Thursday, July 23, 2009

STL #91: ATOP II Wrap Up: Line and Lineage

I'm going to begin by quoting a paragraph I wrote at the beginning of this second Test of Poetry, written over a year ago. In it I quote the wrap of the previous test, so some of this is three-times removed:
I've decided to undertake another "test of poetry," this time over Don Allen's seminal anthology New American Poetry 1945-1960... In worrying over whether I "passed" the last test, I noticed that in my reading practices, "I accept the [Poundian] model of melopeia, judged on criteria of suitability (sound that echoes sense), vigor, and mellifluousness; phanopeia, judged by resonance [and] freshness; and logopeia, judged by aptness, pacing, and soundness. I find that my taste responds to complicated surfaces, luminous details, competing systems (frames, registers, etc), slight shifts (when I can detect them), assonance and consonance, and reserved mystery" (STL#48). In this second test, I am seeking to deepen and enrich that framework. The anthology in question is well-suited for this purpose. The poets represented in all respond in some ways to Pound's poetics (sometimes to contest or reject it, but never in ignorance of it) and the anthology was the first to include a "poetics" section (it might mark the birth of that discipline, but that's a question for other scholars.) My question for this test is "In what terms, and by what terms, should poetry be judged?" I'll coordinate between the statements on and enactments of poetry and in each post develop some key terms of my poetics.
I didn't refer back to this during the reading project, and at times I felt adrift, picking up on random qualities to harp on. But in constructing a personal aesthetic, an ongoing if not life-long project for me, following your instincts and even the happenstance created by the juxtaposition of different authors and the selection of their poems can be fruitful. Having read back over the last 22 posts (and correcting the typos I saw), I have come to realize some more things about my tastes. Writing through poetry can be very helpful. Though my mode is generally descriptive of my response as I work through the poem, pausing to articulate that reaction allows the poem to linger longer in the mind.

Many of my comments fell into the category of line or lineage. I fell into the gravity of Olson's oracular commentary on the line as the unit of the poem's energy transmission. For those who work "in the open," the line whether or not thought of a unit of breath, is the graphic reflection of the poet negotiating his or (seldom, in this sample) her materials. I was particularly interested in the line in my first posts on the Black Mountain poets (who I spent the most time on), but it continued outside that boundary as well. The work of Larry Eigner and Robin Blaser in particular brought the interface of line and energy into focus for me. Both those poets are very interested in the surface of transmission--often the physical body, especially for Eigner.

Other of my comments were oriented toward the poet's self-constructed lineages and alliances. The structure of the anthology encourages these readings. In the Preface, the very first words of the book retrace three generations at work at that moment--the late flower of Pound and Williams and H.D. Cummings, Moore and Stevens; the mature works of poets who emerged in the 30s and 40s, including Bishop, Rexroth, and Zukofsky, and the emergence of this "strong third generation" into several loose geographically defined nodes. The back matter allows space for the poets to explicitly name their inspirations and co-conspirators, though these names crop up in the verse itself too. Creeley's expression "the company" focuses the concept of self-constructed lineages for me. Though these pacts sometimes encourage the datedness that comes through (the timeless is individualistic) occasionally, they are also nourishing for the field of poetry at large. That primary metaphor of the open field where these poets work is suggestive: the company is out working in this field, but the members' individualism is easily expressed in the very openness of the field. Ultimately, the concepts line and lineage come together. If line is an attribute of "how you sound" it's also a marker of who you sound with. The project of the anthology was in part to create a new nation of poetry out of the (American) earth broken by Pound and Williams and recently tilled by Olson.

I noted a number of poets I'd like to know better. The most surprising were Paul Blackburn, and Jack Spicer, along with Eigner and Blaser. I'm also interested in the bizarre work of Orlovsky and the obscure Stuart Perkoff, though I've a feeling these last two may backfire on me. Since I've some spare time this morning, I think I'll make a card of books to look for, and perhaps report back here later.

So, what's next in the world of STL? I have notes for a few topics that I could back to and finish, I began an album of the month project that I'd like to go back to (and a backlog of topics), and I could do a round up of summer reading (before it's over). Eventually I'll do another Test, perhaps on Copper Canyon's Gift of Tongues, an old favorite. I'll try to post once a week again, starting next Tuesday.

