How To Write A Preface

How To Write A Preface To A Posthumous Poetry Collection (Not!)

from Ode To Sunset, A Year in the Life of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan

“My only fear about what critics say about me is that they might be right,” Granahan had confessed shortly before he passed.  That was when Dick had asked Wendt to oversee the publication of the posthumous collected, maybe write a preface. UC Press had already contracted to publish it, and an honorarium had been set aside to pay for his effort.

Jane, Dick’s ex, had gone along with Granahan’s choice, saying, “Carl, I never liked you.  I don’t think that will ever change.  You brought out the worst infantile tendencies in Richard.  However he was confident in your ability to do right by him with this collection, and I respect that.”

There was also a big kerfuffle with Marguerite “Kay” Sayrah over his being appointed editor of the collected.  The compromise was Jane’s doing.  Marguerite would get to write the introduction since he was contributing the preface and determining the contents.

Needless to say, Kay’s introduction to Granahan’s collected, There’s Always Something, like her poetry, was incomprehensible.  Her ideas of what constituted the esthetic behind Granahan’s poetry were a convoluted mess of postmodern jargon and academese. The text acted as an off-putting barrier to anyone curious about but not familiar with Granahan’s work.

He had complained to Jane about it to no avail, and there was no talking to Kay because communication between her and the planet Earth was virtually nonexistent.  To him this was yet another instance of the grannyhand’s unintended consequence rearing its pointy pink head, and on top of that, the rumblings about the correctness of publishing the work of a known sexual predator.  He felt that he should somehow redeem his old friend’s reputation, but that would only call to mind his own repute for unsavory behavior.  In the end, it looked like old Dick was going to have to shoulder most of the weight with his own words.

He’d found a letter Dick had addressed to him among the box of manuscripts for the final edition.  He figured to bracket the letter for the preface with a little biographical material and praiseful assessment of Ganahan’s importance to American literature.  The letter pretty much spoke for itself. 

Dear Carl—

            Some time in the latter decades of the past century, I realized, like many of my contemporaries, that poetry, as it was written in the US, had lost its identity and consequently its efficacy in making any impact on contemporary culture.  The fractiousness of the various schools of poetics had stretched the art so thin that it became transparent, the invisible art.  Vain attempts (pun intended) were made to reinstate poetry in the pantheon of cultural darlings.  They failed because they all tried to make poetry what it was not. Attempts to redefine poetry in the modern trappings of popular entertainment or intellectual faddism missed the point. Poetry is archaic, and its appeal is to the archaic in all of us. It is the original joy of language, the play of words.

            To think that the poet is some kind of highly sensitive antenna tuned to the deepest sensibilities and secrets of the heart is a romantic notion.  The man or woman with the talent for words, the ability to string them together with lyrical fluidity is just as likely to be blind and deaf to the motives that their words reveal.  What’s to guarantee that they are not hollow instruments, an empty metal tube? Yet there is a possibility that if such a pipe is positioned in such a way that a breeze or light wind coming from the right direction might blow across one end and produce a sound that causes both awe and fear at the realization of our tenuous hold on the moment, a haunting haunted breath, and a match for the resonant frequency of being. “The unconscious cannot be civilized” as Bachelard states, hence the primitive anti-social attitude of the true artist and poet.         

            To that end, participation in the art becomes a very personal and at times private practice for those who accept this perception. If the art is invisible, then the practitioners are unseen as well.  Performing on stage, construction-(or deconstruction)-isms, or braying from the podium doesn’t amount to a blip on the culture radar.  Invisible is as invisible does.  Even as I write this, the paper crinkles smugly and the ink giggles that I have not abandoned my conviction that the work alone should be judged, not the mitigating influence of the writer as salesperson.

            If poets and their milieu are essentially non-existent to a large part of the public to the point of being obscure—this applies to some of the best and better known writers of the day—then imagine what it means to be obscure and nonexistent to that set. The poetry pie is very small, a tart in fact.  Some will never even taste a crumb. And they are the most vulnerable, ripe pickings for all kinds of products and scams from workshops to self-publishing to poetry apps. Poetry is a gated community with a surplus of gatekeepers.

            The role of the poet in this country has been relegated to teaching at a college or university while writing innocuous verse and staying away from politics.  Academics are a cheap investment.  They’re happy just to have sand in their sandbox. However they are notorious about not sharing their toys. Academics poets are corporation poets, agendized by the mere fact of their employment. Today’s poet is as never before under pressure of academic attention and expectations. Consciously or not, numerous poets begin to write a type of poem that will reward the structural analysis of college and university classes.

            The other option is to belong to the marginalized majority of unaffiliated ineffectual poetizers whose sole aim appears to be at war with each other. North American poets because of their manic quest for visibility are always looking for the latest fad, diet, cause, camp, school, or program.  They are pulled in a thousand different directions at once, shredded to tatters, unable to fashion coherence if their poetic lives depended on it. The literary world, especially the poetry scene, is one of tormented and agonized beings who only contrive to exist by devouring each other, and in which every ravenous writer is the living grave of thousands of others, its self-maintenance a chain of painful deaths in which the capacity for feeling decreases with knowledge. But the guardians of language and literature, what are they but ineffectual banks trying to contain the raging unruly stream?

            It should come as no surprise that there are three classes of writers: the working class writer, the middle class writer, and the aristocrat.  Working class writers tend of be utopian while also keenly aware of convention and their abject adherence to a hackneyed ideal.  The middle class writers are the ones with the greatest interest in keeping the particle board ceiling in place and making up the rules as they go along.  Middle class writers are bifurcated into two general groupings that consist of the successful (i.e., professional) and a much larger grouping, critics (also professional) of conventional achievement.  What they inflict on each other is only amusing from the sidelines.  Those sidelines are populated by aristocrats, by nature bored, looking to dabble in a little decadence. Some write, quite well at times.  They inhabit a closed world similar to that of the working class writer but with a better view.

            The authorship of literature has pulled away from addressing an audience on any common communicative level that is not fraught with code for obviously limited consumption and the assumptions of elitism. At some point literature becomes abstruse, it leaves off the reader and becomes entirely the province of the writer and specialist as an ornate rococo that assumes the guise of the mock discursion of science employed by modern philosophers, and yet even while it advocates the equanimity of humanity, it distances itself from the rabble by its use of obfuscating language.

            True, there are still a few pockets of informed intelligence in the poetry world but most of it is unmitigated dreck, a squirming field of half formed and unrealized egos on the rotting carcass of a deathless idea that the right word or combination of words will guarantee immortality. The poetry path is a gauntlet lined with people greeting you with smiles and handshakes as you approach but backstabbing and spitefulness as you pass. So with the obvious exception of those still in the fray, shadowy narcissists that they are, poetry and poets have faded into the woodwork.             

What comes off as interesting, in the final analysis, after all my eager efforts to gauge and disseminate the worth of my writing in comparison to anyone else in the field, the adjustments and fine tuning, the practice all the while compulsive, passionate, fiercely engaged in its output within the parameters of an uncommon aesthetic, is the realization that a return to the original impulse to set words down on paper has occurred, fleshed out but essentially the same, and that, looking over my shoulder, looking over someone else’s shoulders, standing on the shoulders of others, I end up back to where I started from.

            I forget who said it originally, but I must, before I die, find some means of leaving behind the essential thing which is in me, that which cannot yet be said, a thing which is neither love nor hate nor pity nor scorn but the very breath of being, shining and coming from afar which will link to human life the immensity of the frightening, wondrous, and implacable forces of the nonhuman.

            This must be where these pages come from. The acts and events I can tell you about, and the reasons for them, are mine because I made them.  And because they made me.  What I am is that agent whose life I can tell you about.  I can tell you, and I can tell myself.  The process of self-description begins in earliest childhood and includes a good deal of fantasy from the outset.  It continues throughout life.  It is what I do, it is what I am.

            Poetry, it turns out, is not for the casual reader.  Nor is poetry knowledge.  Poetry is revelation, a revelation brought about by random language.  Poetry is now the art of reading the equations of existence, the art of being read.


Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, two novels, and an online serial fiction.  His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017)  So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018), and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required

Bill Berkson’s “Memoir In Pieces” 

When talking about Bill Berkson certain assumptions must be addressed.  That he was a quintessential New Yorker who had escaped to California and created a niche for himself among artists and writers on the “shaggy and rustic” West Coast while maintaining a certain Atlantic savoir faire.  With classic good looks and aristocrat bearing, that he was a knowledgeable esthete of impeccable taste.  That he was not of the musty academic or dyspeptic grammarian persuasion but someone attuned to the dynamic of a modernism intent on creative reassessment.  That schooled in the fashionable at his mother’s knee, as an adult he cast a discerning eye on the world of art and chose poetry.  That with Berkson there always seemed to be a plan.

Since When, the title of Bill Berkson’s 2018 “Memoir In Pieces” from Coffee House Press can be heard as a challenge to a change in circumstances as well as a question as to a specific time or starting point.  Berkson had a penchant for these pocket tropes rife with quotidian ambiguity as exampled by previous book titles: Same Here, Repeat After Me, Expect Delays, and Recent Visitors.  Expect Delays, his last poetry selection from Coffee House Press, echoes the Breton, Char, Eluard collaboration Relantir Travaux and is well reinforced by large digital signs wherever road crews are at work. Recent Visitors was appropriated from the back pages of pre-Lilly bequest Poetry Magazine.  Berkson learned to unpack the potential of seemingly bland common usage from Kenneth Koch who put him through his poetry paces at The New School in Manhattan in the 60’s.  This fondness for the stealth idiom resonant with ambiguity became one of the characteristics of Berkson’s poetry in that familiar usage belying its common meaning, the result of linguistic drift as the splice of hybridized morphemes, produced unique declarations.  But then, as this neo-Goncourtian encapsulation of scenes and episodes reveals, Berkson’s interest were not limited to literature.

