Saturday, August 9, 2008

STL #75: Four San Franciscan Medievalists

On Helen Adam, Brother Antoninus, James Broughton, and Madeline Gleason

Moving now into the second geographical grouping of the anthology, I encounter a group of poets I am much less familiar with. Of the 13 poets in this section, I only know a handful by name and have only read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a couple of poems by Lew Welch and Philip Lamantia. What little I do know about the SF poets is through Beat connections, so I'll be interested to see how the groups diverge in the NAP. (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky get a section to themselves.) Two poets I most associate with SF, Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, aren't here--Duncan is filed under Black Mountain and Rexroth was apparently born too early (1905). So I have fewer preconceptions about this grouping than the last, so I'll have to develop a wholly new framework for reading this group. Toward that end, I'll be grouping poets together when there's a reason to. Strangely enough, the commonality I see in the first four poets of this section is, despite the group's naming as the San Francisco Renaissance, a real interest in the medieval period.

Helen Adam is only a few years older than Kenneth Rexroth, but it is probably her strong attachment to Duncan that brings her here. I don't have any tangible evidence, but I strongly suspect Duncan somehow convinced Allen to include the eccentrically medieval Adam. I've heard that Duncan would withhold his work unless he had a commensurate page count to Olson's, so perhaps he also insisted that his mentor be included. He credits her example with freeing him from the Modernist cult of style. Duncan writes that "Adam was right, passions may have voice in ballads and orders appear in fairy tales that were otherwise mute or garbled." Before coming to write this piece, I was inclined to agree with Duncan's idea but nonetheless thought that Adam's ballad seemed 'wrong.' But I'm starting to find the mysterious gaps that make a ballad like "Sir Patrick Spens" enchanting. The way that the man's fetishizing of the woman's hair somehow magically imbues it with the power to revenge her death suggests one of these deep, muted passions. While I think anachronistic forms can do the work Duncan says--heck, we're talking about print forms in the 21st century--but I doubt if I'll be spending much more time with Adam's work.

William Everson, aka Brother Antoninus, also appeals to a medieval tradition--Catholic mysticism. He modulates it through a nice variety of the nature lyric, as seen in "The South Coast." The sound pattern of this short poem prominently features long vowels, e's and a's, mostly "closed" by consonants (that is to say, the long vowels are curtailed by consonants at the end of words--like "bean" rather than "be.") Short vowels are similarly closed, with few exceptions for the nigh unavoidable "the." The effect is a very consciously articulated, clipped sound. Here's the beginning of the poem: “Salt creek mouths unflushed by the sea/And the long day shuts down.” “Sea” and “day” are two of six substantive nouns that have an open sounding, and all the rest rhyme with “sea”: three, lea, sea, He, be. Since “He” is God and the “sea” is the focus of Antoninus’s meditation, the long e is a crucial part of poem’s meaning. It’s part of the central question about the pattern Everson sees: “Whose mind conceives?” Both a and e contribute to the answer: “God makes”; “His own mind conceives…Where He, whom all declares,/Delights to make be!”

Based on this sample, the defining aspect of the San Francisco Renaissance seems to be philosophic anachronism. We next come across James Broughton, somewhat more modern in style and perspective, although his "Feathers or Lead?" seems to be an alchemical treatise at first blush. On closer inspection, it’s actually a portrait of medieval quackery haunting modern medicine. The physician, “the Devil of Remedies” locks his patient in the exam room to “claw [her (?)] belly.” Some sort of “Other” is aborted, and the speaker tears the physician apart. The speaker looks at the pile of disgorged “filth”: “Feathers or Lead?/ the dungheap cackled/and slithered out under the door.” Broughton’s poem shares in the fairy tale ordering that Duncan attributed to Adam. The meaning is in the poem but not extractable from it. It resists the intelligence successfully.

Madeline Gleason curiously combines the all the virtues of these quasi-medieval poets. “Once and Upon” exhibits Broughton's ability to modernize time-worn themes in a modern style and sensibility yet emulates Adam's commitment to tone of the the ballad tradition (though in a modern form) and also equals or surpasses Everson's finely crafted sound, with Christian overtones to boot. Here's a representative stanza:

Once and Upon

she ate the plum

and from a full mouth

disgorged the pit

into her hand

while Mother spun as she canned

peach and plum in season--

the land, holy Mother to

the plentiful fruit

Gleason's poem does more to "make it new" than Adam, yet avoids the jaded, dated hipness of Broughton. It has the mystery of language and action that might draw me back.

To read: Michael Davidson's San Francisco Renaissance. I think I consulted this book while working on my dissertation, but nothing stuck. Maybe some more Gleason and Everson.
To listen: Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance