Saturday, January 21, 2006
Really, I don’t need a degree from the
The book bar.
Friday, January 20, 2006
Alfred Starr Hamilton was on Larry Fagin’s list of Neglectorinos & I was fortunate enough to find a copy of The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton at Powell’s in Portland. I owned a copy once, but my days in the Bay Area saw lots of good books go out the door as well as come in. You can only own so many if your house is just 1,100 square feet, shared by four people. Now that I finally live somewhere that can pretty much take my book-buying jones, this must be the 100th or so book that I’ve reacquired over the past decade.
Hamilton, if he’s still alive, would be 92 these days. When The Poems was originally published by Jargon Press in 1970, Hamilton was living in a rooming house in Montclair, NJ, on $1,000 per year, a family inheritance that was scheduled to run out circa 1977. The website devoted to Hamilton (see the link under his name above) lists only a couple of items more recent than my own last mention of him here in this blog. It would appear that both Joel Lewis, with whom I often agree about poetry, and John Latta, with whom I almost never agree, share my interest.
Like any isolato poet whose work comes to be known & published, Hamilton was fortunate to have run into David Ray, who seems to have recognized Hamilton’s originality immediately after receiving a submission of poems to Epoch back in 1962 or thereabouts. Ray gathered Hamilton’s writing & passed his enthusiasm along to Geoff Hewitt, who had the luck to have grown up in Montclair. Hewitt’s introduction to The Poems is true to the work & affectionate to the person, who labored at various short-term jobs before the Second World War. Hamilton served, but was dishonorably discharged after going AWOL. He serviced vending machines for awhile, but appears to have stopped work altogether in his mid-40s, living on the margins after that.
Hewitt proved prescient in ultimately putting this manuscript into the hands of Jonathan Williams, whose own sensibilities toward the aphoristic & epigrammatic are so similar. Here is Hamilton’s “Swan in June”:
The moon is a swan in June
The moon can paddle and paddle
And be the moon all night long
The following three poems, all printed upon the same page, show how Hamilton is able to take this instinct for compression in different directions:
But time that was meant to be time
Became an angel in the meantime
Time pointed the enchanted dial to time
Time walked to the barn and back
Time needed to talk to an angel
Of another kind that pointed back to time
That Cried for Slaughter
to have been pinched
in the belly by a gull
that cried for slaughter!
from a mosquito
to a frog
to have been speared
by a thirstier night angel
put the moon for the sphere
back in the tobacco jar
but some of these swollen spheres
were to have been worded by swollen angels,
yet to have been pierced by the little sword!
Fagin’s point in including Hamilton among his Neglectorinos was that we need a “new, improved selection,” which I suspect means one that incorporates some or much that was written after the Jargon Press edition of 1970, some of which Fagin himself has published in Sal Mimeo. Thinking of the recent projects of making the work of Samuel Greenberg, Joan Murray and Rosalie Moore more widely available, it strikes me that there is a need for an internet archive considerably broader (and, institutionally, more stable) even than Ubuweb to make these works permanently accessible.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
It was a sign of just how strong my reaction was to Linh Dinh’s latest book, Borderless Bodies, that when I picked up the new issue of The Poker and started reading the two poems of George Stanley that lead off the journal, they felt like echoes of Linh Dinh. Here is the second section of
We meet here, on our way
from the inside to the outside,
the outside to the inside,
in this place that is neither in nor out,
this common place give for us to use,
coming in or going out.
When my fellow tenant and I are both going out,
we are each going into the world,
into our secret lives.
When we are both coming in that is worse,
we each know the other is going to his apartment,
where he has grave duties to perform.
When one is going out and the other in,
there is a sense of irrelevancy;
this non-meeting might as well take place
outside, on the street.