The first forty pages of Since When are an autobiographical portrait of a somewhat privileged upbringing in a fashionable world of glamour and refined sensibilities, and the access it allowed to a jet stetting strata of New York society.  That sense of entrée is the key that allows Berkson to open doors for himself in search of that esthetic yet obscure object of desire, the quest for a truth in the realm of taste.   Born in Manhattan in 1939 to Seymour, a journalist and newspaper publisher, and Eleanor, a public relations professional in the highly visible fashion industry, he grew up in a home that bordered Central Park.  He attended private schools as a youngster, prep schools in the upper grades, and after a stint at Brown University found the progressive New School of Social Research in the West Village more to his liking.  And it was through his immersion in the “steam heated” downtown art scene that he received an education unavailable through academic curriculum.  As is characteristic of autodidacticism, Berkson made himself an expert.

Following the autobiographical introduction, the sideboard of collected remembrances serves up Personal Portraits, Scenes and Routines, One Hundred Women, including journal entries from his early 20’s in New York, and selected interviews.

The anecdotal portrayals recapture an awestruck deer-in-the-headlights neophyte in the world of the famous, near famous, and notorious.  “Always meet your heroes” was ostensibly Robert Creeley’s advice, and so he did.  The list includes a veritable who’s who in the contemporary world of art and literature: Abstract Expressionists (the de Koonings, Goldberg, Rivers, Mitchell, Freilicher), New York poets and painters (O’Hara, Ashbery, Denby, Berrigan, Koch, Schuyler, Brainard, Schneeman, Guston), The Beats/Black Mountain (Burroughs, Wieners, Baraka, Olson, Ginsberg). As well, there is Auden and John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Weinstein.   Philip Whalen, a poet who remains somewhat of an enigma to Berkson as he does to so many others.  And for those still interested in postwar mid-century American poetry, further anecdotal evidence of Frank O’Hara’s irreverent, flippant genius is always welcome.

One particularly poignant section dated 1999 details a visit with artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette in midsummer Maine while staying nearby with Alex and Ada Katz.  It was a visit Berkson confesses he’d wanted to make for thirty years.  After a congenial day of chat and a robust dinner and wine, Berkson and his wife, Connie, drove back to their lodgings.  The following day, returning from a hike, they were informed that “Rudy walked into the pond late last night, before dawn.”  Yvonne is “shocked but not surprised” but perhaps not more so than the reader by this tragic spike in the narrative coming on the heels of varied and rather unsurprising anecdotal portraits.

Yet the sketches are not without Berkson’s incisive insight into the world of art.  In his 2010 essay “Everyday Expressionism—Michael Goldberg and Painting in the Fifties” (revised 2016), Berkson’s keen assessment succinctly and precisely identifies the dilemma of painters and contemporary poets as well.

“The desperation tactics of first generation painters—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others—had been taken up by the next generation with more irony than angst, as well as more assurance, if only because assurance was everywhere in the air, those being peak years of Empire.  Younger painters talked the talk of existential doubt where in fact absence of faith and the ego-requisite determination to go with what one had—the intuition that a painting was there to be made and that one had the aptitude, particular as to both character and technique, to act accordingly—were givens.”  Substitute “poet” for “painter” and the proposition is just as relevant, if not more so.

The section titled Scenes and Routines collects a grab bag of impressions, remembrances, and reflections from the frivolous to the personally revealing.  Reminiscent of Jules Renard’s Journals in the cataloguing of social lights and sightings, Scenes and Routines could be subtitled “Names Keep Dropping From My Head.”  Greta Garbo, Roddy McDowell, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, are presented like the receiving line of New World royalty.  Berkson recounts being in Spoleto with Pound, John Wieners, and Charles Olson in 1965.  Meeting the eerie and spectral Jean Genet at Yale and along the banks of the Seine.  Hanging with Judy Garland at Warhol’s Factory.  And being introduced to Frank Sinatra who left him underwhelmed.  Berkson, the boyhood autograph hunter, still relishes the bright shiny radiance of celebrity, putting himself in propinquity to the leading lights.

As such, and in no half measure, Berkson’s associations are varied and legend, from house guest Liza Minnelli and the high fashion crowd to the scuffling poets and painters of the lower Eastside, all well documented with photographs of those times.  Here are Bill and his mother, Bill as a young urban sophisticate (and date), Bill of the penetrating gaze as eye candy, Bill with Kenneth Koch and Patsy Southgate, Bill with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, Bill with Frank, Bill with Frank, Bill and the nascent school of New York poets at an Easter Sunday softball outing at the park (later to be the cover of Best & Co., the first collection of the work by these poets), Bill with Willem de Kooning, Bill with Frank, Bill with Pound in Spoleto, Bill with John Wieners and John Ashbery, Bill with Philip Whalen, with Ted Berrigan, with Allan Ginsberg and the Naropa University gang, with Jim Carroll, with Joanne Kyger and Larry Fagin, with Lewis Warsh, Joe Brainard, and Kenward Elmslie, with Ron Padgett, with Bernadette Meyers, with Alex Katz, with his mother photo bombing Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at the Black & White Ball, Bill at Woodstock, and more pictures of Bill enhancing any background with Zelig-like ubiquity.

The fragmentation of this some-assembly-required, multiple-choice memoir lends itself to random accessing or browsing the table of contents, name surfing to gauge the breadth of Berkson’s social register in the world of art.  In this he is his mother’s son, as he too has an impressive rolodex of connections. But as close as he comes to revealing the full scope of his autobiography, there’s a feeling of omission, editorial or personal, of wholeness hinted at but never fully detailed.  Typical of a self-assured humility, Berkson buries his accomplishments under the persona of an affable raconteur in which everything from the monumental and historic to the most mundane has the same weight, viewed from an esthetic distance.  As an example, the suicide of Rudy Burkhardt after his visit, shockingly matter of fact in the narrative of his socializing, is dealt with the same dispassion as the whimsical raw footage of his admission to having had sex as a young man with an older woman, a film and TV actress, titillating in referring to her by initials only, but easily discovered by further reading in the memoir.

Yet to portray Berkson merely as a social butterfly would be hugely inaccurate.  Although there will always be something of Fifth Avenue privilege in his attitude, there is also an equanimity to recounting the incidentals that make a life in the thrall of the modernist ethos as its explainer and critic, gate keeper, game keeper, referee, warden, arbiter, curator, docent, teacher, and chronicler.

The convergence of art and literature is perhaps a symptom of modernism.  Early in the century the poets of Cubism were allied with those painters, followed by Surrealism and its poets and painters. In Francis Steegmuller’s Apollinaire, Poet Among The Painters (1963) he identifies Apollinaire as the modern poet who bridged cross disciplinary affiliations of art and literature. Unfortunately, he observes, most English majors have not a clue about art yet it is from their ranks that the literary ambitious arise.  The independence of the artist is attractive.  The poets choose galleries and bars over bookstores and coffee houses.  Rather than write book reviews, they write reviews of gallery shows.  The poets hang out at painters’ bars and talk about poetry although the painters never go to the coffeehouses to talk about painting.  The obsessive intellectual scrutiny of writers, poets in particular, is deemphasized among the immediacy of the visual arts coup d’œil and focus placed on the purely perceptual. As with what became the New York School, poets formed similar alliances, and while O’Hara could easily be considered the Apollinaire of late century American poetry, Berkson, as well, could be the philosophical Bergson as his name has often been mispronounced or misunderstood.

Berkson’s unobtrusive leadership in a world of esthetics unaffiliated with academics provided an outline for cross discipline literature and art.  He identified the precursors and established a network, a loose fit of poets, uptown and down, whose esthetic was a worldly pop modernism, what Brand Gooch, in his O’Hara biography, identified as “Bill’s School of New York.”  And like most blips on the esthetic radar it was way ahead of the curve but passé by the time it became popular.  As Apollinaire was to Cubism, and Breton to Surrealism, Berkson, evoking Motherwell’s declaration to the painters, was to the school of New York poets.  Berkson endowed with context a group of loosely affiliated poets who had migrated to his turf.  His social position and that of being a native son gave him a unique sense of ownership, certainly conferring on that particular swim a more cosmopolitan air. It was a case of prep school meets reform school.  Or maybe the pure products of America meet the high hysteria of the uppercrust.  Berkson admits he never completely assimilated the fashion of the downtown tee shirt poets, later known as 2nd Gen New York poets. His shirts were always collared or turtleneck.  The association of poets with the visual arts and artists, and the School of New York painters in particular, that convergence is due in large part to Berkson. And, regardless of having the nomination of this economic and cultural singularity, that post-Beat affiliation is not strictly geographic but finds itself in many regions and locales across the map of the Americano Literary landscape.

Of that movement, admittedly the most important and defining text is John Ashbery’s “Europe”, from his book of poems, The Tennis Court Oath.  In a piece of unequivocal ephemera, Berkson includes excerpts from his engagement calendar for the year 1961. And it contains a gem of hearsay. He is in Paris, with Frank, and they are having lunch with Joan Mitchell:

October 31: Hallowe’en.  Joan Mitchell lunch/ Roy Leaf & JA [John Ashbery] at Deux Magots
Note/ October 31: During lunch at Joan’s, Frank pronounces Ashbery “the foremost poet in English today.”  Joan Mitchell says “God! How I worked over that poem!” (meaning Europe).  I grunt.  Jean-Paul fixes the camera.

