Saturday, March 29, 2003


Peter O’Leary adds some light – and layers of complexity – to my comments about Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and has a few questions of his own.



Dear Ron Silliman,


I'm writing to you as Ronald Johnson's literary executor. Very interested to read your description of seeing the "original" of RADI OS in San Francisco, & of sensing the dense physicality of the writing process, I thought you might yourself be interested to learn something more of the drafting process of this poem.


The crossing-out that you witnessed was only the first step of the composition. RJ kept several copies of that 1892 edition of Paradise Lost, each of which he would use to "compose" or "recompose" his first draft. He once told me that after he had initially conceived the idea, he raced through half of Milton, as a sort of joke, until he realized, "You don't tamper with Milton to be funny. You have to be serious" (in the "Interview with Ronald Johnson," Chicago Review 42.1, p. 43). Anyways, he kept three or four copies of Paradise Lost so marked up. Sad to report, I'm afraid only one of these exists, which is presently in the Spencer Collection at the University of Kansas Library. RJ's "estate" was in a state of chaos in 1997-8; when he asked me to take it over, I was living in Vienna & unable to return to the states – & to Kansas – to organize the estate. It's likely these other editions of Paradise Lost are themselves lost.


The next step, after crossing-out, was to type the poems into a draft. I think of RJ's poetic process as visionary or optidelic (to coin a word: vision-manifesting). Lest that sound too grand, I really think the focus in much of the poetry is on the eye. I don't think RJ could "see" his poem until he typed it out in draft form. What he would do is type the lines from a crossed-out page, with a 1-1/2 carriage return, flush-left on the page, typing a five-line underscore after each page. This way, he would accumulate his poem. When he had enough typed up, he would reread & revise. If a "page" (taking up maybe a tenth of a typescript page) didn't work, he would go back into Milton to revise/revision. Then, back to the typing process. RJ was an inveterate revisor of his work: nothing he wrote was draft-free: he constantly rewrote, retyped, re-imagined his poems, always tinkering with them (I write about the troubles this habit caused me in making the selection for The Shrubberies, published in 2001 by Flood Editions).


As an example of what I mean, the famous (to RJ readers, at least) opening of RADI OS reads in typescript:




into the World,


the chosen

Rose out of Chaos:



The final step in drafting the poem was for RJ to retype the poem but this time "aerated," duplicating in typescript the look of the poem on the page of Milton, without the crossed-out words. Sometimes he would also "illuminate" these versions, inserting large caps for the openings of each book from wax-transfers of letters he kept for such use.


Interestingly, RJ drafted up to book 9 of Paradise Lost, with the original intention that the "completed" text would serve as ARK 100, the "dymaxion dome" to cover the entire work of ARK. This, in the end, he decided against, feeling that the additional work he'd done was repeating RADI OS rather than adding to it.


My own theory about why he stopped with RADI OS is that he perfected this technique in "BEAM 21, 22, 23, The Song of Orpheus" in ARK: The Foundations. That poem, which begins with a quotation – center justified – of the introit to RADI OS, is comprised of a reading-through the Psalms (beginning at the word "PALMS"), in which he took at least one word from each Psalm, in sequence, as the vocabulary for the poem. The writing of this BEAM involved similar revisionary activity to that of RADI OS. It's the highpoint (great horizontal?) of The Foundations & one of the most amazing sequences in the whole poem. I suspect, then, that RJ began to feel a whole 12-book RADI OS would be redundant.


In the end, he settled on including RADI OS in a series of "Outworks" surrounding the edifice of ARK. The Outworks, which includes RADI OS & some later poems, including his incredible monument to the victims of AIDS, "Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid," is in the works with Flood Editions. This book will include the republication of RADI OS (which, regrettably?, before he passed away, RJ retitled, "Poem Excised Paradise Lost").


One of the problems we've been facing in imagining this book ("we" being myself & the directors of Flood, Devin Johnston & my brother Michael), is how to reproduce RADI OS. As you probably know from your Sand Dollar edition of the book, the text consists of a razored copy of the 1892 edition RJ used for his initial crossing-out. You can even see razor marks on some of the pages. The text is also somewhat uneven page by page. One option for reproduction would be to destroy an edition of the Sand Dollar book in order to create pristine scans, & then adjust them accordingly (an expensive proposition: in Jed Rasula & Steve McCaffery's Imagining Language this is how they accomplished the reproduction). The problem then will come with the rest of the book, which will need to be typeset in a similar font to create harmony & uniformity to the new book. The other option we've been considering is to scrap the "original" idea & start from the scratch of an electronic version of Milton, erasing the words electronically to reproduce a more harmonious version in terms of spacing & text. In this manner, we would be able to use one typeface uniformly throughout the book, harmonizing RADI OS with the other Outworks. I'd be curious to know what you think of this idea, as someone comfortable in the electronic frontiers of poetry these days.


