Friday, September 03, 2004
To my August 19th blog entry on places to go in Seattle, which included a trip to Open Books, Seattle’s poetry bookshop, Glenn Ingersoll posted the following comment:
I was in Seattle a couple weeks ago and visited the poetry bookstore. Pretty neat. I bought Bill Knott's self-published chapbook and a couple other things and the proprietor told me Knott is a genius. Maybe so.
By the time I’d read that, I also had acquired the same book, entitled – in GREEN CRAYON on the cover – Short Poems, but also titled on the inside The Season on Our Sleeve: Selected Short Poems. The book is simply a series of short texts – two or three to a page 5½ inches high – spread out over roughly 64 pages (thus maybe 200 poems). The copyright date is 2004, but a check of Abebooks.com shows that Knott has been producing these volumes in relatively short runs for several years, sometimes under one title, sometimes under another. How much uniformity there is in these collections is anybody’s guess, but it would seem that most include some kind of statement on the verso page rather like the one in my copy:
It should be
obvious that if
I could have
found a real
for this book, I
wouldn’t be printing
I took this little book with me to San Antonio this past week (where I learned that one way to get a vacant row on an airplane is to pull a book out of your laptop case that has a crayon cover). Then when I got home, Realpoetik – the email poetry journal – had sent me an issue that contained the following works from The Season on Our Sleeve:
We brush the other, invisible moon.
Its caves come out and carry us inside.
When our hands are alone,
they open, like faces.
There is no shore
to their opening.
As much as someone could plow in one day
They called an acre;
As much as someone could die in one instant
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
These are, in fact, reasonably representative poems – neither the best nor the worst – to be found in the book. Knott has a deft grasp of a homegrown surrealism – unlike many of the poets who adopted the mode in the 1960s & ‘70s, his work doesn’t sound like a translation. In that sense, Knott’s poetry has an integrity that has enabled it to survive well beyond the context from which it first emerged.
Yet it also registers for me what actually didn’t work about this mode – the short, off-kilter social comment – and why it was abandoned by so many of its practitioners over time – as Knott notes in an intro, even Robert Bly, the leading propagator of these sorts of poems, stopped writing them.
Poems like those Knott writes focus the reader’s attention in particular kinds of ways – mostly highlighting some single element. Such a setting tends to be heroic, which is something most Americans tend to be uncomfortable with – hence the oblique angling at subjects and use of humor. When the elements are all in balance – like in the first two poems above – it can be delightful. When one element is out of balance – like the too direct angle of the final line in the third poem above – the whole thing collapses pretty much instantly. It’s an art form of precision, with very little room for error.
But as an art form, the surreal short shot has an inherent weakness, a mode of self-deception that sends more than a few of these poems (and Knott is perhaps the best at this sort of verse) out of whack. These in fact aren’t short poems. Rather, they are at the low end of medium sized poems and operate at a sort of middle distance. Thus a one-line poem with a title, e.g.
last one in the sentence is a rotten old period
suffers not from brevity, but just the opposite – it takes forever to get to that foregone conclusion, all humor & surprise drained well before the line reaches its end. Bad haiku can prove lumbering in just the same way. What makes poems like Knott’s appear short is not their length, but rather the Eurocentric tradition from which they extend. Compared to what are they short? Haiku? Gertrude Stein’s one line poems?
If they were in fact short, they would have to focus in with far greater attentiveness than they for the most part do. So to call them short is to concede that one doesn’t actually comprehend what is going on at this level.
We are fortunate to be living in the same time as Robert Grenier, one poet who genuinely has made a career of exploring what is possible in the short poem. His works are not only shorter than those of Knott, at least on average, but they’re more complex, more focused and apt to opt for something beyond a surreal laugh at a social narrative. Short poems often require writing not at the level of the sentence, but sometimes even within the individual word. In his great project Sentences, one comes across a poem such as
which manages to be far more complicated as a text while using more efficient means of getting its work done than any of the Knott pieces quoted here. This is a poem organized around the use of the hard “g” in the second word, consciously contrasted in that sea of soft sounds. It’s an entire layer of writing that is absent from Knott’s work.
