Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Writing of the Jonathan Greene-Thomas Merton correspondence the day after Christmas took me to my swollen bookcase of books yet to be read where I had two volumes by Greene awaiting me, Of Moment & Fault Lines, the first by Greene’s own Gnomon Press, the latter by Broadstone, the same Kentucky press that issued the Merton-Greene collection. Both are good books that felt immediately familiar, not just because I’ve been reading Greene since shortly after he graduated from Bard roughly 40 years ago, but also because he fits into a larger aesthetic that comes out of the Projectivist/Black Mountain tradition, tho less from the influence of Charles Olson or Robert Duncan & more from that of Cid Corman & a certain side of Creeley’s, the poem not just as a machine made of words, but rather a field of energy tightly contained within a relatively small space.

I’ve characterized this sort of poetry before – as when writing about Bill Deemer – as New Western, but Greene’s few months in San Francisco in the mid-1960s hardly qualify & his presence on Bob Arnold’s Vermont-based Longhouse Books website – along with the likes of both Deemer & Corman – suggests a second configuration as well, a consciously rural poetics that has at the very least a passing relationship with Buddhist practice. It’s not an accident that Greene, who could easily be called a poet who still shows his roots as a student of Robert Kelly’s some four decades ago, has blurbs on the backs of these books from Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser & Robert Morgan.

One of the things these two books – and the others by Greene that I’ve read & collected over the years (Fault Lines is his 25th) – make me realize is that if I look back at all the young radical poets who came out of a Projectivist aesthetic some 35-40 years ago, Black Mountain’s equivalent of a 2nd generation, is that those who are still writing & productive – Deemer, Greene, David Gitin, Ken Irby, Tom Meyer – are those who show the greatest discipline towards the line. Many of these also have focused their writing on the short poem, which is to say that as decades pass they all seem less & less like Charles Olson, but more like one another, even tho they may not be particularly in touch.

Tom Meyer is worth looking at in this light, since when he was at Bard a few years after Greene, his writing sprawled across the page – when I first met him Tom was busy with an 800-page opus entitled A Technographic Typography that subsequently went into a drawer or incinerator somewhere (I published an excerpt in Tottels which may be the only evidence of its existence at this point). But Meyer’s work in the decades since has generally focused on shorter works – even his longpoem Coromandel is built out of tightly managed sections.

If Greene ever had a similar early Olsonian moment, I never saw it. His poems have generally always focused around a single image or idea, developed it & let it rest at that. This is “Watch”:

Time after time
the little hand
running after
the big hand
while the seconds
run circles
around them both.

This is an aesthetics of plainness, so much so that a reader might miss the pun hiding in the first line. “The Folks Near Stoney Creek” is only slightly more complicated:

They burned the siding
off the house
to keep warm.

Till you could
see them
watching TV

through the
walls that were
mostly not there.

Younger poets often find it frustrating to write a line as simple as through the, as if nothing were happening here. In fact, the same doubleness that characterized Time after time shows up in exactly this line of this poem. There is no way this poem works or even coheres without through the & setting it off this way is critical to the poem’s form, not just the three triads, but keeping the prosody here clear – the only lines that are allowed to have more than three syllables are the very first & very last.

Of Moment was published in 1998, a collection of Greene’s “Eastern-flavored” poems that one could see accompanying his selected poems, Inventions of Necessity, published that same year. In some ways, Of Moment is my favorite of Greene’s books, just because the scale of the short-short poem – anywhere from two to twelve lines – really focuses Greene’s strengths as a poet:

To the Fore

Afternoon light singles out
the sycamores on the riverbank.

Or this untitled piece, one of the longer poems in the book:

One leaf
suspended mid-air

my path

away from
the spider’s


Like “The Folks Near Stoney Creek,” this poem uses syllable counts to organize its form: the two “outer” stanzas are composed with lines of different lengths, the two middle ones are internally uniform. The whole poem is aimed, from the first, toward a last line of a single syllable that will end on the hardest of possible consonants. Formally, it’s elegant, yet the poem appears to be so simple as to seem “artless.” This is the point, really, where both Zen poetics & Objectivism come together – one could talk Greene’s writing in either terms & not be wrong.

I can imagine some poets & readers feeling impatient with this kind of writing – like, what is it doing that’s so terribly new? The answer of course is that this is exactly the wrong question. It is not only not posing that issue, it rather works from a perception of life that challenges all the underlying premises:

Living with animals,
we are always raising children,
caring for the old.

Jonathan Greene is an exacting craftsman who has never written a book I’ve seen that didn’t afford enormous pleasures – for which I’m always grateful.