Thursday, October 20, 2005

Easily the best expression of what I called yesterday the New Western aesthetic within the New American Poetry was the magazine Coyote’s Journal during the mid-1960s – edited originally by James Koller, Carol Arnett & a rotating host of others, it has continued onward, sporadically, in Koller’s hands and may still exist to this day. An listing for the second issue identifies its contributors as Larry Eigner, Theodore Enslin, Cid Corman, Ed Dorn (featured in 28 pages), Douglas Woolf, Anselm Hollo, Robert Kelly, James Koller & Gary Snyder. Another, for double issue 5-6 mentions Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, Anselmo Hollo among the contributors. A 1971 issue – the first after a four year hiatus – lists Gary Snyder, Harold Littlebird, Jack Collom, Franco Beltrametti, Lew Welch, Giulia Niccolai, Adriano Spatola, Al Glover, Paul Blackburn, Don Eulert, Coyote Man, Zoe Brown, Jerome Rothenberg, Bobby Byrd, Harry Hoogstraten, Drummond Hadley, Keith Wilson, James Koller, Allen Ginsberg. I had originally thought that Caterpillar, Clayton Eshleman’s first magazine, had modeled itself after Coyote’s Journal, as they had similar physical formats, an interest in the heritage of the Black Mountain poets & large-scale ambition, but Clayton corrects me, noting that his template above all others had been Origin (which makes sense, in part because Eshleman was still very much the New Yorker when he started Caterpillar.)

But as Coyote’s Journal stopped being a predictable presence in the poetry journals section at City Lights, Serendipity & Cody’s in the Bay Area – eight issues occurred between 1964 & 67, then nothing for four years – something curious happened. Nothing. While other publications shared some or all of Coyote’s aesthetic – Clifford Burke’s Hollow Orange, for example, or John Oliver Simon’s Aldebaran Review or even Will Inman’s Kauri – they were smaller publications even within the social frame of small presses. With Olson’s death – he was an important influence for many New Western poets, in part because his insistence on space seemed to point in their direction – the rise of other literary tendencies, including Actualism & Language Poetry, the New Western’s adamant resistance to leaders resulted in a shift away from any cohesive aesthetics. The New Western moment had passed.

This did not mean, however, that New Western poets themselves had stopped writing, but the sense of anything larger or more cohesive soon dissolved. Snyder had already ceased to be a presence in the Bay Area, Phil Whalen was immersed in his study of Zen, Richard Brautigan turned to the novel, Lew Welch took a pistol & disappeared into the woods, his body never to be found. Others continued to be active, but without the same focused outlet for their work, moved to more private or local solutions.

One of the poets who seemed to vanish was Drummond Hadley, who had published one book, The Webbing, with Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in 1967. Hadley, as it happened, had moved to the Mexico/Arizona/New Mexico border sometime around 1965, where he has worked as a cowboy & rancher for the past four decades, founding the Animas Foundation, a group devoted to sustainable agriculture, & helping to start the Malpai Borderlands Group, an ecosystem management project. Somewhere along the line Drummond got shortened to Drum. And now, finally, Hadley has a big collection of his poetry available from Rio Nuevo, entitled Voice of the Borderlands, introduction by Gary Snyder. Given that Rio Nuevo is a regional publisher – typical titles include The Prickly Pear Cookbook, Navajo Rug Designs & The Legend of the O.K. Corral – it’s not evident that Voice is going to get the national distribution it deserves.

One could legitimately characterize Hadley as a cowboy poet, save that he’s a cowboy who quotes Charles Olson & has obviously read Ed Dorn’s Slinger, & who mentions Snyder, Creeley, Coyote’s Journal founder Jim Koller & Keith Wilson among others in his acknowledgements page. And tho he is given to fairly simple, straightforward poems, the book not unwisely includes a five-page glossary, so that us city types won’t think that RCA (Rodeo Cowboy Association) isn’t the technology firm once headquartered in Camden, NJ.

Of all the poets who reflect to one degree or another the influence of Olson, Hadley may be the only one to fully get it that the fundamental genre of The Maximus Poems is dramatic monolog, and that it is Olson more than anyone who demonstrated what might be done with that form going forward. Dramatic monolog, along with free verse & the prose poem, one might characterize as one of the three great formal innovations of early modernism, yet it is perhaps the one least well understood today, in part because of the likes of Richard Howard & Frank Bidart attempting to preserve Robert Browning in amber.

Hadley, tho, is closer in spirit to the documentary impulse one finds in Olson, tho less with documents, more with the voices of the people around him. It’s something one finds, albeit with a different attitude, in the work of Jonathan Williams with its broad characterization of accents. Many of the poems in Voices are identified after the poem as “Voice of,” tho the names – Bronc Buster Billy Brown, Walter Ramsey, Coot-Si-Wii-Kii-Ooo-Ma (Delbridge Honani), Trog Smith, Stan Hall, Porfirio, Bill Bryan – are obviously not selected for their currency with the audience, say, at St. Marks. Thus, through the eyes of others, we can sometimes glimpse Hadley off to the side in the poem, in the third person, as with “A Calf with Three Legs”:

One day, Porfirio and Drum were riding together
They came upon a young calf
Who had been born with only three legs.
The calf’s right front leg was missing.
Porfirio looked at the calf for a long time.
Finally, he said, “La luna le comió la pierna, digo yo,
the moon ate the leg, says I.”


The real energy of these pieces lies less in any individual poem than in the overall tapestry they present of a way of living that has all but disappeared in this country – at 350 pages, it’s rich & detailed. The collection is gathered thematically rather than chronologically – thus one runs into sequences of poems devoted to a single subject, such as keeping warm out of doors. Specificity is important here, tho often for Hadley it’s the specificity of the voices he captures – many poems are simply comments, not necessarily from the blue state perspective we’re used to in contemporary verse. Here is a piece with both title & subtitle (or, as Hadley suggests in the index, section heading & title, tho the section here consists just of this one poem), “THE TRADERS: Horse Trading”:

My old Daddy used to say,
“You walk around a horse once.
You look in his mouth
You’re ready to trade.
It’s about the same with a man or a woman.
You walk around one of them once.
You see what’s in their eyes.
You’re ready to trade.”

Voice of ROY THORN

Simple as that poem is, the voice there hinges on the one extraneous word in the entire piece: “old.” It heightens the spareness of what follows as well as positioning both speaker & the original saying in narrative time.

All told, this is a sad book precisely because of the changes that have occurred, are occurring & are certain to occur in the future to this part of the American landscape. One glimpses the modern world only occasionally, and in surprising ways – a co-inventor of the H-bomb worries about zipping up his pants – yet it’s unseen, literally unvoiced presence hangs over this volume like a cloud.

This is an important book, tho clearly not for every reader. Poetry has a lot of social functions & one of the implications of the Olsonian program is that it can document lives in ways no other record could capture. Drum Hadley has tuned in to that possibility in a way that’s virtually unique, even as the poems themselves are no more difficult for non-readers of poetry than, say, Spoon River Anthology. Hadley himself appeared on NPR the other day, reading from Voices. You can listen to it here.