Saturday, February 21, 2004


Over the years, National Public Radio has learned that the value of using commentators with fabulous accents, whether Southern (Bailey White), European (Andrei Codrescu) or even that of a cowboy (Baxter Black, “former large animal veterinarian”), can even exceed the value of their content. I’ve sometimes wondered why poetry, with its obsession over language, hasn’t to some degree followed suit. The Projectivists developed something of a system for transcribing variances of speech to such a degree that young poets in the 1960s could associate enjambment as a device with New England in the work of Olson & Creeley, long flat lines with the prairies of the Midwest in the poetry of Paul Carroll (and to a lesser degree, sometime Chicagoan Lew Welch), a more open & informal style with the west coast (viz. Whalen, in particular). Yet I would have loved to have seen how a projectivist approach to line length & space on the page would have represented the English of a Charles Simic, for example, for whom this American tongue is a third or fourth language & often overlaid with the lilt of France & Eastern Europe. And I would love to have seen how such an approach might capture the glorious deep accents of the American south that belong to John High.


High is the author of one of the more unusual  books I happen to own by an American poet, Вдоль по єє бєру – that title might not work for you if your hard drive lacks a Cyrillic font – a relatively slender selected works published in Russian translation in Moscow in 1993, using the same methodologies & cheap acidic paper that characterized “official” publications during the Soviet era. It’s just 78 pages long & includes some illustrations & photos of High with such folk as his co-translator Katya Olmsted, co-editors of Five Fingers Review, and the late Nina Iskrenko, whose work High translated into English in anthologies such as Third Wave and Crossing Centuries, the latter of which he also edited for Talisman House (which also published Bloodlines, High’s selected writings).


Now Talisman, the magazine, has a new poetic sequence of High’s, “Here,” in its 27th issue. “Here” could be a sizeable chapbook, containing roughly two dozen untitled poems or sections. High’s style is – I can’t resist this – not really a high style as such, but rather feels like a muted descendant of the New American poetry, especially of that intersection between Projectivism & the earlier Objectivists that gave rise to such poets as Michael Heller & George Economou. But my sense of High is that he gets to this place from some other, more roundabout direction.*


It hardly matters. There is some lovely, subtle work here – a precision & quietness of tone that demonstrate just how powerful the poet’s control of his or her tools can be when they’re used intelligently. One section, dedicated “To Butch (in passage),” reads as follows:


A wooden boat
of names –
the code of trees


A dying monk
sitting alone
in the garden zendo

Among a grove of faces
   a small pine temple
a face into our faces

Who gave us these names
    life, death – or
just and empty boat on the trestle

Saying goodbye of the skin
    (of a man)
chocolates, cherries, fine hermitage

Be well, buddha crow!
    a sun in the eye of all giving . . .
Two cups of sugar

a bowl of rice
    Who is the one in the robe
when you’re gone

& where –
if not here in the cypress trees
in everything


There are enough typos in a piece I have in the same issue of Talisman to make me wary as to some of the features of this poem – that extra space between the sixth & seventh tercets or the “d” in and in just and empty in the 12th line – but those are quibbles, undecidables more or less literally. A good part of what makes this poem so intensely attractive to me is the open-ended manner in which High invokes figurative tropes – boats, codes, faces – without forcing the poem later into some misshapen caricature of closure. It’s not that High rejects closure as such – in everything is perfectly sufficient. But in leaving some threads here untied, High projects a permeable sense of the poem as object – anything in the world might enter here – that situates what has entered more comfortably than would otherwise have been the case.


This may seem like a small detail, but High’s work is full of such details, governed by a sense balance that is almost infallible. If High’s familiarity with the strategies of Projectivism don’t translate into a scoring for his particular cadences of speech, it may be that he doesn’t hear them as accents (which I’m certain is more or less true for any one of us). But it also strikes me that, unlike someone like Olson, High isn’t concerned with the phenomenological projection of Self as Hero – which may be where I get that sense of Objectivism in High’s poetry, that interest in what’s out there as all there is about which to write. So where is personality in these poems? Precisely in that sense of balance.




* In this regard, one might make a closer comparison to Halvard Johnson, another poet always worth reading whose work has never received its proper due because Johnson spent many crucial years roaming the world rather than hustling the publishing scene.