OK. This has become a small essay. I imagine you get a lot of email for your Blog, which I quite enjoy; I check in every day or so. Thanks, as a reader, for the work you're doing.


All the best,

Peter O'Leary







* Which is not at all how this text ends up looking on the printed page:



O                        tree

                   into the World,





                                      the chosen


Rose out of chaos:




Friday, March 28, 2003


We have been reminded again this week of why the saying “May you live in interesting times” was a curse. In Mosul & Basra, citizens have relearned what the citizens of Hue and Hanoi already knew – why it is you don’t ever want the American people, so ignorant of geography & history, to learn the name & location of your city.


But in New York, San Francisco, London, Madrid, Chicago & elsewhere, the past few weeks also have seen the growth of a global anti-war movement at a pace that is unprecedented. That this movement has neither thwarted nor yet halted the war is not surprising, but that it has grown so rapidly from such relatively small roots is heartening. People have accomplished in days what literally took years in the 1960s, in terms of communication, outreach & education. In some respects, it is not so much the large actions in San Francisco or New York that drive this home most clearly as it is the simpler candlelight vigils in places like the Chester County courthouse here in Pennsylvania. In the 1960s, it was not until after the shock of the Kent State massacre that the peace movement permeated that far into the American hinterlands. & that took so long that it was no longer, properly speaking, even the sixties, but May 15, 1970, almost six years after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident.” This is an accomplishment & lesson that the organizers of the new peace movement should not take lightly. It is, in fact, something profound upon which to build.


Ironically, I suppose, the February-March issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter finally showed up in my mailbox, weeks – indeed it seems like months – after I first heard about its “Blank Generation” feature. I’d actually seen the feature itself – Steve Benson was good enough to send me a photocopy a few weeks back – but I would have missed Nick Piombino’sTessera,” a wonderful poem, had the issue itself not finally arrived.


The Blank Generation feature starts off from two comments, one made by Lyn Hejinian, the other taken from my Nov. 21st blog entry, both to the general effect that there had been a depoliticization of the younger generation when contrasted with our own experience of the 1960s. This is followed by comments from twelve writers, ten of whom are significantly younger than either Lyn or I. Obviously, events have substantially rewritten recent history & my initial criticism about depoliticization is one charge I’ll never be able to raise again. That’s the good news.


But I’d like to revisit that comment of mine in the slightly broader context in which it was originally made, a part of Carl Boon’s interview, a response to the question of why I was doing this blog. In the passage that follows, the italicized boldface portions are what were given to so-called Blank Generation respondents & published in the issue:


But there has also been a depoliticization of younger people generally & that has impacted poets. Some of it has to do with the lack of tangible alternatives to unfettered capital following the collapse of the old Stalinist bloc – although for decades it has been difficult to find any western Marxist who would defend the so-called “actually existing socialist countries,” in large part because state control over capital is not socialism. In the West, there has been no primary shared point of agreement as to the goals of the left since the U.S. exited Vietnam in 1974. That’s a long time for groups to go without much sense of cohesion. The antiglobalism movement is not one thing, but many, & many of them contradictory. Identarian tendencies were a logical extension of the civil rights movements of the 1950s & early ‘60s, but they have inescapably fed into this demobilization by isolating the very people they seek to empower. You see the long-term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically.


Those edits – the excision of history, to be exact – are worth noting.


Like Lyndon Johnson & Richard Nixon before him, George W. Bush has provided just the sort of “primary shared point of agreement” that has been lacking for so long. To some degree, the response to date has been predictable, although dramatically accelerated. The real issue, it seems to me, will come after the war, when the U.S. and the ever-faithful United Kingdom are bungling the reconstruction of all that they have laid waste. That is the point in this process that the left of my own generation never successfully negotiated. To date, I do not see it being addressed, but it’s too soon & I would dearly love to be wrong in my skepticism on this point.


The first Gulf War evaded the issue neatly by its sheer brevity. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al would like to do that again, but at this moment in history it’s too soon to tell. If there is a dramatic affective difference thus far between the experience of the antiwar movement of the 1960s & that of this spring, it is simply that the level of crisis & action that people have gone through this past week lasted in the 1960s & ‘70s for ten straight years. In the context of that degree of exhaustion & frustration, the mistakes of, say, the Weather Underground or the SLA become, if not excusable, at least understandable. Try doing this for a decade – it will change who you are.


My comments were a response to Carl Boon’s question of why, exactly, I was doing a weblog. Since I made those remarks four months ago, I’ve been thrilled to see so many other poets pick up the form. It really doesn’t matter what your aesthetic commitments or heritage might be – acting, writing & thinking critically will add a dimension to your work, your poetry as well as anything else you might do, that I believe can only lead to good things. One excellent example of how this can be extended in ways that go far beyond poetry is Brian Kim Stefans – one of a handful of poet-bloggers to be blogging longer than I – and his Circulars project, a weblog that has become a focal point for collecting & disseminating information related to the war. The last I heard, it was getting thousands of hits per day. It should be on everyone’s favorites list.