Even though he chose California as the place to take his Archimedean stand, Berkson would always be a New Yorker in exile with the curious expat removal from the place, belonging yet not belonging, or so his writing would indicate. In an impressionistic piece titled “Changes” he admits “The shock shortly after my sixtieth birthday, of realizing that I had slipped over the line and had spent more than half my life in California, all the while maintaining my New York credentials.” Ten years later he is at Diane di Prima’s induction as San Francisco’s poet laureate.  She looks like a perky Queen Victoria, but for her Brooklyn accent.  He remarked to her at the reception following, “The longer we stay out here, the more ‘New York’ we sound.” Berkson found on the West Coast a creative milieu as civilized but perhaps not as set in its ways as the East Coast.  Although in his element in the high octane art scene, it was ultimately the soft convergences of Pacific Rim atmospheric cycles that held him.

In his day, Berkson catalyzed a group of young poets defined by a time and place, marshalling a second generation to spotlight the accomplishments of the first generation.  Some of the great later poems by Frank O’Hara found their inspiration in Berkson’s bourgeois insouciance.  What he memorializes in Since When is a time past, a window on a homogeneous art world of poets and painters.  Yet all that is history now that the English majors have retaken the ramparts, and they are famously ambivalent, even hostile, to the visual arts.

Berkson’s anecdotal highlights map out a life as impressive as the times which he chronicled and includes wives, children, travel, altered states, sexual encounters, marginal gossip, and even, in his sixties, a lung transplant.  He grew up in a fashionable world with a sense of decorum that never left him, reserved and sophisticated. Through it all he passed with a certain sober equanimity, clear eyed to his sense of place in the world, especially that of art and literature. Bill was proud that he could be equally comfortable with the natives as well as the society swells remarking that he was the only one he knew of his generation that had been at Woodstock as well as Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.  He attained personal equilibrium in July of 2016.

Since When, A Memoir In Pieces by Bill Berkson,
Coffee House Press, November 2018, 288 pages, $17.95 (paper)

Submitted to the membership by the Parole Officer
11/4/2018


Further Reading:

Portrait And Dream, New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press, 2009
Expect Delays (poems), Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press, 2014
The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003, Bill Berkson, Qua Books, 2003
New York Painters & Poets; Neon In Daylight,  Jenni Quilter, Bill Berkson, Advisory Editor (with Larry Fagin), Rizzoli, 2014

 

 

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Poetry Is A Crowded Room

Poetry Is A Crowded Room

Attending the Cirque De Penumbroi, a poetry happening in the partially demolished Reed Hotel south of Market, Carl Wendt, last of the hardboiled vigilante poets, is guided to the performer’s facilities on the second floor by Allie Gary, a tall blond explainer dressed in a flight attendant’s uniform impersonating the Muse.

from Ode To Sunset, A Year in The Life of American Genius,
a fiction by Pat Nolan


SEEDY REEDY TEMPOn the second floor, doors and door jambs stood unattached.  Outside walls were bared to brick where some clumps of lath and plaster clung like unintentional art.  Interior walls stood alone, skeletal in part, demarking where rooms and hallways had once been enclosed.  A combination of rooms formed a larger suite lit by natural light from windows, many with casements missing, banks of led lights, and large raggedy cloud shaped holes in the ceiling revealing the partially naked interior structure of brick and girders of the floor above open to the elements. A fair representation of performers milled about in the ambient noise of their social interaction, waiting to go on, and as well those who had already used their allotted time and were now making themselves stupider with drink and drugs.

A widescreen TV offered the image of Yuri Khasid.  Bands of pixilated noise broke up his features at regular intervals, interrupting the illusion of presence.  His voice was a blurry buzz with a Russian accent.  He had shaved his head and wore a monocle, the dark shadows of his trademark leather Gestapo trench coat readily identifiable.  He was in hiding disguised as Max Jacob dressed like Fantomas.  Unless his pursuers were familiar with obscure early 20th Century French poets or French pulp villains of that era, his was a perfect masquerade.

Allie pointed down at what had once been a hallway to the door at the end.  “Through there and make a right.”

“I thank you, my bladder thanks you.  Don’t go away, I’ll be right back.”  The sex option appeared to be the winner.  Over her shoulder he caught a glimpse of Igor, the tech savant in orange Converse prowling around the wires near the TV with a lap top.  He’d only ever seen him in the company of Kay Syrah and he knew that she would never deign to be a party to this party.  He was wearing a black IFIRP tee shirt with the slogan Take Back The Word!

In fact, Wendt didn’t think he’d meet anyone he knew at this shindig, yet here was Ray Panta, plumber turned poet, author of Shit Flows Downhill and If You Stepped In It Once, You’ll Step In It Again.  Ray was exiting the door Wendt was about to enter.

“Hey Wendt, they add you to the bill?”  And as if his question had been answered by Wendt’s non-committal expression, “A lot of people bailed when they saw the condition of this place.  Not to mention that they have to recite their poems through a bullhorn.”

“Yeah,” Wendt agreed, “Not a lot of bullhorn poetry being written these days.  I think that went away with the 60’s.  Now there’s rap.  Who needs a bullhorn when you can be on the radio, right?”

“Yeah, well, whatever you do, don’t flush!”

“Whadyamean?”

“Problem with the plumbing.  It’s complicated.  I had to jerry rig something to keep the shit flowing.  Who else was gonna do it?” He glanced at his hands wrinkling his nose.  “Now I gotta go find some place to wash these.  Let that be a lesson to you, Wendt.  You can’t escape your past.  Once a plumber, always a plumber.”

Wendt made to pass through the door.

“And remember, don’t flush!”

The room was not empty. A clump of people grouped around a tall skinny man who spoke in a low resonant drone.  Wendt frowned at them thinking that it might be another line, but no, to his right was a door upon which someone had drawn a circle with uterine cross and phallic arrow combined.  Wendt tried the knob. “Ocupido!” a weak voice claimed.  Of course.

He didn’t have much choice but to focus on the assembled and the man addressing them.  He recognized him now, Regent Snore, also known as the Black Finn and sometimes the Whispering Finn, for his barely audible sandpaper rasp. He was an old philosopher poet, wire whisk of waist length hair and matching beard to his chest, famous for his ‘seven chakras of poetry’ theory. He spoke around his sole remaining tooth as if in italics and Wendt had to tilt his head to the right to make out what he was saying.

“. . .sentimental naturalism governed by hard facts and brass tacks, reactive, in the grim grip of ignorance, the dull zeal of simple being—here I am here I stay.”  The old poet held up two fingers and scanned the attention level of his audience like a practiced mesmerist. “A pathological obsession with sex, the body, and all its functions.  The purpose is sexual conquest through the clever device of double entendre. . . .”  He spoke the phrase with the appropriate accent. “. . . saying one thing yet meaning another as the dual violation of mind and body in a masturbatory cycle of desire and regret.”  Now with three fingers, “The will to power, to dominate and conquer, through ruthless pathological vengeance by any means, including sex, human sacrifice, psychic cruelty, in the annihilation of the other.  Self-conscious self-righteous goal oriented competitive predator.”  The one tooth managed a knowing smile. He held up a hand, fingers splayed, thumb tucked into the palm. “Freedom, the sound of one hand clapping, the hum of the void, of singular unity.  I am not you, this is not that, dream state in which the poet is unaware of his creation.  Self-illuminating, the now, the undifferentiated consciousness, the stem cell of being, the silence that is before, after, within, and surrounding each syllable with peace and bliss.” Then the arresting Buddha leaf hand and a brow of seriousness. “The point of no return, eternal childlike innocence, non-judgmental acceptance of the illusory nature of poetry.  Shout loudly many pleasing and displeasing words and observe their pleasurable and unpleasant effects and realize that all words are as illusory as echoes in a dark cavern.” Then joined by the thumb of the other hand. “The state of continual poetic awareness.  Yet where there is me there it is.  Poetry is love and those who love poetry are poetry as poetry loves them.  The poet as poetry has nothing in common with anything and is nothing to anyone.” With an intake of breath to emphasize the fullness of his body, the glow of which he seemed to want to emanate, “A bath of light in which there is no membrane separating the poet from the poetic.  Yet this is voicelessness, a divine aphasia in which words are unnecessary and the poet is one with poetry.  A poet is poetry’s way of making a poem and a poem is a poet’s way of making poetry and poetry is a poem’s way of making a poet. . . .”

There was more but the door opened and Marci Duchamp, author of Round Trip, in a very skimpy outfit and peroxide fright wig that looked like an explosion in a shingle factory stood on the threshold trying to decide which foot to put forward.  Her face was as white as a boiled sheet.

“You ok?” Wendt offered.

She looked at him with large unfocused red rimmed mascara spider eyes.  “Yeah, something I ate.  Or drank.  Or smoked.”

“Ok, as long as you’re ok,” and squeezed past her.

A gray tarp hung over the opening along an outside wall missing halfway down where the tub or shower had been and shifted alarmingly in gusts of wind from off the Bay.  On the back wall a large hand written sign said Do Not Flush.  Another sign with an arrow pointing at the commode read Shit.  Wendt didn’t have to get any closer to believe the truth of what it said.  Another sign above the shower drain said Piss with an arrow pointing to the little lake of urine in the depression in the floor.

Wendt stood at its shore and gazed down at the space between the tarp and the half wall of obviously unstable masonry and thought why not.  He let go a high arc to splash and dribble against the tarp and gather at the gray edge before raining down the side of the building.  He heard shouts and craned his neck to look over the edge.  He was directly above the line to the porta-potties in the alleyway.

Jimmy Price, author of Regards & Regrets, was next in the line that had formed. He didn’t recognize the woman behind him, and was relieved that Price didn’t recognize him, especially after the unfavorable rating he had given his selected poems in the best and the worst poetry book ranking in his Poetry Month column.  That had been a few years back, but as he knew from past experience, poets have short attention spans but very long memories.

