Sunday, January 05, 2003

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen René Ricard read live. Although we’re the same age & have both been around the post-avant scene for three dozen years, we’ve mostly lived on opposite coasts. There was a time when I did see several of the Andy Warhol films with which Ricard was involved, but the only poet I can recall from them is an image of John Giorno sound asleep.

In addition to the geographic gap between us, we also have obviously had very different approaches to the scene. Where I’ve focused on the two or three things I do moderately well, Ricard has been something of a renaissance all to himself. In addition to his poetry and his work in film, he’s a painter, art critic and bon vivant of legendary stature. Michael Wincott, who played Ricard in the Julian Schnabel film Basquiat, refers on his website to Ricard as a “flamboyant art critic.” Ricard’s own website adds the occupation “historian” to that list.

One side effect of these varied activities is that Ricard actually hasn’t nearly as much as one might expect of a poet born in 1946. I believe I owned Ricard’s Dia Foundation book at one time, René Ricard 1979-1980, but couldn’t find it when I looked for it this morning. So when I saw his name attached to three poems at the end of Angel Hair 3 (in The Angel Hair Anthology), what I brought to them by way of background were some disparate facts –the Warhol filmography, that he was born Albert Napoleon Ricard, a middle name worth remembering – an impression of him as someone who shows up a lot in lists that have, say, Anne Waldman in them somewhere, and Wincott’s portrayal from Basquiat. Six factoids in search of an author.

Angel Hair 3 came out originally in 1967, when Ricard was just 21. He had already been around the scene at The Factory for a couple of years and been a part of the scene in Boston before that. The first of his poems is simply entitled “Oh”:

Oh yes the page is blank
At first; And now to confuse
The issue;
I take a long chic drag from my Gauloise
I’ve done it before. This could be a great poem
If I didn’t rather jerk off instead
Already I’ve begun three consecutive lines with
I; Something is meant by this
Perhaps I’ll jerk off eventually
What could be more essential
(Notice a lack of continuity)
Recurrent theme
Several stanzas and a modicum of internal rhyme
Measure Measure Measure My dear
Is not poetry without tit
les vox
Da Do you know how much poetry
How much good poetry was written in
Say the 50’s?
Lots I’ll bet
Down through the ages
We each pick our favorites

It would be easy enough to argue that this is a pretty slight poem, but it would be hard to argue the point any better than the poem does itself. In fact, reading it some 35 years after its initial publication, what struck me was how admirable “Oh” is as an act of writing. It’s very nearly a perfect example of how the “I do this/I do that” aspect of New York School writing is itself very much a process of thinking – the very point on which NYS and langpo come together as literary tendencies. &, not coincidentally – Ricard was originally associated as a poet with John Wieners – the point at which langpo & Projectivism come together as well. “Oh” is virtually all about manifesting this process & the competition between the poem & all other plausible endeavors, right up to the point when the text acknowledges the presence of “you.” At that moment, Ricard’s focus shifts to invoke a broader sense of history. All of which he accomplishes with absolutely the least amount of pretension imaginable: poetry is placed into a spectrum alongside taking a “chic drag” on a French cigarette & jerking off. Neither of which, it’s worth noting, are figured here pejoratively.

My favorite moment in the poem – actually, I have several – my first favorite moment is the acknowledgement that the instant pen is put to paper (or pixels to screen) the “unconfused” state of the poem-as-possibility is lost forever. The unwritten poem has a lot in common with virginity – things get messy in a hurry. Ricard’s sense of humor as he proceeds is exceptionally nuanced – we get the cigarette before the sex, for example. Another wonderful moment here is in the way Ricard distances himself from meaning – “Something is meant by this.” An entire critique of meaning is figured in that statement.

The poem’s first major shift occurs with “What could be more essential,” a rhetorical question that is then framed parenthetically as a flaw in the writing. From this point forward, the poem will stick to poetry as its focus, even through the second shift which occurs (no coincidence here) with the second question. The poem’s approach to its theoretical problem is so light-hearted & generous that it’s possible not to take the question of what happens to good poetry seriously, even though it’s a perfectly serious question.

You can see Ricard here as interested in the idea of artless art – a concept very close not only to the whole Warhol scene but also to conceptualism as well, which was just starting to enter the arts scene en masse.* The desire for an artless art is also quite evident in his other poems in the same issue. In this sense, Ricard is closer to the work, say, of Vito Acconci – who immediately precedes Ricard in Angel Hair – than, say, to Ron Padgett or Bill Berkson, even as the “I do this/I do that” aspect of the work makes Ricard a natural for a little magazine edited under the spell of Ted Berrigan.

Reading a journal such as Angel Hair 35 years after the fact in some ways is more meaningful than it ever could have been at the time it was originally published – we know now how all of these artists “will turn out,” who will be brilliant & who tragic. Ricard is someone who clearly chose to have an extremely diverse career, which like anything else has its advantages & drawbacks both. A poem such as “Oh” stands as a reminder that a “pretty slight poem,” written well, can still fully illuminate the whole world of poetry decades later.

* Indeed, conceptualism offers a logic through which Warhol’s cinema can be viewed as “attacking” the pop art of Warhol’s paintings.