Saturday, August 13, 2005
It’s worth reprinting the following note for any readers not on one of the listservs to which Michael Rothenberg has sent this missive. When one realizes how many “lost” poems of Jack Spicer’s have turned up since the 1975 Collected Books, it seems likely that there must be some of Phil Whalen’s tucked away in people’s correspondence files. If you might have one, take a look. If you do have one, let Michael know. Readers who aren’t even born yet will be grateful forever.
I am working on the Complete Collected Poems of Philip Whalen and nearly done with the job. I would appreciate it if any of you, or your friends have poems by Philip Whalen from small magazines, mimeos, letters, that you think have never been published, please let me know by e-mail, and send me a photo copy at: Michael Rothenberg, 1914 Pierce St., Hollywood, FL 33020. I would appreciate any help you can give.
Friday, August 12, 2005
The brouhaha surrounding my comments regarding Amiri Baraka on Monday has been instructive. It sent me back to an interview the late Lorenzo Thomas gave to The New Journal back in 2001. Although he was somebody whom I never knew nearly as well as I wanted to, Lorenzo was someone whose judgment I trusted for some 30 years – even when I didn’t agree with him, Thomas never led me astray, but forced me to think through my own position far more carefully than I might have otherwise.
It was Thomas, for example, who first steered me toward the great work that is Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The poems of Stanford’s I’d seen in print previously were the short lyrics he’d written in college, an attempt to rein in the wild spirit of the swamp surrealist. If those were the only poems of Stanford’s you’d seen, you never would have suspected that he’d authored one of the great longpoems of the 20th century – and certainly the finest 20th century poem by a teenager. I believe that Thomas first published his review of Battlefield in Doug Messerli’s Las-Bas, and it’s been reprinted several times since. Along with Stanford’s publisher, C.D. Wright, Thomas can take a share of the credit in bringing readers to one of the great rural white poets of our time.
In the interview in The New Journal, Thomas talks about the influence of Baraka in terms that may make most of the participants in Monday’s comments stream shudder, which is precisely why these terms deserve more serious consideration. Lorenzo is discussing the influence of the
On the other hand, it is also true that my own poems are influenced as much by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery as by Amiri Baraka and Calvin Hernton. In fact, John and Amiri are the two most influential American poets - in terms of style - of the last quarter of the 20th century. Hundreds of writers have learned from them; and, of course, different people may be attuned to learning different things from them. In my case, I think what I learned from Ashbery reinforced what I learned from Wallace Stevens and both Ashbery and Baraka reinforced what I found interesting about the colloquial language that I found in Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg. And, of course, it is a fact that Hughes learned something from Sandburg, too. I guess that is how poetic influence connects you to tradition. But in this sense I am not suggesting that tradition is a readymade thing.
Baraka, Thomas notes, “was the only African American writer included in [the Donald Allen] anthology - which … says something about American literary history. But, ” and this where I always find Thomas so illuminating, “there was another important anthology published around the same time: Beyond the Blues, edited by Rosey Pool. That book, published in
It’s a provocative position & Thomas doesn’t have all of his facts exactly right – Tom Dent is not included in the book. But this 1962 volume, published as a mass market paperback by The Hand and Flower Press of Lympne Kent, does contain 56 poets, including LeRoi Jones (as Baraka was then known) and Ted Joans, one poet who could easily have been incorporated into the Allen anthology¹. At just 188 pages, Beyond the Blues doesn’t give its contributors a lot of room to stretch – Jones & Joans are represented by two short poems apiece. In the Allen, Jones has seven.
Interestingly, neither of the two poems – “The End of Man is His Beauty” & “A Poem for Democrats” – is reprinted in Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, the 1979 Morrow Quill collection. Three of the seven from the Allen anthology – “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note,” “In Memory of Radio,” & “The Turncoat” – made it into Selected Poetry. Transbluesency, Baraka’s 1995 selected published by Marsilio, includes two of the pieces that made it from the Allen into Selected Poetry, dropping “The Turncoat,” but adding two additional poems from the seven in the Allen, “Way Out West” & “To a Publisher . . . cutout.” Further, one of the two pieces in Beyond the Blues is reprinted in Transbluesency, “A Poem for Democrats.” This heavier representation from Jones’ earlier works in general in Transbluesency might be explained, at least in part, by the presence of an outside editor, Paul Vangelisti.