Back in the hubbub where street poets mingled cheek and jowl with pretentious literati, Wendt recognized P.J. Maas, poet laureate of Daly City.  Patty Jane looked like she was wondering why she was there, a pink chiffon scarf tied loosely around her neck, tasteful gold earrings and frosted curls to match.  Maybe it was the business attire and the rigor of her pale red lipsticked smile that radiated her discomfort like a beacon.  That and the fact that she was being ignored by the elite little clusters that congealed at these kinds of affairs.  He looked around for the Viking flight attendant.  He had become very interested in getting over his fear of flying and wanted to arrange for lessons.

She was holding forth in front of a camera.  She caught his look and smiling came to stand at his side when she was done.  “What are you so smug about?”

“I just couldn’t help but notice the startling similarity of this gathering to the nine circles of poetry hell. They’re all here, the back-stabbers, the frauds, the psychopaths, the deluded, the angry, the envious, the excessive, the horny, the waiters.”

“Waiters?”

“Not food servers. I mean those waiting in line for their turn at the brass poetry ring. As Ted Berrigan was supposed to have said, ‘American poets think you wait in line to get famous.’”

“I don’t think I follow you.”

“Being a poet is like playing the lottery, but obsessively so, and hoping for the big score that will set you up for life.  Otherwise you can find yourself on the trading floor and sweating the rise and fall of your literary stock. Most poets who think they’ve made it are actually in a kind of limbo. They’ve seen the promise of fame and critical acclaim but will never be on the receiving end.”

“That must be discouraging.”

“It is a kind of hell. Everyone’s caught in a never-ending daisy chain circle jerk of treachery, fraud, and greed.  Lust is its own special category because it conveniently covers not only sexual obsession, but the insatiable desire for money, fame, and power.”

“You’re saying all of that is represented here, by these poets.”  Little furrows accented the space between her pale eyebrows like exclamation points.  “Don’t you think that’s a little negative?  There must be some redeeming qualities represented here.”

“You mean like altruism?”

“Sure, doing something good for its own sake.”

“First of all, altruism is often the lair of the sanctimonious spider.  Take Gilda Narrenschwann, for instance.” Wendt indicated the short lithe woman, author of Mushroom Cloud Alphabet Soup, in the peasant blouse and multi-colored ankle length skirt made from old cravats talking with Mandy Airhat, author of The Crimson Cap, a long poem with Freudian overtones, also about mushrooms. “She claims to be a poet of ecstatic vision. Now you might think from talking to her or reading her poems that she’s a goody two-shoes from all that syrupy politically correct sentiment she gushes as the wishful thinking of an enlightened naiveté.  She’s actually a two-faced bitch and if you don’t fall in line with her way of thinking you are obviously subhuman and will be eliminated from existence in her rosy universe.”

“Sounds like you’ve had some personal experience.”

Wendt had a yen for a cigarette but obviously it was a smoke free environment though certainly not dust free or drug free or alcohol free.  “Ah, that whole holier-than-thou earth mother routine gets old after a while, especially when you realize that she’s just as self-serving as anyone else and not the least bit shy about self-promotion.”

“You must know everyone here.”

Wendt scanned the room.  “Surprisingly, I do.” With that admission came an unease, until then dormant, that somehow he was out of the loop, that he had not been included in the festivities, such as they were, as the most visible flaneur poet of the city’s bohemian culture, that his hipness and savoir faire were a little threadbare and worse for the wear, that he was a has-been. But looking around at the clashing egos and seething aggression, did he really need to feel shabby or miffed or piqued or take umbrage or irritated or sulky or resentful or pout or chafe or fume or foam or hurt or rankled or brought down or worked up or indignant or peeved? What did Virgil say? Tantaene animis coeleatibus irae, how can so much animus reside in the minds of the gods?  Yet a shadow of doubt was evident in his consternation.

“I’ve crossed paths, and swords, with most of these poets at one time or another. Some hate me for my stature as a published, prize winning poet and critic.  Mainly as a critic.  Otherwise it’s just the usual ambivalence and envy.  I’ve attained something they wish they could, but then, as Heraclitus said, if wishes were fishes the oceans would be overpopulated and we’d all be on a sea food diet.”

“Did Heraclitus really say that?”

“I’m paraphrasing.”

Samantha Bahdra, author of Yab-Yum Yum-Yum, sauntered by, a raised delicately drawn eyebrow and come-hither purse to her lips.

“Someone else you’re surprised to see?”

“Oh, Sam and I go way back.  She tries for that sacred profane Kathy Aker blood thirsty Kali priestess persona.  She’ll fuck anything on three legs—pardon my proto-Indo-European.”

Allie Gary flicked a set of polished nails.  “I know what a three legged fuck is,” and gave Wendt a meaningful look.

“She writes a sonnet for each of her liaisons but under the guise of some famous historic or literary personage.”

“What oldie but goody is she with you?”

“I’ve managed to stay out of the dustbin of her histrionics.  Otherwise I’d be just another jaded skull strung on her metaphysical necklace.”

He watched Bahdra buttonhole Gil Gamic, publisher of Inky Dew Press, a short man with a fleshy bulbous schnozzle and a hipster fedora. He was in a group of writers that included Poetry Dude Art Wrytic, author of Kayak Angst, Luce Cannon, author of Out Of Control, and the Vietnamese poet Vo Erh, author of I like To Watch.  He recognized blogger Kay Passeau among the set, a member of the Barracuda School of Poets aka the Snarkacudas. She was at the periphery of the circle talking with Harris Tottle of the successful poetry blog, Tottle Along.  Wendt really didn’t get blogging. He had to ask himself, when the world of discourse is paved over with soap boxes, what do you stand on to make yourself heard?

“Do you really think they all hate you or bear you ill will?”

Wendt examined Allie’s expressionless face to gauge if she was toying with him. “Well, to quote Pound, ‘the vendetta of imbeciles is endless.’”  He surveyed the scene. “Poetry is a crowded room. Someone’s toes are bound to get stepped on.”


Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017) and So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Bromige Immortalized!

The Immortalization Of David Bromige

by Steven Lavoie

“The Prelude”

The Immortal Broms

A year or so ago my editor, knowing well my admiration and friendship with my college poetry-writing professor, sent me up to the old stomping grounds to cover a gang-bang gathering of poets who were paying tribute to the late David Bromige as part of the annual Petaluma Poetry Festival. (As my editor was also giving a reading that same day as part of the festival, I saw this as his stealth way of adding another person to his audience since I would obviously need to attend both events.)

It seemed at the time very random to go through all the hassle of putting together the well-deserved tribute to Bromige since it was neither a round-numbered anniversary of his death (in 2009) or his birth (in 1933) or even the publication of his first collection of poetry (in 1965). But I knew by agreeing to the assignment I would also be able to get to the bottom of “why” mystery.

I did manage to make it in time to downtown Petaluma to catch my editor’s reading and we were able walk up together to the Phoenix Theater, the site of the tribute. Who should we run into but Tom Sharp who had been the Poet Boy Wonder of Petaluma High School while I held a similar position at nearby Rancho Cotate High School when Bromige embarked on his tenure track.  Sharp would go on to hold significant editorial authority over the student literary publications of Sonoma State College (it was not yet a university) where David Bromige, not yet 40 years old, had come to teach and to purloin a Gestetner mimeograph machine for the students to publish their literary magazine.  It was good to see Tom again. He and I both remembered the venue as the “California Theater” where we had both seen the same first run of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” as early teens. I was also able to quickly solve the “why” mystery. Just prior to the event, I learned through a reliable source that the tribute had been planned as a launch of the long-anticipated edition of a collected poems of David Bromige, an edition underway at the upper echelons of the language poetry combine but which by the time of that particular Petaluma Poetry Festival had not yet materialized. With no book to launch, the organizers chose to go forward, since some of the participants, notably Richard Denner, had arrived from distant places at considerable personal expense, and simply bill the event as a tribute.

It seems to me it would have been more compelling, if corny, to hold it as a Fluxus-style “happening”—a book launch with an imaginary book—with all the British satirical aplomb that Bromige embodied as a poet. But then, he really would have wanted the book.

Now that the book, If Wants To Be The Same As  Is: Essential Poems of David Bromige. (Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, Jack Krick, eds. Wiwth Introduction by George Bowering, New Star Books Vancouver, B. C. [Canada]; Point Roberts, Wash. 2018) is here in all its 624-page glory, with a “world tour” [“Always-already: The David Bromige Posthumous World Tour 2018”] to launch it, we can now historicize the random tribute at the Petaluma Poetry Festival as the prelude to the  book launch and, I’ll stand by the assertion that “prelude” would suit Bromige, too, obsessed as he was about poetic form and indoctrinated as he doubtless was in the work of both William Wordsworth & T. S. Eliot during his school days at “Habs” (Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School) in Elstree, Hertfordshire.

It turns out that I did not complete my assignment with a report at the time for this blog on the Petaluma tribute, but, as I’ve said, it was great to see Tom Sharp again and I was excited, too, to meet Denner for the first time, after enjoying his poetic antics while he held forth as a denizen of Berkeley’s former Caffè Mediterraneum.

“The Bronze”

The book was in fact on hand for what the Sonoma County press billed as “the kick off reading for the book launch tour of If Wants To Be The Same As Is—The Essential Poetry of David Bromige” scheduled for August 17, 2018 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.  So, too, were all three of the editors, the distinguished poets who would be part of the show, the master of ceremonies & “the bronze.”

