Tuesday, April 7, 2009

STL #83: Four Beats

I'm going to cut a huge swath here and do about 45 pages and four poets at once. The Beat canon has shifted a little since the publication of the anthology. From Allen's quartert of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orvlosky you might drop K (whose gift was prose) and Orlovsky (presently more a character in Ginsberg's biography than anything else) and draw Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in from other sections. Despite criticisms and shortcomings, these Beats all have something to offer.

Of course, those offerings aren't necessarily on display here. The best writing by Jack Kerouac in this collection is the first few autobiographical sentences of his contributor's note: "After my brother died, when I was four, they tell me I began to sit motionlessly in the parlor, pale and thin, and after a few months of sorrow began to play the old Victrola and act out movies to the music." I am not a Kerouac-basher. People who shake off an adolescent admiration for On The Road tend to over-react and find his work adolescent. His style has its limits to be sure, but I've reread some of his novels with interest. Unfortunately, his cult to big enough to keep everything he ever wrote in print, including his bad poetry (and it's all bad). The thought that he wrote over 250 "choruses" of Mexico City Blues is distressing. The dozen included here don't have much to offer, and are as fatuous and mis-informed as his detractors would have it. One of the things about Kerouac that I find fascinating is that he was a Roman Catholic in continual confession, not the hip Buddhist gunning for Enlightenment as he claimed. But as he wrote in his note on poetics here, "I have trouble covering up my bullshit lies."

Ginsberg's towering achievement is unquestionably Howl and his ode to Walt Whitman "A Supermarket in California" is an American-lit anthology stand-by for its allusions, imagery, and 'discussabilty.' In his "Notes for Howl and Other Poems," he describes how his line is "one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of breath." This of course sounds a lot like the Projectivist rap promoted by Olson, except for Olson the breath represents WORK rather than thought. This difference makes sense, since Olson works his learning and sources pronouncedly than Ginsberg, who even when squirreling into Eastern or visionary traditions is much more open to inspiration and the first-thought best-thought ethos. In "A Supermarket in California," his first line/thought-breath contains Whitman, the night, and his headache--it is a reproduction of a moment in time when Walt Whitman came into his mind. When he goes "shopping for images" inside the store, enumerations sweep into his head. What is so delightful in the poem is the 'fact' that he follows Whitman through the store, follow only in his "imagination by the store detective" (when the opposite is "real".)

Less hallowed than "Supermarket" or Howl is Corso's "Marriage." As I write through these pieces, some of the hallmarks of the Beats become apparent: loose, spontaneous conglomerations of nouns jammed together in long baggy lines, gestures toward Eastern philosophy, and an a-political protest of institutions like marriage. It's a do-nothing kind of protest because it never proposes doing anything about current conditions. In "Marriage," Corso even imagines capitulating to the square institution. To not be ridiculous, the do-nothing critic must temper his critique with humor:

I see love as odd as wearing shoes

I ncver wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother

And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible

And there's maybe a girl but she's already married

And I don't like men and --

but there's got to be somebody!

Because what if I'm 60 years old and not married,

all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear

and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

The most puzzling (and least well-known) of these four Beats is Peter Orlovsky. I feel genuinely uncomfortable reading his "Second Poem." It starts off as a pleasant description of a desultory morning, seeming like a poised naivete hiding a savvy hipster. The line "like my farther/I've done flick the ashes & buts" strike one as a bit odd, but probably intentional. This momentary doubt flares up as a flurry of misspelled words ("frist of all"; a "nock on the door"; "pancaks") turns up over the next few lines. Flipping to the back biography, we read "I.Q. 90 in school, now specialized IQ in thousands." It's harder for a savant to succeed in literate art than a visual one, but the imagination can transcend traditional intelligence. But intuiting a little about his relationship with Ginsberg, the situation and execution of this poem about making a "paradise" of his "room-land" gets a little ooky. Putting that context aside, it can be read as a self-portrait of a marginal man with a powerful imagination: "My life and my room are like two huge bugs following me around the globe."

Further reading? Maybe Orlovsky, maybe Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra

STL #82: SF Omnibus

For the first time in a month, I've returned to the green pastures of STL. I was ready to dispense with the remaining SF poets, with the strong memory in mind of having completed a three part critique of Lew Welch, Richard Duerden, and Philip Lamantia and ready to write up notes on Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, and Ebbe Borregaard. Much to my surprise, I find my memory has been playing tricks on me again, since all I had on the former three was as follows:

Lew Welch is the apocryphal author of the perfect American poem "Raid kills bugs dead." His "Chicago Poem" is a hate song to the city of broad shoulders.

