Snyder’s Cold Mountain

GARY SNYDER:  HAN SHAN “COLD MOUNTAIN” TRANSLATIONS
by Keith Kumasen Abbott

“[Cold Mountain’s] appearance resembles that of an emaciated beggar, but every word he uttered was pithy, meaningful and inspiring. He wore a cap made of birch bark, a simple fur garment, torn and threadbare, and wooden sandals for shoes.”
Liqiu Yin

In the mid 1950s, Gary Snyder came to translate the poems of the Tang poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain) during his preparation to travel to Japan.  After dropping out of graduate school in Indiana, he enrolled at UC Berkeley to study Oriental Languages.

I went back to work in a graduate seminar with Ch’en Shih-hsiang at a time when there were only two students in a graduate seminar with him-myself and a Chinese man. He asked me what I would like to do. I said I would like to do some Buddhist poems that possibly were in a vernacular, and he said, “Of course, Han Shan is the poet you should work with.”

Snyder worked on his translations with the help of his professor who, Snyder once noted, had the basic canon of Chinese poetry memorized.   There were at that time few translations of Han Shan with the best being the versions by Arthur Waley, the dean of Chinese literature in English translation by the 1950s.  Snyder knew of these versions and used them.  But before this account goes any farther the figure of Cold Mountain needs explanation.

The Myth of Han Shan
Han Shan was always a myth.  Unlike most Chinese poets, his name is the name of a place, but this was generic, no explicit site.  The religious figures in China always had the privilege of taking a place name in lieu of a family name.  So his name alone puts Han Shan as an outsider. The word Han is an adjective for cold; the noun Shan means mountains(s), hill or a mountain range.  So Han Shan in English was Cold Mountain.  His translators accepted that his name was a religious title, and that his family name was lost along with any reliable account of his life and times.

Buddhist masters of that period substituted their family name with the name of their monastery or hermitage.  The poems demonstrate that Han Shan was a hermit for a part of his life, and perhaps a wandering monk. Most of the theology found in his poems is a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism, but not clear about what form of Buddhism.  And as in most Chinese poems, references to Confucian classics are common.

Tradition places Cold Mountain, the man and the place, in the Tiantai Mountains. This is the Tiantai range on current maps, located to the south of Shanghai.   During the Tang and Song periods, many of the Buddhist sects in the mountain monasteries flourished and in Japan and the United States those lineages provide masters for Western Buddhism.

The public imagery for Cold Mountain was set early.  Han Shan was a hermit who lived near one of these monasteries.  Inside the orphan Shi De worked in the kitchen and around the grounds he carried a broom.  He put leftovers in a bamboo lunch pail for Han Shan and then the two retired to mess around, writing poems on trees, cliff or temple walls and reading blank scrolls and at night silently pointing to the moon. These icons proliferated in rubbings and paintings after the Tang dynasty and illustrations of the mad pair’s episodes became common monastery lore.  But in China no official notice of Han Shan as a poet existed for five hundred years.  His work was not included in Tang poetry anthologies. 

The Tradition of Han Shan
In his introduction to Chinese Poems, Arthur Waley sums up the qualities that made Han Shan so valuable as a visual icon.

In his poems Cold Mountain is often the name of a state of mind rather than a locality. It is on this conception, as well as on that of the “hidden treasure”, the Buddha who is to be sought not somewhere outside us, but “at home” in the heart, that the mysticism of the poems is based.

So the Cold Mountain name suggests Buddhist images of spiritual ascension and the image of a ragged but determined monk evokes the run-down hermitages of Taoist immortals.  Han Shan presents this combination of person, place and state-of-mind.

From within these hagiographic and iconic conventions, however, the poems themselves perform a different task.  While talking about a Han Shan poem, Paul Kahn marks the change in this fashion.

The presentation of ideas . . . is different from the poetic conventions of its period. Han Shan is not describing a vision he has had of an immortal while traveling in the mountains, nor is he describing his own personal enlightenment while journeying to a remote holy place, both common themes in Tang poetry. The poet here is stepping right into the landscape, climbing a path that is at once his own physical and metaphysical path or way. He tells us this is the “way” to his home as well as his enlightenment. He directs his voice to the reader, challenging (or inviting) him to follow.


The Legend of Han Shan
The first collection of Cold Mountain poems had a preface attributed to Luqiu Yin: “Nobody knows where Han Shan came from.” He describes how the elders of the community related to him stories of Han Shan’s life, primarily anecdotes of him appearing and disappearing in the halls of the Chan monasteries.

His appearance resembles that of an emaciated beggar, but every word he uttered was pithy, meaningful and inspiring. He wore a cap made of birch bark, a simple fur garment, torn and threadbare, and wooden sandals for shoes.

