Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Van Gogh’s Ear (VGE) is one of those strange journals that focuses almost exclusively on the writing of poets and authors who possess major name recognition. Indeed, a poet has a better chance to getting into print here dead – Quentin Crisp, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Whalen, even Marilyn Monroe – than young. It’s not that there are no younger writers here, but for the most part those who do show up amongst the 86 contributors to VGE’s second issue are poets who have already established themselves with audiences – Anselm Berrigan, Lee Ann Brown, Jena Osman, Edwin Torres – or who are now taking off like rockets, such as kari edwards & Linh Dinh.


Although the journal’s tagline is “Poetry for the New Millennium,” VGE 2 includes eight contributors whose work appeared in the Allen anthology 43 years ago: Ashbery, Blaser, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, McClure, Orlovsky, Snyder & Whalen. Second generation New Americans turn up (Berkson, Malanga, DiPrima, Notley) as do a few langpos (Bernstein, Hejinian, Perelman, moi) as well as others who fall generally into this same post-avant territory, such as Tom Raworth, Bob Holman, Sparrow, Eileen Myles & Paul Auster. Editor Ian Ayres’ view of American poetry is basically European, which in practice means that the school of quietude is accorded only token representation. I wonder what W.D. Snodgrass must think about finding his “Gringolandia” – it’s even worse than the title sounds – sandwiched between the writing of yours truly & Gary Snyder. John Updike’s “Trees” follows similarly on the heels of Edwin Torres’ “The Theorist has no Samba!”


One poem in particular first caught my eye because I recognized the handwriting, literally, as it’s presented on the right-hand page in holographic reproduction, the identical text printed on the left. The poem is by Allen Ginsberg, but it doesn’t look anything like your typical Ginsberg work & indeed acknowledges its source by its title, “Lines for Creeley’s Ear”:


The whole

weight of


too much


my heart in

the subway





from smoking


a moment



uptown to see


Buddha tonite.


One can hear what Ginsberg is finding in Creeley’s line – that almost gamelan precision as the mind steps through the syllables, something Creeley gets not from the Projectivists but from Zukofsky. The parameters of the project are simple enough: quatrains with no more than four syllables – the first three stanzas each have ten syllables, the last one 13. If you track the quatrains even closer by syllable count*, you see that Ginsberg has done an admirable job in creating not only a sense of variety but of aural development, starting with two of the shortest lines, ending with three of the longest.


Ginsberg plays with some of Creeley’s famed enjambments in the first two stanzas, but it’s interesting that the third – when the impact of smoking is being described – seems almost the most flat-footed. It’s an inspired, counterintuitive way to mimic tobacco’s impact on blood pressure.


The one line for me that doesn’t work is the second one of the last stanza. No other line in the entire poem contains what is so clearly two distinct aural units & I suspect that Creeley, faced with the same set of choices, might well instead have run them as two lines & to have ended with Buddha tonite as its own separate one-line stanza. It’s conceivable that Ginsberg heard it as taking a longer breath before the final sweep of the last two lines, but to end of the first word on n  & start the next with t breaks that movement for my ear.


Ginsberg seems to have been similarly bothered by that final stanza. The poem appears in what I take to be a revised form in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. In the Collected,  it is titled simply “For Creeley’s Ear. Buddha has been moved up to the third line alongside Karmapa, with tonight – now spelled the traditional manner – alone on the fourth line. The problem of the second line now tends to dissolve – it becomes a step toward the only five syllable line in the work, with the two-syllable last line functioning almost as a coda or bell to signal the poem’s end.


That’s an interesting revision, in that it does solve the problem that nagged at me from my first reading, yet overall I think the Collected Poems version is weaker for it. The revised version puts the climax of the poem on the penultimate line, almost to the point where the final line seems added on in order to avoid violating the form. In the Van Gogh’s Ear variant, the weight falls on the final line & the equation of Karmapa** with Buddha is offset by the acknowledgement of the marketing of a public event, tonite being sort of the apotheosis of the spelling associated with billboard-speak. The VGE version thus has layers of meaning & humor that are lost when one moves one word up a line and alters the spelling of another. It’s a great argument for the care of the poem, for recognizing that every character has a role.


My sense is that neither version quite works as well as it might, that the stumbling block of the second line of the final stanza can’t really be addressed anywhere but in the second line itself. It’s intriguing to watch Ginsberg make the attempt, but it’s a mistake to have tried to resolve the issue elsewhere in the stanza.


That Ginsberg in 1976 is still writing what is clearly a “Creeley study” is, I think, a sign of how little affected by his celebrity Ginsberg at least sought to be. These lines may be for Creeley’s ear, but the work itself is clearly for Ginsberg’s benefit. That we benefit also is just part of its charm.







* Thus the syllable count of the lines for each quatrain:
2 – 2 – 4 – 2
3 – 3 – 2 – 2
2 – 3 – 2 – 3
2 – 4 – 3 – 4


** This would have been Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, who traveled to the U.S. in 1976.