The great irony over time is that Knott’s poetry has outlasted the movement from which it emerged, but does so only in this sort of mock-art-povre self-published format. Still, it’s a more interesting presence than the thoroughly academicized frames that others from that era, such as Charles Simic & James Tate, have been locked into. But if this sort of soft surrealism is where the school of quietude goes to “get wild” – like that uncle whose idea of party time is a louder bow tie – then the promise of publications like The Sixties, Kayak or Cloud Marauder really has ended not in a bang, but a whimper. No wonder a new gen version like Dean Young spends at least as much energy imitating Bob Perelman as he does Tate.
Grenier, whose recent scrawl works are no less problematic as publications than Knott’s, has emerged instead as a key figure in the evolution of poetry. If in fact The Sixties was ever truly interested in the short poem, then I’ve never understood why it didn’t focus on someone like Grenier – a Trakl translator no less – and promote his work more widely. We might still care about the fate of that journal today if it had.
Thursday, September 02, 2004
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
The sequence of eleven poems at the beginning of The Opening of the Field is one of the most remarkable moments – or movements – in the history of contemporary poetry. In it, Duncan does indeed propose an opening of the field in that he dramatically expands his own discursive range, taking on a scale of address equivalent in scope to that of Pound or Olson. While Duncan elsewhere suggests that his work is ordered chronologically, the first eleven poems in Opening move thematically instead. It’s as if Duncan were constructing an argument – he would probably have capitalized that – especially with regards to the poems here that are not from the sequence The Structure of Rime.
Let me crudely sketch out the steps in this argument:
- "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" – it is the field, that dictates, who and what we are, all that is, the rhythms to which we will dance
- "The Dance" is transcendental – it exists before us as something into which we can enter
- "The Law I Love is Major Mover" – the law exists above & beyond both state & individual – "The scale . . . performs a judgment / previous to music" – It is "the Angel that made a man of Jacob / made Israël in His embrace // was the Law, was Syntax."
It is at this moment, having literally deified syntax, that Duncan declares "Him I love is major mover," the absent article the most telling word of all, and thus begins on the next page The Structure of Rime.
In the first Structure of Rime, we find the speaker engaged in what I can only characterize as the most intense & erotic dialog with the diety – that "unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the language as I make it" – I can recall. This edenic sentence is presented as a woman with a "snake-like beauty." That Duncan is address the Other directly is unmistakable:
O Lasting Sentence
sentence after sentence I make in your image
Structure II asks the inescapable question, "What is the Structure of Rime?" What occurs next, however, does so less at the level of response than in terms of who responds & in what guise. After the initial speaker, "I," poses this question, we get the following respondents:
- The Messenger in guise of a Lion
- I in the guise of a Lion
- A lion without disguise
- The Lion in the Zodiac
There is even, after that second "I" – a pun the cross-eyed Duncan would not have missed – again poses "What is the Structure of Rime?" a response that is not easily placed with any of these speakers, that reads in italics
An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world.
Here Duncan injects the last poem, "A Poem Slow Beginning," into the suite introducing The Structure of Rime. It is a quieter, even personal poem set at the University of California during Duncan’s days as a student there – a scene that he will recount in greater detail in The H.D. Book. Its function in each project is quite similar, to give an historic & personal ground for the larger transpersonal project he has taken on.