When the officially garbed Luqiu visits Guoqing Monastery he discovers both Han Shan and Shi De by the kitchen stove.   Luqiu bows the two.  In reply they yell, laugh, snigger and clap their hands before running up into the hills.  The provincial governor tries to bribe them with gifts but they refuse.  Han Shan is seen as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri—but that idea does not show up in any poems.   What does appear in the poems is the notion of satori and how one gets it and what it looks like when one has it. 

The governor sends out a search party and when they find the two they duck into caves and the caves close behind them.  Then the area is searched for any poems left behind and those are collected.   Other accounts seem to have been written well after the date given for the poems and even this version is apocryphal.  So ends the contemporary version of Han Shan.   

The American Han Shan
The figure of Han Shan remains a fictional character. With no reliable history of Han Shan or his sidekick Shi De (Kanzan and Jittoku in Japanese) the images of these crazy but sainted recluses survives as such good copy.

Buddhist poetry as a genre in Chinese does not have a huge influential history or following, as Burton Watson has noted for his own translations of Han Shan.  At the time Han Shan was not in the canon of Chinese poets: most major poets used images from Taoist or Confucian texts for their metaphors but Han Shan clearly used Buddhist imagery and allusions, too.

The poetry and the figures of Han Shan and Shi De were, however, immensely important to Japanese Buddhism.  Japanese paintings of the two crazy hermits giggling or pointing at the moon are common; important Buddhist priests painted many.  The two hermits’ symbols were Han Shan’s bamboo lunch bucket and Shi De’s broom and their shared blank scroll.  Often paintings only showed one or more of the three objects together without any humans and that was enough to suggest total enlightenment.

Translations
Translating Chinese poetry is difficult.  The single characters themselves are rich with multiple meanings, multiple references and alternate allusions.  Classically trained calligraphers only need to hear a line and they can provide the rest of the text.

As a modern language Chinese has the least number of sounds; for a language with a 5,000-year past, this is striking.  Each character has one syllable, normally.  One of four tones is used for modern Chinese monosyllables to assign a relative meaning.   So for the listener or reader to get a rapid apprehension of a particular character’s meaning a phrase is required.  Context is all; relationships between words reveal more than a fixed substantive meaning.   To complicate matters further there are no tenses for verbs and nouns are both singular and plural.

When most read Chinese poetry in translation there are you and I and she and he in the poems.  But those pronouns are hardly ever indicated by any single character in Chinese poems.   The psychological self has no time or particular perspective in the poems although that is how most Western translators enter these poems.  That extrapolation from no personal center to a narrator or I may derive from the poetic line of characters and their cumulative mood or spirit.

Often the translator has to sense what has occurred to set off this particular poem, to create or better yet select these images to encapsulate a change.  The change may come internally as the external details become harmonized in the poem’s flow.  And certain common radiant characters, such as moon, allude to any number of poetic and spiritual contexts.

Snyder’s Han Shan
So what is extraordinary about Snyder’s translations is that the character of Han Shan becomes so vivid.  There are implied first person nouns used so we get a visceral sense of the hermit and his situation.  This is Snyder’s gift: he comes alive inside this persona of Han Shan.

So Han Shan’s vivacity arises from the translator’s own circumstances and experiences plus his intellectual training that imbue his versions with a voice for the poet.

Not all of the 300 or so extant poems of Han Shan read like Snyder’s selections.  Many are the poems of a husband and urban soul classically trained bureaucrat who has passed his civil service exam of poetry and ritual and secured a position.  Snyder chose only those poems to translate through which he could express several ideals.

Such creatures as the ragged skeptical wise hobo who evinces a spiritual simplicity are American legends, too.   The townsfolk scorn such strangers, and the authorities attempt to run them out of town.  Our Westerns and folk songs celebrate such outsiders.    Often their role is one of correction; their effect is to rebalance or harmonize some aspects of the town life and then leave.

To get some idea of what Snyder saw and felt in the figure of Han Shan versus what a Sinologist such as Arthur Waley intuited we may contrast translations of the same Han Shan poem.

Waley version:

I make my way up the Cold Mountain path;
The way up seems never to end.
The valley so long and the ground so stony;
The stream so broad and the brush so tangled and thick.
The moss is slippery, rain or no rain;
The pine-trees sing even when no wind blows.
Who can bring himself to transcend the bonds of the world
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Waley’s notion is that the poet picks his way through some rocky terrain at the side of a valley.  Probably the sage holds a walking stick in hand as travelers are commonly portrayed in Chinese painting, navigating a slightly tricky but winding horizontal path alongside a stream.  The difficulty comes with shifting from side to side on the stream or while getting around thickets.  Waley’s picture excludes danger, beyond a slip on the moss and a fall; there’s no steep drops or chances for landslides, cave-ins or avalanches.   Nature has traps but negotiable pitfalls.  This portrayal’s particulars are entirely congruent with the visual etiquette for centuries of landscape scrolls and could stand as a description of hundreds of them.   The sage sits in a pavilion on a ledge with its roof obscured by white space or clouds.