Monday, July 20, 2009

STL #90: New American

John Wieners, Ron Loewinsohn, David Meltzer

One of the innovations of the NAP anthology, is, I believe, the inclusion of the poetics section at the end. In basing so many of my readings on these statements I reveal the assumption that they matter, that codifiable (or at least articulatable) poetics underlie individual poetic projects (and further, that poems are moments in individual poetic projects) (and further-furthermore, that "codifiable" and "articulatable" are words). Allowing only poetics of selected poets is something of a disservice (as is my recent practice of 'group readings') to the unrepresented poets, though the poetics should be deducible from the poetry. But the assumption of individual poetics reveals a main theme in this anthology and in poetry influenced by it: that a poet's work is an individual negotiation of his or her world, however defined. This individualism might be what makes this anthology American poetry "American."

The last item in the poetics section is a poem by John Wieners "From a Journal." He argues against the idea of poetry as an exalted special category of universal knowledge. His poems are only his personal "salvation," or way of knowing himself, and a reader "can do with them what he likes." What can be shared in the reading of poetry is the "different techne a man uses to make his salvation." This is why some many of the poems in from this time going forward incorporate their own poetics as subject matter, either implicitly or explicitly. Wiener's "A Poem for Painters" does. This impressive poem is a meditation on knowing the world through art, starting with the portraiture ("Our age bereft of nobility/How can our faces show it?") and concluding with his own poems (which "contain no / wild beestes, no / lady of the lack, music / of the spheres, or organ chants" but "Only the score a a man's / struggle to stay with / what is his own, what / lies within him to do.") This heroic vision of poetics is immediately undercut by the qualifier "Which is nothing" but doing so gives a existential nobility to Wiener's work.

My other theory of what makes this the anthology American its expansive geography. It's organized into geographical sections, including the Beats whose home is "on the road" in the that "holy triangle" from New York to San Francisco to Mexico City. Poetics and geography aren't necessarily unrelated. The Wiener poem I just mentioned travels from coast to coast and Ron Loewinsohn (born in the Philipines) does the same in "Insomniac Poem." The title suggests the restlessness inherent in the generation that explored the nation (and the world) as they experimented with their writing. Loewninsohn describes being "awake, alone & aware / or our own absurdity" a dour precondition similar to Wiener's that likewise led to a kind of nobility--with this awareness, "we can begin to love & to give / to clothe ourselves in the color / of the Shasta Daisy." A massive enlightenment of the world population, perhaps through poetry, would create "Two & a half billion Gods / crowning the crazy world with sainthood." Some of this generation of wanderers eventually found 'home' some place, like Loewinsohn did in San Franciso, or through some enlightenment like he describes.

The last poet in the anthology, David Meltzer, also discusses the poet's work and travels far and wide in his work. "Revelation" travels through time and space to describe a meeting of himself and the Japanese master Basho. There short poem concludes with a meta-discursive formalist gesture: "The haiku will come later. / After dinner & / a Havatampa cigar." This stanza not only fits the spirit of the haiku but the 5-7-5 form. The Hav-a-tampa cigar plant in Tampa, Fla. actually just closed a month ago. The cultural and chronological non-sequitur rattles the formal cage that he set up, and once confirming and rejecting the overloaded communion with Basho, where they drink tea, eat soup, drink beer, and smoke cigars. This sensual cluttering might either delay the clarity of the haiku or constitute it, if not both at the same time.

In this last Test on Allen's New American Poetry anthology, I feel I've finally uncovered an area for academic research: did this generation entangle open field poetics and geographical mobility in a renewed definition of American individualism?