There is a surrealism of the commonplace here, accentuated by the repetition of the words out & outside, which between them occur seven times in these 16 lines. The opposing figures, in, inside & into occur even more often, nine times, although they tend to disappear upon reading, a consequence of the softness of i followed by n. But beyond this one heightened aspect,
Quietness, on the other hand, is tonal, one effect among many. It’s one that I often think doesn’t get taken seriously enough, because poetry – perhaps especially within the post-avant tradition – tends to reward gauds. The number of New American poets who were essentially quiet is particularly few – it’s not how you would describe Olson nor Ginsberg nor Frank O’Hara nor Jack Spicer nor Amiri Baraka nor Kenneth Koch nor Gregory Corso etc. Creeley can be, from time to time, as can
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
In the not-quite-four-decades since Michael McClure was prosecuted for representing an act of cunnilingus at the climax of his play The Beard – Billy the Kid, as I recall, talks while he eats, an act of almost archetypal male behavior – the number of straight men who have written erotic work within the post-avant tradition has been startlingly few. Erotic writing has been the territory of women (Kathy Acker, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian) and gay men (Samuel R. Delany, Dennis Cooper), who have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of shoving the doors of Eros wide open, while their straight male counterparts have largely been silent or highly contextualized by brackets of irony (Bruce Andrews). So it comes as something of a shock to open a book whose short poems are as carefully crafted little mechanisms of language as anything you ever read by William Bronk, yet which likewise seems obsessed with the same idea as McClure that meat and flesh are intermingled paradigms. But, and this is significant, where McClure’s equation, like that of the filmmaker and performance artist Carolee Schneeman or even James Broughton, all members of that same first generation of the 1950s & ‘60s, is Dionysian, Linh Dinh views meat with far more of the butcher’s eye, or that of the food prep specialist at a burger joint:
Like male nipples, the bellybutton’s
Fairly pointless, a dumb ornament.
A cheap souvenir from a forgotten trauma.
One only misses one’s bellybutton
As one is hacked away from it.
I can imagine the reader who might argue that’s not erotic verse at all. But what about this, literally on the facing page:
My body’s like an egg, she said, and it was true.
It was certainly hard, round and smooth like an egg.
My body’s like a squid, she said, and that was also true.
Milky white with a purple underside, chewy and slippery.
My body’s like a scoop of ice cream or a pound cake.
Or this, which virtually shouts McClure’s equation:
Language and Meat
Language comes from meat. Without meat,
There’s no language. It’s too obvious.
Meaty words shaped and rolled by a meaty tongue,
Such as tender, juicy or sliced, for example, would be
Meaningless without the muscles, tendons and fat
That wrap around bones. Words such as dead, lovely,
Haggard, touch, desire or satisfaction. Further,
Everyday language is overstuffed with meat.
Don’t you slander my meat. A piece of meat,
She turned down such prime meat.
Linh Dinh is one of the most consistently surprising writers around. One can find sources & roots for his writing, explain the traces of surrealism through the presence, say, of the French in Vietnam (tho they were driven out a decade before he was born), note that he is hardly the only good or successful Vietnamese American poet, let alone the only poet to come from a working class background, yet he is not writing “about” or even “toward” nor “from” any one of these contexts so much as he is through them – they are lenses, filters, that condition his perspective on everyday life. Imagine whom any other poet with this strong a sense of form would have had to become in order to write such poetry. Ted Berrigan, for example. Berrigan shares Linh’s class background, which enables him to be as ruthless in a different way as Linh is in his. But the comparison stops there. Linh is writing straightforward poetry, but from a perspective shared by almost no one else. This kind of exile is far deeper than mere geography.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Shanna Compton has made available Poems by Joan Murray, another neglectorino who died young – in her case just shy of her 25th birthday from a heart ailment – who published a lone volume, having been awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize posthumously in 1947, some five years after her death. Having contracted rheumatic fever as a child,
You think you complain of the ugliness of people.
Meet your own bed.
Smell what you said.
Your words, unmitigated, dead,
Sink like a sun in the crass tomb beneath the steeple.
Two feet above the sand, look down
A tartan shore,
A clan, a clack, a whore,
A mobile open door,
To the dog against the tree, the brittle mugging clown.
Claws like tumbled fingers here
Stand for hands,
Minds and trends.
Thighs sprout here enough to breed the honor of your morganatic leer.
Murray’s lines are usually more regular – these could be sung to an old Dylan tune – but the quality of her choices – I used the phrase “absolute oddness” yesterday to describe Greenberg – demonstrates just how far outside the usual palette of literary phraseology she is. A more subtle & simple poem suggests that this isn’t accidental, that she understands exactly how “far out” each phrase stood:
Three mountains high:
Oh, you are a deep and marvelous blue!
It was with my palms
That I rounded out your slopes;
There was an easy calmness,
An irrelevant ease, that touched me,
and I stretched my arms and smoothed
Three mountains high.
The key term in this poem is irrelevant, an adjective completely out of context. The effect is not unlike the use of stones in a Zen garden, forming a circle & then pulling one stone visibly out of place so that the mind has to complete the effect &, in so doing, creates roundness all that much stronger.
I’ve described the poetry of Canadian Louis Dudek as reading rather the way I suspect
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
Science! The smithy of the sea!
That bent an eels perfect glide
That shaded fennels yarrow wide
Swallowed pearls that marbled the checkered
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 years, he would have died the same year Nixon left office, months ahead of the final collapse of the comprador regime in