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.


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