – a phenomenon traced by many back to the Stonewall riots of 1969, four years after Spicer’s death* -- has recast the reception & reputation of many artists, Cocteau & Lorca among them. Pound was released from St. Elizabeth’s & returned to Italy where the Cantos finally drizzled to an end as he did. Subsequently, his reputation has seen more downs than ups as scholars finally began to discuss the implication of his fascism more openly. Dada’s edginess has become far less edgy after 44 years of happenings, Fluxus, conceptual art, Burning Man festivals & the like. Many of Untermeyer’s anthologies are out of print – the most recent edition I can find of Modern American Poetry, first published in 1919, dates from 1962. Most of the Untermeyer books that remain in print appear to be the “gift edition” variety with the exception of his work as a Frost scholar.


The reputations of both Lindsay & Miles have also receded in the past four decades, though not necessarily for good reason. It’s worth noting that Spicer doesn’t place either in that special version of Hades he dubs the “English Dept.,“ although in Miles’ case that is literally where Spicer found her, the first tenured woman in the University of California English Department.


Conversely, the one box in Spicer’s constellation that has increased in reputation since 1958 is the furthest pole from the English Dept., The Place, a North Beach tavern frequented by the Beats. But what we understand today by & as “the Beats” is itself a far cry from its public face four-plus decades ago.


In sum, Yeats might be the sole star in Spicer’s figurative heaven not to have undergone some form of radical redefinition in 44 years. As with Dada, much of it has to do with what else is there around to read & compare. New works appear, others go out of print, some old works & writers (viz. the Objectivists) suddenly turn up in print all over again, but this time around to critical applause. Or not.


This is where Brian Kim Stefans comes in. Stefans’ détournements – literally “recyclings” – of the New York Times, in which language from French Situationist Raoul Vaneigem is inserted into pieces that otherwise appear to be straightforward New York Times articles on international affairs plays with the social context of America’s “paper of record”** in ways not unrelated to Spicer’s playing with Tish or The St. Louis Sporting News in Book of Magazine Verse. In a close, though not entirely parallel, manner, Spicer’s correspondence with Lorca (and translation of imagined Lorca poems) in the earlier After Lorca plays with questions of authorship in ways that foretell Kent Johnson’s translations of his imaginary friend, Araki Yasusada.***


Projects like those by Stefans & Johnson can be said to reread Spicer. In the larger terms of literary history, both of the later projects are more extreme. Spicer merely suggests a relationship between his texts and certain journals in Magazine Verse, his translations may include imagined poems, but Spicer situates them in response to a real poet. Johnson, by comparison, transgressed all kinds of boundaries by giving his creation a different ethnicity & placing him into the context of 1945 Hiroshima. Spicer would have appreciated the tsuris Johnson got for his political incorrectness.


That sense of transgressiveness, of risk & danger, that were closely associated with Spicer during his life and immediately following his death in 1965, seems now frankly a little stodgy when placed alongside such projects. In the years between Spicer’s death by alcohol & the publication of his Collected Books in 1975, the general difficulty of getting his books+, his reputation for contrariness, the nature of his poems & theories of Martian dictation elevated Spicer’s street cred as the mystery bad boy of the New American Poetry to a level of romantic mystification that would soon prove familiar to any Jim Morrison fan. Today it is impossible to reconstruct that energy behind the original Spicer mystique, and that over time will change Spicer & how we read him.  





* Robin Blaser tells me that it was Spicer who brought around literature from the Mattachine Society, the 1950s “homophile rights” organization founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay.


** Unsurprisingly, the Times, a newspaper that thinks Thomas Friedman represents political analysis, proves unable to read Stefans’ whimsical interventions and has served him with a cease & desist letter. The détournements will be taken off this weekend. While there have been comments on the listservs that these works, which Stefans himself likens to graffiti, could be looked as literary parallels to collage, what really freaks the Times lawyers is its tromp l’oiel effect – it looks like the New York Times except that it’s interesting. In this sense, a closer parallel would be the way Kodak’s lawyers went after Blaise Cendrars after Librarie Stock published his Kodak (Documentaires) in 1924, although I don’t know if a later generation of Kodak lawyers also went after Ron Padgett’s translations published by Adventures in Poetry in 1976.


*** Spicer & Johnson both seem genuinely concerned with the literary quality of their imagined poems, a stance that places them closer to Pessoa & further from such literary hoaxes as the Spectra movement during World War I or the Australian Ern Malley in the 1940s. Pessoa was virtually unknown in the United States during Spicer’s lifetime, and it seems unlikely that he would have heard of Malley either. The Spectra hoax, an imaginary literary movement created by Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke and Marjorie Allen Seiffert, was the subject of books that were generally available during Spicer’s lifetime.