In Snyder’s short introductory note to his Cold Mountain Poems he described Han Shan and Shi De thusly: They became Immortals and you sometimes run onto them today in the skid rows, orchards, hobo jungles, and logging camps of America.

In Snyder’s universe these two are real but unique people, and one may run across them reincarnated in certain places.  So he has no qualms placing them in the mountains of that present reality: the West.

Snyder’s Version:

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Snyder’s sage faces a trail up a gorge blocked by boulders: we’re free to imagine their size and jumble.  Underfoot are slippery loose rock, debris and pebbles: scree.  The site is not a valley, but a ravine cut through rock, so balance, angles and gravity work against the traveling sage.  He is, as Paul Kahn notes, probably down on his hands and knees in order to “clamber” over, under and through these obstacles.  No matter what route this hermit picks, there’s only more chaos ahead.

Chinese verse, much like 18th century English poetry and prose, often proceeds with parallel syntactical constructions to gain momentum, drama and/or cohesion between the lines.   “No rain, no wind” are literal translations of the negative phrases in the Chinese.

The speed of Snyder’s poem is quick, and its choice of words, like “world ties” much more incisive and dramatic.  Jump cuts inside lines and jump cuts between lines from perception to perception mimic the experience of climbing up into a canyon wall and getting new views with every switchback, turnout and dip in the trail.

Waley tuned his translation to any number of painted images of the sage in a mountain valley.  Snyder gives us a translation that is based on a rock climber’s experience if that mountaineer were also a Buddhist monk.

So in this poem Han Shan is enlightened; he has removed himself from the world of dust, as the Zen metaphor would say, both physically and spiritually  (shusseken is the Japanese phrase for “leaving the dust of the secular world behind”).   But Cold Mountain itself is enlightenment: to get there one must work hard.  (This notion is rhymed in actual practice.  Most Zen temples have a mountain in their titles and the metaphor for becoming the abbot of a temple is “climbing the mountain seat.”)

More than a translation Snyder creates a new poem in English by enlivening the original’s elements with a simplicity and vocabulary gained from real mountain climbing while under those elements flashes the depths of Buddhist thought and iconography.
In his Lannan Archive video, Snyder remarks that at this point in his career he wanted “a poetry that was simple yet deep.”  And on that tape as an example he reads from his Han Shan poems, discuss the monosyllabic effect of their lines, and how he tried to adapt that sound and its effect to his own poems in English, reading poems from his first book Riprap. His Han Shan poem feels lived, not transmuted from artistic scholarship like Waley’s—as impressive and useful as that act might be.

The Legend of Gary Snyder
Jack Kerouac dedicated his novel The Dharma Bums to Han Shan on the title page.  One of the main characters Japhy Ryder is a fictional version of Gary Snyder.  Kerouac fictionalizes himself as Ray Smith. The third chapter of the novel features Japhy Ryder’s translations from Han Shan, which are close to Snyder’s published versions. Dialogue between Smith and Ryder recreate the excitement over finding this poet and how his stance mirrors some of their attitudes.

“Want me to read you parts of this Han Shan poem? Want me to tell you about Han Shan?”

“Yeah.”

“Han Shan you see was a Chinese Scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.”

“Say, that sounds like you.”

“In those days you could really do that. He stayed in caves not far from Buddhist monasteries in the T’ang Hsing district of T’ien T’ai and his only human friend was the funny Zen Lunatic Shih-te who had a job sweeping out the monastery with a straw broom. Shih-te was a poet too but he never wrote much down. Every now and then Han Shan would come down from Cold Mountain in his bark clothing and come into the warm kitchen and wait for food, but none of the monks would ever feed him because he didn’t want to join the order and answer the meditation bell three times a day. You see why in some of his utterances, like—listen and I’ll look here and read from the Chinese,” and I bent over his shoulder and watched him read from big wild crowtracks of Chinese signs: “Climbing up Cold Mountain path, Cold Mountain path goes on and on, long gorge choked with scree and boulders, wide creek and mist-blurred grass, moss is Slippery though there’s been no rain, pine sings but there’s no wind, who can leap the world’s ties and sit with me among white clouds?”

 

This popular novel presented Kerouac’s version of Han Shan for America and eventually as his fame spread for the rest of the world.   Snyder’s version was at odds with Kerouac in certain ways.  But with this novel’s fame Snyder moved into an international arena, one that he never has left.  Cold Mountain poems showed him a way to write poems in English that were simple and deep at the same time.  Poems in Riprap spring from his Chinese and Japanese studies, while poems in The Back Country build on that style and in some way evolve into another style or two.

