Saturday, July 05, 2003

The first time I saw “Biotherm,” my impulse was to squint. As published in A Controversy of Poets, the 1965 anthology edited by Paris Leary & Robert Kelly that attempted to put School of Quietude poets (selected by Leary) alongside New Americans (chosen by Kelly) side by side, Frank O’Hara’s “long” poem for Bill Berkson appears in 6 point type. Six points is really what graphic designers call “mouse type,” a font size used for material in an ad you are compelled to print (usually for regulatory reasons) but which you really don’t want anyone to read. The width of O’Hara’s page when slotted into the volume’s mass market paperback format is no doubt what forced the issue – Olson’s ”Letter to Melville 1951,” which immediatly follows O’Hara, manages to function perfectly well at 8½ points, the standard “body text” font for the volume, requiring only a few hanging indents.


The result is that on the first page of O’Hara’s poem, the title itself – “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)” – looks huge in its standard 9 point font, O’Hara’s name, at 9½ points, looks like a billboard. Contrasted with these, the body of O’Hara’s text produces a sort of vertigo, as though one were looking down from a great height. As I’ve noted before, I didn’t really connect with Frank O’Hara’s work until I saw him in Richard Moore’s brilliant USA Poetry PBS documentary in 1966, in which O’Hara is something akin to the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, writing, drinking, smoking, talking to the camera, to friends in the room & to someone on the phone simultaneously with an ease & grace that was jaw-dropping, the typewriter keys clattering on at an almost alarming rate. I bought the Kelly/Leary anthology at Cody’s as a result of seeing Louis Zukofsky in the same series – it was the only volume in Cody’s that had any work by Zukofsky at all. But I don’t remember if that was before or after the O’Hara show. I already had seen O’Hara’s work in the Allen anthology, but it didn’t click with me there – I suspect that it must have looked too “easy” or casual & I was a very serious teenager indeed. So “Biotherm,” even in that itty-bitty type (or just possibly because it required that itty-bitty type), was really the work through which I began to first take O’Hara as a poet seriously.


All of which is just to note that there is a terrific essay on the poem in Sal Mimeo #3 by none other than Bill Berkson himself. Part memoir, part close reading, part meditation on the aspects of genre, with an exceptional seven-page glossary of references to the topical & situational references in O’Hara’s poem (itself only twelve pages in original manuscript), Berkson’s piece originally was composed  “for a booklet accompanying the deluxe Arion Press edition of ‘Biotherm’,” published in 1990. With 42 lithographs by Jim Dine, that volume is still available new at a mere $2,750. (A second suite of eight Dine lithographs selected from the illustrations to Biotherm goes for ten grand.)


Larry Fagin’s Sal Mimeo – which looks photocopied to me, in spite of its title – presents Berkson’s material in a more workmanlike setting. It’s one of several “historic” pieces in the current issue. Others include a 1988 interview with the late John Wieners, poems by Richard Kolmar from the 1960s & others by Alan Fuchs from his 1971 chapbook, Before Starting. Part of what makes Sal Mimeo so much fun is that it balances not only the historical with the new, but also the widely known with the still emerging. Some of the poets certainly are the New York School folks with whom Fagin traditionally has been associated: Berkson, Ron Padgett, Tony Towle, Bernadette Mayer. But, as with Carla Harryman’s work discussed here on Tuesday, Fagin goes further afield than one might expect. There are collaborations by Lyn Hejinian & Jack Collom, a marvelous suite of poems by Michael McClure, work from Bolinas poet Larry Kearney. There are also poets whose work I frankly don’t know, such as Richard Roundy, Daniel Nohejl, Chris Edgar, Eileen Hennessey and more. It’s definitely worth a read or, better yet, a subscription. Fagin can be reached at 437 E. 12th St., # 18, NYC 10009.