I want to dedicate this blog to an old friend, Wade Hudson. I first met Wade over thirty years ago when we worked together on dozens of projects as part of the California prison movement & he never ceases to amaze me – I once ran into him giving Felix Guattari a tour of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. This week Wade is in Baghdad as part of the Iraq Peace Team. He’s taking an enormous risk for the benefit of the entire world. I recommend that you read his own weblog.


Thursday, March 27, 2003


As I browsed through the tapes available from the Berkeley Language Center, one of the things that caught my attention about the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 was the length of the solo readings. There was none of those “excuse me” 25-minute so-called featured readings that one sees so frequently now on college campuses and on the East Coast. While the opening night reading appears not to have been recorded, from the remaining available materials we can see that of eight solo readings, six took at least 80 minutes. Charles Olson’s, of course, is notorious for its length – they literally had to shut the building down to get him to stop. But Olson’s tape at 205 minutes is not inconceivably longer than Allen Ginsberg’s two-hour reading, nor Ed Dorn’s, which was only ten minutes shorter. Robert Duncan at 95 minutes, Gary Snyder at 90, Robert Creeley at 80 were more modest. Only Jack Spicer (at 50 minutes) and John Wieners (at 45) came in at under one hour.


There were five group readings as well. The first, with an obvious San Francisco focus, included Robin Blaser, George Stanley and Richard Duerden. A second reading was entitled “Young Poets” & included Victor Coleman, Robert Hogg, David Franks, Jim Boyack , Robin Eichele & Stephen Rodefer. These kids were the essence of modesty – only Franks read over 20 minutes.


A third reading featured John Sinclair, Lenore Kandel, Ed Sanders & Ted Berrigan. Berrigan’s presence is really the only visible sign of the New York School on the conference program*. A fourth program featured another three San Francisco poets: Ron Loewinsohn, Joanne Kyger & Lew Welch. And finally the conference closed with a second reading of “young” poets, this time mostly from Berkeley: Gene Fowler, Doug Palmer, Drummond Hadley, Jim Wehlage, Eileen Adams, :Lowell Levant, Gale (sic) Dusenbery, Sam Thomas & Jim Thurber. While again these readers kept their performances to around 15 minutes, the number of them pushed the event to two hours, forty minutes.


Until I looked at this site, I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly present & accounted for Canadian poets were at this early stage – obviously the first Vancouver conference in 1963 had already had an impact. Nor had I expected to find the Detroit scene – Sinclair and Eichele –represented at all. But, as I noted yesterday, I was ignorant as a stick at the time. As it turned out, Sinclair – who now practices his music & poetry routine in the Big Easy – would be one of the first significant editors to connect with my poetry, printing a few pieces of mine in his journal Work in ’68.





* Sanders is included in the Shapiro-Padgett An Anthology of New York Poets, but in this context seems obviously to function as a younger Beat poet. Interestingly, two conference attendees, Lewis Warsh & Anne Waldman, would discover one another while in Berkeley, leading to all sorts of great benefits for the NY School’s second generation & beyond.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003


A few words from Jack Spicer about poetry and politics.


It only took me 38 years, but I finally got to Jack Spicer’s talk on “Poetry and Politics” from the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965. The Conference was a series of seven talks and 14 readings held on the University of California campus over a two week period, between July 12 and 25 of 1965. Since, unemployed & basically doing the 18-year-old street person routine on Telegraph Avenue that summer, I did not possess the requisite $57* entrance fee for the entire event – over $465 in 2003 dollars – I was consigned to hanging out at parties, listening to clusters of poets as they wandered around the campus, and sneaking into readings. Also, I was as ignorant as a stick about who was who & what was what when it came to poetry in 1965. So when Jack Spicer gave his talk on July 14, I had no idea who he was or what might be special about that event. Of course, nobody, Jack included, realized at the time that he had only another five weeks to live.  In the audio tape of the event – which is how I got to attend all these years later -- Spicer has a smoker’s cough, but otherwise sounds fine.


July 14, 1965, was a propitious moment to be talking of poetry & politics. In Vietnam, General Westmoreland had just begun conducting “purely offensive” operations in areas outside of Saigon. The slippery slope from advising a corrupt regime through defensive battles had escalated now to a full engagement.


At Berkeley, the previous fall had seen the Free Speech Movement on the UC campus, as attempts by the Republican right – notably Senator Bill Knowland who owned the then-powerful Oakland Tribune – to shut down student organizing on campus for local civil rights protests triggered the first full-scale student revolt in the United States. When one student, Jack Weinberg, agreed to set himself up for a “test-case” arrest by setting up a card table at the Telegraph & Bancroft entrance to the campus, he did not anticipate what then ensued: 3,000 students surrounding the police car refusing to let the cops take him away – a standoff that lasted for over 30 hours. The strike that followed brought new phenomena to American colleges – sit-ins and mass arrests – before finally establishing the right of students to use public campus facilities for organizing.