+ After Magazine Verse was published in 1966, only one other volume, Book of Music, would be published before Caterpillar 12 in July 1970 began to spark broader interest. During this period, Language seems to have gone out of print. Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, published in 1962 with just 750 copies, and After Lorca, published in 1957 in an edition of 500 copies, were already impossible to find. While Lorca & Magazine Verse were reprinted in 1970, the next few years saw a slow trickle of Spicer’s secondary sequences – The Holy Grail (1970), Lament for the Maker (1971) & Red Wheelbarrow (1971 & again in 1973) – before the explosion in 1974, one year ahead of the Collected Books, when Ode & Arcadia, Admonitions & 15 False Propositions About God all appeared & Paul Mariah published Manroot 10. Rumor has it that a new, more complete edition of Spicer’s poetry is soon to appear.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2002


Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi turns 99 this week. At 7:00 PM Eastern tonight, Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus will sponsor a webcast of a live reading and conversation with the poet.*


Rakosi is our last living connection with the Objectivists. In far too similar a fashion, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has emerged as the last of our Beat poets, John Ashbery the lone remaining core member of the New York School’s first generation, Robert Creeley the last of the great teachers at Black Mountain College, Robin Blaser the last participant in the Berkeley Renaissance (later the San Francisco Renaissance), etc. We are, it would seem, in a curious interregnum, an epoch of lasts.


There are of course an infinite number of problems with all such easy definitions. Perhaps it is impossible to find any other living participant from the Objectivist issue of Poetry – the age of 99 will put some distance between you & others – but what about Barbara Guest & the New York School, what about Snyder, McClure or Meltzer among the Beats? Or, conversely, what about the ways in which Ginsberg & Kerouac seem to have kept Ferlinghetti at arm’s length, at least in the 1950s? He was a publisher before he was their comrade.


Literary formations are intellectual constructs that live in time. If Objectivism lives today, it does so first in the memory of Carl Rakosi, a poet who apparently did not meet most of his fellow Objectivists in person until the 1960s, and then in our own sense of what that collective term represents. Before February, 1931, when the Zukofsky-edited special issue of Poetry first appeared, it is safe to say that hardly anyone beyond Zukofsky had any idea of what that term might entail.


Among the appendices to The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, editor Robin Blaser includes Robert Duncan’s questionnaire for his 1958 “Workshop in Basic Techniques,” as well as Spicer’s whimsical subversions in response.** Under the third section – “Tradition” – Duncan asks the respondent to choose one of two figures, alternative he refers to as “the tree or constellation,” the former being a straight-forward genealogical abstraction. Duncan instructs the applicant to “conceive of yourself as poet (that is, the spirit of your work) in the position marked with an x; then list as many poets . . . of your genius as you can numbering them according to their position in the design.”


The tree identifies “x” as the off-spring of 1 & 2. Positions 3 through 6 represent the “parents” of 1 & 2, with 7 & 8 standing for a sibling of each. Figures 9 through 12 are siblings or equals of ‘x.” The constellation offers no lines connecting figures. Rather some are closer, some further, some larger, some smaller. In this figure, “x” is near an unfilled center. Spicer in fact chose the constellation as his form, placing himself (“x”) into the lower-right hand sector of a rectangular quadrant that has now been moved directly into the center. The other three sectors are labeled variously, “Robin,” “Duncan,” & “To be found.” Spicer adds two items to his constellation, enabling him to array six figures relatively near to this bound quadrant: Pound, Cocteau, Dada, Yeats, Lorca, & “Vachael” (sic) Lindsay. Above and below are two more distant figures – Miles, meaning Josephine Miles, the dominant poet at UC Berkeley in the 1940s and ‘50s, and “Untermeyer’s Anthology.” Notably more distant, because “beyond” the array of six nearer influences, Spicer places two final figures, “The English Dept” and “The Place,” the latter being a North Beach bar associated with the Beats (and not, pointedly, with Jack’s crowd at Gino & Carlo’s).


How would Carl Rakosi respond to this questionnaire? Or Allen Ginsberg? Jack Kerouac? Frank O’Hara? Harryette Mullen? Anselm Berrigan? Gil Ott? Jena Osman? Dale Smith? Linh Dinh? Dodie Bellamy? Regardless of the formation you select, or the modifications you might make (a la Spicer) to one of Duncan’s figures, the process requires you to position yourself within the terrain of a poetics. All any literary formation is, in one sense, is just such a process carried out consciously, collectively & in public.


But this hardly means that such formations are fixed or frozen in time. To see that, one need only look at the three broad phases of Objectivism –


§         The 1930s, interactivity, optimism, joint publishing projects, critical statements, recruiting (Niedecker)

§         The 1940s & ‘50s, almost totally receding, with several Objectivists either not publishing and even not writing for long periods of time

§         1960s onward, the emergence & success of these writers precisely as a literary formation

In 2002, one might argue that Objectivism must be whatever Carl Rakosi says it is, even if he did not meet most of his collaborators until the third phase itself was under way. While John Taggart, Michael Heller, Rachel Blau Du Plessis or I might include Objectivism somewhere in whatever configurations we ended up drawing in response to Duncan’s question, only Rakosi might be apt to place it at or near “x.”