Friday, July 17, 2009

STL # 89: Outsiders looking in and insiders looking out

Ray Bremser and LeRoi Jones

My last post mentioned the impossibility of keeping my own knowledge about the poets, including their future careers, out of my reading of the anthology. However, the fact that Mike McClure served as a hippie icon as soon as the hippies caught up with him really isn't surprising. LeRoi Jones makes a more interesting case. After establishing himself as, essentially, a New York Beat, Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka and became a Black Nationalist. However, in this selection, there's barely any hint of what you'd generally consider "Black identity." Nor does the apparatus of the anthology provide his race as a context: his bio mentioned he attended Howard and his statement of poetics begins with a question in what could be heard as black vernacular ("How you sound?") The only direct reference to race in these 7 poems is in "To a Publisher": "I ride the 14th. St. bus/ everyday... reading Hui neng/Raymond Chandler/Olson.../I have slept with almost every mediocre colored woman/On 23rd St...." This is obviously denigrating to African American women, and the line's relation to his multicultural reading list suggests severely limited interest in his own cultural heritage. The poems are reference heavy to contemporary writers, European high culture (M.A. in German lit), and pop culture. Of course, it's short-sighted to make a generalization such a small sample (he did write articles about jazz in this period) and even stupider to say that Prokofiev, Gary Snyder, or the Shadow are not part of his cultural heritage. His poem "In Memory of Radio" makes clear that he spent his formative years listening to adventure serials which still influence his work. I mean, he says as much: "Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk./At 11, Let's Pretend & we did we did & I, the poet, still do, Thank God!"The poem is based on an attachment to the hero The Shadow, who, in his secret identity of Lamont Cranston, possessed some kind of (divinity) that only he and Jack Kerouac knew about. The Shadow famously knew "what evil lurks in the hearts of men"--Jones emulates this quality and his position as an outsider who is able to formulate his own cultural identity out of the complete array of available material, picking and choosing from the 'high' and the 'low.'

That's very much the "Beat" position, which Bremser emulates in "Poem of Holy Madness." According to Bremser, the best poets of his generation include a few of the Ginsbery, Corso, Jones, and himself, so humility is not his strong suit. His poems seem to be standard issue Beatnikery, but the discourse over his cultural identity is interesting. He identifies with every conceivable category of outsider: criminals like the thrill-killer Charley Starkweather, blacklisted "traitors," prisoners on the "visionary journey out of jail," "tramps,/ and homosexual cats in drag," atheists, Jews, and especially African Americans. (He writes "give me a black / and miserable hide--and I will un-tar it!") This romanticization by white guys who "dig jazz" has become embarrassing, but that doesn't mean he didn't mean it. It is odd that Jones and Bremser both build outsider identities, but do it with different materials. In fact, Jones builds the outsider identity out of mostly insider materials--not only the references to pop culture and high culture, but in the domestic situations of scenes like watching his daughter pray in "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note." If you radically simplify things, it's as if the white Bremser is the insider looking to the outsider while Jones is the outsider looking in in order to be out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

STL #88 Sound Effects

Edward Marshall and Michael McClure

If it weren't for this project, I'm sure I'd never mention Edward Marshall and Michael McClure in the same sentence, or probably in separate sentences. Although my intention is to use the texts alone for my interpretation, I can't help but draw on my prior knowledge of the field. I've never heard of Edward Marshall, and while I know of McClure, I'm surprised by the role he's assigned here. McClure's stature has fallen while Marshall never really gained any. There are six poets in the NAP who are allotted 15 or more pages: Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Whalen, Snyder, and Michael McClure. These men (of course) are also all represented by a statement of poetics, so it is reasonable to consider them focal points in the new geography of poetry which Allen is mapping. From out vantage today, Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O'Hara, and Snyder clearly still deserve a special designation. Philip Whalen maintains a good reputation, though Snyder's old roommate now seems a less than major figure to SF Renaissance/West Coast Beats. The real odd man out to me is McClure. While not totally forgotten, he is seldom mentioned in discussions of the period. He's remembered for 60's shenanigans like his play The Beard or far out readings accompanied by Ray Manzarek.

This "test of poetry" I'm doing here is on my own sensibilities more than anything. In reading Marshall's one longish poem and the sample of McClure, I came across one passage of Marshall's that I rather admire and one in McClure's that I absolutely abhor. Marshall's "Leave the Word Alone" is a dark family narrative that I don't particularly care for, but one passage stands out. It's right justified, and although that appearance lends to the poems effect, I'm transcribing it in the traditional way for convenience:
Sometimes I hear cries and cries when I go
through the center road to the far
farm where the blueberry
bushes are high
and the upper pasture and
fields--the sheep
nose apples wither and the pears rot--
the ice house turned about and no barn
with cupola
The barn burned down to get fire insurance--
never proven.
In a poem that describes mental turmoil, which intrudes even into this landscape. I've referred before to sonic effects knitting a poem together. That happens here in maybe too pronounced ways--the echoing "far/farms" and the alliterative "blueberry bushes." But check out how that plosive /b/ turns into a /p/ and the /r/ continues through "the upper pasture and/fields--the sheep/nose apples wither and the pears rot..." and then return back to the /b/ of the "barn burned." While overall the poem sprawls, this excerpt shows excellent craft.