The Transbluesency selection suggests a reading in which a major member of the New American Poets rejects his old approach to verse, abandoning his slave name to boot, in favor of a black nationalist populism that has continued in Amiri Baraka’s poetry to this day. As I tried to suggest Monday, I think that’s a white reading of Baraka’s career, and thus fundamentally a misreading. While Baraka was unquestionably one of the great talents of the New Americans, the titles listed in the previous paragraph reverberate with echoes of his influences, including Frank O’Hara (“In Memory…” & even “Preface…”), Charles Olson (“The End of Man…”), John Wieners (“A Poem for …” a model title that Baraka will go on to use over & over, substituting only the last word or phrase), and Edward Dorn (“Way Out West”). Talented as LeRoi Jones undoubtedly was, he was also one of the most derivative of the New American poets (equaled perhaps only by Ron Loewinsohn’s channeling of William Carlos Williams).
In the talk in Mixed Blood, Baraka himself suggests a reading in which the transition is less of a rejection – tho he admittedly uses the word “split” himself – than it is a matter of personal growth. Just as Ed Dorn found it untenable to be Olson writ small beyond, say, North Atlantic Turbine, Jones/Baraka found it impossible to be the living embodiment of the entire Allen anthology & found out who he was when he finally moved beyond echoing his friends & elders. A pretty normal story for any young poet, actually.
Interestingly, Rosey Pool, the editor of Beyond the Blues, was given to foregrounding black populism. A Dutch national who had once been the teacher of Anne Frank, Pool discovered African American literature while writing on then contemporary American poetry while in college and, as the book jacket for Beyond the Blues puts it in classic 1950’s blurb-speak, “This was the beginning of a life-long interest in the poetic self-expression of
Both of Jones’ poems can be read in such populist terms, even as the biographical paragraph that precedes them includes the following quote:
Ambitions? To write beautiful poems full of mystical sociology and abstract politics.
Hardly the agenda we associate with the mature Baraka. Indeed, if we look at the first of the two poems in Blues, “The End of Man is His Beauty,” the Olsonian lyricist we discover is hardly a mature poet at all:
which proves but
to my disorder.
Your world shakes
beneath your shape.
The single shadow
like a live tree
are like clouds
at whose love faith moves
as a dark and
They speak of singing who
have never heard song; of living
whose deaths are legends
for their kind.
gathered in wet fingers
at the top of its stalk.
— They have passed
whom you thought your lovers
In this perfect quiet, my friend,
are not unlike
The clichés in this piece are comically preposterous. “They speak of singing who / have never heard song,” is my favorite, sort of a literary Ed Wood moment. It’s worth noting this precisely to get beyond the idea that Baraka never used a cliché until he began to focus on writing within a black nationalist frame of reference. I would, in fact, argue rather the opposite. The heavy use of popcult references in Baraka’s later poetry represents a grounding of this same impulse in something much closer to the actual lives of his primary audience. Instead of simply figuring a certain self-important pose as it does here, cliché in Baraka’s later work serves a purpose.
One of its functions – maybe even the most important – is to divide the audience. Those readers who are trained to cringe at a passage like the following –
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the
And all the good people iced,
tortured , assassinated, vanished
Who got rich from
Who cut off peoples hands in the
Who invented Aids Who put the germs
In the Indians' blankets
Who thought up "The Trail of Tears"
Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
Who got Sharon back in Power
Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo,
Chiang kai Chek who WHO W H O/
– are concerned with depth, specificity & personal insight, all elements manifestly rejected by a poem like “Somebody Blew Up America.” So here is Lorenzo Thomas, who could write the
John [Ashbery] and Amiri [Baraka] are the two most influential American poets - in terms of style - of the last quarter of the 20th century.