Earlier in the spring of 1965, the Free Speech Movement was followed by the Filthy Speech Movement, as John Thompson, a local street poet, sat on the steps of the Sproul Hall and held up a sheet of paper with the F word penned across it. When the campus cops busted Thompson, other students spontaneously proceeded to follow suit. The media predictably played the issue for laughs.


These are the immediate political phenomena that Jack Spicer and his audience were thinking about** as he began his talk. Lurking further behind the talk was a political event from Spicer’s own days as a student, the imposition of a California state loyalty oath in 1949. Several professors had refused to sign the oath on civil liberty grounds and were summarily dismissed, the dismissal of some (not all) later being overturned. On January 18, 1961, one of those professors, Tom Parkinson, a Yeats scholar & sometime poet as well as the son of a major San Francisco radical union leader, was shot in his office by a former student bent on saving the university from Communism. Parkinson’s teaching assistant that term, Stephen Thomas, was killed.*** Parkinson bore the scars of the shooting – some sixty pellets remained lodged in his skull. At the Berkeley Poetry Conference, it is Parkinson who introduces Jack Spicer.


Jack Spicer is dealing with all of these events & forces and he is, in July of 1965, deeply pessimistic about the possibility of poetry and politics. He sees, for example, no hope for either poets nor the then burgeoning student movement to impact the outcome of the Vietnam debacle at all. Thus Spicer announces that his talk’s purposed is aimed in a very different direction. His intent is to persuade “you people who are poets” to not “sell out,” by which he means literally to not publish poetry where people other than your closest compatriots can find it.


That may sound like an extreme version of coterie poetics, but Spicer – to the discomfort of several people in the audience – makes it sound all very reasonable. At the heart of his argument is a presumption as to whom the poem is for – the poet who writes it. The purpose of the poem is not to be read. Indeed, Spicer says


I don’t know what a non poet can get out of poetry, I’ve never been able to figure it out…. I fundamentally don’t think that nonpoets ought to read poetry.


Even Spicer concedes that this is overreaching on his part, as some of these very same nonpoets tell him interesting and useful things about his own writing as well as that of others. But still, he argues, the relationship of the poem to a broader audience is “futile.” “Not to the poets – they get messages from the poems.”


It is because for Spicer there is a radical separation between poet & poem – Spicer claims there is an audience for the former, but not the latter – that the poem can achieve its status of an object of divination for the writer. Selling out, as he puts it, thus becomes anything which directs the poem toward another end.


“Your enemy is simply something which tries to stop you from writing poetry,” Spicer says, but he makes it clear that “if you violate something that was deep inside you … you’re lost….You don’t write or you write bad poetry or you write for the market.” It’s a value system in which writing for publication and not writing are equivalent.


To this, Spicer offers what amounts to a utopian alternative.


A magazine is a society. I think Open Space proved that. You have to behave within the rules of the society.


Open Space was printed monthly in issues of 150 copies maximum over the course of one year. It had a set & very limited number of contributors – and you were required to contribute each month. “You couldn’t postpone your poem.” The magazine was handed out for free & distributed from Gino & Carlo’s, a tavern in North Beach, and Cody’s Books in Berkeley. Issues were not supposed to be sent out of the Bay Area, although Spicer remarks that some were sent to New York apparently without his knowledge & against his objection. Stan Persky made a point of giving copies out in such a way as to prevent individuals from obtaining complete sets, although Lew Ellingham got the University of California library to buy one set for $100. In the talk, there is some banter back & forth between Spicer & Parkinson over the difficulty of getting $100 out of the university procurement system.


Thus from Spicer’s perspective poets create a community – a term that Spicer uses in deliberate opposition to society, which he sees as negative – a community in which the poets included can read one another. This is a vision of the journal not as a record nor as a making public, but rather as lab notes being shared by researchers involved in a common investigation.


So, in Spicer’s argument, the poet’s next task, after the writing of the poem, must be to limit that discussion, to keep the poem from becoming truly public. Spicer recognizes the irony of making this argument at a place like the Berkeley Poetry Conference, professing to be doing so strictly for the money. He makes the point, further, that all poets will sell out – “You have to, for economic reasons” – but that if you do you should at least understand what you’re doing. Spicer uses the analogy of peach farmers who produce vast quantities of product without a sense of what the market demand for peaches might be, so that overproduction reduces the value of the individual peach to near zero – the implication for poetry is obvious enough – the idea behind his talk, Spicer says, is to convince young poets that “When you sell out, know exactly what your peaches cost.” That is, know what you are sacrificing in the way of the poem as an investigative tool if & when you transition into the role of being a poet in public.


