Monday, January 16, 2006

When a poet dies early, in his or her twenties – as in the case of Joan Murray, Samuel Greenberg, Helena Bennett or Marc Kuykendall – several things occur. One is that the work itself goes forward as a point of light, but lacking all the other later points that might have taken place, depriving the poet & his or her readers from any sense of the arc of the writing, the ways in which it would develop. Over time, that arc becomes an important part of the writing itself: we recognize a newly discovered poem as early Plath or late Spicer, even tho those poets didn’t live long lives either, just long enough for us to get some sense of this master narrative of development, to see its signs staring out at us from any given piece of text.

But the second is that, as the work itself goes forward into history without that arc, it becomes curiously a document of time. A case in point is Samuel Greenberg, a poet who died of tuberculosis at the age of 23 in 1917. Greenberg has been included in both Larry Fagin’s & the Schneider neglectorinos lists, has been mentioned in a similar vein by John Ashbery, and is the subject of one book that sites him as a major source for Hart Crane. A fair amount of his work is available on the internet, copies of the 1947 Poems by Samuel Greenberg (with a preface by Allen Tate) aren’t that hard to get hold of, nor that expensive, and there is even a new gathering of the man’s work available from Katalanché Press. Not bad for somebody who died so very young & who was in seriously poor health during what little adult life was given to him.

A poem like “Science” shows Greenberg both to be an anticipator of American surrealism & thoroughly contained by the conventions of 19th century verse that still held sway among the School of Quietude pretty much up until 1950. It’s an odd combination, forward-looking yet completely dated:

Science! The smithy of the sea!
That bent an eels perfect glide
That shaded fennels yarrow wide
Swallowed pearls that marbled the checkered Dee!
Who poured the phantom, in love’s comely phase
And chased huge heavens within ash of thought
thus saved the human helpless outlook tide
The ships course, its fate will decide
Whether its safety - that of power hold!
In dreams of marines, legend base
That I in all wonderment doth hide
But ere thy unfolded - systemed way
Of long - long ago - hath begun and lured
Nature to thy heart - in patient wounded spirits clay.

The Katalanché edition retains Greenberg’s original spellings. Here is “Essence,” a hard title to use now without a strong sense of irony:

The opera singer softly sang
Like the pellucid birds of Australian
thicket, Anatomy's lace wrung
The cells of thousand feelings
And tastes, centigrades power
Told climates revelations
The Psycologist felt the Heart
The poets instinct slumber apart
through the parks, the Forest
Filled the air of insense pure
The paintor bent his brush
through sensations quest
Time weeps in patence duration
through scepters creat imotional risist

It’s impossible to know what percentage of this may be intentional. Yet even the cleaned-up spelling, altered punctuation (a period after thicket, a semicolon after tastes, an ellipsis after quest), standardized capitalization and transformed grammar (creat becomes creates) in the 1947 edition edited by Harold Holden & Jack McManis cannot flatten out the absolute oddness of Greenberg’s vision here, which is precisely his value.

Is Greenberg a modernist without knowing it? He seems absolutely poised between two generational views of writing, without ever fully embracing either 19th century conventionalism or a 20th century post-realism. It’s a “third way” approach to literary tradition that anticipates Jorie Graham or CD Wright by nearly 60 years (and you can see where Crane, desperate to join these two phenomena together, would have looked to Greenberg, even stolen from him).

Yet Greenberg seems thoroughly sunk into the World War I era – after all, surrealism did not grow up native in the U.S., at least not importantly so, but rather snuck in through translations from the French in the 1960s, both through Robert Bly & his immediate compatriots, James Wright being the most talented, and through the New York School, especially that strain that grew up around Ashbery & Padgett. It’s not that nobody writes “definitional” poems any more, little verse essays extrapolating from some abstract noun. But nobody writes them without at least some irony.

Had Greenberg lived a full four score years, he would have died the same year Nixon left office, months ahead of the final collapse of the comprador regime in Vietnam. It’s impossible to imagine what would have happened to his work – certainly the writing of William Carlos Williams sounded almost as stilted & arcane circa 1915, and yet by 1950 it had become the standard for a plain-spoken mode. Greenberg would have had to come to terms with Pound & Eliot, with Gertrude Stein & Joyce, with a world that went through a war far more cataclysmic than the one he knew. Just imagine what the term “science” implied by 1950!