I might disagree with Thomas’ assertion here – I would argue that Robert Creeley, Judy Grahn & Jack Spicer have had equally profound roles in shaping the verse we have today – but I don’t think that I – or you – can discount the claim being made. Part of which is that it’s NOT the early Olsonian LeRoi Jones whom Thomas thinks is so influential, but precisely the generator of such consciously flattened discourses as “Somebody Blew Up….” This has serious consequences for thinking through what poetry is, where it’s centered in society & how it constitutes meaning & discourse. And I don’t see how you can confront those issues by reading Baraka as the New American who went wrong.
¹ Tho Steve Jonas & Bob Kaufman, who likewise might have been in the Allen anthology with only the slightest shift in editorial focus, are omitted from Beyond the Blues as well.
Thursday, August 11, 2005
I knew, within maybe five minutes of first meeting Mary Burger at Naropa in 1994, that I was in the presence of a brilliant & completely original human being, who really didn’t need any help from me in becoming a great writer – she just needed to be herself. My advice to her consisted of telling her that she should move to the Bay Area, where her originality would fit right in & not be perceived as strange or dangerous, and giving her the address of Kevin Killian & Dodie Bellamy. That may be some of the best “teaching” I ever did.
Now Mary has proved me right by writing what is flat out the best novel I've read to come out of the new writing since.... Well, you’d have to go back to Kathy Acker & Jack Kerouac to find another performance on such a high level. Sonny is a novella, really, just 95 pages long, with fair amounts of white space on every page, since it’s told in paragraphs that are units unto themselves, ranging in length from short to very very short.
It consists of two parallel tales, one that of a large family one of whose older children heads out west, toward Vegas, after which he is mostly out of contact with the clan. For the younger children, he functions as much as a mystery as a presence. The second story, particularly apt this past week, is that of the Manhattan Project itself, and of the community of scientists, most of them Jewish, all of them cosmopolitan sophisticates, suddenly dropped like aliens from outer space onto a dot in the desert called Los Alamos, New Mexico. There they construct something not unlike the sun & are confronted by the terrible recognition that their intellectual games can have world-changing consequences for the entire planet.
With its microparagraphs, reading Sonny feels like going through a book of old, still photographs, tableaux that by themselves present images of posed life, but which collectively create a portrait of incredible richness – if you can use that phrase to characterize a world defined by barrenness, absence & loss.
There are moments, instants, where Sonny feels like a work “predicted” by the writing of David Markson, Don DeLillo (especially the desert sections of Underworld) & Carole Maso, yet where Markson & Maso construct works that function like arrows, moving ever progressively toward a conclusion that feels like a bullseye (or, possibly, a trap), Sonny opens out & is more comfortable with the indeterminacy of its implications. In this sense, it’s less of a performance and a far more human book than these other authors tend to produce. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the one moment of true gore in Sonny is not atomic, but rather the simple farmyard act of skinning a rabbit, described in almost clinical detail.
Mary Burger’s poetry has always had elements of the fictive about it. She has been part of the Narrativity project and is the current editor of Second Story Books (which may or may not be a descendant of the old Second Story Books of Buffalo, an early publisher of such authors as Acker & Laurie
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Annie Finch can’t be a new formalist, precisely because she’s passionate both about the new and about form. She is also one of the great risk-takers in contemporary poetry, right up there with Lee Ann Brown & Bernadette Mayer in her willingness to completely shatter our expectations as readers. Back on June 8, I looked at a note Jennifer Moxley uses as a postscript to her own fabulous collection Often Capital,
What one sees here is the trace of Moxley unfolding the public life of her poetry every bit as if it were the sequencing of a narrative.