Hearing Spicer make this argument & countering the barrage of objections from members of the audience – aren’t poets the “unacknowledged legislators?” wasn’t Yeats an actual senator? isn’t Spicer just revisiting Auden’s position that poetry makes nothing happen? aren’t the folk songs of the civil rights movement an example of verse creating political change? – is fascinating, almost a form of voyeurism. The one point Spicer is willing to actually entertain is the question of song. Expressing admiration for Johnny Mercer, Spicer admits that “if I could write popular songs, I’d do it.”


Spicer’s talk on the 16th of July comes just five days ahead of Ginsberg’s reading of Kral Majales, a poem that seems to have infuriated Spicer, who writes a poem in response that turns out to be the last work he will ever write. Five weeks later, Spicer is dead. He will never get to see all the ways in which the student movement impacted the Vietnam War, leading directly to the end of the Johnson administration and preventing Nixon & Kissinger from ever feeling free enough to actually commit the resources needed to have “won.” If Spicer thought Ginsberg was obnoxious with his King of the May poem at Berkeley, one can only imagine what he would have thought over the next few years as Allen proved to be the father figure of the hippie Be-In.


While Spicer’s conception of the poem as an object of divination may reek of ectoplasm & spoon-bending, the idea behind it of the poem as a device for investigation is something we see reappearing in several guises – it’s the aspect of Spicer that one sees, say, in the work of Robert Grenier or Barrett Watten. & it’s what Spicer shared with Olson, who, at one point in this talk, Spicer calls “probably the best poet we have in the country.”+ It’s what I find in the exploratory media work that several younger poets are now doing. And it’s clearly the impulse behind talks & behind blogs like this.











* Before Rachel Loden writes to correct me  & say that tickets only cost $45, I would advise her to check her ticket – which she acquired on the 16th, and which was discounted accordingly. A $45 ticket in 1965 is only worth $367 in today’s dollars. That would have made zero difference to me in 1965.


** In Spicer’s talk, the civil rights movement is discussed in connection with its use of music & song, but no mention at all is made of the assassination of Malcolm X earlier that year.


*** Parkinson’s TA from the previous year, Burt Hatlen, was fortunate to be studying abroad in ’61.


+ Given their differences, both as writers & as people, that’s a significant statement. One could read all of Language, at the time Spicer’s most recent publication, as an extended disproof of Olson’s Projectivism. Spicer’s endorsement is not without its ambivalence, however. Ebbe Borregaard in the audience asks why Spicer compares Olson to Lyndon Johnson, a deliberately provocative query since Spicer hasn’t done so here, although he has said that “There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire.” Spicer doesn’t dodge the issue: “I meant that he was in the same position in poetry that Johnson is in politics.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2003


Somebody not long ago – possibly on a blog or perhaps the Poetics List – suggested that John Ashbery wrote relatively quickly and without much revision. Whether or not that’s accurate – I have no way of knowing – I found it a liberating way to think about his poetry. It reminded me of a similar situation, at least a quarter of a century ago, when I heard another person, someone involved in the visual arts as I recall, who said that they were unable to appreciate the paintings of Mark Rothko until they realized how very quickly most of them were painted & that, far being from the somber & ponderous works of brooding imagination that some of Rothko’s advocates had made them out to be, were almost sketchlike in their qualities.


Whether or not in either instance this should turn out to be the case seems to me far less important than my imaginative ability to conceive of these works in such terms. I can recall, albeit with increasing difficulty over the years, how I envisioned the texts of Larry Eigner’s on first reading them as a teenager – all that white space between words & lines made the text appear to me as “airy,” almost feathery – and it seemed immediately & completely self-evident that his choices, both in phrasing & linebreaks, reflected a language that was spoken. Long before I met Bob Grenier, David Gitin had warned me about what Larry used to call his “poor speech,” but I never really “got” it until, after Eigner moved to Berkeley sometime around 1978, when I first reached out to him by calling him on the telephone. I was completely unprepared for Larry’s difficult cerebral palsy impaired accent – it was as if I had somehow called one of the lions of Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras on the phone & I was suddenly realizing that Wittgenstein’s admonition was literally true.


When I took the bus across the Bay to the board-and-care facility Larry was living in at the time, I met a tiny man with very limited physical abilities – really only full use of one hand, plus the ability to grasp with the other. His speech was only marginally better in person – it would in fact improve markedly over his years in Berkeley, simply because he had so many occasions to try & communicate with different people – but our ability that first afternoon to make eye contact enabled us to take full advantage of body language and extra-linguistic clues to flesh out the conversation. I couldn’t have gotten through it otherwise.