For me, as did the prelude, the “real” launch helped to renew old acquaintances, in this case with both Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman. Coincidentally, I had just seen a rather curious reference to Perelman in a bit of autobiography from Andrei Codrescu, in his eulogy to Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press that had recently found its way into print [The Ultimate Actualist Convention. Cinda Kornblum, Morty Sklar, Dave Morice, eds. Queens, N. Y. The Spirit that Moves Us Press, 2017.] There we learn that Perelman was among the “Iowa poets” (during his days at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) who had appeared in videos that were used in an exhibit of “an innovative trend in the presentation of poetry” at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N. Y. in February 1973. He was listed in a press release as “Robert” Perelman. And when I expressed interest in how Silliman became a lead editor of a collection of work by David Bromige, I learned, for the first time, how greatly Bromige had influenced Silliman early on. Silliman described how as a 22-year-old college student in 1968, he’d been encouraged by a fellow student to return to the public library in Albany, Calif., the branch he frequented as a youngster, for readings by David Bromige & Harvey Bialy. Silliman confessed to being mind-blown by Bromige’s work that night. (The Ends Of The Earth, the first of Bromige’s many collections from Black Sparrow Press, had just hit the stores at the time, with some poems that could easily blow another poet’s mind at any age.) Just as Bialy would remain a good friend of Bromige’s, Silliman would remain a major fan (and he would retell the story during his turn on stage.)

That settled, the time came to converge upon the former Sebastopol “Vets” (Veterans Memorial Building) Hall with its historic status in the county’s garage rock heritage, and now serving as the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Rows of chairs were set up on the venue’s former dance floor (of what is now known as the Brent Auditorium) with a single sheet of ordinary bond paper placed carefully upon each chair bearing uninteresting sans serif, laser-printed type, to serve as the program. The handout included the names of each of the presenters that evening. But nowhere did it mention “the bronze.”

The Intrepid Vartnaw

Bill Vartnaw, who followed David Bromige by a decade to hold the distinguished title of “Poet Laureate of Sonoma County”, was the evening’s master of ceremonies (the same role he played for “the prelude.”) But he was much more than that this time. Vartnaw was Indiana Jones, revealing to a gasping audience the breath-taking discovery he had recently made in the recesses of the administrative complex of the City of Rohnert Park.

In a story that deserved far-flung attention (that Sonoma County’s much-improved local media was unable to provide), Vartnaw had during his tenure (2012-2013) as Poet Laureate learned of a long-forgotten artifact of Northern California’s powerful literary heritage, a poem cast in bronze that was originally intended to be part of the decor of the Rohnert Park-Cotati Regional Library when it opened in 2003, along with works by other poets. Vartnaw described learning of the existence of the artifact as Poet Laureate in the October 2013 Sonoma County Literary Update:

I did find some bronze poems that weren’t installed at the Rohnert Park Library. I found they had a poem, “If Wants to Be the Same,” by the late, great Sonoma County Poet Laureate, David Bromige, from his award-winning book, Desire:

The mounting excitement
as we move
step by step
of difference
off the same

if wants to be the same

the same as is

. . .after a short correspondence with Darrin Jenkins, Rohnert Park City Manager, he has decided that before we decide on how to act on all the poems, I need to show that I can install Bromige’s poem. This then is the next step. Since my term [as Poet Laureate] is almost up, I plan to continue on with this project after my term is over.

Vartnaw found a place (which just so happens to be the place that hosted the book launch) for Bromige’s bronze poem (which just so happens to be the source of the title of the book being launched). Learning of the existence of “the bronze” led him on a campaign to locate the relic, which was an equally challenging task. He eventually found all the poems that had never been mounted in the 2003 library building, wrapped and stacked, forgotten, in storage in the offices of the Public Works Department of the City of Rohnert Park. As promised, Jenkins handed the Bromige poem over to Vartnaw now that he had a venue for it and here it was, shimmering before us. The challenge now is to come up with the money to install it somewhere at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Two objects were being unveiled, the book and the bronze, to cinch immortality for David Bromige.

In his presentation, Vartnaw made sure to thank the city worker who led him to the find, whose name he confessed he could not remember.
 

“The Book”

The time had finally come, after Vartnaw’s introduction (which followed a welcome by Cynthi Stefenoni, member of the board of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts), to get to the true source of Bromige’s immortality: his writing, which the distinguished presenters had come to Sebastopol to recognize. Editor John Krick was first of the editors to take the microphone to introduce himself, admitting he was the only person on the stage who’d never met David Bromige. (This could be a significant advantage for an editor venturing into the sometimes contentious arena of avant-garde American poetry, where Bromige became an enduring fixture. at least on this coast.) He read from Harbormaster of Hong Kong, published by Sun & Moon in 1993.

Then came Ron Silliman who pointed out that along with much more, Bromige had mastered satire, not an easy task. He told the story publicly of his first experience with Bromige at that reading in Albany and read the poem (“First”) that had most blown his mind 50 years ago. Bob Perelman, who with his partner Francie Shaw had developed a very close friendship with the Bromiges, followed with a reading of selected passages from the prose introduction he contributed to the book (which to fans of David Bromige is about worth the rather hefty ($35) cover price of the rather hefty 624-page volume.

Next up: Pat Nolan, who needs no introduction. He shared Vartnaw’s theme of forgetfulness, confessing that he had just “forgot” what he was going to say. (Coincidentally, both he and Vartnaw were the only presenters at this, the “real” launch of Bromige’s collected poems, who had also participated in the “prelude” in Petaluma. Had they both somehow been victimized by some kind of top secret Russian memory-purge technology similar to what the American diplomats were exposed to recently in Cuba?) Forgetfulness aside, Nolan was able to remind us of Bromige’s mellifluous voice, his syntactical wizardry and his lyrical gift as a poet, demonstrated in his reading of “At Last,” a poem from The Gathering, the first collection of Bromige’s work published by an old chum from Vancouver, Fred Wah while he was studying with Charles Olson in Buffalo, N. Y.  Nolan followed with a reading of “Logic,” another brilliant work, and grammatical tangle, from the Harbormaster of Hong Kong, ending his turn at the microphone with a recollection of a very particular detail from “the prelude” in Petaluma: a line Richard Denner delivered that day, “life is brief, it says here,” demonstrating that Nolan’s memory is generally fine, no matter what anyone says.

We’d also been reminded somewhere in the words from the stage of Bromige’s residual North London accent, which remained well-pronounced despite his many decades of North American residence. We would then hear traces of an altogether different accent when the former Texan and Bromige’s former pedagogical colleague Gillian Conoley took the microphone to read the magnificent “Watchers of the Skies,” a poem included in Desire, the selected poems from Black Sparrow Press in 1988. Her reading of the poem was as magnificent as the work itself, bringing strong hints of the tender feeling she had for her former colleague at the university.

Conoley was followed by another campus colleague, Jonah Raskin, who had very intimate memories of conversations he had with Bromige while riding the campus elevators up and down to and from office hours and classrooms.

The presenters, taken together, recalled to me what I most admired about Bromige: the appreciation he possessed and the acceptance he could muster for the entire range of contemporary poetic expression, without judging the talent or skills of the poet or the value of the work beyond its most basic element, whether it “works” as a poem. He instilled in me the value of keeping that core question in mind whenever I attempt to make a poem out of whatever I’m dealing with language-wise.

The North Bay-native Cole Swensen would bring the program to intermission, making sure, by reading “The Nest,” to include a poem from Birds of the west, the 1973 book from Coach House Press which remains to me one of the most profoundly beautiful works of late 20th-century poetry written in English. And speaking of “working” (as a poem), that volume alone could work to guarantee Bromige literary immortality as far as I’m concerned.

Another North Bay stalwart, Petaluma photographer James Garrahan would end the intermission with an almost apologetic introduction to his 53-minute “Incremental Windows,” an exquisitely edited and sensitively videographed documentary of Bromige expounding and improvising around his Sebastopol home during his later years. The 53 minutes pass quickly as the viewer is drenched in rapture with the brilliant wit, linguistic mastery and joy that Bromige could imbue upon his surroundings and his companions.

Fresco Frieze: Professors, Poets & Editors

 

“The World Tour”

The launch was repeated the following evening at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, with a much larger but equally distinguished cast of presenters, featuring fellow Londoner Opal L. Nations, another of Bromige’s closest friends in California. I couldn’t make that event, despite the great temptation it presented to the compulsive and unrepentant name-dropper that I’ve become. Had I attended, I may have been clued into the scale of the tribute I first saw rehearsed that sunny afternoon in my old stomping grounds of Petaluma, not far from the bridge over the river that the infamous Dolcini Brothers liked to throw us “rockers” into when we weren’t looking. I thought I had learned from those days to pay better attention. Alas, here I was with old friends paying tribute to another old friend, with no inkling of the magnitude of the encomia this book has enkindled. And to think that My Poetry, the book that Bromige thought was his most important work, appeared from Geoffrey Young’s The Figures in 1980 in an edition of only 650 copies, not nearly enough to spread around the world.


Steven Lavoie was co-editor of the scurrilous Life Of Crime, Newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society, and the equally notorious schismatic Life Of Crime-In-Exile in the mid 1980’s. He is currently employed by the City of Oakland, as branch manager of the Temescal Branch Library.  As society columnist for Parole he has previously reported on the Frank O’Hara Marathon reading of 2015, the Actualist Movement’s dispersal to the San Francisco Bay Area, and on the Joanne Kyger Memorial in Bolinas in 2017.

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Rothenberg Poetry University

Rothenberg Poetry University
Heuristic Maps For The Mastery of Poetry

Jerome Rothenberg is a genius.  With the aid of his able collaborators, he has mapped out a heuristic path for the study of poetry and toward a unifying theory of poetics.  With the reissue of Symposium of The Whole and the 3rd edition of Technicians of The Sacred from University of California Press comes a reminder of his range and diligence.  Similar to Kenneth Rexroth’s didactic intent, Rothenberg’s scholarship undercuts the institutional hegemony by reaffirming the roots of a native experience.

In his introduction to the November 13, 2017 event at City Lights Books in San Francisco celebrating the new edition of Technicians of the Sacred, Jack Foley states “Rothenberg’s book shifted the focus—displayed the possibility of another center, even multiple centers. Language was an issue here too but it was in the service of a primary drive towards rediscovery and reclamation.”