Friday, July 04, 2003

A Final Sonnet



for Chris


How strange to be gone in a minute!        A man

Signs a shovel and so he digs      Everything

Turns into writing a name for a day


is having a birthday and someone is getting

married and someone is telling a joke       my dream

a white tree        I dream of the code of the west

But this rough magic I here abjure        and

When I have required some heavenly music         which even now

I do        to work mine end upon their senses

That this aery charm is form     I’ll break

My staff       bury it certain fathoms in the earth

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book

It is 5:15 a.m.                                   Dear Chris, hello




Ted Berrigan

gone this day


Thursday, July 03, 2003

Yesterday, I noted the degree to which the reception of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems constitutes an act of literary CPR, an attempt to return the School of Quietude (SoQ) back to the imaginary hegemony it once fantasized as its birthright.


Lowell’s advocates are not unaware of the odds they face, or the difficulties involved in resurrecting something quite this moribund. They themselves have problems with a lot of Lowell’s writing: “if the equivalent of Uncle Artie had written ‘Day by Day,' published shortly before Lowell died, it would have seemed slack and listless,” writes Pritchard in the New York Times. These partisans are also skeptical as to whether the historical moment will allow their genie to be squeezed back into the lamp. Times Book Review editor McGrath writes


If someone of Lowell-like talent and Lowell-like ambition were to come along now, it's not a given that poetry would be his or her No. 1 career choice. If you had a literary bent and really wanted to become famous and leave a stamp on your generation, you would write novels or screenplays. Or, better yet, you would set your verses to a bass line and become a rap artist.


Leave to the Times not to notice, since its advertisers still have budgets, that the normative adult novel as an art form is far deader than even the poetry of the School of Quietude & that Hollywood’s idea of a screenplay is, literally, Dumb and Dumberer.


Part of the great frustration one senses from Lowell’s acolytes has to do with the fact that his generation in general & Lowell in particular failed to quash the rabble – the Olsons & Ginsbergs & O’Haras – in his day, thus enabling all manner of post-avant nonsense to come tumbling after. By the time Lowell died, the School of Quietude was completely outnumbered. While they may be able to keep the representation of post-avant poets in the Norton to a few, the existence of a Norton Postmodern just demonstrates how complete the revolution has been. McGrath bemoans a world in which “poetry has become an art form with more practitioners than actual readers.” Not dealing with the contradiction that such an actual renaissance of practicing poets suggests – & apparently ignorant of the role trobar clus has had in writing for at least 600 years – McGrath opines that this may be because “Lowell may have belonged to the last generation to believe seriously in the poetic vocation.”


The implication just beneath the surface of all these texts is that Lowell et al didn’t deal these threats from outside because Lowell & more than a few of his comrades – Berryman, Sexton, Plath, Schwartz, Jarrell – were bonkers. “They were all a little nuts,” as McGrath puts it, &, “except for the teetotaling Jarrell, they were all alcoholic.” (These are the “horrific odds” that Caroline Fraser finds Lowell pitted against in her fawning LA Times review.)


But I think the reality of the situation is different. For one thing, Lowell himself was never so hostile to the New American poetry &, after a reading series on the West Coast in 1957 introduced him to readers who placed greater demands on poetry than he was used to in Boston (or at least the Boston he knew), Lowell’s own poetry changed. Indeed, reading the reviews as they come out now, it’s always important to see where the reviewer stands with regards to the Early vs. Late Lowell question. Lowell himself never rejected the idea of “confessional poetry,” M. L. Rosenthal’s hokey attempt to link Lowell up with the writing of Ginsberg & the Beats in an attempt to render Lowell interesting by association.


Where younger writers – Bly, Merwin, Rich – brought up essentially in the same tradition as Lowell were able to form a new aesthetics once they dropped the crabbed, metered works of their youth, Lowell’s rather endless late sonnets show a poet unable to break fully free. It’s no wonder he idolized Hart Crane, the SoQ practitioner from his parents’ generation who also glimpsed the implications of modernism (& its descendants), & who similarly struggled to identify a “third way” between the School of Quietude & the broad tradition of avant writing.