That touch is missing from most of McClure. The McClure passage that really rankles me floats in the middle of the page, but again...
I am on a mesa of time and space.
Writing the music of life
in words.
Hearing the round sounds of the guitar
as colors.
Feeling the touch of flesh.
Seeing the loose chaos of words
on the page.
(ultimate grace--
(Sweet Yeats and his ball of hashish.)

I won't even address the cliched diction ("space and time" "music of life" "touch of flesh"). I won't touch on the unresolved absurdity that is "!STOM - ACHE!" I won't mention the laziness of writing in sentence fragments either, but instead focus on the sonic qualities. He completely mismanages consonance. The "round sound" rhyme is cloying, and the clunky last line suggests seems to think it's doing something it isn't. The vowel sequence is cacophonous when it seems to strive for melifluity. The two long vowels and the start clash against one another, and the long /e/ is picked up awkwardly by the end of the last word. It's as if he wrote the line and thought "looks good" but didn't sound it.

The curious thing here is that McClure is one of the few poets to disavow the Pound/Williams tradition. In his poetics piece, he says he "despises" those primary influences most of the other five focal points, preferring Lawrence and Melville. Marshall, on the other hand, name checks Williams and Pound's main emissary to this anthology, Charles Olson. It could be that my modernist rearing has defined poetic competence for me. While I do seek to challenge that paradigm, the many offenses of McClure foreclose that particular path for me. Instead, I'm planning another reading test to challenge my reading practices, once I finish and analyze this one.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

STL #87: Flesh and Stone

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder writes that his poetic rhythms derive from the rhythym of the physical work he was doing at the time of writing. As a young poet, this work was "riprap," "the daily trail-crew work of picking up and placing granite stones in tight cobble patterns on hard slab." This prosody is seen described in the poem "Riprap":
"Lay down these words/Before your mind like rocks./ placed solid, by hands/In choice of place, set/Before the body of the mind /in space and time." These lines show Snyder's desire to build lines up with short, substantive words. The words are fit together by the recurring sound patterns; the last two lines of the quoted section contain the sonic key to the poem: the long i, the long a and the ahh sound of body (and rock). Snyder's craft is patient and deliberate, the kind of effort needed to build a road up a mountain.

In the longer "Myths and Texts," his rhthyms reflect the tranquility of working on a mountain look out, the occasional heave of attaching logs to tractors, and the chants of Great Basin Indians. Not that riprap in discarded: he still considers "[p]oetry a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics." We still see the careful constructed lines of "tough, simple, short words, with the complexity far beneath the surface texture. However, he also delves into more a traditionally meditative mode: "One moves continually with the consciousness/of that other, totally alien, non-human.../Attentive to the real-world flesh and stone." This phrase subtly echoes the common expression 'flesh and bone.' In Snyder, "Bones & flesh knit into the rock." John Muir is a figure in "Myths and Texts" who becomes both flesh and stone, melding with the mountain he's climbing. He describe Muir's paralyzing fear, clinging to the rock face and imagining falling into the chasm. After the fear passes, he perceives the rock in detail and his "limbs moved with a positiveness and precision" that he "seemed to have nothing at all to do" with. It is as if his flesh self did fall, and his stone self brought him up the cliff. Near the end of the sequence, there's a sort of reverse riprap. Human improvements, like the flesh's desire to know for knowledge, is not permanent. While the poet sits on his mountain lookout, he observes "It's all falling or burning--/rattle of boulders/steady dribbling of rocks down cliffs." Snyder has a comprehensive poetic that accounts for the "two sources of human knowledge--symbols and sense-impressions." Often they are the same: in the poems discussed here, he creates symbolic discourse out of the sense-impressions of labor and observations. A man can create roads that up, but the mountain will push the rocks back down-- "It's all falling or burning."