Kerouac was drawn to the Arhat image of Buddhism, the lonely ascetic self-denying monk.  This monk enters samadhi and attains nirvana by himself with good old Emersonian self-reliance.   Kerouac always wanted a little hut away from everyone to realize himself.  This image reappears over and over in his work, espoused as the goal.  However when he did get up on a fire lookout job for a month or so, he went bonkers over and over.   His ideal was not what he really wanted after all.   He then came to the conclusion that this ideal was not possible in America.

Snyder made no such assumptions.

Kerouac described Han Shan as Japhy Ryder and vice-versa.  But both men were fictions at heart.  Snyder was synthesizing elements of his life and he had the good fortune, ambition and sense to leave America for long periods of time.  Kerouac left, too, but not with Snyder’s goals.  He escaped a public perception he was a bum not a saint.  Jack was much more innocent than Snyder, with fewer defenses.  Snyder was persecuted, too, but he turned being blackballed by the State department from his lookout job to an advantage.   But the self-reliant icon of Han Shan both in his and Kerouac’s version was crucial for his trajectory as a writer and a thinker and public figure.



Keith Kumasen Abbott
is a poet and calligrapher, and the author of numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).  The ink drawings and calligraphy illustrating this essay are representations of his art.

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Report: Scenes From Life

Group reading of
Philip Whalen’s Scenes From Life At The Capital
Monday, October 23, 2017
Moe’s Books, Berkeley, CA

They said they would, and they did.  Two years ago Alastair Johnston of Poltroon Press had thought to combine the occasion of Philip Whalen’s birthday, October 20th, with a group reading from the recent reissue of Whalen’s Prolegemena to a Study of the Universe at Moe’s in Berkeley.  The readers then were Alastair Johnston, Owen Hill, Steven Lavoie, Tinker Greene, David Brazil, Pat Nolan, and Michael Rothenberg.  Much like the high spark of low heeled boys, a notion gained consensus among the participants that evening that a regular tribute to Philip Whalen and his work, on the anniversary of his birth, say, was not a bad idea.  And it was more or less agreed that the following year, on or about Whalen’s birth date, the usual suspects would gather at Moe’s to honor him with a reading of his poetry.  Because of its length, Scenes from Life at the Capital was chosen as a poem that would hold everyone’s attention.

A year came and went and the proposed event never materialized due, undoubtedly, to that mysterious inertia (rivaling dark matter) that often grips the poetry world.  But it was an idea whose time would come the following year on October 23rd 2017.  This time the participants were poets Alan Bernheimer, Norman Fischer, Tinker Greene, Owen Hill, Alastair Johnston, Steven Lavoie, Denise Newman, Pat Nolan, and Laura Woltag.  Clark Coolidge had also been scheduled to read but problems of a mechanical nature prevented him from participating.  The nine readers were each allotted two page increments to be read round robin style with the first reader also being the last reader with the extra turn at the seventy four page poem. Luckily everyone had the same edition and the readers proceeded alphabetically.

Fresh off the boat. Photo by Gary Snyder

Scenes From Life In The Capital was published by Don Allen’s Grey Fox Press in 1971.  Coming on the heels of his first collected poems, On Bear’s Head, the long poem continued Whalen’s dialogue with Kyoto and his life in Japan, a period that provided a new vitality for his poetry and a more serious engagement with Buddhism. His romance with Japanese culture is already quite evident in the section titled The Winter and the poem of the same name dedicated to Burton Watson that closes out his 1969 collected poems.

As befitting the occasion, Whalen’s poem is a marshalling of disparate voices: his own as voiceover narrator, sotto voice or aside, appropriated authoritative voice (headline, newscast, signage), academic prose voice, Fieldsian bombast or Bucklean bebop improvisation as well as the strictly alphabetic voice found in the shape of a word in the act of calligraphic concentration leading to playful digressive whorls and vectors.  Each of the poets reading that night adapted their voices to the score.  Many had been fortunate to have actually attended a Whalen reading, some more than once, and had a memory of the nuanced play of voices in the poet’s interpretations of his work.  To replicate that or give a reasonable facsimile was easier imagined than accomplished, and, mostly college educated, the poets rendered that nominal effort.  The many voices of the readers gave Scenes From The Life At The Capital a fitting performance despite its tongue twisting unpredictability, Kyoto place name speed bumps, and occasional francophone declamations.

Whalen as viewed by Kerouac was one of the West Coast rustics, the Pacific Rim boys, ostensible hardy woodsmen, spiritual descendants of Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo and the gone native French coureurs du bois.  Whalen and Snyder were learned mavericks, outlaw autodidacts, embodiments of Han-shan’s bodhisattva inclinations seeking a spiritual lifeline outside the prescribed Western canon. So it is not unusual to find Whalen as ambassador of poetry to Kyoto, the ancient cultural capital.  Scenes records a running commentary of delight and despair at his being there. The title also perfectly describes the poem’s composition as it is exactly that, snap shot still life stop action scenes spliced into a stuttering pattern of cinema vérité (or imaginé) narrative.