The poems in Hank Lazer’s Doublespaceand especially Lazer’s later writing – demonstrate that there really is no third way. The closest thing we have to it in contemporary American poetry is ellipticism, the tendency that one might cobble together from, say, the work of Jorie Graham, C. D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Forrest Gander & their peers, seems more of a decision deferred than a uniting of opposites. That most of the poets who come to ellipticism do so as refugees from the broader SoQ tradition suggests further that the problem both Crane & Lowell confronted – what should an intelligent poet do when they realize that they’ve been writing within a tradition that no longer has any compelling reason to exist? – has not gone away.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Whenever I feel too completely dismissive of Robert Lowell, I think of Bob Grenier. Grenier studied with Lowell at Harvard &, I believe, it was Lowell who helped Grenier get into the Writers Workshop at Iowa City even as the triumvirate of Creeley, Zukofsky & Stein were beginning to render Grenier opaque to the Brahmin crowd back in the Bay State. You can still find vestiges of Lowell’s influence, though, in Grenier’s first book, Dusk Road Games: Poems 1960-66, published by Pym-Randall Press of Cambridge, Mass.:


On the lawns before the brown House

on the hill above the city

the wheeled sick sit still in the sunshine –


Lowell turns up again as an influence in the “conservative” portion of Hank Lazer’s remarkable Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989, his attempt to bridge the gulf between Le School d’ Quietude & post avant poetics. One of Marjorie Perloff’s first books was her 1973 The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell.


But what always gets in the way of any possible admiration I might have for Lowell is his poetry. When it was first published in 1946, Lord Weary’s Castle – that title alone tells you everything about literary allegiances – was read, rightly, as a turn away from any poetics of direct speech, not only anti-Williams & the polyglot circus of Pound’s Cantos, but even anti-Frost & anti-Auden. For the New Critics, the conservative agrarian poets who were at that same moment consolidating their hold on English departments across the United States & beginning to wonder about their legacy, Lowell was an affirmation of their larger program. It didn’t hurt that he was a Lowell, either. By the time he was 30, Lowell had already won the Pulitzer Prize and had a photo spread in Life Magazine.


Yet Lowell, especially the early Lowell, is seldom a good poet for more than two or three lines at a time, which invariably are buried in larger lugubrious monologs that do little more than show a man unable to actually get to his own writing through his presumptions about “what poetry should be.” It is precisely that should be, the sense of obligation to a dead aesthetic inherited from a mostly imaginary British Literary Heritage, that I take to be behind David Antin’s famous line “if robert lowell is a poet i don’t want to be a poet,” a sentiment that was virtually universal among the poets I knew in the 1960s & ‘70s. Still, in 1964, on a week when Time magazine could have focused on the aftermath & implications of the first Harlem riots of the decade, it chose instead to feature Lowell on its cover.


In a sense, it was on Lowell’s watch as the Guardian of High Literary Value that the barbarians, led by Olson, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Levertov, Ashbery, Duncan, Creeley, O’Hara & LeRoi Jones, overthrew at last any residual pretense of a cohesive literary tradition extending outward from a “center” built around the School of Quietude (SoQ). Much of the reaction this past week to the release of an 1,186 page Collected Poems, published by the SoQ house press, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has I think to do with reactions to this phenomenon.


On the one hand, you would expect the SoQ to be beating the drums, proclaiming this to be the literary event of the year. & there has been some of that. The subhead to Peter Davison’s review in The Atlantic Monthly, a journal founded by James Russell Lowell, reads “The new collection of Robert Lowell's poems will doubtless stand from now on as The Work.” Similarly, the subhead to a review A. O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, in Slate, calls Lowell ”America’s most important career poet.” The Los Angeles Times, which chose a woman who wrote a book on “living and dying” in the Christian Science church to review Lowell’s Collected, says that “the magnitude of Lowell's achievement — an achievement won against horrific odds — can now come fully and magnificently into view.” That at least deserves some sort of award for overwriting.


At the same time there has been a lot of ambivalence expressed in the reviews as well, not so much at the poetry as at the career & faded reputation, suggesting a deeper (and not overtly expressed) anxiety about what his life & work say about the SoQ in general. The New York Times ran a Sunday Magazine piece on “The Vicissitudes of Literary Reputation,” by Charles McGrath, editor of that journal’s Book Review. W. H. Pritchard’s review in the Times notes that “Lowell had no place to go but down.” Newsday ran a review under the subhead “Robert Lowell was revered in his lifetime but is largely forgotten today.” Caroline Fraser in the LA Times quotes Donald Hall from a Boston Globe article, “You don’t hear his name much.”


