Saturday, September 13, 2003

My piece Wednesday on H.D., Noveliste, has me thinking about the further question of how form, genre & chance impact our lives. Several things I saw this past week reinforced this mulling-over process. One was an article in The Guardian, which I actually suspect may be an adapted introduction from his book, by Salam Pax. Pax, a Baghdad architecture student, created a personal weblog in English only to discover that it had become one of the most widely read “inside views” of the last days of Saddam & the first days of George & Rummy, a process that turned him, to his considerable discomfort (and undoubtedly much risk), into


·         An author

·         An “expert” on the Iraqi experience


Pax professes to be neither. But excerpts of his blog can be had now in book form in the U.K. & Grove Press will release a U.S. edition in October.


The second item is the Perceval Press web site. Perceval is a new small press that recently published a book of René Ricard’s paintings & drawings, and is about to release Land of the Lost Mammoths, a novel of left culture critic Mike Davis. Some interesting & quirky material. Perceval has also published four books, including poetry, painting, collage work & photography, by press founder Viggo Mortensen, whom you may know better as Aragorn/Strider from The Lord of the Rings films.


As someone who has edited Davis, a brilliant but exceptionally undisciplined author, the prospect of a novel, a project completely in keeping with Davis’ uniquely British mode of Los Angeles post-Marxism, just makes my eyes dilate, nostrils flare & chest constrict. This I have to see.


Mortensen has seen his own public notoriety skyrocket of late. In addition to his career-making role in the Ring trilogy, anyone who saw his turn as the painter boyfriend in A Perfect Murder & realized that those were in fact his paintings will understand Mortensen takes these other genres seriously, however variously he may succeed or not in each. Unlike, say, Jewel or Leonard Nimoy, Mortensen is at least a serious artist whose day job happens to be in film, not unlike Michael Lally or Harry Northrup.


The third is a DVD I saw the other night, Genghis Blues, a 1999 documentary starring two musicians, Paul Pena & Kongar-ol Ondar. If you saw the list of CD stacks I have in my study, you know that one stack focuses on blues & another on world music, with a fair amount of Tuvan throat singing in the latter pile. Genghis Blues is one of the very few places in which these two interests converge.  


Throat singing or khoomei is a harmonic singing tradition in which the performer sings two, sometimes even as many as four, notes at one time. Different versions of this tradition exist in Tuva, Mongolia & Tibet. Pena, the blind-since-childhood blues singer who wrote “Jet Airliner,” a hit song for Steve “Guitar” Miller in the mid-1970s, discovered & taught himself not only this exceptionally difficult method of singing, but, in order to do so, had to learn at least the rudiments of the Tuvan language. And since there are exactly zero Tuvan-English dictionaries in the world, he had to learn Russian just to get to the Tuvan. (Pena may be an almost archetypal example of the starving blues artist, but he is also very obviously nobody’s fool.)


Tuva, once the nation of Tannu Tuva, is now one of the Russian Republics & is located along the northwest border of Mongolia. It’s a state of just 300,000 people the size of North Dakota & a large portion of the population remains nomadic, raising camels & horses & rather furry looking Asian cows. Even though Genghis Khan’s top general was Tuvan, the history of the nation is that of so many landlocked cultures, shifting from parent state to parent state, spending relatively little historical time with any kind of autonomy.


After Pena’s wife died of renal failure in 1991, the bluesman has lived a pretty hand-to-mouth existence in San Francisco’s Mission District. He had discovered throat singing over a shortwave radio broadcast, but it had taken him years to find a recording. But from that point, it appears to have taken him only a week or so to actually learn the process of singing in multiple notes. Having learned this extremely rare singing style, Pena managed to get himself invited to a Tuvan throat singing competition in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva. Genghis Blues is a documentary of that trip, where Pena cemented his friendship with Kongar-ol Ondar, the “Elvis Presley of throat singing,” won two awards in the competition & found himself in a place, literally, where his skills & talents could be completely appreciated, a mere 12,000 miles from home. A fairly rudimentary, even crude, documentary, Blues was nominated for an Oscar and won several film festival awards largely on the basis of its improbable, infectious content, fabulous music & the openness of its two main characters to go beyond their intellectual & cultural borders.