Old Kyoto Hand

In Whalen’s long poem, and in his poetry in general, the methods of film and poetry come together. Mining his notebooks he uses a cut and paste method similar to film editing to maximize word play and fleeting perceptions out of which subtle coincidence is teased. Each phrase or sentence acts as a complete occasion framed by the input of experience put into words to denote lucid perceptions.  The stanzas function as imagistic cinematic frames focusing on selective details of a Kyoto mise en scene. As Paul Christensen so aptly puts it, “The base of Whalen’s poetry is not so much the perception or even the object itself, the historic grounds of Imagist esthetics, but the phrase in which a sensation enters the language function of mind.  That point of impact marks a transformation of outer to inner realm, a cross-over into the yielding human imagination which doesn’t seek to translate or manipulate the experience, but enjoy it in a felicitous wording of the encounter.”  (“To Hunt For Water Under Stones” Jacket 11)

Although composed of notebook entries from some fifty years ago, the poem has its moments of timeliness and timelessness as well as an anachronism that belongs to its era.  Whalen begins seated center stage as the narrator summoning ghosts at a Noh performance or as the perennial house guest/couch surfer: “somebody’s else’s floor, as usual”. What follows is a sentient appraisal of the present, the past, the distant, and the close at hand, a travelogue marveling at the new, despairing of the old.

STOP  IT,  I  SAY,  STOP  THIS  TRUMPERY  MOCKERY
mockery trumpery pink chenille fuzz elephant baby mockery
trumpery trumpery mockery
monger                                  freeny-monger?                   fundle

Even though the preceding is likely the result of a calligraphic exercise as is “Festoon” earlier in the poem, it jumps out at the reader with an eerie prescience.  Whalen’s residence in Kyoto provided him with an Archimedean perspective, a new place to stand to view his nation’s imperialism and be moved to pen a fierce polemic. The lessons of history spliced in as headlines and onair new reports are cited as a cogent evaluation applicable to the late sixties turmoil of Viet Nam and Kent State as well as to the uproar of our own times.

Our main difficulty : fear and distrust of freedom

[ ]

Liberty in other hands is “license”

[]

When did the dumb bunny bomb first hit U.S.A.?
How come everybody appreciated it so much?

[ ]

Almost all Americans aged 4 to 100
Have the spiritual natures of Chicago policemen
Scratch an American and find a cop.  There is no
Generation gap.

[ ]

A friend wrote from Kent, Ohio, last year
“The Midwest is full of people who want to write poetry and want to listen to it.”
This year the National Guard, weeping with pity and fright
Kill four students, firing “into the mob”

[ ]

America Devouring Her Own Young
(The soldiers are also our children, we’ve lied to them, too
Americanism, Baseball, Commerce, Democracy, Education,
Fanaticism
Golf, Home Economics,
                                                            ignorance
The complete college curriculum
Then put them in uniform and turn them loose with guns
To kill “hate-filled long-hair dirty dope-fiend Com/Symp”)

[ ]

The American Revolution was a tax-dodge
Dreamed up by some smart Harvard men
Who got some good out of it.
A few of their high-society friends also scored

[ ]

Kent State, Jackson State, There was no reason to kill them
Fusillade into an unarmed crowd
Of children
I can’t forgive us for feeding them
to the Bears currently raiding Wall Street

[ ]

CAPITAL REMOVED TO FUKUHARA (Kamo no Chōmei
reporting)
6th month, 1180

[ ]

No matter how far we travel
We find most of the world living as quasi-civilized
Nomads among polished marble ruins of great cultures
The quality of life and the meaning of these remains
Are quite imperfectly known to us, no matter how skillfully
We parse the verbs of lost languages
All ignorantly we project our own savagery & cannibalism
Upon societies and individuals who were
Our civilized ancestors

[ ]

Japan is a civilization based upon
An inarticulate response to cherry blossoms.

After Kyoto

There is a label that might be applied to this particular style if for no other reason than to highlight the fact of its ubiquity in the American canon.  It has been used with various degrees of success by a number of poets, notably but not exclusively Williams, Pound, and Eliot.  Whalen, in this poem in particular, exemplifies an approach to poetry that can be termed Demotic Notational Ephemerism. The method is demotic in that it is plain spoken or language of the commons in tone.  It is also notational in that it is the annotation (marginalia, commentary, the subtext, if you will) of the text of life in the capital.  And ephemeral in that it is a tracing of language in red dust, the transient detritus of thought. This long poem represents an accumulation of phenomenological content accessed by the senses that comes together in a panorama of articulate responses. Deconstruction and discontinuity are tools for sidestepping the emotional illusion of reflective nature and which is the aim of the modern poem. Scenes From Life At The Capital demonstrates that a loose disjointed work born of spontaneity can hang together like a marvelously unpredictable kinetic word construct.