Duerden's "Musica No. 3" is a topologically engaging poem about a sea cave. I had to draw a sketch, but I think I understand it.

Lamantia seems to have thought he moved beyond a juvenile surrealism, but I'm not so sure. There's a poem called "Terror Conduction" with lots of words in ALL CAPS. I can't bear to go on.

But come to think of it, I don't have too much more to say (though I do like that Welch poem, especially the resolution where he decides "I'm just/going to walk away from it. Maybe/ A small part of it will die if I'm not around/feeding it anymore."). And since I'm so far behind, I've decided to deal with the last three in similarly brief fashion.

Bruce Boyd's "Venice Recalled" reads like a Projectivist (Black Mountain) poetics. He speaks of a company of poets whose speech is "only open & discursive." This company, "we who would live openly," exists at and as "the natural peripheries" of language. That credo expresses the outsider tendency (but not the self-importance) that unifies the scenes around which this book is organized (though transcends).

If Boyd is a Projectivist ex officio (am I using that correctly?), Kirby Doyle is a Beat undercover. He has the Corso reform school pedigree and his poem "Strange" has a "Howl"-esque construction of long thought-breath lines knit together with a repeated "or" beginning each line. It's a neat little period piece based on how the world is "groping about" through a dozen different similes.

Borregaard seems famous for being obscure. He has a cool name to be sure, which might in some way way bear a connection to his penchant for obscure words. The poem "Some Stories of the Beauty Wapiti" contains a fistful unusual words, from "wapiti" (a large deer) to "oleo" (margarine), "wastrel" (a dissolute), "vatrix" (unknown), "hyades" (a star cluster), and "nedda" (an Italian woman's name). His tendencies in the poems here seem to point toward a Rothenbergian ethno-poetics, which might be my next anthology test.

So if there's a lesson here, it's that categories enforced by the anthology were loose to start with and, as Allen admits, became "obviously irrelevant." But next week I'll move into a category that is still used, if not relevant: the Beats. I hope to write more regularly over the summer months, dealing with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orvlosky quickly before diving right into the New York poets.

further reading: Of these six, I'm most likely to seek out more Welch: Ring of Bone (collected) and How I Work as a Poet (essays).

STL #81: Jack Spicer

While going through the Allen anthology has introduced me to many enjoyable voices, reading Jack Spicer for the first time makes me feel I'm in the presence of something truly great. I had heard of Spicer, but this isn't what I expected. (The great stuff never is.) "Imaginary Elegies I-IV" seems to both embrace and push away the Poundian Imagist standard that undergirds so many of these poetics. Spicer said in his "Letter to Lorca" that he "would like to make poems out of real objects" like a collage artist does. But he comes out against images as such; he wanted "to make things visible rather than to make pictures out of them." Over time, things "become garbage" but poetry, by making visible, can correspond, co-respond, to the world.

"Imaginary Elegies" begins with a consideration of this correspondence. It begins "Poetry, almost blind like a camera/Is alive in sight only for a second." If poetry captures images of say a specific bird in flight, it is only "the continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying" that lets us hold it in our mind. We use "disciplined adjuncts/To the moment of sight" to make sense of our impressions. As a poet then, Spicer might write of the sun, but really would rather "praise the very tall blond boy/Who ate all my potato chips at the Red Lizard." It's the Platonic ideal that provides the center of discourse. That's all well and good--the real turn comes in the next section when he describes the moon as "God's big yellow eye remembering /What we have lost or never thought." This isn't a normal eye, not a " yellow camera. It perceives/What wasn't, what undoes, what will not happen." But, in the third stanza, "God's other eye is good and gold." This Apollo's eye is accurate and absolute as opposed to the questioning tentative Dionysiac moon-eye. The poet is to "be like God" and use these two eyes.

But the final section of the poem (and presumably the last of four elegies, though it's not clear how that works) what that injunction means, or more precisely "what I thought/When I wrote that." That thought is gone, "No realer than old/poetry." Though "Time does not finish a poem," Spicer seems to be waiting it out in this fourth stanza. The originating image that inspired this poem is far gone, all that is left is moderated by memory and language. The poem ends with a more modest directive than "Be like God." Instead, "The birds are still in flight. Believe the birds." Yet we are left with the same conundrum of the image. Is this "the Platonic pattern of birds flying" that we believe or the real birds at a real moment in time?