In every one of these instances, questions of social framing can be raised in many different ways:


·         Is Salam Pax an architecture student who writes, or vice verse?

·         Is Viggo Mortensen an actor, poet, painter, photographer?

·         Is Mike Davis a novelist?

·         At what level is Paul Pena a Tuvan singer?

There are artists who have been successful in more than one field, such as Abigail Child, but historically they’re rare. Bruce Andrews likes to note that every nice thing that has ever been written about him in the New York Times has been about his scores for Sally Silvers’ dance, never once about his poetry. Ned Rorem, a composer more widely known for his memoirs, simply demonstrates that this phenomenon works in both directions.


What conclusions might one draw from this? Only that there are no guarantees – what makes an artist successful in one genre may have no bearing whatsoever on another. And there certainly are instances in which artists commit a larger part of their live to an endeavor that, like Hilda Doolittle’s novels, gets far less public recognition than some other form. Gertrude Stein had something like this happen to her when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, clearly written to be a best seller, recast Stein’s public image dramatically.


One can come up with even more complicated configurations. Stan Rice, when still an extremely ambitious up-&-coming academic poet/professor, encouraged his wife Anne to write. The phenomenal financial success of her vampire novels eliminated any economic need on his part &, after he left his job at San Francisco State, Stan developed into a kitschy sort of painter who actually refused to sell his work. After publishing two books of poetry in two years in the mid-1970s – we shared one publisher, The Figures – he only published four others over the next 25 years. Anne’s publisher printed the last three volumes, which gave them broader distribution than even most School of Quietude poets can hope for. And frankly Stan’s skill as a poet disguised his sentimentality in a way that his paintings could not. Yet by the time he passed away last year, the only context remaining for either of his media was the one created by her writing. It may have been a very comfortable sort of marooning, but if ever there was a man who needed to invite other poets into his room of one’s own, it was Stan.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Coromandel is an Indian term referring originally to the coastal region of Southeastern India along the Bay of Bengal – essentially the coast facing out towards Sri Lanka – the term derived apparently from Cholomandalam, the land of the Chola, the Indian dynasty that ruled, between the 9th and 12th centuries, what is now Tamil Nadu. The word Coromandel was generalized by the British into something akin to coastal, which meaning then spread to other parts of the empire, notably New Zealand. Somewhere in the process the word also became a popular name for hotels, though so far as I can make out, it’s neither a corporate chain in the sense, say, of Westin, nor a term with the concept linguistically implicit, the way Patel, a Gujurati term for innkeeper, has become a surname for so many in the Indian diaspora.

Coromandel also is the name for Thomas Meyer’s newest book, a 64-page poem issued as a fat chapbook from La Révolution Opossum in skanky Austin, TX. This is the poem I referenced in passing in a discussion of the format of Kenneth Warren’s House Organ, which had printed an excerpt from “Book Two.” My footnote read “Suggesting of course the presence of ‘Book One’ & the possibility of others. Is there a new Tom Meyer long poem in the works?” As it turns out, I was half right – there was such a poem in the works, but, interestingly enough, no Book One. Therein lies a tale.

Meyer could rightly be characterized as a 3rd generation projectivist poet, having studied with Robert Kelly at Bard & having lived at least part of the year within driving distance of Black Mountain College itself for 30 years whilst living with one of its best known grads, the peripatetic logodaedalist himself, Jonathon Williams. As is the case with the third generation anything, the hard won victories of the forefathers (&, save for Levertov, fathers is exactly what they were) become as self-evident & fully absorbed as the sun, enabling the writer to do whatever it was he intended all along. Thus if the beloved moment of projectivism occurs at the end of the line, that point at which meanings & rhythms turn & twist, Meyer has virtually never written a line anywhere in his work that was unconscious or poorly executed. But at the same, he also has never written a line where the break itself was the point.

Literary history being the history not of poems & prose, but of change, third generation writers often go underappreciated even as they produce some of the very best & most satisfying works of their respective periods. At least the NY School’s third class had some geographic sense of cohesion – though look at the history of Actualism to see what might happen in its absence – but after the transformation of Caterpillar into not a butterfly, but Sulfur, projectivism went for over a decade really without a journal or press seriously devoted to its development & evolution, before it began to show up again as one of several focuses for Ed Foster’s Talisman, & then with sharper focus in House Organ’s rough-&-ready format & finally the superb volumes being put forward by Devin Johnston’s Flood Editions. It’s an integral part of the Skanky Possum program as well.

