Thursday, October 07, 2004

After my reading on Tuesday, I went out with Jonathan Mayhew & David Perry. I’d met Mayhew the day before, but hadn’t met Perry before – this being the “New York/Brooklyn David Perry” whose poetry I’ve praised here before (and suspect I shall again), not the older poet David Perry who attended Bard in the 1960s, in the days of Tom Meyer, Harvey Bialy & John Gorham & who later came to San Francisco State – I haven’t seen that David Perry in something like 30 years, tho I’ve heard that he’s a therapist somewhere in upstate New York. (David Perry – the NY/Brooklyn & now KC David Perry – says that he has at least seen me before, having attended a reading I did at the Drawing Center in Manhattan last year.)

But I have (or had) an image in my mind as to what David Perry was going to look like, based on my impression of his texts. This is an old & silly mode of magical thinking no doubt, made worse in my case I suspect by having discovered when I was young & impressionable that Robert Kelly, who seemed to write more poetry than anyone else I had heard of, at least in the 1960s & ‘70s, was also the largest of American poets, some 400 pounds or thereabouts. I remember the first time I saw Kelly – at a reading in the Student Union at the University of California. He came up to Robert Duncan, who was there to introduce him, and said “I’ve grown,” to which Duncan replied, “How can you tell?”

At some point, Robert got his weight under control, for which his I’m sure heart must thank him, so that its his almost mythic eyebrows that everyone now thinks of when they put a visual association to his name.

Similarly, there used to be a writer of long, skinny poems out of Boston by the name of Nathan Whiting, who was, it so happened, also a runner of marathons & somebody who looked just like a runner of marathons.

All of which is a lead into my surprise at how tall David Perry is, taller in my imagination than he writes. Not that he’s Yao Ming tall or anything, just your basic lanky American kid (he looks a great deal like the singer Jonathan Meyer), but I was expecting I suppose that the compactness of his writing – there is no excess in his writing anywhere – would be replicated anatomically as well.

I’ve already conceded how silly this is, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s unusual. Indeed it’s something I’ve written about before – we read the work of a writer and project both onto that work & from it a whole range of things that are in our minds, hearts, imaginations, whether or not the text itself supports it when you come right down to a rigorous close reading. From some texts, but only some, one of the impressions I’ve always gotten is one of the writer’s body. Somebody who writes something like Maximus ought, in fact, to be huge – as Charles Olson was. But the person who penned Frank O’Hara’s poems ought to have been compact – and was.

But what about Biotherm? Did Kelly’s poems shrink because he shed weight? Did Allen Ginsberg write any differently during the periods when he shaved & wore suits than in the periods when he was dressed as Ye Olde Bearded Bard? As I said, I concede the silliness up front.

What I don’t understand, and what I’d really love to figure out, is what it is precisely that creates these impressions. Why was I surprised at David Perry’s height? Or, years & years ago, at how very tiny Paul Blackburn was in comparison to his poems?

This doesn’t happen to me with every poet, or may be even one out of five. If I take a look at the three books of poetry that I brought with me on this trip other than the Duncan/H.D. ones, I realize that Eleni Sikelianos’ The California Poem is one of those works that seems to confirm this mode of magical thinking – long woman, long poem, not unlike her aunt Anne Waldman. But I don’t think anybody could tell what Beverly Dahlen looks like from reading

& I have no clue whatsoever what Allison Cobb looks like from Born2 (the jacket material suggests that she has two heads, but I doubt this.). And it’s not a sign of any weakness in any of these three books, either.

I know I’m not the only person who does this sort of thing. I remember once, years ago, seeing Hannah Weiner say, over & over & over again in utter amazement, upon first meeting Erica Hunt, “You’re black. You’re black. You’re black.” (Miss Manners Hannah was not.) And at least one draft of a major review of In the American Tree made the point that that anthology was 100% white, so Hannah was not alone in failing to pick up that salient detail from Hunt’s writing itself.

In some sense, this takes me back to the “test” I ran on this blog last year, posting a number of poems anonymously, which got a lot of vehement reaction from people who like, or think they like poets A & B but not C, but who discovered that it was C’s poem that resonated with them, and not that of A & B. What do we get – or think we get – from the poem?

I don’t, for example, have the same visual association with Jonathan Mayhew, either from his poetry or his blog. He looks ten years younger than he says he is, but that’s a different story altogether.

Lance Phillips wonderful interview series, Here Comes Everybody , which tends to ask every participant the same questions, has as its final one, precisely the relation of the poem to the body. Most of the answers to date, mine definitely included, have been pathetic. And my notes here in this blog haven’t been much more illuminating I fear.

Part of the problem I think is that even if this phenomenon is widespread – and I suspect that it is – there seems to be nothing “objective” about it. I’m sure that there must be people who read Maximus with no sense of Charles Olson’s 6’9” frame. And I’m sure that somebody out there has a distinct image of Jonathan Mayhew from his writing. (Actually, I’m sure that there must be several, but that some of them must be wildly wrong.)

I want to say, as if to justify myself, that it’s something in the poem that if we only looked hard enough we might identify & even name. For example, I would love to argue that certain poets foreground the physicality of their poems more than do others, and that we generalize or project from these features. But I can hardly imagine a poet more into the physicality of his own poems than Robert Duncan – it’s one of the things I love about his best work – but I don’t think you can get any sense of the person from his poems, other than details he mentions, such as his wayward eyes. Jack Spicer seems just as profoundly not into the physicality of his poems, and I love them just as much as I do the best of Duncan.

So what is the trigger in the text? And what is it, exactly, that the trigger triggers? I’d love to hear suggestions, even full blown (even, for that matter, half-baked) theories.

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