Later

The reading offered an opportunity for a close and intensive examination of the poem through the voices of others.  It highlighted the pleasures of encountering the flashes and intuitive leaps in the company of those predisposed to enjoy them, to experience the momentary insights and joyful responses to the sorrows of the world.  In the aftermath of the surprisingly powerful performance not much was said of plans for an encore in perhaps a year or two.  A marathon reading of the entire collected poems was given passing thought but that would  likely take up an entire weekend, and what venue could conceivably host it.  A yearly symposium on Whalen’s work sounded just a little too academic though his work certainly warrants it.  Maybe next time the tribute will come together as a reading of favorite poems, the longer ones shared among the voices of multiple readers.  Whatever and whenever, there is a definite need to continue to honor Philip Whalen and his importance to American poetry.

Submitted to the Memebrship
by the Parole Officer
11/7/2017

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Poetry In Exile

Poetry in Exile

Introduction to
Exile In Paradise by Pat Nolan
(Nualláin House, Publisher, 2017)

Some fifty years ago a friend loaned or gifted me Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, and as is commonly acknowledged a loaned book is often an unintended gift. The immediacy of those translations rests on their plain spoken imagism.  Undoubtedly much of that is due to Rexroth being of the Williams-Pound tell-it-as-you-see-it persuasion of American poetry.  The gift was my introduction to Chinese poetry.

What at first was merely idle curiosity has become a lifelong passion leading me to read just about everything I can find relating to Chinese poetry, from Witter Bynner to Mike O’Connor.  Over the years I have assembled a library of anthologies and collections beginning with Arthur Waley’s Translations from the Chinese and Robert Payne’s The White Pony to more current editions compiled by translators Burton Watson, Jonathan Chaves, David Hinton, Paul Hansen, and Red Pine (Bill Porter).  With each collection or critical study I learn something new.

One of the first things I discovered was that Chinese poems have an almost total lack of enjambment.  Each line is complete in of itself and works by association with the preceding and following line.  This led me to view them as weighted or modular lines, similar to a succession of snapshots, and interchangeable.

At the time of my initial interest in classical Chinese poetry I was also thoroughly engaged in the challenges of being an American poet in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.  I was fully aware of the experimental writing that was part of the great American literary reappraisal of the late sixties and early seventies: minimalism, collaboration, manipulation of texts using techniques employed by Burroughs/Gysin as well as appropriation and radical editing by poets aligned with the New York School.  Taking a cue from my contemporaries and to verify my hunch about the modular line I engaged in collaboration with the table of contents of Rexroth’s selection of Chinese poems.

The poems produced by this method of appropriation were recognizable as such, reflecting the spare, understated, open ended characteristics of Chinese poetry in translation.  I remember relating my method to Rexroth some years later and being met with a look of wary disapproval.  The so-called Chinese poems were published in limited edition along with a selection of my work aptly titled The Chinese Quartet (pace T.S. Eliot) by Cranium Press in 1973.

Originally my scholarly interest in Chinese poetry was rather haphazard.  I was aware, through my reading of Ezra Pound, of Fenollosa’s thesis on the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry, and was also familiar with Pound’s beautiful if not entirely accurate interpretation of Chinese poems.  I had devoured the Gary Snyder translation of Cold Mountain (Han-shan), probably around the same time that I was constructing my obvious forgeries.  It was all quite matter-of-fact and on the fly.  Then, while browsing in the University library, I stumbled upon Burton Watson’s Su Tung-p’o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet.  It was nothing akin to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick—more like the slow steady light of dawn erasing little by little the shadows until it is bright noon overhead.   And I heard a voice.  It was the voice of a poet ten centuries removed whose poems spoke to me directly as if he were my contemporary.  As with Rexroth, it was Watson’s ear for current tendencies in modern poetry that brought these poems into the Twentieth Century.  As should be expected, each new generation of translators of the poetry of ancient China into English or American brings something of their understanding of contemporary literature to their renditions.

From then on the pantheon of Chinese poets whose names I undoubtedly mispronounced became a focus of my armchair scholarship.  In the pre-internet days I scoured used bookstores for books on and of Chinese poetry and while an undergrad made use of the University library.  As it turns out,  not only did Su Tung-p’o reach out to me across the centuries but so did such luminaries as Lu Yu, T’ao Ch’ien, Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and Po Chu-I.

To be receptive to these poets it is necessary to understand that the Chinese ideogram as a medium for poetry is a picture, an image of great syntactic complexity.  Context serves as the basis for the unfolding of meaning and meaning is derived from a perceptual immediacy. The poet is always in the now, as reader and interpreter of the natural world.  Poems are couched in a simple elegance, like the sweep of a brushstroke, but at the same time reflective of a subtle sophistication.   A philosophic concept common to Buddhism and Taoism is the meditation on the regenerative in nature as exemplified by the passing seasons, the harmony of earth, sky, and flourishing life, where man is not at the center of the universe, but according to a personal scale, an integral part of the cosmos. The natural world, sacred and profane, is the horizon of this poetry,  a poetry of pictures, images, viewed in sequence, as flickering moments of sentience.