Further reading: the complete Myths and Texts

Monday, July 13, 2009

STL #86: the sun will be invisible soon (3 unlyrics)

Philip Whalen, Gilbert Sorrentino, Stuart Z. Perkoff

I hope to wrap up the present Test of Poetry on The New American Poetry in short order, by storming through the fifth and final section in groups of three or two poets. The rules of this test have been that my readings be based on the texts as presented and on the apparatus of the book itself--the authors' notes, the statements on poetics, and the organization of the book. The first four sections represent geographically-centered mid-century poetic movements: the Black Mountain group, the San Francisco poets, the wandering Beats, and the New York school. But as Allen writes in his preface, the fifth group "has no geographical definition"; they are poets "who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry." This claim of iconoclasm doesn't exactly fit the first three poets: While Philip Whalen is a well-known San Francisco poet with Buddhist leanings, Gilbert Sorrentino is a life-long Brooklynite who wouldn't fit in so well with the cosmopolitan O'Hara cabal, but the obscure Stuart Z. Perkoff fits right into the Beat sensibility. But the logic operating in the previous four sections implies that the poet's are in conversation with one another. I'm going to try to discover such a conversation among the iconoclasts, using the poetics of one as a starting point for the discussion of the group.

Whalen's "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," dedicated to San Francisco grandmaster Kenneth Rexroth, is a constructivist lyric that packs citations of sources around a recognizable lyric moment (laying on the granite mountainside in the September sun). Whalen calls his poetry "a picture or graph of a mind moving..." and also "bald-faced didacticism moving... from the particular to the general." In his own terms, he's using the lyric form for non-lyric (didactic) ends. The particular, or the originating lyric moment, is the day before his summer job as lookout ends, sunbathing nude while thinking of the words of Heraclitus, Samuel Johnson, Empedocles, his father ("Remember smart-guy there's something / Bigger something smarter than you.") and Buddha. It ends with the Buddhist mantra that is literally translated 'Go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment!' but is (sort-of) phonetically translated by Whalen as "Gate / Gate / Really gone / Into the cool. /Oh Mama!" The last two lines are a wonderful Zennish non-resolution resolution: "Like they say, 'Four times up, / Three times down.' I'm still on the mountain."

Sorrentino's "The Zoo" also frustrates typical lyric meditation within lyric form, using a much different range of reference. He draws from entomology and comic strips. The situation is "the death of the one banana / peeling beetle in the U S A" but it doesn't even flirt with the potential for bathos of the situation. Rather than operating as an elegy for the insect, half the poem describes the beetle in objective terms, while half of it compares it to the baby from Gasoline Alley, Skeezix. The unspoken context is the medium of the newspaper: no doubt Sorrentino's knowledge of the insect was provided by the same source that supplies his tongue-in-cheek frame of reference. The poem doesn't allow the moment to be an epiphanic reflection on the speaker's inner being--in the end the speaker doesn't care or even believe in any of it.

Whalen was a well-known poet. Sorrentino became well-known as a novelist. I have never heard of Stuart Z. Perkoff outside of this book. Two of his three poems here are non-starters, interesting only for being dated to sixties cliches but written in the fifties. The third transcends this hippie-ish vocabulary even as it utilizes it. "Feasts of Death, Feasts of Love" begins as a 'going up the country' pastoral, as "beautiful girls & boys" frolic in the sun. The setting turns out to be a Jewish summer camp ("off in the wisconsin woods, where there were neither jews nor cities"). The sun doesn't only warm the young bodies, but it shines a revealing light on the horrors of the Holocaust. It's yet another critique of the lyric, along Adorno's lines: how to write of the sun and youth with knowledge of genocide. The fairly long poem alternates the camps scenes with grave descriptions of the condemned "howling in the crowded boxcars / howling in the dark barracks... silent / in the furnaces." It concludes with the sun, but not the sun that dapples the boys and girls playing, but the sun that will eventually burn out.

Oddly enough, Whalen uses the same concept when talking about "the sun / Which, as I said, will disappear / Anyway it'll be invisible soon." It probably shouldn't be surprising that late poetry-- verse written long after the dominance of the form, should upend one of its traditional images. These poems all challenge the lyric form in some way. Whalen and Perkoff use it to show a mind moving to a didactic conclusion, while the mind moving in Sorrentino drains a seemingly relevant poetic trope of its potential gravity.