Moxley wants people to read Often Capital, but she also wants them to understand where it fits into the larger arc of her work, not as the newest work, but as “early.” Finch echoes this strategy in part through an introduction to new book, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, explaining that it originally was composed in 1980 & ’81, but Finch’s note echoes Moxley’s only in part.¹ Often Capital, for example, can be read as predicting Moxley’s subsequent development as a poet without forcing the reader to radically re-orient his or her understanding of that poetry. The Encyclopedia of
The easiest way to describe The Encyclopedia of Scotland is as an attempt to thrust one’s poetry in all directions, directed largely by the sensual pleasures of language itself. As such, it bears a distant kinship with a number of disparate works, including those of Mina Loy & even the Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, Bob Brown & Bern Porter, Lee Ann Brown’s ventures into the ballad, Robert Duncan’s Stein imitations of the early 1950s, and, perhaps most closely, the ludic verse of the late Lynn Lonidier. Not, as I said, your typical new formalist fare.
Thus, for example, this passage from “Recessional,” which I quote in part because the text is all rightside up & none of it is drawn, making it citable for html.
Left these hills
Left the green hills to the night-time,
Left these hills
Left them for another
Left these hills
Left them a harmonica
Howling at the ocean
Left them green
but I am there, chinning the windowsill,
I call from the doors,
I meet in the walls
I laugh on the sills,
I dance on these hills
Woke up this morning
with lake water on my toes
with clouds on my fingers
I woke up and arose,
and I row,
and I row,
and I row.
The heart of Finch’s work, both here and in her later (read: “mature,” “formalist”) poetry is her ear. Although there are sections here that clearly qualify as visual poetry, Finch’s strengths are aural. Indeed, sound often dictates logic:
Digits will turn into finger,
and waves from our fingers dissolve into fins.
Digital time is more ink in the water,
and sometimes I wear a round watch.
Digits will turn into waves,
and waves from our fingers dissolve into fingers
We grow fins
as the poem goes on
I love my love, my love monitors everything I say,
oh my love teaches me to hesitate in the water
Your right hand is no culprit, it’s a lever in the wind.
There is, as this ode to self-pleasure attests, an impulse to the rhapsodic close to the heart of The Encyclopedia of
We haven’t had a poet so capable of combining control & excess since the young Robert Duncan.
The Encyclopedia of Scotland differs, perhaps, in the degree to which it errs on the side of excess, but fundamentally it demonstrates just how deep Finch’s commitment to language is. So it’s no surprise that her works in stricter (or, if you will, “more traditional”) forms demonstrate that same passion.
¹ Doubly intriguing is the fact that the jacket blurb to Encyclopedia is by Moxley, who reads it as anticipating “works such as Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic and Stacy Doris’ Paramour.”
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
More than a few folks have written to note that the following characterization of the participants of Breathing Fire 2 stuck in their craw:
The third is that many appear to be “contest submitters,” which in poetry is almost always a bad sign. Take away John Ashbery’s Some Trees in the Yale Younger Poets contest many decades back (Auden asked Ashbery for the manuscript, but did make a contest out of it by asking Frank O’Hara for one also) & the number of major works produced in relationship to contests is exactly nil. That’s the dirty little secret even Foetry won’t tell you: “award-winning poetry” and significant poetry are mutually exclusive categories.
What about Rukeyser, Tate, etc.? Haven’t I myself favorably reviewed some books that won awards? Doesn’t participating in the contest world serve a valuable function for poetry? What about poets living at a great remove from any literary scene? (That question came from inside the People’s Republic of
I of course had made a point of specifying works, not poets, in my little summation above – indeed, some of the most recent Yale winners have been among that series’ strongest. Tho I would probably argue that, next to Some Trees, Tate’s The Lost Pilot is the best overall book in that entire series, the proposition that it is an important book would have to demonstrate its relationship to the evolution of soft surrealism and likewise argue that soft surrealism itself constitutes an important moment in literary history, rather than just a hiccup of internationalism within the School of Quietude. One would probably also have to address why The Lost Pilot is such a realized work, while the books that would follow would prove to be relatively ragged.
But the more difficult problem than whether or not this or that counter-example might be stellar or not is what the actual function of the contest world is: to substitute an administrative social context for poetry in the place of a community one.
Communities need not be geographic – for every New York School or Spicer Circle, something like the Projectivists exists, poets who never found themselves all in one place until, some 13 years after Olson’s major essay, “Projective Verse,” they all turned up at the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963.¹ But communities are based on actual relationships. In place of this, the contest realm substitutes administrative form. (And if it does not, Foetry will be the first to let us know.)
