Tuesday, September 07, 2004
This is one of those stories that makes clear to me – if nobody else – why I’m so happy to be doing what I do. Although, as you will see, I’m only a peripheral figure in this tale.
Sue Gaughan, whom I do not know, sent me an email last week, as follows:
Dear Mr. Silliman,
i was hoping you may be able to help me. i recently found a poem, or a verse from a poem credited to robert hogg.
The sun is mine
And the trees are mine
The light breeze is mine...
all the searches i have done lead me to believe he is a Canadian poet. i would appreciate some confirmation of this and the complete poem if possible.
i would greatly appreciate any assistance you could offer.
Well, I knew that Robert Hogg was a Canadian poet, but was this a poem of his? I couldn’t say. So I forwarded my missive northward to Louis Cabri, who noted that Hogg was
one of the TISH era poets from the 1960s in Vancouver, who has lived in Ottawa since I believe the early 1980s and teaches at Carleton University. (TISH was a poetry newsletter and the poets involved with the magazine were the Canadian counterpart to the New American poetries.) [RS: Jack Spicer fans will recognize the name Tish from Book of Magazine Verse]
Since Louis didn’t have any of Hogg’s books at hand, tho, he forwarded the email chain westward to Rob Manery in Vancouver. Rob indeed had answers, plus a bibliography – and a further poem for our consideration:
The lines are from Bob's first book, The Connexions (Berkeley: Oyez, 1966).The Connexions is a long poem describing a mythological rite of passage into manhood. The lines are from the last poem of the book, an envoi to the poem.
Bob Hogg's bibliography:
The Connexions(Berkeley: Oyez, 1966)
Standing Back (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1971)
Of Light (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1978)
Heat Lightning (Windsor, Ontario: Black Moss Press, 1986)
There is No Falling (Toronto: ECW Press, 1993)
Another poem by Bob which I've always thought was his best
In the midnight
of the room
into which I
but the unseen
of the air
to place my
with my mind
of the furnace
could be still
and not forever
for the silence
for the night
sounds of the house
laid on bedrock
networks of pipes
in their gravel
what is really
but a curious
with the real
as my elbows
and no less
to prop up
a construct a
free at last
it can ride
down on the nets
of the inner
Finally Robert Hogg himself joined in (copied on all this, I think, by Rob). His note:
Hello folks; the poem in question was printed as the last poem in my first book, The Connexions, Berkeley: Oyez Press, 1966. It was written in Buffalo in May 1965 when I had recovered from a terrible battle with hepatitis that nearly killed me during my convalescence and relapses the previous winter in Manhattan where I had been a welfare patient in St Vincent de Paul’s Hospital, and later stayed with a lover, the “Nadia” of the sequence, in an apartment on West 10th St from the window of which I could see the barbed wire roof of the West Street Jail. The entire text obliquely refers to the rite of passage associated with prolonged fever, jaundice, two serious relapses and the consequent proximity of death. Of three of us who contracted the disease in Vancouver, one died. The exuberance I felt when I recognized my health had really returned is reflected in the repossession of those natural elements celebrated in the final poem. It came in a burst one May day when I was living on Lafayette Ave in Buffalo, the leaves fully on the trees, and the warmth of spring finally certain. It signaled both the end of my illness and the end of the sequence of poems I had been writing since the previous December—I knew also that I had a book with a coherent theme, and that many of the poems I’d written over the previous three years did not belong in it. Consequently, most of those early poems never saw reprinting in any of my books, though many had appeared in small mags in Canada, England and the States. The poem in question has been anthologized a few times, most often in anthologies for young readers. While I am delighted by this, it is also somewhat ironic that the real context has never been recognized or acknowledged. As a final note of interest, that same month I read the poem out loud in Olson’s graduate poetry class in which I was enrolled; he listened to the poem intently, then asked me to reread it to the class. After I had done so he looked at the class in general which was populated with some exceptional peers, and said, “Now that is poetry.” After what I had been through, and the circumstances under which I had been living and studying and teaching first year classes in English at SUNY, that was a great moment. I had just turned 23, and was likely to see 24. The entire poem goes as follows:
The sun is mine
And the trees are mine
The light breeze is mine
And the birds that inhabit the air
Their voices upon the wind
are in my ear
Monday, September 06, 2004
Progressive Poetry Calendar
11, Saturday, 7:30 PM: Shin Yu Pai& Ish Klein, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
16, Thursday, 5:00 PM: Jen Hofer, Ofelia Pérez Sepúlveda& Cristina Rivera-Garza, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
17-19, Friday-Sunday, times vary: Zukofsky /100, celebration of the LZ centennial, at Columbia & Barnard, New York City. Details here.
18, Saturday, 8:00 PM: Linh Dinh, Molly’s Books, 1010 S. 9th Street, in the © of the Italian Market
21, Tuesday, 7:00 PM: Ron Silliman, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
23, Thursday, 6:30 PM: Nathalie Anderson, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
25, Saturday, 7:30 PM: hassen presents Patrick Herron & Elizabeth Reddin, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
30, Thursday, 8:00 PM: Fiona Templeton, Temple University City Center, 15th & Market, Room 222
6, Wednesday, 8:00 PM: Linh Dihn, hassen, Ish Klein, Frank Sherlock & Kevin Varrone, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania (215 Festival presents PhillySound). With Cellist Monica McIntyre.
7, Thursday, 8:00 PM: Jonathan Letham, Temple University City Center, 15th & Market, Room 222
9, Saturday, 7:30 PM: Noah Eli Gordon & Pattie McCarthy, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
14, Thursday, 6:00 PM: Peter Gizzi & Marjorie Welish, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
20, Wednesday, 5:30 PM: Jean-Michel Espitallier, with translator Sherry Brennan, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
21, Thursday, 6:00 PM: Michael Gottlieb & Tony Lopez, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
23, Saturday, 7:30 PM: Kathy Lou Schultz presents TBA, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
28, Thursday, 8:00 PM: Tracie Morris, Temple University City Center, 15th & Market, Room 222
29, Friday, 12:30 PM: Anne Waldman, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
6, Saturday, 7:30 PM: Brenda Iijima & Chris McCreary, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
10, Wednesday, 6:00 PM: Theorizing presents Mark Hansen on technesis (technology beyond writing), Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
11, Thursday, 4:30 PM: Jaap Blonk, the legendary sound poet, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
11, Thursday, 8:00 PM: Caroline Bergvall, Temple University City Center, 15th & Market, Room 222
18, Thursday, 5:00 PM: Rae Armantrout, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
20, Saturday, 7:30 PM: furniture press presents TBA, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
4, Saturday, 8:00 PM: Rodrigo Toscano & Jena Osman, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut Street
6, Monday, 6:30 PM: Ron Silliman, Free Library, Logan Square, 1901 Vine Street, open reading follows
9, Thursday, time TBA: Kenny Goldsmith, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
All events are in Philadelphia
unless otherwise noted
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.