Monday, August 25, 2003


Of the ten books on my “essential titles” list for Peter Davis, only two – Williams’ The Desert Music & Creeley’s Pieces – were originally published by trade presses. The other eight were published either by presses at the margins of the trade press scene (Grove for The New American Poetry, known in the 1960s as an importer of “racy” literature from Europe & Cape Grossman, a series that was edited by Nathaniel Tarn) or hardcore small presses. Frontier Press didn’t copyright Spring & All, merely noting that Contact Publishers had first printed the book in 1923. Sentences wasn’t even a book in the usual sense, coming in an elaborate cloth & cardboard box. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula was self published, one chapter at a time, acknowledging its author only as The Black Tarantula.


Of the ten volumes, only The New American Poetry is available in essentially the same form as its original publication, although the current cover abandons the signature “flag” motif of the original design. Sentences is available only electronically, although the web version makes a terrific effort at capturing the essential elements of the original experience – the cards appear in different order each time you read it, for example. The rest, for the most part, are available in various collected or group editions. Of those, it seems to me that Watten’s Plasma / Paralleles / “X” and Jack Spicer’s two volumes, Language & Book of Magazine Verse fare best – one can read the works in formats not radically different in design & feel from their original collections (although Magazine Verse was initially published in an edition that used different paper for each of its six sections, accentuating its aim at the different journals towards which it was targeted*). Plasma can be found in Watten’s Frame (1971-1990), where even the original paragraph breaks have been kept in tact.


No surprise that it’s the Watten, Spicer & Grenier works that are still in the hands of small presses. When I try to read Spring & All in the crowded New Directions edition of Imaginations, or Creeley’s Pieces wedged into the University of California Collected, it completely depresses me and makes me realize


·         that most collected editions really suck – they make far too many compromises for the sake of space & uniformity


·         that when I look at the small, even miniature editions of a press such as Cuneiform, or even a standard enough small press edition, such as Flood Editions’ The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson, what I am really seeing is the true potential of these poems in a way that is virtually never the case once they get captured by a trade press or gathered into the ghetto of a collected.


Think, for instance, of Allen Ginsberg’s City Lights editions books & contrast that with his final works from Harper & Row. Even a large small press – New Directions is the perfect example – can manage to make every Robert Creeley edition look indistinguishable & it’s practicing the same vandalism on the writing of Michael Palmer.


Of course, not every major poet has always been well treated by the small presses, nor has every bad design decision been the fault of a large press. The only small press editions of Charles Olson’s poetry that strike me as superior are those that focused not on the big guy’s poetry, but rather on his critical prose, especially the City Lights edition of Call Me Ishmael & the Cape Grossman version of Mayan Letters (again the personal hand of Nathaniel Tarn). It’s the University of California Press editions of the poems that do them the most justice. It was Robert Duncan, not New Directions, that insisted on Courier as the typeface for the first volume of his Groundwork    Before the War, effectively destroying the impact of those poems. [Rumor has it that the forthcoming Larry Eigner volumes will make this same disastrous mistake.] And there have been poets whose work has not fully come into its own until there was a Collected, such as Jenny Penberthy’s edition of Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works.


But, in general, I wonder if there isn’t something like a decay effect for many poets over time, wrought not so much by changes in social context, language or trends in poetry, although all of these happen also, but just by the compromises, both artistic & economic, inherent in collected editions & other publishing forms common to posthumous poetry. One wonders, for example, what the forthcoming Library of America Ezra Pound Poems and Translations will do to/for those works. Yes it will be wonderful to have this material all under one cover. But the Library of America format is deadening.


In this regard, I marvel at the long term success of Emily Dickinson’s work, given that it has thrived in spite of rather than because of the work of her publishers, & that there were no books in her lifetime to enable us to gain her sense of things. And all of this reinforces my impression that what survives over time – by which I mean centuries – is precisely the poetry that proves most platform independent. 

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