Because the original desk that had been obtained for Eigner had its drawers on the left, and because Larry could not move to the right in his wheelchair, the act of taking a piece of paper & inserting it in the typewriter entailed grabbing it with his left hand, then turning his wheelchair 360 degrees to the left in order to rearrive at the machine. Inserting the paper was no less complicated & the whole idea of a carriage return suddenly made it apparent to me that, even if there were a formal logic in Larry’s poems as to why the poem ought to gradually drift across the page, with lines starting further & further to the right as they proceeded down, there was a physical rationale for the device as well. I never saw any poem of Eigner’s as “airy” or “feathery” again – in fact, no poet ever worked harder to get his words down so exactly on the page. I often wondered as to the degree that Larry’s physical challenges caused him to think so intently on such questions – the very things that were so hard for him were related to issues in writing, like the physical placement of the word & line on the paper, at which he had no peer.


Another, very different text towards which I have a radically different relationship than most people, I suspect, is Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os. When I first met Johnson in 1973, during a period when we both happened to live on Sacramento Street in San Francisco, Johnson made a point of showing me his working copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which he was then extracting the poem by drawing thick lines with a black felt tip pen through the text. The result, in the original, looked like something far closer to Tom Phillips’ A Humument than to the Johnson text as finally printed by Sand Dollar press. As with Eigner, what may seem like an “airy” & even light text strikes me very differently. Thus, when Brad Haas characterizes Johnson’s process of composition as “excising words from an 1892 printing of Paradise Lost,” I cringe, not because Haas is wrong in the literal sense, but because excising so completely fails to capture the physicality of these words amid the rows of black ink. Instead, words that remained looked more like the first cabbages to sprout amid a well-ploughed field. What was being “excised” through this process was thus not words, but rather the entire poem. It was the poem that Johnson saw, not clusters of words.


Reading Ashbery as though his poems were, say, written quickly & sans much editing suggests a very different relationship between Ashbery and the “D word.” Consider, for perverse example, the opening to “This Deuced Cleverness,” from Chinese Whispers, whose textual body’s first line continues its title:


is what’s the matter. Can’t see without it.

Or was it, over the years of arrears,

swathed in a hoydenish privacy? No.

It’s ours to deal.


What might it mean for a “deuced cleverness” to be swathed in a hoydenish privacy? If I read this poem as though it were layered & worked over for days, weeks or even years, I might come to a very different sense of those phrases & their implications, especially the latter one which, if perceived as the product of quickness, might be read instead as taking pure pleasure in its overly lush, slightly exotic vocabulary. Similarly, the sound of “years of arrears” would now loom more important, signaling the onset of this surfeit of linguistic overload.


Read as jotted rather than sweated, Ashbery turns into a far more ludic poet, much lighter & far less difficult, capital D – though I’m not much of a believer in difficulty, period – much closer to Frank O’Hara than he might otherwise appear. Certainly far closer to O’Hara than to Merrill or Warren, the other poets with whom Harold Bloom loves to group the poor man. Thus the presumption alone, that setting of expectation, changes the poem itself.


Ironically enough, what this reminds me more than anything is the deflation of T.S. Eliot’s reputation once it became clear that the sharp shifts & hard-edged edits of The Waste Land were all entirely Ezra Pound’s doing & that, left to his own devices, Eliot’s manuscript would have headed in the drowsy direction that later drugged The Four Quartets. I don’t think Ashbery need worry about his reputation – though frankly I think Bloom has done it no good – his work reads very well sans the critic’s furrowed brow.

Monday, March 24, 2003


It was an inspired reading line-up, to say the very least. On Friday, March 21, the Walt Whitman Arts Center in Camden, NJ, presented Alice Notley reading with Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, her sons. I was fortunate to be one of just under 50 people who came to this transformed public library just off the Rutgers-Camden campus and got to hear an exceptionally diverse and enjoyable reading.


Anselm, the older of the sons, read first. It was the first time I’d ever heard him, but his reading fit almost seamlessly with what I find on the page: an essentially quiet poetry filled with exacting attention to detail, captured with just as much attention to phrase structure – indeed a poetry of the phrase. It looks & maybe even sounds a little New York School, gen whatever, but without the flash & over-the-top effects. The trade-off is an ability to focus in wherever he wants with an acuity that is marvelous. You have a sense – or I do at least – that this is an artist already completely in control of his craft, who is going to have a profound impact on literary culture over the next 20 years.


Edmund, by comparison, writes work that is, in many ways, louder, its humor goofier & more edgy. As he read from a novella in process, I recall thinking that I hope he never gets mad at me, because his sense of satire can be positively slashing. And it would be delivered with a big cheerful smile.


It seems impossible to imagine that Alice Notley can write anything better than the works she has produced over the past 15 or so years, as she has been as the top of her game for a very long time, producing poetry that makes everybody completely have to set aside preconceptions about form & genre & just start over with brand new eyes – she does that “make it new” thing as well as any poet of my generation. But her current project, which might be called Alma, is yet another great leap forward. Part fiction, all poetry – even the prose parts – and deeply involved with indigenous cultures, including the culture of junk, and with the structure of a curse, Alma is not really like any text I’ve ever heard before. Notley’s reading was electric, both ecstatic & terrifying at once, completely draining just to listen to. I’m trying to think of somebody who might be this intense as a reader, but frankly I can’t. Alice Notley has found a territory that is hers all alone.