Rothenberg’s concept of ethnopoetics works as a brilliant counter to the dominant literary regime of tight ass Brits and their Yankee counterparts. Literature doesn’t have a leg to stand on if it doesn’t acknowledge the deep origins of its practice and an understanding of the poem’s ritual use.  Ethnopoetics challenges poets and students of poetry (often the same) to become de facto ethnographers if only by being informed of the discipline.

In examining an older pre-literate poetry, Rothenberg’s anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred, in collaboration with George Quasha (1968) and Shaking The Pumpkin (1972), allow the curious reader a view into a ritualistic sense of language that, enacted by call and response, reveals a balance between the sacred and the profane.  As well, ethnopoetics reintroduces and reaffirms the ecstatic in the practice of poetry–the return to ecstasy and the inspiration of its insights, an actual breathing in as an embodiment of being however momentary or fleeting.  The poem is realized and exists off the page in the form of the author who has performed the feat, this sleight of language, by whatever means necessary in enabling a specific cultural significance.

The heart of the matter is succinctly revealed by a passage from Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism, as quoted in he Symposium Of The Whole:

“Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creating of a personal universe, of a completely closed world.  The purest poetic act seems to recreate language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of ‘primitives’ reveals the essence of things.”

As a proposal for a heuristic curriculum and syllabus, the Rothenberg anthologies and the ancillary collections and compilations can serve as the basis for the study of a wide-ranging worldview poetics.  Ethnopoetics in its encompassing gaze broadens the field, and allows for every notion of expression, from chants to drumming to sign language as well as the more modern extra lyrical appropriations of language ubiquity.

Following the publication of Shaking the Pumpkin, came a studied overview, again co-edited with George Quasha, to add perspective to poetry’s agency,  America,  A Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, (1973). In 1977 Rothenberg published a reading of his own linguistic roots as The Big Jewish Book later titled Exiled in the Word.  Rothenberg’s prodigious polymathic works of scholarship would easily fill a three foot shelf; in fact, counting publications of his own original works as well as those in collaboration with others, most of the bookshelf would be his.

A Symposium of The Whole, compiled with anthropologist Diane Rothenberg, published in 1983 and reissued in 2013, is an erudite sampler with commentary and orientation by the editors, and sets out an itinerary for the intrepid reader to follow by highlighting nodes of scholarship and focal points to ancillary information and approaches to poetry by providing a range of discourse from Vico to Marx to Graves to Malanowski to Barthes, among many others.  As a platform to review the art of poetry, Symposium is a potpourri of sources each with its own fascinating vector offering diverse readings of the poetic past and present whose effect, according to the authors, is that of “a changed paradigm of what poetry was or now could come to be.” Each excerpt and essay is a compass point indicating a direction of further discovery and scholarship.

In the late nineties Rothenberg and co-editor Pierre Joris compiled and annotated two ambitious anthologies of modern and postmodern poetry, Poems for The Millennium, Volume One, from Fin de Siecle to Negritude (1995), and Poems for The Millennium, Volume Two, from Postwar to Millennium (1998).  These anthologies are as comprehensive as they are controversial.  Their range and inclusiveness can make them a little unwieldy and at times uneven but their intent, to provide a cross-section of worldwide poetic practice, is admirably utilitarian.  As of 2015, the Poems for The Millennium series numbered five volumes, all but the last, published by the University of California Press.

The third volume in the Millennium series with commentary by Rothenberg and his collaborator, Jeffrey C. Robinson, is a step back from the intense modernist and post modern trends of the 20th century to examine the foundations of these developments in Romantic and Post-Romantic literary traditions.  The series continues with a perspective from a largely non-Indo-European culture influenced by its ancient sense of place, North Africa.  The fourth volume, compiled by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, presents a wide-ranging anthology of the written and oral literatures of the Maghreb, including the influential Arabo-Berber and Jewish literary culture which flourished in Spain between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. 

Volume Five of Poems For The Millennium,Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, with commentaries by Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman, was published by Black Widow Press in 2015.  Always attuned to the peripheries and the eccentricities of poetic creation, Rothenberg presents an array of outlier verse and happenstance as verse, returning in part to the idea of the poem found in nature or as an emanation of surroundings and where the reality of poetry is truly fantastic.

Anthologies, particularly those of contemporary poets, are burdened with problems of cronyism and difficult or unsavory political choices for the editors. Sadly the intent of the included poems tends to get lost in the shuffle and ranking.  Often the introduction and contributors’ notes are the most interesting reading in many contemporary poetry anthologies.  The editor’s introduction usually justifies the poet’s inclusion in the anthology by granting a lineage and provenance that will place their esthetic within the parameters of the anthology’s focus.  As well, it is a preamble ramble as to the worthiness of the poets included, providing an overview that can never be too general or pinned down.

Perhaps the poetry anthology in print has outlived its utility.  Some have even suggested an online Directory of American Poets (known as DOAP—rhymes with soap) as an alternative, consisting primarily of vital statistics: year and place of birth, year of death, if applicable, marital status, and abridged curriculum vitae that names the published works along with year of publication and publisher, education and, more and more, the academic institutions at which they teach or have taught, with links to blogs, publishers’ websites, shopping sites, and social media pages where the pathologically curious can find more stats and links to online publications, reviews, and critical attention. The only purpose a print edition serves besides trumpeting exclusivity in the guise of being representative is in the teaching arena such as the classroom and the writing workshop so that everyone can be on the same page.  Unfortunately most anthologies of contemporary poetry represent the entrenched coterie collections of corporate post modern wannabe Duchampian conceptualists whose sole purpose is to function as the social registers of poseurs.

In contrast, the Poems For The Millennium series presents a wonderland of world poetry that can’t fail to entice any lapsed comparative literature major.  These are anthologies for the truly curious, the dedicated seekers. A fearless reader can trek through the poetry continents and cultures of non-Western or Eurocentric bias and marvel at the commonality of the art and its history, ancient and contemporary. In Rothenberg’s anthologies the scope and breadth of the poetry universe is righteously cataloged.  Each of the poets cited is a neuronal cell in a vast web of poetic consciousness.  The diverse assortment of information and poetries provided can be daunting yet for the truly curious the proposed curriculum of this heuristic university, guided by the informed commentary of the editors, can lead on a path to greater understanding and appreciation of the art of poetry.

At the heart of the Millennium series are the first two volumes and their focus on modernism and post modern developments in the art of poetry. Volume I, from fin de siècle to négritude, with its significant attention to the francophone writers of the early 20th century, provides a choice of forbearers organized in categories and galleries as clusters of associated poets clumped into school or groups.  Rothenberg wisely includes manifestoes among the selection of authors as defining of trends. The art of the manifesto reflects the fact that the 20th century was the beginning of the age of manifestos.  And of self-branded schools. As such, representative schools of international scope signify a multicultural literary approach by examining the work of contributors of diverse trends. Modernism contributes to the understanding of the increasing complexity of existence, the granularity of the quotidian, the fractality of the moment.  That complexity is evident in the breadth and diversity of sources and erudition of the commentaries, a hallmark of Rothenberg anthologies.

When we congratulate ourselves on contemporary innovations in the art of poetry, be it minimalism or conceptualism or any other latter day ism, it is instructive to leaf through the pages of this first volume to find the footprints of the foundational poets of the so-called modern age.  Though the pump may have been primed by the likes of Blake, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, the excitement and anticipation of the promise of the new century at the cusp of the millennium is found in the works of Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Cendrars, the redefining esthetics of Duchamp, and the upheaval brought about by Dada and surrealism.

It is significant that the importance of Mallarmé as a source of modernism and the introduction of chance to the making of literature is highlighted by the inclusion of Un coup de dés in its radical entirety as prescient for the future for the poem on the page. Furthermore, the international propagation of a surrealist esthetic allowed for the emergence and acceptance of worldwide art solidarity, particularly the anti-colonial négritude movement arising from the work of such French intellectuals and poets as Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas.

Ezra Pound’s idea of an inclusive world anthology is largely realized in this first volume of the Millennium series with a range of more than just a couple of semesters (or quarters) worth of study.  Simply following the suggested threads proposed by the array of poets and the accompanying learned commentary is enough to furnish a solid education in modern poetry or, if nothing else, where to go to find it.  And it is from this compiled energy that the present emerges.

Volume II, from Postwar to Millennium, gathers many poets familiar to readers of contemporary poetry.  Again the featuring of manifestos makes for fascinating reading from the likes of Nicanor Para, Edward Sanders, Amiri Bakara, Paul Celan, and Sujata Bhatt among many others. Also the grouping throughout of poets in affiliated coteries, schools, and movements such as the Vienna Group, The Tammuzi Poets, Cobra, Neo-Avanguardia, The Misty Poets (Chinese), and of course The Beats emphasizes the vortices of an associated poetics that are often spontaneous cohesions of like minded individuals or elitist doctrinaire cohorts.  The sheer complexity and richness of these overlapping associations reveals a breadth of literature that for the local reader works to vanquish a dominant Anglocentric bias.

Of course, the anthologies are not entirely free of bias as their primary audience is the reader in that particular imperialist lingua franca, English.  In many ways these anthologies are a gift, a balm, a release from the constraints of the dominant Anglo glot.  They pull, in many cases, yank (pun intended), the reader from a provincial complacency to confront the reality of a world poetry and a world of poetry.  And while the effort to diligently catalog an international representation of poetry and poetics is beyond admirable, it is at the editors own doorsteps that a perceived bias and glaring omission raises the question of political choices.

A knowledgeable selection depends on finding the diverse poetries representing trends yet it would also be instructive to include the mavericks and independents who defy categorization and whose full resonance has yet to be realized or who, like Whitman and Dickinson, are pure products, unique in their poetic actualization.  Not that the outliers and peripheral poetry geniuses have been entirely overlooked, but there is a big “however.”