Friday, February 20, 2004


It’s been a busy week, jobwise. Driving to & from Connecticut has left me no time to think about blogging properly.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


When Kathleen Fraser first arrived in San Francisco sometime around 1970 in order to direct the Poetry Center at SF State, it was a major moment in the evolution of the poetry scene of the city that likes to call itself The City. The three prior directors with whom I’d been familiar – James Schevill, Mark Linenthal & Stan Rice – had all been local poets with relatively little engagement with the dramatic changes that had been transforming verse since the 1950s. Schevill had been around the fringes of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance & had even lost a job at UC Berkeley in the early ‘50s after having refused to sign a loyalty oath aimed at ferreting out Communist professors. Linenthal was interested in Objectivism & generally paid attention to the broader world, but I doubt that in those years he himself could tell that the student who would become his second wife, Frances Jaffer, was soon to become herself one of the driving forces for change in poetry. As a poet, the much younger Rice found himself identifying with the writers against whom the New American Poetry were rebelling. He too had little inkling of the impact his wife, Anne, would soon have on writing, in her case genre fiction. Regardless of their personal aesthetics, the defining feature of the three men was that their own poetry never really connected with any existing literary community. None was ever truly part of a scene.


So the Poetry Center was very much a backwater when it finally decided to look outside & bring Kathleen Fraser in to head up the program. Fraser had gone to Iowa City – she almost certainly would not have been hired without that credential – but before that she & her first husband Jack Marshall had hung around New York City in the 1950s & were totally in touch with the vibrant antics of the New York School. Had the Allen anthology included the next younger age group (and been a little more woman friendly), Fraser is one of the writers* who almost certainly would have been included.


Fraser was – and so far as I can see, still is – interested in everything, which meant that the Poetry Center suddenly became a site for all of the possible debates going on in poetry. Some of it was exciting, some silly, some maybe just beside the point – but there was always an interesting program to think about & for the first time really since the days of Madeline Gleason, Robert Duncan & that 1958 visiting professor, Louis Zukofsky, the Poetry Center & the creative writing program at State could claim to be fully a part of the San Francisco scene.


The interesting thing about Fraser’s own poetry in those days was that you couldn’t pin it down. She certainly wasn’t an “Iowa poet” in the way that phrase was used in the 1970s to indicate a narrow range – upper limit James Tate, lower limit Norman Dubie – nor was Fraser a New York School writer, even at a remove. She certainly wasn’t either an SF Renaissance or a “Bolinas” poet as well.


That might have been a prescription for yet another isolated poet, but not in Fraser’s case. Her sense of community & restless intelligence wouldn’t permit that. Not only was she instrumental in broadening – forever, as it so happened – the vision of the creative writing program at State & at the Poetry Center, one found Fraser during those years in all manner of places. She was, for example, an important supporter of a collective effort to get a poetry bookstore going in Noe Valley during that period, a project that lives on today as Small Press Traffic. Traffic was the first store I ever saw that acknowledged issues of gender in writing, even if its initial categories – Men, Women, Fiction – seem rudimentary by today’s recognition of a rainbow world. Later in the 1970s, I ran into Fraser when she & I & Steve Benson, among others, found ourselves together in a Marxist study group led by Robert Glück & Bruce Boone. When I was invited to teach a graduate seminar at SF State in the fall of 1981 – an invitation she may well have had a hand in, although she never once mentioned it to me – the course that turned out to be the “dry run” reading list that became In the American Tree – Fraser sat through every session of the class. At no point did she ever present herself there as the tenured faculty person amidst such “students” as Jerry Estrin or Cole Swenson. Fraser was simply there because she wanted to know something. & I felt both humbled & honored that she thought to do so.


Her greatest community building project got under way in May, 1983, when she & some friends – Carolyn Burke, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Frances Jaffer & Bev Dahlen among them – started the feminist poetry newsletter HOW(ever). If language poetry, when contrasted with the New American poetry, seemed feminist by comparison, it was – by today’s standards certainly – still very much the creature of its times, one foot forward perhaps, but one foot still very much in the old world of gender presumptions (& me as much as anyone in that regard). HOW(ever) presented a completely different vision of a possible universe. Today, it may be impossible for a younger reader to even comprehend how completely different that newsletter was for poetry in 1983 – it was woman led & woman centered, but not in the slightest identarian, proud of its interest in all manner of progressive literary tendencies. Today, when the absolute majority of publishing poets in the U.S. are women, such a project might even seem unnecessary. But just 21 years ago, it was so radical as to have been all but unthinkable until Fraser & her cohorts thought – and did – otherwise. In retrospect, I don’t think any other literary magazine has had the impact on American writing that HOW(ever) has had. Happily all to the good.