Families that write are not that common – Howe, Saroyan, Ginsberg & his father, Creeley & his grandson Trane Devore. Often if relatives are active intellectually or in the arts, it’s at some angle – Louis Zukofsky & his son the violinist, Marjorie Perloff’s daughter Cory directing the American Conservatory Theater or Lydia Davis’ half-brother, Alexander Cockburn, holding down the crackpot Stalinist franchise at The Nation. In every instance, a part of what enables especially the younger artist with a well-known parent (& the Berrigans in their own way must contend with more than most: Notley, their father Ted & their late step-father Douglas Oliver) is an ability, very early on, to articulate distinctly an aesthetic take – an earlier generation would probably have called this “voice,” but in fact it’s much larger – that is not held in common. Anselm & Edmund Berrigan pass that hurdle easily, but it was only hearing the two of them, one after the other, that I really began to appreciate just how entirely different each is from his sibling.


Note to reading & event coordinators: the Notley-Berrigan Family Values tour would made for a great series of readings, as much a “natural” as when, say, Bobbie Louise Hawkins did the folk circuit with Rosalie Sorrels and U. Utah Phillips. Bring it to your town, now!




Michael Magee wants people to know that he has an article in Contemporary Literature 42:4 (Winter 2001), entitled “Tribes of New York: Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka and the Poetics of the Five Spot,” that addresses many of the issues raised in my blog last Tuesday.



I came across the short list for the 1953 National Book Award for poetry &, a little like the 1957 Evergreen Review that I was looking at on Thursday, I find that it’s intriguing for what it tells me about poetry as a social phenomenon. It’s a lesson in the shifting nature of literary attention.


Awards, almost by definition, aren’t a good representation of the literary scene. What they register is not necessarily who’s doing good work, but rather the relative social power of different forces within the terrain, as filtered – always & only as filtered – through the specific & local politics of a given award body. The Pulitzer gathers its reputation not from the quality of its choices – which for poetry over the years have been more laughable than not – but from the simple fact that, by giving prizes to newspapers in other categories, Pulitzers get regularly reported by newspapers. The more recent National Book Critics Circle Awards demonstrates principally that book critics look to those publishers who advertise, which invariably means the trade publishers, even if somewhere above 90 percent of all poetry is published exclusively by small presses. So looking to the short list of 50 years ago is not the same as looking to the poetry of that time as it is the forces at play within what Charles Bernstein so loving calls Official Verse Culture (OVC)


In 1953, Archibald MacLeish won the National Book Award for poetry – he also won the Pulitzer & Bollingen that year, all for his Collected Poems 1917-1952. Five decades hence, it’s arguable as to whether MacLeish is read seriously by poets any more or merely by the professional class of scholars of modernism. MacLeish, of all the U.S. poets of the 20th century, was the furthest from being an outsider. But he also strikes me as having been an okay poet & relatively a nice guy – if your child was to bring home a beaux who was a poet, you’d probably be happier if it was a MacLeish than an Olson, Pound, or Spicer. MacLeish, variously an editor at Fortune, Librarian of Congress and State Department official, is remembered at least as well for his friendships with the major modernists – helping Pound to get released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, for example – as he is for his poetry.


MacLeish’s circumstance isn’t necessarily so unusual. Of the 12 finalists for the award that year, only two strike me as being read by a substantial number of poets today:* Kenneth Rexroth & W.S. Merwin. Not necessarily by the same poets, but by poets nonetheless. For writers however marginally integrated into OVC, the news is not good – the chances are overwhelming that in 50 years very few poets will be reading your work. And, remember, this is the case for those fortunate enough to make the NBA short list. OVCers who fall outside of that inner circle of benediction can anticipate an even harder time finding audiences in the future.


But the nature of this integration is what strikes me as most visible from the short list. MacLeish & Merwin can both be said to fall fully inside that framework, defined for the moment as connections to New York trade publishers, major university presses, academic appointments & this reinforcing mechanism of the “award circuit” itself. Of the twelve poets on the short list, only five can be truly said to fit within that framework. In addition to MacLeish & Merwin, there were Stanley Burnshaw, something of a maverick among the New Critics in that he was active on the left; Peter Viereck, poet, historian, longtime UMass Amherst professor & already in the 950s something of a professional conservative intellectual; and Robert Silliman Hillyer**, the sonneteer who actively campaigned to have Pound’s works quashed after World War 2. Merwin, it’s worth noting, started out as a scion of the New England Brahmin formalists & would, a decade later, become one of several – Robert Bly, James Wright, Adrienne Rich were others – who dramatically transformed their poetry away from the cramped verse they had inherited.*** Merwin’s 1952 debut volume, A Mask for Janus, a Yale Younger Poets volume selected by Auden, is decidedly pre-transformation.


