Monday, October 17, 2005

Ever since he took over as director at St. Marks’ Poetry Project, Anselm Berrigan has insisted, repeatedly & publicly, that there is no single aesthetic agenda at work at the fabled home church of the New York School. If a look at the program there wasn’t proof enough of Berrigan’s contention, bringing in Midwest mariner Stacy Szymaszek, whose aesthetics are poised midway between Objectivist minimalism & an interest in Olsonian documenta – the closest thing to a projectivist poet at St. Marks since the heyday of Paul Blackburn in the mid-1960s – to work as the new literary program director there should certainly seal the deal.

But, for me, the real proof that the phrase “New York School” no longer has any current substance is that nobody I know thinks to use the phrase to describe the elegant, wry, pointed poems of Shanna Compton. In the past week I’ve received her new “first” book, Down Spooky,¹ which Aaron McCullough selected as Winnow Press’ first “open book” competition winner. And before you can exclaim what a coincidence it is that one well-known poetry blogger might select the work of another well-known poetry blogger, even tho they may very well not know one another personally, here is well-known poetry blogger Tom Beckett including several new, mostly post-Down Spooky pieces by Compton in Beckett’s guest-edited new MiPoesias, webzine of well-known poetry blogger Didi Menendez. There is even a terrific, eight-minute audio interview with Compton by Laurel Snyder, whom I think of not as a well-known poetry blogger, but more of a podcaster. And here I am, writing about Shanna Compton as well, whose book I opened not only because it’s exceptionally well designed, but also because I know her work, primarily from the web. Have I mentioned my new theory that the web has replaced lower Manhattan & SoMa San Francisco as the primary poetry “hang out” space? And that the next New Yawk School will be composed mostly of bloggers, even if they happen to live in Lawrence, Kansas, Norway, Tijuana, Toronto or Taiwan?

But that’s not what I mean really, when I associate Shanna Compton’s work with the historic NY School, especially that side of its second generation that might best be represented by the likes of Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson & Dick Gallup, all fashioners of lyrics that look as casual & friendly as anything e’er typed out by Frank O’Hara, but with a polish & a twist one might associate instead with John Ashbery. That’s an influence I see at times in the work of certain langpos, especially Alan Bernheimer & Kit Robinson (especially early Kit Robinson), but mostly when I run into it today among younger writers – the late Marc Kuykendall, for example – it often feels to me like a limit, the outer reaches of where the poetry might go, whereas for Compton, like Bernheimer & Robinson, it feels just the opposite, as a jumping off place, a launching pad toward something altogether new. One of the things this makes me think about is that, besides the influx from outside the circle of the first generation NY School poets of the work of Ted Berrigan & to some degree Anne Waldman, the second generation poets were the first who were able to synthesize those Ashbery-O’Hara strains, adding in a sense of wit that has more to do with Kenneth Koch than either of the other masters, to create something that was really new as a poem. That is why the 2nd generation New York School poetry is the only second generation of anything I can think of that is as important, ultimately, as the first. Second generation Projectivists, for example, spent more time breaking with the fathers than synthesizing them. There never was a second generation SF Renaissance because the first had largely been a fiction perpetrated by Don Allen.² Second generation Beats were simply echoes of the first, but without the good educations & intense commitment to craft.³

Compton gets away with her own retro echo of the 2nd gen NY School because so very many of her poems are brilliant, perfectly crafted & even surprising, even as they occur within a formal palette we’ve lived with for four decades now. Here is “Slashy Speakers, Nervy Endings”:

At the drive-in where
there’s nothing to see
but the weeds growing,
the joints glowing, and
the hooligans breaking shit
and making out, I
one time caught a
horror flick. It reminded
me of you. We
guffawed over the screams,
blushed at the sexy
scenes. Back then you
acted like yourself and
I looked like me.

And here is “Post-Texas Expressive Heat”:

Your mother put a
fan in the oven,
he said, to cool
it down. That’s right
the door is open
and on it sits
a little fan, blowing.
I am a little
fan, she says, an
ardent fan, a big
fan of yours. Whew.