The tone shifts again dramatically – "Glare-eyed Challenger! serpent-skin-coated / accumulus of my days!" – with the return to The Structure of Rime III. Narratively, this is an extremely simple piece – the poet, having bathed, is struck by his reflection, ruddy & glowing from the bath. His concern, literally, is that "I grow old. // The numbers swing me. The days that count / my dervish-invisible that time is / up – My time is up?" This same theme that takes him back to the late works of what he calls the generation of the Imagists is posed here close to, if not at the heart of, The Structure of Rime. This is, I think, one of the most compelling and vexing aspects of Duncan’s entire project, the whole notion of setting out to write one’s Late Work while still in one’s thirties. Duncan is, after all, just 34 when he first drafts "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," and only 41 when the entire book is fledged into print in 1960, the same year he engages directly with Doolittle and undertakes this study obsessed with the idea of the redemptive Elder Poem.
Duncan pursues The Structure of Rime through three more movements before abruptly, if quietly, changing directions in "Three Pages from a Birthday Notebook," a bridge or breath, embody it as you will, that must have seemed needed before turning the volume’s second great movement, beginning with "This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom." The Structure of Rime continues to be figured as an absolute, as if Duncan – whose choice of the term structure could not have been more apt – were attempting to speak through what the French call parole to langue itself, as if langue might be figured, have intention, be addressable. Thus, in Rime V, we find:
This conflict of visions – is there one world, apparent, or two? – leads to one of the most disturbing moments in all of Duncan’s poetry, his portrait in The Structure of Rime VII of the 19th century King of Dahomey that calls to mind Vachel Lindsay and Rudyard Kipling:
The Geometry, I saw, oblivious, knew what? of these sunderings? arranged its sentences intolerant of black or white.
No! No! Say that there are two worlds, a man declared. I shot half my head away.
A woman cried, No! There is but one. I live in one world, and it is black.
Black King Glélé dwells in the diabolical, a tranquil spirit of pure threat, an orb radiating the quiet pool, the black water, to the boundaries of his image. Solitary among demons, he appears to them and to us demonic. We have composed him over again of enlarged terror – claws, teeth, hair, eyes, mouth, broodings of flesh, corruptions of blood, pustulences, wounds, irruptions, horn, bone, gristle, calcifications, scarrings.
Against this figure, and "the counsels of the Wood," we encounter also the figure of the poet, I:
And I stand, stranger to tranquility because I am enamord of song, to sing to Glélé the King as I would sing to relentless history.
After "I" sings, Duncan gives three instances cleaving the partiality of parole from the originating spirit of langue:
- The Rime falls in the outbreakings of speech
- the Character falls in the act wherefrom life springs,
- footfalls in Noise which we do not hear but see
How do we see it? "as a Rose pushd up from the stem of our longing." Desire is that which reconnects the act from its absolute. Tho not, profoundly not, as we necessarily might have it. Thus Rime VII ends:
The kindled image remains that we calld a Rose. Glélé torn up from what we calld suffering answers:
I am the Rose.
These eleven poems, the Opening not merely of The Field but of The Structure of Rime as well, form what I would call the theme of Duncan’s major work. It is the argument he seeks to make of the world in his poetry. And it is why, above all else, he turns in 1960 to engage Hilda Doolittle, through correspondence & The H.D. Book, in the hope that of the great poets of the Imagist generation, she might be able to not just appreciate his significant talents as a singer, so to speak, but to get the song as well.
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Robert Duncan, in writing to H.D. during the last two years of her life, sought to connect himself to the generation of Imagism (which was, as Duncan would note in The H.D. Book, "not a lost generation," those writers who came into prominence in Paris in the 1920s, precisely because Imagism had been the last pre-Great War poetic tendency*) to help him craft his own master work, a project that, in The H.D. Book, he repeatedly associates with the major late poems of Pound, Williams and H.D.