Rexroth very pointedly was never part of that world. In the light of this short list, I see him as one of four examples of “regional” verse that were being called out in 1953 to acknowledge just this phenomenon. In addition to the western Rexroth, Book Award nominees included two Appalachian regionalists, Byron Herbert Reece of Georgia & Jesse Stuart of Kentucky, and Colorado’s Thomas Hornsby Ferril, the somewhat unacknowledged founder of cowboy poetry. Reece, who committed suicide later in the 1950s, has become something of a folk figure in his native state where one of the access trails to the Appalachian Trail has been named for him.


This leaves three other writers, two of whom seem so distinct that it would be foolhardy to put them into a list such as regionalists, the third being more mysterious. The first of these is Ridgeley Torrence, a one-time New York City librarian who became known as a writer of plays portraying African-American life. Torrence’s work fits into a tradition of whites focusing on black culture that would include Stein’s Three Lives, Carl Van Vechten, and Dubose & Dorothy Heyward, the creators of Porgy and Bess. The husband of ghost story writer Olivia Howard Dunbar, Torrence died in 1950 and was being considered posthumously for the award.


Like Merwin, Naomi Replansky was nominated for her first book. She was also the only woman among the twelve nominees. Replansky continues her work as a poet to this day, although she apparently went over thirty years between her first volume, Ring Song, and her next volume. A correspondent in the 1950s with poets such as George Oppen and an out-of-the-closet lesbian during the starkly homophobic postwar years, she’s an important (if somewhat secret) figure in the history of women’s writing. Interestingly – and perhaps ironically – Replansky’s poem “Housing Shortage,” taken from Ring Song, turns up on all manner of “inspirational poetry” websites, many of which seem blithely unaware of its dimension as a poem about the personal politics of the closet:


I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one

Yet see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living
You stumble over it daily.

And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.

Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Given yards, dream of miles,
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

You too dreaming the same.


I don’t know enough about Replansky’s poetry to understand why it’s not been more widely published or read. Or perhaps it is, but by a community about which I know far too little.


Replansky, however, is hardly as mysterious as Ernest Kroll, nominated in 1953 for Cape Horn and Other Poems. Kroll had published at least one chapbook before this volume from Dutton, followed in 1955 by Pauses of the Eye, from the same press. Although Kroll continues to show up in tables of contents into the 1980s, mostly with a form he called the “fraxiom,” or fractured axiom, “the aim being to cause the reader to believe that two things, contradictory or complementary, have been said in almost the same time it takes to say one.” While there were some chapbooks of fraxioms (fraxia?) and one volume in an edition of 300 copies from the University of Nebraska Press in 1973, Kroll’s works appear to be entirely out of print & prove almost as hard to find on the web as Ridgeley Torrence’s. I’m unable to find out anything about the author, although I suspect he may have been part of 1953’s “regionalist” phenomena as far as the Book Award nominating committee might have been concerned.


I recall Andrew Schelling telling me once that he thought it was okay that poets “disappeared” over time, that it was all part of the composting of literary influences that results in a constant regeneration. I, as readers of this blog & my other work must know, feel much more ambivalent about that. I wonder, for example, how the regionalism of 1953 leads to – if it does – the regionalisms of today, such as Afrilachian poetry. I also wonder if the school of quietude doesn’t need to get off its collective butt and think about creating real institutions & traditions that would enable its writers to develop the kinds of lasting influences & reciprocity that characterize the post-avant scene’s heritage. For while the poets of quietude may get a disproportionate share of all the institutional awards for poetry, their work nonetheless seems largely destined to dissolve rapidly over time.


Some links to the poets on the short list for the 1953 National Book Award:


§         Stanley Burnshaw

§         Thomas Ferril

§         Robert Hillyer

§         Ernest Kroll

§         Archibald MacLeish

§         W. S. Merwin

§         Byron Reece

§         Naomi Replansky

§         Kenneth Rexroth

§         Jesse Stuart

§         Ridgeley Torrence

§         Peter Viereck


* Your chances were just as good if you were nominated in the fiction category, as were both May Sarton and William Carlos Williams.


** If Hillyer is a relative – most Sillimans in the U.S. can be traced back to the arrival of two brothers in Connecticut around 1680 – it’s a legal, rather than genetic connection. My paternal grandfather, born a McMahon, was renamed Silliman after being adopted.


***This 1960s revolt within the school of quietude has generally been lost amid the many other more flamboyant rebellions & transformations of that decade, but it is certainly worth studying in its own right. One question that might be answered by such an investigation is whether or not John Berryman’s Dream Songs & Sylvia Plath’s Ariel should be viewed as part of that rebellion, or as the liveliest elements of the tradition that remained.


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