Monday, July 09, 2007

In 1957, a 23-year-old Joanne Kyger arrived in San Francisco, having just graduated from UC Santa Barbara where she had studied poetry with Hugh Kenner, ready to partake of the poetry scene that had just begun to announce itself in the city that, even then, was called by its top newspaper columnist Baghdad-by-the-Bay. The legendary reading at The Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg had debuted Howl & the New American Poetry – or at least the Beat & New Western varieties of same – had their formal coming out party, had taken place the year before. It was not particularly a woman-friendly environment – only four of the 44 poets in the Allen anthology three years later were women¹ & Kyger was not among them. Undeterred – a word that would make a great title if ever she writes an autobiography – Kyger took off with Allen Ginsberg & Gary Snyder for India & Japan, came back to San Francisco where she & Fran Herndon were the only women to gain anything like equal access into the Spicer Circle, befriended John Wieners when he wrote his first great works, and then, in 1969, moved out to Bolinas on the Marin Coast north of San Francisco. Her associates in Bolinas at different times have included Phil Whalen, Robert Creeley & Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Tom Clark, Bill Berkson, Lewis MacAdams Jr., Robert Grenier, Stephen Ratcliffe and a whole host of younger Bay Area poets. The result of which is that, without ever being much of a careerist, Joanne Kyger has influenced more literary communities than perhaps any other single author. From the NY School to langpo, from Black Mountain to the Beats to more recent generations who’ve run into her during her teaching stints at Naropa, Ms. Kyger’s fingerprints are all over American poetry, and the consequences have been beneficial for virtually all concerned. Now the National Poetry Foundation has published About Now: Collected Poems, which is one of the great books of this or any other year.

A cornucopia at just under 800 pages, About Now appears to me to pretty much collect everything outside of the Japan & India journals. More than any previous volume, About Now makes evident the why of Joanne Kyger’s extraordinary impact. What is it about her writing that has proved so fruitful for so many different kinds of poetry? The answer is so very simple that Kyger announces it, literally, in the book’s title. To a degree perhaps matched only by the late Larry Eigner, Joanne Kyger is a master of the poem that what records whatever happens to be taking place right now. It’s a literary strategy that fits perfectly the Buddhist path that Kyger has taken ever since that first trip to Asia forty-six years ago. It also happens to be the closest thing imaginable to the I-did-this-I-did-that lyricism of the New York School, not that Frank O’Hara even once thought of himself as some kind of Buddhist. And Kyger’s approach similarly fits langpo’s sense that rigor (a) be real and (b) be based on life & the world rather than received habit. There is an entire theoretical discourse about immanence & absence one could spin around Kyger (Eigner as well) that would, if looked at closely, open up an entire generation of postmodern theory to the fresh air of actual practice. And Kyger makes all this look just so completely simple:

Bird family
boat going out to sea
all this
every day

Those last two lines turn out to be the title of one of Kyger’s earlier books, published by Bill Berkson’s Big Sky press back in 1975. Like the current volume, many of Kyger’s books propose a focus on just looking at what’s really there – Joanne; Trip Out and Fall Back; The Wonderful Focus of You; Going On (Kyger’s first big selected, published by Dutton some 24 years ago); Some Life; Again; As Ever – that it seems no accident that Kyger’s volume in the Charles Olson-inspired Curriculum of the Soul series, the topic she was assigned, turns out to be Phenomenological.

A second dimension, as important as the first (and something much more active in Kyger than, say, Eigner), is humor. Kyger’s not afraid of jokes, even when they take up the whole poem:


When people say they love me I tell them
Give me a loaf of bread – I loaf you!

Humor is precisely the dimension that invests depiction (& its kin description²) with personality. What Phil Whalen once characterized quite accurately as a “continuous nerve movie,” poetry without personality is rather a dull lens indeed. Consider what that cornball pun above brings to a simple equation of love with giving with the staple of bread – it invests everything with a sense of play & with goodwill. It offers boundless energy as well as a sense of forgiveness – you can be a complete dodo the people who really love you actually do. Vulnerability here is not risk. This isn’t a bad portrait of love at all in spite of all its silliness. Perhaps I should say because of all its silliness.

About Now chronicles nearly one half century of American poetry using just such simple tactics. While there are poems here that tell tales & some go on for pages (there are a couple even that border on becoming novels in the sense that Jack Spicer’s Heads of the Town Up To the Aether might be called a novel), Kyger’s exactness of vision remains her strong suit however she thinks to employ it. Consider the use of nouns & noun phrases in this three-line poem from 1995, how the first one hovers between cliché & description (that divide is, in a sense, the whole point), the second is a noun phrase that announces itself as metaphor, while the third – the door – is so matter-of-factly utilitarian & depictive that it snaps the other two into place. At least until you realize just how much of a metaphor sans ground it is as well:

The storm is upon us
Where is the wand of unawareness
Did I throw it out the door last night?

About Now is a volume on a scale with, say, the Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. If you own one, you really ought to own both, alongside of course comparable volumes from Ginsberg, Whalen, Creeley, the forthcoming Jack Spicer collected, etc. The poetry of Joanne Kyger is not only vital for an historical understanding how all these different kinds of writing fit together, it is one of the shining monuments of a generation that has given us an extraordinary amount of pleasure. Who wouldn’t want to sip from this stream?


¹ Three of them close personal friends of Robert Duncan.

² The differences between which are worth thinking about, particularly if considered in moderately literal terms.