Yet Duncan’s own writing from this point onward cannot honestly be said to echo the strategies taken by any of the trio of elder poets to whom he continually returns – there is no Patterson, no Trilogy, no Pisan Cantos, as such. One can read Duncan’s major work, beginning with The Opening of the Field in a couple of different ways. In one, all five books might be read & understood as a single project. In another, the fifteen year hiatus between Bending the Bow & the first volume of Ground Work figures a break – placing the trio of volumes from the sixties & seventies into one group, the two volumes of Ground Work into a second. While that may be a major issue for Duncan scholarship in general, it doesn’t, I think, impact a great deal on this work’s relationship to The H.D. Book as currently available – either in the journals of its original publication nor in the pirated "Frontier Press" edition that pops up periodically on the internet. The H.D. Book as we have it was written almost entirely in the 1960s, prior to the hiatus – and the latest actual reference I can find internally to another publication is 1969. While Duncan is known to have had notes to a third "book," to accompany the two sections already available, there is apparently no such additional manuscript extant. All of which suggests to me that we should focus our concentration on the relationship of the Book to the trio of projects Duncan was writing before and during its composition – The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, & Bending the Bow.
Opening was written before Duncan’s correspondence with H.D. got serious. He had sent a few letters earlier, as early as 1950 – a time when his earlier attempts to connect with Pound (a visit to St. Elizabeth’s in 1947, followed by correspondence) had, by Duncan’s own account, become entropic, tapering into silence. The Field, as Duncan called it when he sent Doolittle a copy of the manuscript, was written thus also before Duncan undertook his "study" of the elder poet.
Duncan had been working on this first book of his new unnamed project for some time. Peter O’Leary, in an email, places the first draft of Opening’s initial poem, "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," as from "a trip to London in 1953." The care with which the volume was not only composed, but prepared for public acceptance, as well as Duncan’s own down playing of his earlier works, suggest the considerable importance that Duncan assigned to this project. Indeed, there was much back and forth over whether to self-publish the book or to place it with a press such as Macmillan – which would ensure a broader readership and force more of a response from the 1960s School of Quietude set. In the end, the book came out from Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, a press that had one foot in the New York trade scene, while the other published the likes of Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Henry Miller and William Burroughs.
Within the trio of Opening, Roots & Bow, there exist not one but two long poems – The Structure of Rime & Passages – numbered sequences that might well have been written and published as independent works, much like the Pisan Cantos or Olson’s Maximus. That Duncan never published them that way is telling – the two projects treated independently might well have greatly enhanced Duncan’s reputation and, I believe, Structure’s revolutionary nature – it was in the 1960s the most radical instance of the prose poem in English after William’s Kora in Hell & the works of Gertrude Stein – is more clearly visible when set apart. But Duncan’s view of poetry, much like Duncan’s view of the world, is that it needed to be understood as organic, that there is a structure, larger, more detailed, more complex than we can can derive from details alone. As he will say (writing of Olson) in The H.D. Book, "Structure is not satisfied in the molecule, is not additive; but is fulfilled only in the whole work." If one burning question concerning the American longpoem during its modernist period lay precisely in the crux of the part:whole relationship – with Pound, Williams & even H.D. (tho here we might come back to note differences) all writing numbered works that largely flow one into the other, with Zukofsky envisioned here as the Great Dissenter, at least after the opening six sections of "A, " insisting instead a part:whole relationship that stresses the integrity of the part, Duncan offers instead a third way, reminiscent almost of Whitman’s ongoing growth of Leaves of Grass through perpetual revision across multiple editions. In Opening, Roots & Bow, we find individual named poems commingled with these two long poems to form a continuous writing, a Life Work, to employ Duncan’s phrase (and his caps). It is within this commingled flow that we first find The Structure of Rime. Indeed, the structure of The Field forces us to focus on its critical role. After an initial trio of poems, "Meadow," "The Dance," and "The Law I Love is Major Mover," come the first two sections of Rime. Then follows by no accident "A Poem Slow Beginning," followed in turn by five more sections of Rime.
* Tho one might argue that William Carlos Williams, a late starter as well as The One Who Did Not Move to Europe, did not reach maturity as a poet until the 1920s.
Labels: Robert Duncan
Monday, August 30, 2004