Friday, June 20, 2008

STL #73: Three (Once) Young Poets

On Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer

One thing I'm not doing well in this project is reading the poems in context. Although I've been mindful of the anthology as an artifact of the 'poetry wars' of circa 1960, I tend not to think of the individual poets as existing at the time the poems were written--rather, I'm thinking of most of the poets, the ones I am familiar with at least, in the context of their careers and the poems as indicators of some single aesthetic realized over the course of a career. The thing I've been forgetting is that these guys are all young. With the exception of Charles Olson, who was fifty in 1960, and Robert Duncan (41), everyone I've written about was under 40 at the time of publication. The three men I'll be writing about today, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer, were all students at Black Mountain in the 1950s and were around 30 in 1960. In that spirit, I'll be reading their poems as the poems of young men.

Ed Dorn was 27 when he wrote "The Rick of Green Wood." I know Dorn's work fairly well. I've read his long poem Slinger two times; I also like his North Atlantic Turbine. His humor, masculine blinders, and line seem similar to Paul Blackburn's. You can see most of these qualities in "The Rick of Green Wood" which tells an anecdote of Dorn taking his daughter into the Skagit valley woods to purchase firewood for his wife. I suppose it's self-consciously mature in its dramatic situation: a man in the woods, doing business on behalf of his wife and family. During the business transaction, he literally declares his presence: "My name is Dorn, I said." His identity, still taking the traditional shape of adulthood. The poem is strangely like a folk ballad in the way an action is elaborately described but the consequences of it arenot entirely clear. Dorn is adamant that the "rick of wood" (an archaic measurement) not be green because his wife couldn't handle it: "Her back is slender/and the wood I get must not/bend her too much through the day." That seems considerate, but suggests that Dorn might be leaving her "in the november/air, in the world, that was getting colder." And who is this woodsman "Burlingame," with whom Dorn exchanges names and spends time "there in the woodyard talking/pleasantly, of the green wood and the dry"? Burlingame seems the most important person in poem, more than the wife, daughter, or Dorn himself. These questions are subtly suggestive, and the poem rich enough to nourish but not resolve them.

I also know Jonathan Williams's work fairly well, having read his thick selected Jubilant Thicket and his earlier selected An Ear in Bartrams Tree, which I quite admire.* (I bought the first New Direction paperback printing of this book a few years ago for the list price of $1.95. It had apparently been sitting on the shelf since 1972.) In a way, Williams was the James Laughlin of Black Mountain. Although he was known as a publisher of important poetry, he wrote exquisite, witty, frequently erotic poems himself. "A Little Tumescence" shows his light touch. It's not the kind of poem you can describe, so

This time, I mean it:

twice tonight!

(omne animal, always

The Hope

Triste, triste

situation, such outrageous




I always think of Williams as an old man, and in fact his aesthetic seems fully mature here at the ripe old age of 25. He's self-deprecating, off-handedly learned, and shows the finely tuned ear you'd expect of one of Zukofsky's publishers. Look at the sequence of i's, from the pair of optimist long vowels in "twice tonight" that shrivel up to a chain of short sounds that are "limp, simply." This poem may have been written by a young man, but it's not a young man's poem.

Finally, there's Joel Oppenheimer, who was only 23 when he wrote "The Bath." This is a young man's poem. Like Dorn's, it is shrouded in the mantle of maturity. It describes, from the point of view of a commanding masculine presence, "his" wife taking a bath. It's quite dated in form and content. I guess it implies a critique of the patriarchal society it portrays: "what he is most pleased about is/her continuing bathing./in his tub. in his water. wife." That quote also shows the stylistic ticks in this selection: a lack of capitalization and a bounty of sentence fragments. As far as I can determine, these are meaningless affectations of a young man.

So, there you have it. Three poems by young men: two good, one overcoming the poet's youth and the other irrelevant to age; and one bad because of the poet's youth. I guess I'm happy to be growing old, though these three men had a lot more to show for themselves when they hit 30 than I do now. Ah, well, at least I can criticize!

I hope to do more more posting for the rest of the summer, but I might take a break from my Test of Poetry. I've made it to the end of the Black Mountain section, and there's a few other things I've been meaning to write about before delving into the San Francisco section. For instance:

/reading/: a rash of fantasy novels, something I haven't done for 20+ years
/watching/: a few of the summer's superhero movies, season 3 of Entourage
/listening/: moving into the requiem form, listening to VU's Loaded repeatedly

*Gilbert Sorrentino on JW: "His extraliterary concerns include wildflowers and other flora, stories and speech patterns of Southern mountain people, jazz, classical music, baseball, and on and on. He is a wit, gentleman, bon vivant, hiker, raconteur, and discoverer of scores, if not hundreds, of artists and craftsmen of this and other centuries, minor but oftentimes brilliant people whom time and fashion have obscured... He is a unique man, one to whom everything is interesting; i.e., I cannot imagine him ever being bored by anything that is not fake."