Structurally, Coromandel has five sections, each shorter than the one that preceded it. The first, the aforementioned “Book II” (19 pages in this chapbook), is composed of unrhymed couplets. The second section, “This is the House” (17 pages), is a long single stanza, individual lines generally running anywhere from one to nine words. The third, “Quincunx” (14 pages), is composed of five line stanzas. The fourth, “Part 4” (6 pages in this format, although it would telescope down considerably with a wider page that didn’t require so many hanging indents), treats each long line as an individual stanza. The last, “Trikona” (2 pages), has eight three-line stanzas. Thus all but one section alludes in its title to some aspect of number. But the “II” in ”Book II,” if it has any referential or formal meaning seems to point not to the position in the sequence but counterintuitively to lines per stanza. Ditto “Quincunx” and “Trikona.” Yet “Part 4” is, in fact the fourth part. And that section reflects no correlation between number & internal form.

Walter Benjamin’s distinctions between titles – terms or phrases that “name the entire work” – and captions – terms or phrases that point into a work & thus organize our reception – is worth considering here, because at some level Meyer’s work is doing something different altogether. Just as the “II” is not a way to characterize the formal structure of the first section of the poem, neither does “Quincunx” really function to identify the 102 five-line stanzas that fall under it. “Trikona,” Sanskrit for triangle, has its origin as a term in yoga, the theory of charkas and Indian abstract design. Fiveness & threeness are as much a part of these words’ connotative undercoating as they are of their denotative functionality. Each title stands rather as if at an angle with regards to the work it envelopes or at least touches.

Meyer is a poet who values precision, perhaps above any other aspect of his writing. & Coromandel is the project of his that comes closest to a classic configuration of the New Sentence. Just as the New Sentence functions not only by what it may say but even more by what gets configured in the blank territory between sentences, Meyer here creates a work that comes alive through the constant deferral, reflection & refraction of meaning. “Not place, but position,” as he says at the end of this passage in “This is the house”:

A train passes. Stars
Apparently us.
Of all this.
Nothing but
above trees.
Horus sucks his
They gather the dark in baskets
the livelong day.
Maple leaf. Angel’s wing.
This book’s leaves
fall from trees.
Not place, but position.

Periplum was the term Pound borrowed from Greek sailors, negotiating a territory of constant reconfiguration. Language likewise operates through a continual process of differentiation. The space between words is, in fact, a distancing effect. Meyer throughout this book is identifying exactnesses.

As the passage above suggests, Meyer prefers his effects to be subtle, the shifts gradual rather than angular. The gap between sentences in “Measure. / Of all this.” is hardly a canyon. It’s not that Meyer can’t or won’t move toward an extreme – “Giordano Bruno’s charred body rises in my sleep” – but the reader does not get the cognitive whiplash that is sometimes a feature of langpo. The result is closer to the music of a Satie than, say, a Wagner. Or Johnny Rotten. Or perhaps I should say simply that Meyer seems to have located the space in the projectivist tradition that comes closest to the poetry of a writer like Forrest Gander or Ann Lauterbach. In this sense, Coromandel feels very much to me like a poetry for grown ups. Which, for example, Rimbaud is not.

If I have a hesitation or aesthetic difference with this book, it’s only in its sequence of successively shorter segments, a movement that grates against my own bias for a form that spirals from the innermost part of the mollusk toward its outer rim. Meyer’s process in this sense feels anti-narrative in a way that I’m not certain he intends. I could, I suspect, make an argument for the logic of it, not unlike the way the titles deploy number. Or like Zeno’s footsteps growing successively shorter on their way to the door. Yet no amount of intellectual justification will ever fully mute that tiny scratching on the blackboard of my soul. Underneath this complex & quite gorgeous tour de force, I hear it still.

Thursday, September 11, 2003


Pieces of the past arise out of the
rubble.  Which evokes Eliot and
then evokes Suspicion.  Ghosts
all of them.  Doers of no good.

The past around us is deeper than.

Present events defy us, the past

Has no such scruples.  No funeral
processions for him.  He died
in agony.   The cock under the thumb.

Rest us as corpses

We poets

Vain words.