I found the esthetic sensibilities in Chinese poetry compelling and consistent with the times in which I lived.  My undergraduate thesis in literature postulated just such a connection between contemporary poetics and that of the classical Chinese.  I also kept up my interaction with the scholarly materials and translations as an active part of my creative agenda.  Encouraged by my initial success, I went on to produce more so-called Chinese works with such titles as Top Soil (Exotic Fragments from the Orient), The Chinese Connection, Naked Egg Fu Yung, and The Confusion Odes. Two poem sequences, Eight Chinese Poems of Doubtful Origin and Almond Eyes, were published as Obvious Forgeries, a chapbook from Steven Lavoie’s mimeo press, Famous Last Words, in 1976.  In the eighties, Jim Haining’s literary magazine, Salt Lick, published a sequence of reworked adaptations titled The Chinese Poems of the Japanese.  I began the present selection of original poems in the mid-eighties as a furtherance of my study and understanding of Chinese poetry.

In the course of my reading the Chinese poets I accumulated a list of favorite lines, primarily for my own edification and delight.  There was no particular method in how I went about this occasional diversion.  At one point I either purchased or was gifted a little hardbound notebook whose cover depicted an Asian art theme.  Perfect.  The blank pages had given me an idea.  I copied a favorite line at the top of each page bracketed by quotation marks to indicate that they were not original with me. I had on previous occasions used well known quotes as the launch pad for poetic improvisation.  What poet has not spun off a poem from an immortal saying or phrase?  The notebook collection of first lines presented me with an opportunity to practice what I had learned about Chinese poetry. Over time the quoted material engendered poems and the modest accrual of poems led to the current selection.

Of the many themes in classical Chinese poetry, I favor those of the footloose exiled poet and the Taoist recluse/Buddhist hermit. Chinese poets naturally lamented their exile, tied as they were by profound emotion to the geography and locale of their ancestral turf.  Educated in the classics, they followed career paths as government officials yet were sometimes exiled to backwater provincial posts to await the pleasure of the court or a shift in political winds.  Their poems bemoan their isolation from the bustle of the social world and buzz of the imperial court.  Some poets, such as T’ao Ch’ien, the poet of wine, savored the domesticity of their rustication.  Others rejected society entirely as did the hermit poets Cold Mountain (Han-shan) and Stonehouse (Shih-wu).  Their poems in particular are meditations on the essence of being in exile from the world.

I can count as my good fortune certain circumstances conducive to inhabiting an imaginary space corresponding to that of a poet in exile. Chief among these is atmosphere.  I live in a rural river valley in Northern California that has many of the attributes of Chinese landscape paintings: misty hills, coniferous forests, picturesque river vistas, wildlife, and relative isolation.  My exile, in fact, is genuine as my native land is over three thousand miles away on the shores of the St. Lawrence in far off French-Canada. Yet daily I celebrate my rustication and exile in the paradise of my abode of over forty years.  I may lament that I am not at the center of the action but like the hermit poets I am thankful for the self-reflection enforced by my solitude. And like many ancient Chinese poets, I was also employed in government as a lowly civil servant. Another contributing factor is an adequate personal library of translations from the Chinese that constitute my points of literary reference.  The various collections and monographs are reminders that although distant in time, the spirit of these poets is close at hand.  They provide a foundation for a reasonably authentic poetry practice while allowing me to remain a poet of the present day, with all that implies.

The sequence of poems of Exile In Paradise trace a progression of days through the seasons in the life of a fictive poet scholar exiled in paradise.  Each of the poems in this selection finds its origin in a line translated from a Chinese poet of old.  The body of the poem consists of an improvisation from that line with the aim of using elements of Chinese prosody such as parataxis and parallelism while being cognizant that Chinese nouns have no number, verbs have no tense, and there are few if any conjunctions or prepositional indicators.  In certain lyrical forms an emphatic repetition of a word beginning a line is paralleled in a succeeding line by precise mirrored syntax.  Apart from any overarching discursive intent, each line maintains its own integrity.   Chinese poetry is image rich and largely dependent for its overall effect on the juxtaposition of these images in a discontinuous thread that is not unlike the successive frames of a film.  Not only are the poems comprised of stacked images but the combination of modular lines presents a deeply resonant mosaic.  At its most basic an entire poem can function as the pure coincidence of images, an artfully arranged list.