The very first thing that is sacrificed in this transfer from community to administrative context is an actual audience. Contests have no consistent audiences, save maybe for the winners and people who want to win it next year. Name the last five Yale winners. Or any award, for that matter. Unless you’ve been plotting out your own submission, I’ll wager that it can’t be done.
On the other hand, if you should happen to be a part of a scene, whether it’s geographically based like the Lucipoets of North Carolina, ethnically constructed like new Filipino-American poetry, or coalescing around some sense of shared aesthetics like the New Brutalists out of Mills & Santa Cruz, think about the other people you actually know in your scene. What was their most recent book? If they don’t have one yet, is one on the way? Do you have a sense of their work, of who they are as person & poet? The depth of the context of such circumstances is so grounded compared with the proposition that the last five winners of the Frederick Morgan (or Agnes Starrett Lynch, or New Criterion or whatever) poetry prize constitutes a grouping of anything, even new formalists.
What makes Some Trees important is its role as the first major publication of the
Or consider the Pulitzer, an unusual case in that its winners have not necessarily set out to participate in the prize. Would Of Being Numerous been half so important a volume had it not been a part of the larger context of Objectivism? It certainly would have been a good book, but as part of the larger social context, it reverberates not only within George Oppen’s work, but in what it can show the wise reader about such disparate others as Louis Zukofsky & Basil Bunting, Carl Rakosi & Charles Reznikoff. One might go so far as to say that it is the book that demonstrates the importance of ethics as a bedrock element of all Objectivism, that which determines how those poets partook of the Pound-Williams tradition, and what makes them so different from others who came from of the same roots. This makes Of Being Numerous a far more important work than any other Pulitzer winner you can name, even those by William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder or John Ashbery. Snyder’s
At least one can say of the Pulitzer that it does have some volumes that can be spoken of on such terms. Save for Some Trees, the same is not true for any of the contest series anywhere. Indeed, to win a contest generally is to announce that one as a poet does not come from any community, that one is floundering around in search of one. But lacking any real audience of its own, how precisely does a winning volume help in this process? Maybe it will make a magazine editor think twice before sending work back unread (or, rather, read without sufficient attention) & maybe it gives one some copies to send around to the poets one wishes to construct a readership around. It’s conceivable that it could help with getting an interview for a teaching job, tho that has nothing to do with writing one’s poetry.
On top of this, for every “winner” there are many “losers” – that’s a role communities seldom have. Adding insult to injury, in many contests losers get to finance publication of the winner as well.
So, yes, I will happily concede that many decent poets have won awards, tho seldom for their best work. If they’re good and they are fortunate, these writers will go on to find the communities & contexts they are seeking – one could list Tate, Margaret Walker, Olga Broumas, Jack Gilbert & Muriel Rukeyser precisely as examples of poets who have done so. But most do not. And the question that haunts me is: has the contest process made it any easier for any of these poets? I see no evidence for that conclusion at all.
¹ There is a history of the poetry conference as a form begging to be written, and it may well be that this event was the first such occasion.
Monday, August 08, 2005
I forget – have forgotten more than once – that Amiri Baraka came from a more privileged background than I did. His mother graduated from college, he grew up in a house & family filled with books & music, especially music. He lived in a house with many generations that had some sense of rootedness in the community, especially in the black church. Baraka was filled with an education in the arts before he even went to college – there were, it would seem, expectations. He speaks of all this with a great fondness in an untitled talk, given at a Free Jazz Weekend at Penn State, transcribed & published in the first issue of Mixed Blood, an elegant little journal edited by C.S. Giscombe, William J. Harris & Jeffrey T. Nealon:
My sister and I used to dance in the summer time, in the city chorus. What I am saying is that fundamentally there was a whole possession of art as a little boy that I had. Art did not intimidate me at all. I had been art-ified from the time I was a little kid, if you understand what I mean.