So I’ve long since given up trying to figure out what Kathleen Fraser is going to do next. Suffice it to say that as a person & poet, she continually surprises me & that I learn from these surprises. There is a brand new book out from Apogee Press, Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling. I want some more time to read in it before I try writing anything about it specifically, But I’ll mention it today, because clearly it’s a book you need to own.





* Like Ted Berrigan, like Joanne Kyger, like George Stanley & Bill Berkson. Like Ron Padgett & Peter Schjeldahl & Larry Fagin & Harold Dull & Steve Jonas.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004


What if Frank O’Hara had been, literally, a court jester? Or, at the very least, tutor of the King’s children? Those are questions that linger in the imagination as one reads Pattie McCarthy’s forthcoming Verso. In “alibi (that is : elsewhere),” the second of the book’s three sections – and the one section that is available already as a Duration Press ebook – McCarthy strikes a new tone in & for her poetry, less formal, almost personal. At the same time, however, all of the concerns – with history, naming, gender, etymology & referentiality – that have always animated her work rage on unabated. Not atypical: alibi is Latin for elsewhere.


The tone in the sequence’s first poem comes off as quite campy:


nonesuch auguries, egads.

we will have none of that.

saying again this place is

this, only moreso.

here the air

rises from beneath it

seems & is heavy salty—

whereas there the air is sharp,

takes corners, comes around

corners sharply.

it hasn’t rained for fourteen days. the birds

have thwarted me & eaten the verbena seeds.

I smell like a girl & tire of profundity.


In what reads like an act of utter divergence, the very next piece quotes Thackeray, Chaucer & Shakespeare, all on the subject on augury. If an alibi literally is a mode of displacement – “I was not at X when Y took place” – then divination is likewise predicated on an ability to read details, as if the whole universe took on the symbolic qualities we usually reserve for words.


It takes McCarthy only three more pages to blend all these elements & arrive at this remarkable level of density:


there one is afraid of that

which is invisible whereas

here one fears that which is seen.

with maps, one could endeavor to prove

one’s self alibi.

no one leaves here ever if

only there was another.

it’s not safe sometimes to meddle with walls.

the fall of Jane Scrope’s sparrow.

if by making certain

conditions of the air — well, that’s how they took

the poison in those days.


One part Gertrude Stein, perhaps, one part John Skelton, definitely. It was, it’s worth remembering, not the wall that caused the death of Jane Scrope’s sparrow, but the presence of the cat Gyb. The wall, however, is what McCarthy wants us to if not see at least feel, pressing on us at all points. Thus an allusion to a poem 500 years old in what at first reads as if it were “plain speech.”


The problem of knowledge in poetry has bedeviled modernism & what’s come after since Pound first edited T.S. Eliot in order to make him more, not less, cryptic. Where Robert Duncan wrote of “the secret doctrine,” Charles Olson countered that “such secrecy is wearing the skin that truth is inside-out.* There was a day certainly when every college student – at least the English majors – could have been expected to recognize that sparrow, but, save for the Straussians, that day died before my years in college in the 1960s. McCarthy appears to have found a writing that lets her – and us – have it both ways, by making the membrane between the visible & its opposite the focal point. Which, to my mind, is where O’Hara comes in, perhaps the most eloquent practitioner ever of what I might characterize as cloaked rhetoric, the complex articulation tossed off as if it were a spontaneous aside.


The word McCarthy finds for this is an Irish one, pishogue, which, in a pluralized Irish spelling – “piseogs” – is the title of the third major sequence in Verso. Spells might be a good English translation, sayings that by their very nature convey witchcraft. This section reads very much as the notes to an investigation into the murder of Bridget Cleary, an 1894 case of an Irish housewife burned alive by her husband in the belief that she’d been stolen by the faerie folk.


Wisdom, magic, reference – all systems that hinge upon a coming into representation, the word made flesh, even if only so that it might be burnt. Verso, in this sense, has another meaning – the same one we find hidden in the word verse, that constant, compulsive turning, from the visible & back again, from the magic to the muggle, the meaning to the word, a perpetual, ineluctable shuttling back & forth, as restless as the imagination.