But you shall. The Collected represents in many ways one final chance for the School of Quietude to resuscitate any residual life left in the Lowell heritage. A parallel project ten or fifteen years from now on behalf of Richard Wilbur certainly won’t do it. So it’s now or never. If this act of literary CPR doesn’t work, the Brahmin sub-sect of the SoQ will be stuck forever continuing to make do with its imported poets from the U.K. & Ireland.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

I'm still getting the "Big Post Error" message if I don't break something like this into multiple posts. So far, nobody at Blogger has even read the error messages I've reported!

Consider “Another Artifact”:


Open lips for sucking and pouting were all stopped up with a plug that wouldn’t come out. Without result, lips and teeth tugged on the plug of a wasp wasted object. Baby’s hands were moist as usual so she wiped them down the side of her shirt. But she couldn’t pull the stopper out even with the use of her wadded up shirt, which she had finally struggled out of. A voice from behind her said, it isn’t supposed to open. Hands pried baby’s digits away dislodging the object, which was returned then to a shelf and set between a portrait of baby and a kachina doll with green pants and something earnest about it moving forward. For a minute baby looked around for her shirt. It had apparently disappeared along with the door shutting. Baby’s lips moved in and out in a sucking pout as she contemplated the wasp-wasted relic on the shelf. The object was obviously the physical manifestation of the inside of a song bound up methodically around the middle with twine. Such fortification caused baby to place her hand two inches below her navel and rub there with a circular motion. Her belly was getting hot and her body was tuning up. Eee sounds rose clear and up into her throat from her navel. If there had been silence, silence would have been pierced but the room was always humming.


Whenever I’m feeling like I have this writing thing half figured out, all I have to do is come across a text like the one above, by Carla Harryman from the latest issue of Larry Fagin’s zine, Sal Mimeo, & I immediately have a sense of just how very little I really know & how much more there is to learn.


“Another Artifact” is one of 16 pieces from Baby published here. In 2000, a Harryman contributor’s note in How2 referred to a “book of prose poems titled Three Portraits: M., Baby, and Him.” My presumption is that this text comes from that project, although it is always possible that the project itself may have evolved in the three years since that note. But what intrigues me here is the use of the genre identifier “prose poems” in conjunction with the work above &, indeed, with the entire series in Sal Mimeo. Harryman, here as elsewhere, is pushing definitions out to places they’ve not previously inhabited.


I’ve tended to see Harryman’s written texts as exploring a terrain between what have traditionally been thought of as fiction & theater, but doing so with an understanding of language that extends directly from her engagement with poetry. Thus Baby in general, and pieces like the above in particular, seem to me very much about the construction of the metasignifier Character. The depictive terrain – the referential context of the piece as a whole (& indeed of the 16 pieces gathered here) – is restricted much in the way that theater limits its frames.

 Unlike much post-avant writing, the individual sentences in “Another Artifact” integrate unimpeded into narrative frames, enabling Character to very rapidly accumulate amid referential schema once Baby is introduced by name. Indeed, the work insists on it, recycling words & phrases over multiple sentences: plug, lips, wasp wasted, shirt, sucking, pout. At the same time, the text is remarkably clear about its aural palette: Hands pried Baby’s digits, not fingers. With so many s, p, t, b & d sounds, the text all but hisses & spits. Baby’s orality is amply figured.


More mysterious, indeed just the opposite of Baby in this text, is the nature of the object pried from Baby’s digits. This object is wasp wasted & has a plug that “isn’t supposed to open.” It can sit on a shelf & is “the physical manifestation of the inside of a song bound up methodically around the middle with twine.” If required to do so, could you draw it? Of what material is it made?