In particularly the metric for inclusion in Volume II seems to fall along political lines, especially in the selection of American poets whose exegetical utility is solely to satisfy an academic criterion.  In hindsight perhaps, the editors would have been wise to emphasize a Pacific Rim grouping that would include not only Gary Snyder but Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger, and Philip Whalen who are undoubtedly significant influences. Yet Whalen, a remarkably innovative American poet, and Kyger, whose work is representative of unique cross cultural influences, do not make the cut.  And while Frank O’Hara is included, one of the most frankly lyrical poets of the first generation of New York poets, James Schuyler, is mysteriously absent  The second generation of the so-called New York School also suffer from questionable exclusion.  Ann Waldman, Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley grace the pages of Volume II with representative poems, but what about Ron Padgett (whose excellent translations from the French make Volume I a joy to read). Where is Bill Berkson, the definitive aesthetician of the group, or Joseph Ceravolo, the outlier genius, and Maureen Owen, a vastly underrated poet of remarkable talent? Yet a special niche is carved out for a coterie of pretentious poseurs and quasi academics whose political influence far outshines their poetic achievement. Certainly the radical innovations of a Clark Coolidge have to be acknowledged but why not the incisive erudition and sly wit of David Bromige?  Also left out of the mix is the fantastic Anselm Hollo (except for his translations in Volume I), Charles Simic, and Andrei Codrescu, the East European ESL School. Where are Tom Clark and Charles Bukowski?  Or Steve Carey?  Where, as well, are the French Canadian poets?  How well are the Mexican poets represented? The list of inadvertent omissions (the editors should at least have the benefit of the doubt) is rather long and could easily make up the table of contents for Volume VI of the Millennium series.

The task of an anthologist is unenviable. Fishing in the sea of poetry there will always be the ones that got away. It may seem contradictory to recommend these two anthologies in particular while pointing out their omissions.  However, despite the obvious caveats, there is no doubt that Volume I and II of the Millennium series are valuable tools for the study of contemporary poetry and trends in 20th century literature.

In 2000, to further expand the bandwidth of the study of the written word, Rothenberg published, with Steven Clay, A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing.  The esotericism and exoticism of book arts is a parallel and fascinating study.  This volume provides a supplemental course that neatly ties in to a curriculum of poetics.

The print revolution has made the page the source and the resting place of poetry.  Once the poem has been printed it becomes a cultural commodity, an artifact, and a disposable one at that.  Within those limits language has struggled seeking accommodation in its approximation of conscious existence and has depended on innovative approaches of the printer’s and bookmaker’s art.  What was once carved in stone, scratched on sheepskin, cut into wood, and finally set in cold steel within the confines of sheaves of paper functioning as a record of evolving mind sets, providing a map that eventually became a map for the sake of being a map, and with which inveterate topographers and experimenters used to break out of the literary squirrel cage and turn the product back on itself is the art of the book.  Once the page became a thing in itself rather than medium for the recording of something else, the possibilities were unlimited.  Yet to see that evolution in literary arts it is necessary to view the practice from its very beginnings.  Or at least get an idea of what has preceded contemporary efforts and perhaps find a relative connection between then and now.  This particular volume, as an example, speaks to the vast and polymathic curriculum that Rothenberg’s anthologies provide.

Through his various anthologies Rothenberg has suggested a curriculum and a method for an acquisition of a familiarity of the subject of poetics and a unifying vision of the art of poetry.  Their didactic intent is presented as necessary for the grasp of a world view poetics. Unearthing the foundations of modern and postmodern literature becomes an archeological dig.  Rothenberg makes available the tools for such an excavation, the essentials for an overview and understanding of origins and how they relate to the present.

To further compliment the Millennium series, intrepid poetry scholars might include the Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson anthology of Japanese poetry, The Country of Eight Islands, as well as the Columbia University Press two volume set of Chinese poetry edited by Burton Watson and Jonathan Chaves as part of their curriculum. Serious consideration should also be given to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the Padgett/Shapiro Anthology of New York Poets, and Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree. 

When one’s conception of poets and poetry is exposed to radically different means and cultures then that notion can realign itself to an equally valid and unique point of view. Beyond that, hairs are for splitting.  Poetry is for no one and everyone.

Submitted to the Membership for consideration by the Parole Officer, 9/4/2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Poetry Reading

The Poetry Reading 

(Carl Wendt, autodidact, professional cynic, flaneur, conman,  outlier outlaw,
and last of the hardboiled poets actually attends a memorial poetry reading
at which he is one of the scheduled readers.)

from Ode To Sunset, A Year in The Life of American Genius,
a fiction by Pat Nolan


Wendt dreaded pushing open the auditorium door. Empty folding chairs in a cavernous space were always bad news. Slowly, as the evening progressed, the empty chairs would become emptier.  For now there were clots of listeners scattered throughout to give it the air of being well attended.  Fifty or more pairs of buns perched uncomfortably on metal ledges. Divided by the number of poets on the bill, it averaged out to about three and a quarter persons per poet. There was a stage and a podium, as might be expected, and most of the light in the cavernous acoustic nightmare was focused there.  He stood at the back to let his eyes adjust.  That’s where Irma found him.

“You’ve actually made it to a reading.”  She hooked an arm through his.  “That’s an event in itself.”

“When do you go on?”  Wendt stared at the person at the podium trying to remember his name.

“I opted to get it over with early. That way I can listen to the poets without stressing about what I’m going to read.” She gave a pained smile. “Though I don’t know why I get the feeling that at large readings like this I’m committing public hari-kari.”

“Sorry I missed it.  Self-evisceration can be quite a spectacle.”

“Carl, don’t try to be polite, it doesn’t suit you.”

In spite of himself, Wendt’s concentration focused on the reader. He wasn’t tuning Irma out.  That would be impossible.  She could be counted on to provide a running commentary of the reading and the readers.

The pace at which the poem being read, stately, metered, languid, sonorous with a clinical monotony as if it were being methodically inserted into the listener’s brain which required intense concentration from both the poet and the audience, was all too familiar.  If he’d learned anything in his nearly forty year experience as a public reader of his own words, it was that the poem spoken is comprehended differently than read silently on the page.  Sense wins out over meaning.  Words passed without immediate understanding.  Sometimes the pace and the rhythms were oceanic, hypnotic, leaving the listener comatose.  On the other hand, the random soundscape of experiment was too often littered with the ponderous boulders of self drama.  Some poets tried to read their poems with a tone approximating the neutrality of the page or with stentorian bombast brow beat the listener while others believed that approximating a hacksaw cutting through sheet metal was the best way to inculcate the masses.  And yet still others, linguistic sadists, used words as turnbuckles.  Fortunately every so often there were those who rose above the drone and caught the ear with their liquid colloquy, a honeyed speech being just that.  Regrettably, the level of amateurishness was embarrassing.  To an outside observer foolish enough to wander into such an event, there could be only one conclusion: they’d stumbled into a nest of losers.

The poet walked off the stage to a scattering of applause.

“Tom Rowley’s chatty poems are ok. They’re clever in a brain tweaky sort of way,” Irma opined, “but afterwards they always leave me feeling a little cheap between the ears.”

David Bloom, the MC, thanked the preceding poet and announced the next reader, a name Wendt was not unfamiliar with.

“Ugh,” Irma grunted, “Norma D’Monde! Her poems are so bad she’ll probably end up as the head of a writing program some day.  And can you believe that dye job?”

It only took a few poems to prove Irma right, clearly writing program verse, anecdotal with barely a hint of music, labored wisdom, false epiphany, no chances taken, no surprises.

“That’s not poetry, that’s high fructose sentiment,” Irma’s snorted elegantly. “I was over at a friend’s apartment and I guess they ran out of cinderblocks because they were using Norma’s trilogy to prop up a corner of the bookshelves.”

“I’d read it as much as I’d read a cement brick” she answered to “Did you read it?”

And so it went, poet after poet, poem after poem: quasi-surreal cross-culture wake-up calls, declamatory lists accumulating momentum and achieving crescendo but then dropping off into bottomless illogic.

According to Irma, the next reader, Ann Tacit, author of Approval and soon to be published long poem entitled Earn, represented the catalog school of poets, which, as she explained, “contrary to what one might assume are not poets of compilation but poets who appear in slickly produced small press catalogs to create their own web of snobby literary assumptions.  They’re also known as the California Cuisine School of Poetry—nice to look at but there’s not much there.”

“Ah,” Wendt breathed in comprehension, “overeducated middle class twits.”

There was never any quickness of mind. Some poems were like being stuck in a traffic jam of mirror images reflecting endlessly speculative details of what could have been done or was done or not.  Woulda coulda shoulda as the old Indian chief used to say.

He knew Wallace Tambor from years before, still beating the drum of his associations in poems about meeting various famous poets and what he said to them, and they to him, most of them now dead and unable to contest his allegations. The halting sly wit of Ben Gunn’s dignified decrepitude and the desire to be present and accounted for overshadowing any regret. He was someone who reveled in anonymity and wrote a poetry to enforce it.  Then Celia Thornbush, which, according to Irma, was an appropriate name for a feminist, and married to Bruce, a severe aesthete with a perpetually pained expression, but “should one wonder as he’s given his name to a woman who exemplifies, figuratively, the image of vagina dentata.”

It may have been a city ordinance that any multi-poet event had to include on its lineup a harangue with saxophone hipster staccato post-beat jive.  Enrique Hermanos, aka KK, so his poem stated, offered the notion that music had returned to poetry in the form of a back beat. He was followed by Reggie Sides and some hip hop revolution poetry.

One of the readers, a woman rather elegantly attired but with the nervousness of a novice, read some surprisingly good poems which caused Irma to remark “she has a chin like a bottle opener.”  Irma was never one to hold back from casting aspersions on the competition. One line unfortunately undermined all the poet’s good intentions. “The centrifugal force of the poetry whirl flings me to the periphery.”