For a funeral (as I live and breathe
and speak)

Of good

And impossible






Jack Spicer

First poem for The Nation,

Second poem for Poetry Chicago

Book of Magazine Verse


© 1966 by Robin Blaser

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Today is H.D.'s birthday! I had to read the WOM-PO list today to realize that?!
Just about everyone I know thinks of Jack Kerouac as a novelist who wrote poetry. But what about Gilbert Sorrentino? Before Mulligan Stew and the other long prose fictions that made Sorrentino justly famous as a novelist, he was a successful poet (and a superb critic of poetry). Along with the then-LeRoi Jones, the always-on-the-road Paul Blackburn, and youngsters George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Kelly & Clayton Eshleman, Sorrentino was part of Projectivism’s presence in & around Manhattan throughout the 1960s & ‘70s. Sorrentino’s Selected Poems covers the period 1958-1980. But I’m not aware if there has been much, if any, poetry since. It’s as though the man had one successful career & then chose to follow it with another, very different such career. Not unlike Bill Bradley, an athlete, then a politician.

Another poet with an even more ambiguous relation to these genres has been Toby Olson, again a second generation Projectivist. Because he’s published in both forms throughout his life, I’ve always suspected that his work has been underestimated in each form. The very same silliness that bedevils the bookstore clerk who cannot decide whether Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate is fiction or poetry*, let alone Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, plays out in the minds of readers more generally when it comes to considering the lifework of different authors. Case in point: Hilda Doolittle.

Almost everyone thinks of Doolittle as a poet who also wrote some fiction, as well as translations & memoirs. Yet H.D. published, for all extents and purposes, just a dozen or so books of poetry during her lifetime, going long periods between volumes after the appearance of her first Collected Poems in 1925. And that number shrinks if you treat Trilogy as one book, instead of three. During this long productive career – just under half a century – Doolittle also wrote 19 novels and collections of stories, according to Susan Stanford Friedman’s 1987 chronology of H.D.’s writing, published in the special issue of Sagetrieb devoted to Doolittle’s work. They include the following:

<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Paint It Today, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Asphodel, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Pilate’s Wife, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Palimpsest, novel (interlocking stories)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nike, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Hedylus, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>HER, novel (published as HERmione)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Narthex, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Usual Star, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Kora and Ka, novellas
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nights, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Hedgehog, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Seven, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Bid Me to Live, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Majic Ring, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>White Rose and the Red, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Mystery, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Magic Mirror, novel

Not all of these novels ever made it into print. Friedman’s note for Nike simply reads “Destroyed.” Biographer Guest politely notes that “Hipparchia: War Rome (Circa 75 B.C.)” has “none of the polish or professionalism” of H.D.’s later work, and I would pass a similar judgment on Paint It Today. Friedman lists Pilate’s Wife as “submitted and rejected,” & White Rose and the Red as “probably rejected.” Yet 19 booklength works over a 35-year span (H.D. appears to have begun writing fiction in 1921, after her life began to stabilize somewhat with the presence of Bryher; the final item, Magic Mirror, was written in the mid-1950s) demonstrates a considerable emphasis, a commitment of time & effort. Indeed, between the first Collected Poems in 1925 and her next book of poetry, Red Roses for Bronze, in 1931, Doolittle produced seven novels & collections of stories, plus the verse drama Hippolytus Temporizes plus her work on the film Borderline.

One could make the case that Doolittle was, in fact, a novelist – tho not a successful one – who wrote poetry at least as much as she was a poet who wrote fiction. While that may seem like a difference within a distinction (& vice versa), it has, I suspect, real consequences in terms of how H.D. saw herself & thus how she envisioned her career as author. Did she feel satisfied? Was she pleased at what she had accomplished? These are, I think, legitimate questions. During a poet’s life, they have everything to do with how the writer decides what’s next, and even how to proceed. At one level, the writer in me would love for an Emily Dickinson, say, to understand the breadth & depth of her achievement, the power of her impact on the world. At another, younger writers are constantly confronted with options, nearly every one of which is an incentive to stop writing poetry. What if, for example, Jack Spicer had finished his detective novel & it had proven to be a best-seller, followed with a major motion picture? What if, in precisely the other direction, Trout Fishing in America had not been so fabulously successful? Would Richard Brautigan still be alive today? Would there be a west coast tradition of the humorous lyric as widespread as that which flowed from the New York School? So many what-ifs flow out of such a distinction: was a H.D. a novelist who wrote poetry?