Consider just how completely Compton controls the timing of this second poem by inserting that “he said” into the third line – it’s not “filler” text in the slightest. It also sets up the “she says” in the ninth line, which is crucial precisely because it’s so ambiguous as to just whom “she” might be.

You can get famous writing this well, and Compton very likely will. Even more important, from my point of view, are the pieces that show her going beyond her initial frame of reference. “Fusion Lingo,” for example, harkens back to Creeley’s use of the quatrain & Zukofsky’s sense of the hard-edged line in ways that I’ve seldom seen accomplished before:

She lectured us
about this
and was paid
in tinctures.

Over to the
via buses, the BQE
bust open good.

She took a swing,
a swig. We waited.
We sang
at the bar.

A first pressing, rare,
ovoid and red,
a heart presses another,
she said.

Underfoot a flagrant circular:
How to Earn Sense
on the Dollar, How to Own
Your Self.

She lectured us,
all fools, while
the stools
revolved and revolved.

This is a terrific piece of writing – my favorite poem in the book – and if I try to imagine any other living poet who could conceivably have written something on this order, the only person I can think of might be Bob Perelman. That’s about the highest praise I could give anyone, frankly. Another poem that reminds me of the heroic phase of language poetry – here Kit Robinson rather than Perelman – is “The Woman from the Public”:

When I was in the fourth grade
    School system.
The woman from the public
My science teacher drove me every day
    Library. The woman from the public
After school to the public
The woman elected to public
Library. I waited there for my mother
    Office. The woman who claimed to own public
Who worked in a government building
The woman from the Public
A few blocks away. Red tiles topped
    Works commission. The woman from the public
The roof of the public library.

    Park. The woman who in public
Upstairs there were private carrels
    Wore gold jewelry even while jogging. Public
For earnest students from the junior
    Sentiment against the women who supported public
Ms. Grisom drove a silver
    Stonings in an editorial. Public
Pacer. Once she asked me
    Television’s special Becoming a Woman. Public
What I would make if I knew how to make
    Humiliation of a woman named Looney. Public
I didn’t understand
    Appreciation of works on paper by female artists. Public
What she meant by that. Her first
    Lot number 3057. The woman from the Public
Name was
Charlotte, I think.
    Defender’s Office. The woman from the public
The back stairs smelled like soup.
    Pool. The women’s action group against public
The library was always quiet and I was alone.

What I love about this poem is how quiet & personal it is for a work that is so out front in establishing a particular politics. The interwoven threads pull in opposite directions, one towards a kind of confessionalism, the other toward the most impersonal of lists. Both are about what Marxists of a certain generation would have called the Woman Question. It is worth reminding ourselves that this poem rhymes in the harshest possible manner & that the contrast with this “public” tone is the very private, even hidden world of a latch-key kid being handed off out of sight (and yet “safe” because “public”)* between two women, both of whom work in public jobs. Cognitively & socially, this poem is far more complex than it at first appears.

These are all still poems within the framework that Compton finds already existing in the world. Yet her mastery of these forms is so complete that I cannot imagine that she won’t go beyond this fairly quickly. These pieces are evidence of a restless, almost limitless talent, so much so that I think we are just seeing only the very first glimpses of a great career.


¹ Quotation marks around “first,” because Compton has had chapbooks before, even one called Down Spooky, as well as editing other books, including one on gaming. As her interview with Snyder makes completely clear, she is hardly a newbie in the book world.

² This distinguishes it from the much more real phenomenon of the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s, early 1950s, from whom the SF Renaissance took its name. Allen needed some way to group all those Western poets together for his anthology, but it did not then follow that they all read one another, shared aesthetic values, or even talked.

³ As always, it’s the exception that proves the rule, Jack Hirschman being that exception.

* In Philadelphia, a rash of rapes in the Free Library a few years back shattered that particular parental myth.