Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In his superb little history of the New York School, Jordan Davis identified four distinct generations thereof:

Generation One: “a central group of four to seven New York School poets, several of whom studied at Harvard”

Generation Two: “a core group of four to seven poets, several of whom studied at Columbia; around central figures of the core group there gathered several dozen more poets”

Generation Three: “a core group of four to ten poets, some of whom studied at the University of Chicago, but whose main institutional affiliation was the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church”

Generation Four: “one, more or less: Joel Lewis (and he chose to remain in New Jersey)”

There is an irony or three in equating the NY School 4.0 with Joel Lewis. For one thing, Lewis is the quintessential New Jersey poet of our time, as much so as Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, David Shapiro or Joel Ceravolo were for theirs. For another, Lewis doesn’t write in what many people take to be the archetypal “New York School” manner, that adaptation of Ashbery’s methodological tics & quirks, the smooth surface & all-over allusiveness that is just a little too charming to be read as diffidence. In many respects, Lewis is an unrepentent old-school New American poet, which places his work closest to that of, say, Ed Sanders &/or Anne Waldman or even Tuli Kupferberg among writers historically identified with the NY Scene. Now all three of those poets have likewise been associated with the Beats, and Sanders also with Charles Olson’s projectivist poetics.

Of these, it’s Sanders that Lewis feels the nearest to, tho the one who is really in closest proximity, someone who ought to be taken as foundational to the New York scene (but never is), whom Lewis feels kin enough to at moments in Learning from New Jersey that this book can feel like a reincarnation, is Paul Blackburn, likewise an anthropologist of the spoken, a connoisseur of the urban, and someone whose preference is to self-present as the wit-at-the-end-of-the-bar, rather than, say, as the Gilgamesh of Hoboken or whatever.

Learning from New Jersey is a flat-out delightful book, and it will be one of my signature memories of this summer. Hearing the language as Lewis hears it, or the signage as he jots it down, is an experience of enormous satisfaction. He has a great eye & ear, and can be exceptionally subtle in how he uses these strengths. Here are he first three stanzas from the title poem:

Rogue meteorologists call it a “radium sunset” but the air
always shouts out someone’s Christian name, the braying voice
of Saint Springsteen drifts from the swirl
of tactile local daydreams.

I negotiate a Hot Texas Weiner at Libby’s – just north
of the Great Falls of the Passaic River.
“Talk as if you love truck noise,” sez the douchebag
to my left. So I fart propel myself off this tan

counter stool, clocks on the street reading
in fascistic digital output, the night-carved river slush,
ears outsized in search of a quarry & so what’s up, ghostie men?
Doc Williams boasts: “I love oncoming traffic!”

There is a joy in the specificity & clatter of the language here & it’s immediately contagious. The rattle of it jumps out at you in a phrase like “New Jersey Ashkenazic Anti-Syzygy,” the title of one of two long sequences at the heart of this book. You can get some sense of Lewis’ working method, in fact, by contrasting the poems of this section with eight earlier versions of different pieces published in Jacket no. 7, back in April, 1999. Here is “Filabustering in Seacaucus” as it appears in the book:

I sold my language
at a flea market
and the small talk here
on Paterson Plank Road
is a conception vessel
for native inertia.
I sit weightless in a bus shelter
with waffles in the pocket
and Ruth Brown
up from my i-Pod.

And as it stood ten years ago:

I bought my language
at a flea market
and the small talk here
on Paterson Plank Road
is a conception vessel
for native inertia.
I sit weightless in a bus shelter
waffles in the pocket
the prozaced Ruth Brown
in my ears

There are three substantial changes. The original “bought” – a statement as I read it of Lewis’ indebtedness to found language – becomes “sold,” which casts the poet’s presence at a flea market into a completely different light. Blues great Ruth Brown has lost her Prozac – or possibly Lewis has taken a softer line on anti-depressants over the years. Finally, the last line has gone from general to specific – branded even, with that i-Pod product placement – and taken on a harder, more complex prosody that is more typical of Lewis’ style. None of these changes, it’s worth noting, mess with the poem’s deeper mysteries, the idea of language as a “conception vessel,” a term from acupuncture, the path of the meridians, nor the idea of “waffles in the pocket” (the word with added to make it clear that waffles isn’t a verb). What are they doing there?

Lewis doesn’t pretend that these poems will change the future of verse & their modesty fits perfectly the specificity not just of location, but of sound & meaning. It’s a very Jersey book. The production has the usual flaws I associate with Talisman House – typos abound, for example (in the first passage quoted above, the last line has “Doc Williams boats” instead of “boasts”). And the design is as utilitarian as the wrong side of Newark, an aspect that is underscored by Tim Daly’s black & white photographs of the Garden State, reproduced here with none of the crispness in inking they deserve.

But the eye & ear of these poems, especially the latter, is unmistakable. The words in your mouth (it’s one of those books you just have to read aloud) rattle & pop with the best. And, looking around at what else Lewis has published, I’m conscious that these 121 pages represent just the tip of the iceberg of his writing on New Jersey. It would be terrific to watch Learning from New Jersey follow in the path of that other great (partly) Jersey book, Leaves of Grass, and just keep getting bigger, edition after edition. Then we really would get to see the great achievement that has been – and is – Joel Lewis’ verse.