Baraka’s talk amounts to an intellectual autobiography in 14 pages & it makes for fascinating reading, both for what it does say & what gets left out. He is emphatic in identifying the attraction that the New American Poets held for him precisely because they were intellectuals – the distinction he makes between Olson, O’Hara & Ginsberg & the poets of Pack-Simpson anthology (the School of Quietude crowd of that era) precisely lies in the fact that the former had some understanding of their responsibility as intellectuals while the “gray flannel” poets seemed committed only to convention.
And yet, Baraka does not structure the narrative of his evolution from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka – he does call it “My own split from that particular club” – so much as a break as a instance of continued growth on his part, especially after he’d traveled down to Cuba in 1960, during the second year of Castro’s regime, and been confronted by the ideological mask of his own seemingly apolitical nature up to that time. So that it is not the tale of Baraka, the exile from the New American Poetry (as it might be, say, for Ed Dorn, or for Denise Levertov), but rather of the man who grew up to be Amiri Baraka.
It would take a long close reading of Baraka’s comments on politics to unravel all that is being said here, and not said. Mao, for example, is not mentioned, tho Castro and Malcolm X are characterized as “my two heroes for this century.” Events are compacted in his telling & times jumbled in ways that would be fascinating to unpack. This is Baraka riffing without notes to an audience mostly of college students in one of the most denatured college environments in America, Penn State having been put literally at the geographic center of the state of Pennsylvania, so that it is four hours from the nearest major city, a huge campus in the middle of the state with the most rural people of any in the U.S.
And there are few moments to cringe to as well, such as when Baraka discusses his classmate at Howard, Toni Morrison:
One of my schoolmates was Toni Morrison. Who I thought at the time was probably the most beautiful woman in the world next to my mother. Toni Morrison was a fantastic looking woman when she was young. I don’t know if you ever seen pictures of her, but I know I used to follow her around the campus from a distance. That’s interesting, isn’t it, that these two writers growing up on the same campus, you know what I mean. And I would see her and boy, she was a fine looking woman, that Toni.
No mention of her writing or of what she may have been thinking or doing, at all. Yet, given that we have Baraka the stalker & Baraka the man who has airbrushed the rather large shadow of Mao out of the portrait of his past, this talk is an oddly generous performance. Baraka is forceful on the contribution of Irish literature, for example, on Dumas, H.G. Wells & Ray Bradbury, and on the importance of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a text that he points to as vital to his own sense of a moral center. His comments on what constitutes English are fascinating:
Americans never spoke Standard English. Americans have never spoken English. George Washington and them beat the people who spoke English and drove them out of here. Most of the white people in
The issue includes three of Baraka’s poems as well, my favorite of which is “The Intro to the Bopera: ‘The Sisyphus Syndrome,’” which is described as “For Chorus, spoken and sung.”
Part of what makes Mixed Blood work as well as it does is the ample room it gives to a relatively short roster of contributors. In addition to Baraka, the cover lists Jen Hofer, Erica Hunt, Ed Roberson & Juliana Spahr. In addition, Howard Rambsy II opens the issue with a piece describing the Free Jazz Weekend, setting a context for Baraka’s contribution. Further, several of the contributors (Hunt being the notable exception) offer both a critical and an aesthetic contribution. Roberson, for example, presents a piece on Nate Mackey. Hofer discusses politics and translation, moving all the way from Jabés to Heriberto Yepez. Spahr looks at her home in
Giscombe, Harris & Nealson have done exactly what the best editing always does – join disparate works together in ways that illuminate one another. Language poetry & Baraka’s agit prop poetics don’t sit comfortably side by side, perhaps, but both emerge from a larger tradition that has much to say to all sides of that discussion, as do Spahr & Hofer, writers whose own work may be informed by, but is radically distinct from, these older modes. Hopefully, Mixed Blood will be an annual, at least. It offers a completely fresh way of looking at a range of writing that has never looked so coherent side by side by side.
Sunday, August 07, 2005
Barbara Jane Reyes gives an interesting & even inspiring interview to the Asian American Press. I haven’t seen the book yet, but everything I read here & on the Arkipelago website makes me want to get it now. And that forthcoming Tinfish volume also.