“That’s not poetry,” Irma scoffed, “that’s just posturing.” And after Art Penn’s reading, “I know so many guys like that whose psychic turmoil makes for great poetry but really shitty lives.”

“It’s not a vocation for the insecure.”

“Yet they’re drawn to it. Moth, meet flame.”

“One does with what one has.”

“Who said it, the life of a poet, less than 2/3ds of a second?”

All the poets for the most part had that lean and hungry look of those who desired more than anything else to take their place in the spotlight and be the center of attention for even the slightest and most insignificant fraction of their allotted fifteen minutes of fame. He’d come to the conclusion that however well-intentioned, most poets belonged to the dissociative school, not that you could call it a school.  More like a shark tank.  “What was it William Carlos Williams said?” Irma asked, reading his mind, “There are a lot of bastards out there and most of them are writers.”  Their factionalism and social ranking was tiresome.  That was another problem with poets. They always want you to choose sides.

The next reader was Savannah George, real name Christine but Savannah was revealed to her during a trance.  This was only after she had married the university economics professor whose last name she took.  She held touchy feely writing seminars for women.  Her own writing, homily laced pseudo-epiphany and gratuitous portraiture of women in history, was pedestrian at best.  She was, on the other hand, one of the nicest people, saintly in some respects, with a wide-eyed intransigent innocence, nice and warm like the glow of coals but barely a flame above a flicker.  Still, people like Savannah made him uncomfortable. They were like lampreys, psyche suckers. She was followed by a handsome young gay man. Funny how, among poets, it was the gay men who were physically appealing, the women mostly homely and severe, Irma and Val being among the few exceptions.   His prancing O’Hara-esque faux camp preceded Taz Stevens (not to be confused with Cat or Wallace), an old snake oil salesman who crooned, with deep English sonority, signifying a pulpit gravity, the laments and lessons of an intemperate man.

“Yuk!” Irma exclaimed, “Flypaper poetry!”

Wendt had been thinking of when and where he’d first run into old Taz. Probably at the Blue Unicorn open readings back when any of them had to shave only a couple times a week and were still wet between the ears.  Hadn’t changed his tune much since then.  “Say again? Fly what?”

“Flypaper poetry. And poets. You know, the feel-sorry-for-my-sensitive-soul, pleas-for-attention school.  Crass manipulation of emotions, sticky self-serving self-satisfied cloying sentimentality.  Nothing is more boring than a poet left over from an era people have already forgotten.”

Wendt laughed.  “Don’t hold back now, let it all out.”

“Did you know his wife ran off with one of her former kindergarten pupils?  She’s like twenty five years younger than her!”

“Alright, now you’re just going to make me feel sorry for him.”


Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017) and So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Plagiarism and the Poetry of Ulalume González de León

Plagiarism and the Poetry of Ulalume González de León

by John Johnson

Ulalume González de León, winner of the prestigious Villaurrutia Award and the subject of numerous literary studies, whom Octavio Paz called “the greatest Mexican poet since Sister Juana Inez de la Cruz,” wrote some of Mexico’s most original poetry. Yet, she titled her three books of poems Plagio, Plagio II, and Plagios. In English: Plagiarism, Plagiarism II, and Plagiarisms. Why did she call her poems plagiarisms?

Professor of Spanish/Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, Efraín Barradas, in the Spanish language online magazine 80 Grados, says that González de León created, among other kinds of poems, “readymades,” in which “the eye and hands of the artist take from reality something already existing and, with a minimum of changes, convert it into something else, and in doing so create a work of art.”

The term readymade “was first used by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the works of art he made from manufactured objects. It has since often been applied more generally to artworks by other artists made in this way.

Duchamp’s most famous readymade, “Fontaine” (“Fountain”), is a porcelain urinal, turned ninety degrees and “signed” by the artist. (The signature, “R. Mutt,” is a play on the name of the urinal’s manufacturer, J. L. Mott Ironworks.) Picasso as well created a readymade, “Cabeza de toro” (“Bull’s Head”), by joining together the handlebars and leather seat of a bicycle.

Professor Barradas further states that González de León, in her poem, “Dos adivinanzas,” creates a verbal readymade by transforming a well-known children’s riddle into something new. She does this by giving the riddle an unexpected solution.

Dos adivinanzas 

  1. Para bailar me pongo la capa
    porque sin capa no puedo bailar.
    Para bailar me quito la capa
    porque con capa no puedo bailar. 

(Solución: el trompo y su cordel—en mi infancia) 

  1. Para bailar me pongo la capa
    porque sin capa no puedo bailar.
    Para bailar me quito la capa
    porque con capa no puedo bailar. 

(Solución: el poema naciente y la mente—1974)

 

Two Riddles 

  1. In order to dance I put on my cape,
    because without my cape I can’t dance.
    In order to dance I take off my cape,
    because with my cape on I can’t dance. 

(Solution: the top and it string—in my infancy) 

  1. In order to dance I put on my cape,
    because without my cape I can’t dance.
    In order to dance I take off my cape,
    because with my cape on I can’t dance. 

(Solution: the emerging poem and the mind—1974)

Such art, Barradas says, “makes us think about the nature of the artistic and the essence of the aesthetic.” What González de León tells us with this poem is that “poetry is present everywhere; only the eye and the ear of the poet are needed to find it.” What art critic Eric Gibson said about Picasso’s “Bull’s Head” could equally be said about González de León’s poem:  “[B]oth childlike and highly sophisticated in its simplicity, it stands as an assertion of the transforming power of the human imagination…”

Because readymades require the prior existence of things in the world—urinals and fountains, bicycles and bulls, children’s riddles and the making of poetry—their creation is never, Barradas says, “absolute creation, creation from scratch.” They are “something new and old at the same time.”

In her introduction to Plagios, González de León writes: “I choose to say even that which was said, which is different now because this accumulation of convergent data, whose point of intersection I meet, transforms it.” In other words, there is in her poetry a coming-together of past literature and history, of science, math, advertising slogans, jokes and riddles—an accumulation—which is changed into something new as it passes through the poet, or as she says in an interview with Elena Poniatowska in La Jordana Semanal , the past is transformed as it passes through “each unrepeatable person.”

González de León goes so far as to say: “[E]verything is plagiarism. Everything has already been said.” This, of course, is not new. You can find it in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Goethe said “the most original modern authors are not so because they advance what is new,” but because they know how to say something “as if it had never been said before.” Y.B. Yeats wrote in his “A General Introduction for My Work,” “Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing.”

Writers and artists have been telling us for centuries that new works of art draw deeply from works that precede them, whether indirectly or directly. As Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Though he was quick to add that “the good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” This is the sort of plagiarism González de León has in mind, the kind of “theft” that leads to something “utterly different.”

In her interview with Poniatowska, González de León discusses another “readymade” in her collection, “Noticia” (“News”).

Noticia 

La crisálida
       translúcida
de una mariposa monarca
pende
durante doce días
de una rama           

           

News

The translucent
                        chrysalis
of a monarch butterfly
hangs
from a branch
for twelve days

González de León found the text of this poem, a footnote to a photo, in The Insects, published by Time/Life. She tells Poniatowska that she “rescued” the text, not only for its lovely rhythms, its consonances and rhymes, but its import. González de León asks, “[W]here was the wonder – news – and suspense – the hanging – of the metamorphosis?” By introducing the text with the title, “News,” she opens the readers’ eyes to what they might have missed by looking only at the text and photo.

What may also have been at work, though she doesn’t mention this in the interview, are the poem’s resonances with two widely known poems by Willian Carlos Williams. (González de León was familiar with Williams’ work and spoke highly of his analysis of e e cummings, whose poetry she translated. (John King, The Role of Mexico’s Plural in Latin American Literary and Political Culture, 2007):

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

and…

so much depends
upon 

a red wheel
barrow 

glazed with rain
water 

beside the white
chickens 

González de León finds “news” in a footnote in a book of popular science. By drawing our attention to its language, not only its music but its meanings, she lets us see (and hear and feel) its resonances, its intersections. The word “pende” appears in the Spanish original. But pender (to hang) is closely associated with depender (to depend), just as in English the word pendant (and pending, and pendulum) is closely related to depend.  And while, in the WCW poem, so much depends on an image, in the González de León poem, so much depends on words. She tells Poniatowska, “I think that writing is giving words their maximum load of meaning…”

In the epilogue to Plagios, González de León compares plagiarism to eating. The poet takes in the words of others as one takes in food, digests them, then uses them to build “our body, which is to say, other language, which is to say, other poetry.” Readers of modern poetry might think of other “plagiaristic” poetic processes, like the one Eliot used to create “The Waste Land,” whose sources include Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Shakespeare, the Bible—to name only a few. Or Pound’s Cantos, with their wide-ranging literary, cultural and historical references, including the incorporation of texts in their original languages, alphabets and logograms.

But, unlike the Cantos, which Pound referred to as “grab-bags,” González de León’s plagiarisms are, as Octavio Paz tells us in his introduction to Plagios, “a geometry… a precise mechanism of correspondences and oppositions… [F]or her, language is not an ocean but an architecture of lines and transparencies…” Transparencies like readymades that are both old and new at the same time—the same and yet entirely different.


John Johnson’s poems have appeared most recently in frankmatter, The Inflectionist Review, Sky Island Journal and The Turnip Truck(s). Currently he is co-translating the poetry of Ulalume González de León, for which he and his co-translators, Terry Ehret and Nancy Morales, have received a NEA Translation grant. Their translations, together with the originals, have appeared in Triggerfish, Critical Review, Clade Song, The Ofi Press Magazine, Chaparral, and  Poetry Flash.  They plan to translate all of the poems in Plagios, and publish them, together with the originals, in three separate volumes.

 

 

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