Even within formations, individual elements vary dramatically. Spicer, Duncan & Blaser had three very different relationships with Charles Olson, for example. Among langpos, one can find several people who have found Russian futurism & its critical front, Russian formalism, to be of great value. But one can find more who seem to have paid it only cursory attention, if any. Further, no two poets came to what we might call Russian modernism from exactly the same direction nor with the same set of concerns. Thus one can’t say that the relation of Russian futurism to language poetry is X or Y or whatever unless one specifies it down to the individual. Rather, it is “part of the mix,” as are (or were) any number of other disparate elements, from the New York School to surrealism to Stein to Projectivism to Zukofsky to the Bolinas Mesa phenomenon of the early 1970s.***


If ever there were an instance of the map not being the territory, such subjective positionings as these models suggest would be it. Spicer’s filled-out questionnaire is a perfect case in point, even if we concede that Spicer is playing with the document. Beyond Duncan & Blaser, the New American Poetry is entirely absent from this 1958 document. Those two & Josephine Miles are the only poets even born in the 20th Century. While Spicer’s constellation is notable for its internationalism, the choice of Vachel Lindsay (whose first name Spicer misspells), that old premodernist post le lettre, as his instance of Yankee nativism seems premeditatedly daft, given the absence, say, of Williams, Whitman, Dickinson, Crane or Stein. In a parallel mode, “Untermeyer’s anthology” (either The Pocket Book of American Poems or Modern American Poetry, both of which were “best sellers”) seems calculated to invoke the low-brow & decadent side of verse.


But what is most remarkable about Spicer’s 1958 map is what a resolutely static view of poetry it offers – two friends, one professor, one poet locked up in an insane asylum, as such hospitals were styled in those days, and everybody else basically is dead, anthologized, relegated to the English Department. The only inscrutable possibility – and it’s positioned on the outermost ring of Spicer’s constellation, as distant as the English Department – is the Beat scene at The Place.


Contrast this with the extraordinarily active sense of poetry, place & position to be found in Spicer’s final work, Book of Magazine Verse, published posthumously in 1966. There we find poems consciously written “for” – Spicer’s sense of preposition is especially barbed; not one of the named journals would ever print anything from this volume – The Nation, whose poetry was then being edited by Denise Levertov; for Poetry Chicago, then in the hands of Henry Rago+; for the Canadian little magazine Tish; for Ramparts, a Catholic journal that was at that point transforming itself into a muckraking antiwar publication, a leftwing publication that might have attracted Spicer precisely because it was published in San Francisco, a rare thing for a national publication in those days; for The St. Louis Sporting News, the bible of baseball in 1965; for the Vancouver Festival, not a magazine at all; and finally for the jazz journal, Downbeat. Spicer’s choices here are as clear a map as the 1958 questionnaire, but the world they address is radically changed. One might see Poetry Chicago as an equivalent, say, for either the English Department (especially given Spicer’s paranoia about his exclusion) or even “Untermeyer’s anthology” – advertised no less in that grand 50th anniversary issue. Inside, the poems are full of pop culture references: the Beatles, Ginsberg’s bust in Prague, the Vietnam war, Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1966, when Book of Magazine Verse came out, it never occurred to me that as a 19 year old, I was a regular reader of four of the publications Spicer references. But in retrospect, that’s a remarkable statement about Spicer.


One could argue that Spicer had changed dramatically, both as person and as a poet between 1958, when he had just finished writing After Lorca, and 1965, when he died. But whether one fixes one’s lens on the individual or on the social matters relatively little. Either way, the map itself is not static, but must be negotiated, in both the navigational and contractual senses of that word, continually. Periplum, as Pound called it, the ability to steer through waters in which no reference point is fixed.


All of which is to suggest that when one refers to Carl Rakosi as an Objectivist, or of Spicer as writer from the San Francisco (nee Berkeley) Renaissance, one needs to ask further: which Objectivism, which renaissance? The Objectivism of 1931 was a far cry from that of 1945, let alone 1965 or even as recently as 1985. If Objectivism (or modernism, or language poetry, the New York School or what have you) is perceived as a continuous & relatively fixed set of values, then it has become a map unanchored from the territory to which it ostensibly refers.


Which is why it is not possible to write language poetry in 2002.




* For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or see the special website:


** (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975), pp. 357-60. Black Sparrow books are now an imprint of David R. Godine.


*** In the early 1970s, Bolinas’ population, never more than a few hundred, included Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Joanne Kyger, Larry Kearney, Jim Gustafson, Jim Carroll, Tom Clark, Bill Berkson, Louis MacAdams Jr., and several other poets all loosely affiliated with different strands of the New American Poetry.


+Rago’s tenure at Poetry is worth examining further. From his arrival in 1955 through 1961 or so, he was more or less indistinguishable from the bland academics who were to follow in his wake, but from 1962 until Rago’s death in 1969, Poetry had a brief reawakening and was for that seven year period the only magazine in America to publish the New Americans & the school of quietude side by side, devoting issues to Zukofsky, publishing a 50th anniversary issue that included Creeley, Olson, Levertov, Koch, Pound, Mac Diarmid, Rexroth, Williams & Zukofsky as well as Aiken, Berryman, Merrill, Bogan, Ciardi, Cummings, Eberhart, Frost, Graves, Hecht, Jarrell, Kunitz, Lowell, Merrill, Merwin, Moss, Nemerov, Sexton, Spender, Wilbur, William Jay Smith & James Wright.

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