From the very beginning, Pattie McCarthy has been one of our most intellectually ambitious poets – a tradition she shares with Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Beverly Dahlen & with H.D. before that. And indeed with the likes of Pound & Olson. We can still count the number of women who attempt writing on such a scale on the fingers of our hands. So it is worth noting & celebrating this addition to that roster.





* In “Against Wisdom As Such,” in Human Universe, Grove Press, 1967, p. 68.

Monday, February 16, 2004


The most radical change between the 1986 first edition of my anthology In the American Tree & the 2002 edition, both published by the National Poetry Foundation, is not necessarily the spiffy new typesetting, my new afterword, the new cover art – an excerpt from Robert Grenier’s scrawl works – nor even the updated bio notes, a couple of which threaten to turn into autobiographies. It’s the reprinting of two Kit Robinson poems, “Verdigris” and “Trial de Novo,” as separate & distinct poems. In the original edition of the Tree, the poems appear as they first did in This 11 in the Spring of 1981, with one page of “Verdigris” running on the left hand page for every page of “Trial de Novo” that appeared on the right, almost as if they were translations one from the other.  But in 2002 edition of the Tree, the pair are published as they first were in Robinson’s great book, Windows, brought out by Whale Cloth in 1984, withVerdigris” first, followed by “Trial.”


Thus disappeared an interesting experiment in the uses of pagination to problematize & interpenetrate texts. What makes me think of this is a poem, “otherwise (an eke name),” one of three major sequences by Pattie McCarthy that will soon appear in Verso, forthcoming from Apogee Press. “otherwise” starts on a left-hand page with a prose paragraph, then follows it with a section in verse on the right. This pattern, prose on the left, verse on the right, repeats a total of eight times. It’s not self-evident to me that either section can or should be interpreted as a commentary on the other. Or, to be more precise, each page seems to stand perfectly well on its own. But the impulse to try & find interrelationships &, for me at least, to figure out how to read them with one page as the “master” text, the other as its “slave” or commentary, is strong.


There is, I suspect, a bit of the con in this, not unlike the teasing connections John Ashbery sometimes salts his own texts with, elements that appear to offer hooks or handles, not because they do so much as because we want them to – and McCarthy knows it. Thus individual sentences often invoke language in unexpected ways: “the name by which I know her has a different vowel-to-consonant ratio than the one with which she was born.” The sentences themselves don’t connect, per se, so much as hover around certain general thematic frames – naming & mapping being two key ones. For me, what gets accentuated most is precisely that sense of desire, the pull between left page & right. Thus “this peculiar landscape” on page 9 of the manuscript may (or may not) point back to “Flanders was a country before it was a battle” in the prose across the binding to its left. But there’s no way really to ascertain this.


McCarthy may be yanking the reader’s cognitive chain – the whole idea of an “eke name” could suggest as much. As indeed would the idea of starting the title with “otherwise,” as if we could know other than what? When McCarthy first published the second section of this volume as a Duration Press ebook, the website characterized it as “from the work-in-progress Unco Lair & History. Verso presumably is an evolution of that project. The apparently rejected title focuses more on naming & on the role of the word in time, it is worth noting, whereas Verso focuses attention on the form of the book itself, or at least the form of its first work.


Like Robinson’s matched pair, I find myself wanting to imagine all the other possible ways to format these unnumbered sets. Sequentially they move prose, verse, prose, verse, etc. so to put a pair upon a single page would invoke a more ordinary linked verse framework. And I wonder what will happen, 40 years hence, when the Collected Early Pattie McCarthy appears, running the poem in the manner of so many collected editions – think of Williams & what happens to Spring & All in his Collected – as a single continuous chain.


Each one of these formats yields different reading strategies, new implications. While McCarthy has clearly chosen for one way through the poem here, it’s not clear to me – largely I think because the poems work just fine as standalone objects as well as in combination – that this is the “right” way so much as it is her way. As with much good poetry – say Blake isolated away from his illuminated manuscripts in various textbook editions – the writing itself here seems “platform independent.” It’s going to work regardless.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

The calendar has moved to Sunday, February 29, a day that turns up not so terribly often.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?