Monday, February 20, 2006

Of the four women included in the Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the one who has been least celebrated & least widely read has to be Madeline Gleason, the founder of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, and, in 1947, the director of the first poetry festival in the United States (where she read with William Everson, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, who had just turned 22, & Muriel Rukeyser). Ed Foster at Talisman House, one of the publishers dedicated into seeing that no good poet goes neglected, has issued a Collected Poems: 1929-1979. I’ve ordered a copy from SPD, but until it comes, the one volume of hers that I have at hand is the one that was perhaps most visible in small press book stores during the 1960s & ‘70s, Concerto for Bell and Telephone, published by Alan Brilliant’s Unicorn Press in 1967. Or at least this seems to have been the case, as Unicorn is listed on the cover and on a taped line on the cover page that covers over a “San Francisco 1966” line with no publisher listed. It’s not the only anomaly in my copy – page 6 directly faces page 11 as the signatures were collated incorrectly – I have to hop about to make certain everything is here (which, happily, it is).

Gleason’s writing in Concerto reminds me a great deal of the work of Robert Duncan’s prior to his confrontation with (and transformation by) Charles Olson. Her work in this regard has a lot in common not just with Robert, but with other members of the Berkeley Renaissance, Blaser & Spicer and Mary Fabilli, but also with that other duck who strikes as an instance of late modernism in the Western Hemisphere growing out of Yeats, the Canadian Louis Dudek. I sometimes think that, had not the New Americans stormed the scene in the 1950s, specifically Olson on the one hand, Ginsberg on the other, might not the U.S. avant scene – which was right at that moment sliding into a post-avant universe that no longer saw literary tendencies in such military analogies, but rather by communities, might not the post-avant world have developed in two lines, one following Williams on the East Coast, with an upper limit of Objectivism & lower limit of the NY School, the other on the West, following Duncan & Rexroth, with this post-Yeatsian poetics as its primary mode?

Here is the title poem of Concerto:

Bell rings.    Home.    Call home.
Ting ting for bodiless, farnear voice.
Bell rings.    Home.    Call home.
heartheart, where you are in spirit.
Ting ting tong ting.
Ring short, sharp, insistent,
wakes cat asleep near sound box.

Will you answer?
Bee buzzes
in ear.
Voice tantalizes
with tones of unbelief:
is it you?
can it be you?
where are you dear?

Bell rings.     Jangling notes float over
hydrangeas, acanthus.
Take it in the garden, on the extension.

What is there to understand?
Madam, withouten many words
I dangle my seaweed draped on rock.
Sing bell.   Ringing home.      Calling . . .
At Land’s End, sea swells
blue flush on rock’s edge;
gulls sport over water.

There was home in the sea cave
where you combed your hair;
waves wheeled up carnivals of blue green:
home is where love was born.
What is there to say?
Madam, withouten many words
If with a beck ye should me call . . .

Ting ting bodiless
farnear voice.
Is it you?
Is it you?
Where are you dear?

Here in the dark, holding the receiver.
You were once the receiver, the dial tone,
free to reach you, speak gardens to you,
bays to you; golden gate of a bay
letting in treasure. I am not your sea:
no longer flow into you. I am only a hand
holding the receiver.

Ting ting
for words
drying on
the line.
Where are you
dear, Where,

Love is a phone. Ting ting.
Calling.    Cold.     Coming.
Hear to telling.    No voice
in my eucalyptus grove.   No big bear
hug nightie-night.
Come tell me so.
                               You know!
Love is a phone.   Ting ting.

A bell rings.   Calls you home.
It is nothing to worry about.
Jack, put our your eye,
you see too much.
A bone is a bone,
not a relic.
Look, Jack, call up Esther.
A date will lift the weight
from your mind.    There’s no devil.
in the backyard.   That’s Mrs. Hunter’s
black wolfhound.   Jack, Jack, hear me?
Are you there?     Where are you Jack?

Devil, devil behind the hedge,
I watched you grow immense,
swollen with invitations to temptation,
false courtiers; lies-in-waiting.
You smacked your lips over the fallen away
who cannot find the way to
heartheart. All days without love are the
backyard devil swollen with renunciations
of love.
How to explode you!
BURST your hideous gut!

Put devil on the wire,
I’ll tell him he’s a liar.
If there were love enough
to go only half way round,
I’d let him grow large in the eye.
But there is always, always,
more than we can.

Bell rings.    Home.    Call home.
Hearthheart.    Where you are in spirit.
Ting ting   for bodiless voice.    Ting tong.
Swim back to shore, you’re too far out.
Comb your hair in the cove.
Bury devil in a backyard grave.
Madam, withouten many words,
the bell rings.                   Calls us home.

In some ways, this feels like one generation before the New Americans, even as it was written in the 1960s. And Gleason, born in 1903, was after all one year older than Louis Zukofsky – she is the oldest poet in the Allen anthology. Yet if you look at the work in that great epoch-making collection, you will note that the early poems of Robert Duncan & Jack Spicer there both feel very continuous with this – if there ever was a San Francisco Renaissance (a point on which I’m a skeptic), this clearly was it.

Both Duncan & Spicer moved on from this space, albeit in different directions, Robert towards an Olsonian view, Spicer deeply antithetical towards that. In fact, reading Gleason here with nearly four decades hindsight, I sense other correlations – people whom it would be interesting to read alongside her work – such as Theodore Roethke or John Logan (&, through Logan, his protégés, Robert Hass & Galway Kinnell). One doesn’t think of any of these poets as coming out of the New American aesthetic, but rather I think if you reach back, even prior to the modernism of Pound, to Yeats again, you would find that common ground.