In practice, I haven’t seen anything yet to suggest that this is how Doolittle saw herself, albeit I am still acquainting myself with the territory & I have a long way still to go. Nonetheless what I want to be conscious of, at least for today, is how the H.D. we know / I know is a construct. That is, we define her as the poet & in so doing condition many of our responses to new information, setting our expectations accordingly. The fiction that is in print, such as it is, for example, appears to have been published to fill out the oeuvre of the poet, not because anyone thought that it might transform a history of the novel (although, in fact, it is historically important to the degree that H.D. was writing overtly lesbian fiction at time when this was hardly done at all, & only at some risk). Which is to say that all of the reasons for publishing H.D.’s fiction have little or nothing to do with its actual quality as fiction.

* Hint: bad fiction, worse poetry.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

There is an interesting image in Barbara Guest’s excellent biography of Hilda Doolittle, Herself Defined, of imagism as a movement after Ezra Pound had moved on to join Wyndham Lewis in declaring Vorticism. The image Guest leaves the reader with is one of a lone major Imagiste, H.D., a second-but-inferior entrepreneurial huckster in Amy Lowell, and a handful of second-tier poets of the likes of John Gould Fletcher and Richard Aldington, having to carry on with no clear sense of direction. Guest outlines the ways in which the Imagism of these latter poets was invariably compromised – either too Georgian or just too muddled. The implication is that once Pound turned his attention elsewhere, Imagism lost its “head.” Ultimately, and Guest is fairly explicit about this, there would be only one “true” Imagist: H.D.

Which opens, for me, the deeper question of what an –ism can possibly be. The idea of poetry organized in some fashion around a common purpose necessarily implies the possibility of shared motives. That’s a concept that comes more directly from French painting (& secondarily French symbolist poetry) than it does the tradition of Anglo-American letters. Still there are sporadic foretastes, including the mid-19th century squabbling between the Young Americans and the anglophiles of the School of Quietude. Underlying this concept is some sense of how a “common purpose” might be characterized. Does it require, for example, a defining statement of principles – a manifesto for want of a better term – and the adoption of a name? Guest is clear that Pound, for example, was less of a namer of movements than he was an appropriator of names, such as T.E. Hume’s imagism or Lewis’ Vorticism. Even Objectivism, although Guest doesn’t mention it, might be described in these same terms – a name & an accompanying statement of principles, primarily put forward (at least in 1932) for the purposes of marketing. The need thus was external to the poetry, indeed was imposed on the poets by Zukofsky only at the insistence of Harriet Monroe.

An –ism of this order strikes me as being essentially hollow, aimed less at the poets than at some externalized audience. Contrast this with, for example, the most pronounced ism of the 1950s, Projectivism. While Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan & Sorrentino all wrote substantive works of critical writing – and some of Olson’s in particular embody the rhetoric of a manifesto – they’re really aimed at one another. What we are reading in their works is much more of an internal discussion – they’re goading one another to write better & to take greater chances in their work. One sees this also, I think, in the relatively few critical works to emerge from the New York School (O’Hara’s “Personism”) or the so-called Beat Scene (primarily Kerouac’s statements on prosody & spontaneous writing). Indeed, the Projectivists never once in their writings ever called themselves by that name & the Beats were accorded that moniker by a San Francisco gossip columnist, Herb Caen. “Personism,” the only true –ism of that decade, employed that term strictly as a joke. Even the term New York School, which was employed only by its second generation, was used half as a joke. While the marketing aspect of a group brand was not altogether absent with the NY School, any more than it was with the Beats, the focus was much more decisively around the question of internal discourse. The –isms of the 1950s were thus more communities in their orientation than the ones of the teens or the 1930s. And, no surprise, it was this aspect of these “movements” that I think appealed most to the poets who came to be known in the 1970s as language poets.

It’s not that Pound wasn’t interested in communicating with other poets, but his rather frenetic social organizing never moved toward a community because that was never its purpose.

Monday, September 08, 2003

The Philadelphia Progress Poetry Calendar has been moved to Sunday, September 14.