What makes this object the opposite of Baby is that its existence is derived entirely from the observation of external features – something that “the physical manifestation of the inside of a song” problematizes – whereas Baby is constructed conversely, as much out of what she does & doesn’t see or say – for example, failing to identify the person who takes the object from Baby & returns it to the shelf other than as “a voice from behind her” – as from actual depiction of her actions.


Such devices are as old as modernism:


Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence.


In The Sound and the Fury, Benjamin’s developmental disability disrupts his ability to create coherent schema from the actions he sees. The reader must then read through him &, in turn, read his character through precisely these disruptions & distortions. Yet Faulkner in 1929 quickly resolves the character back into a normative model of narrative types, even as, in places, the author (rather than the character) pauses to linger over the possibility of an infinite sentence, the “flaw” in Faulkner that lets you know he could imagine further than these cinematic family tragedies, even if he couldn’t quite bring himself to act on his vision.


Like Faulkner, Harryman throughout her writing uses the figures of family in an almost chesslike fashion to articulate narrative configurations. But here – & this is where I think the “prose poem” comes in – even if Harryman’s interest lies in the construction of Baby, it does not seek to integrate this character unproblematically into a figure of recognizable psychological tropes. Where the opacity of Faulkner’s passage drops away the instant the reader clues into the figure of a developmentally disabled adult & his handler trailing along watching a game of golf, the resistance of “a kachina doll with green pants and something earnest about it moving forward” will not dissolve. The opacity in Faulkner is merely apparent, a tease. In Harryman, it’s a commitment & this makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, June 30, 2003

Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution) [1918] is one of the later works in Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The day I was there, the place was bustling with the transition between the Matthew Barney & Picasso shows downstairs (or downramp), so that one couldn’t get any sense of quiet — & hardly any ability to focus — until one got up to the 4th floor annex given over to the old Russian avant-gardist.


The painting is one of a series of white-on-white oil canvases — the background surface more accurately an eggshell tone, but, as with all of Malevich's work, very tactile & worked, by no means a flat plane disappearing behind the object. The object, or foreground, or figure, in this instance is composed of four shapes, one basically an elongated rectangle over which three curving arcs are drawn. The rectangle, to call it that, begins just to the left of center at the top of this vertically oriented canvas, extending diagonally down to end four-fifths of the way to the lower right corner.


At this relatively late moment in Suprematism, Malevich was no longer painting completed geometric figures. Instead, one side always slides into a blur & just fades out. For the rectangle (almost, say, the shape of a ruler), that side is its long right edge. Quite near the top is the first of the three arcs, this one the longest & least curved of the three. It has roughly the same width as the rectangle, but its fading edge faces toward its inner or bottom side. The two other arcs below it, more or less equidistant, are both shorter & more tightly curved, tho it is their bottom, inner portion that also fades.


There is room along the rectangle for a fourth arc — it would have appeared right at the bottom edge — so it is its absence one notices, as much as the presence of the others.


While Malevich has often been characterized as a painter of geometric shapes, it is in fact all the off center moments that predominate in this exhibition. Malevich's black circle, for example, is not centered on its canvas, but to the right, in the upper corner. His black cross has a deliberately hand-drawn, inexact quality that is at least as important to the overall effect of the work as the shape itself. And many of his other paintings are palimpsests of small geometrical shapes scattered across white fields. In them what I often pick up most are the colors — there is the gentlest pink in this exhibition that I ever recall having seen — and the degree to which these canvases, especially those in "portrait" orientation, mimic the printed page, with objects invariably proceeding (as with Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution)) from upper left to lower right.


While Malevich's canvases & constructions — the only ones in this show are architectural fantasies realized in plaster — Malevich would have loved Legos! — plus a quasi-cubist tea setting that is reproduced for way too much money downstairs in the gift shop — often are associated with the Futurist poets with whom he collaborated, such as Khlebnikov & Kruchenykh, his own thinking in these works comes across as more programmatic & formal. His painting gives, as their texts do not, the sense that one is in the presence of a scientist as much as an artist, investigating the logic of his medium in a way that had never before been explored.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

The mystery of the internet – what does K. Silem Mohammad’s limetree blog have to do with this Mariah Carey fan site? Kasey has the best poetry & poetics blogroll ever these days.