The poems in Exile In Paradise are ephemeral, literary ghost masks, insubstantial whispering clouds, echoes of an echo.  They are stylized renderings representative of the bare bones of Chinese poetry in translation. While clearly original, they also seek to achieve a synthesis between a historically distant culture and the contemporaneous radically different literature of today.  Removed by degrees of separation from the originals in time and language, their impulse remains the same: to call up the perceptual as a song of celebration in sacred engagement with the world.


Pat Nolan has lived in silent cunning exile along the Russian River in Northern California for over forty years.  His poetry, prose and translations have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies in North America, Europe and Asia.  He has worked as a bartender, rock band manager, trail crew grunt, radio DJ, janitor, preschool teacher, and emergency dispatcher.  The author of three novels and over a dozen poetry books, he is also a publisher and maintains this literary blog.


Exile In Paradise
available exclusively from the publisher 

go to Nualláin House, Publishers
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Showing Vs. Telling, Part III

Showing vs. Telling:
Toward a Rhetoric of the Page

Part 3 of 3
by Tim Hunt

“The page might be said to function reflexively: the poet interacts with the page in fashioning an aesthetic object; the reader in turn re-enacts this interaction with the page by regarding the aesthetic object in the proper way (much as one might regard a painting).”


Robinson Jeffers’ “Credo” (probably written late 1926) is a quite different kind of poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “To a Solitary Disciple.”  It is not a moment of seeing distilled as writing that the reader is to experience as if directly even while savoring poem’s mediation (as if that mediation could, that is, both celebrate itself and erase itself if the poem is written with sufficient art, and as if such art would, then, in itself authenticate both the seeing and the constructed object of the poem).  Instead, “Credo” is a reflection on what the speaker has seen and how he has come to think about that seeing.  It is a series of comments, and it is openly, unapologetically, discursive.  In this poem we do not relate directly to what the poet has seen; we relate to it through the mediation of a speaker who both represents and interprets perceptions that are prior to and outside the poem itself.  “Credo” is, also, and in part for these reasons, a poem that needs to be approached as an act of speaking.  Reading it is more a matter of hearing the writing from the page than seeing the writing on the page:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it.  I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality.  The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.[1]

Unlike Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Jeffers in “Credo” does not attempt to inscribe images as if directly onto the page.  Instead, the “I” who speaks the poem talks about them; he refers to the reality of things (“The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality”), and this “I” mediates the reader’s relationship to the real in way that is finally less immediate and direct than the way the writing “eye” mediates the reader’s relationship to the faces as petals in “In a Station of the Metro” or the scene of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The way “Credo” presents a speaker talking about reality rather than the poem presenting itself as offering reality (or as being reality) would be a weakness if “Credo” were an attempt at an imagist lyric.  But to read the poem as failed Pound (or failed Williams or even failed Stevens) is to miss the nature and function of its discursiveness.  As a credo, “Credo” is both a definition of belief and a public statement of belief.  This occasion and the way “Credo” functions as composed speech (speech recorded in writing and shaped for re-enactment as if heard speaking) make Jeffers’ poem social in a way that an imagist lyric is not.  Pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” are socially constructed objects, and they function socially as they circulate, but social relationships are mostly not figured directly in the poems themselves (even in “To a Solitary Disciple” the disciple is less someone the speaker considers and addresses than a turn of speech—actually, a turn of writing, that initiates the speaker’s attention to the elements of the visual scene, and the speaker is finally not a “speaker” in any actual sense but actually a writer figured as speaker).  In “Credo,” though, what happens within the poem is directly social.  The “friend from Asia” (unlike the solitary disciple) is offered as an actual other, who “believes” differently than the speaker.  And the opening shows that the speaker and friend have already explored their different approaches to the world and the nature of its beauty.  While this implied exchange is prior to the poem, it sets up the dichotomies of East and West (as they functioned between specific individuals and at a particular cultural moment) and of idealism and materialism as frames to the speaker’s speaking, and this nexus of having spoken and of speaking, in turn, projects the reader as an actual other, a listener who is asked to acknowledge the difference between the speaker and his friend as the context for this statement of belief and to consider the nature and validity of the speaker’s belief and to consider the reward (and cost) of believing as the speaker does.

The speaker of “Credo,” thus, stands at the intersection of two implied dialogues, one that happened in the past and the one that occurs as he addresses the reader who he imagines as listening and reacting.  This factor is, finally, both the source and justification of the poem’s discursiveness.  “Credo” is not so much an aesthetic object as an aesthetic action.  The beauty that the speaker praises in the poem is not the beauty of the crafted beautiful object (the poem itself raised to the status of the beauty it supposedly records) but is instead “The beauty of things” that is prior to the poem, that extends beyond the poem, and which cannot be reified into an aesthetic object.  The goal in “Credo” is less to transform the real into a poem than to use the poem to drive a recognition of the real and an engagement with it.  If the imagist lyric can be a moment so intensely distilled, transformed, and fixed as language that it is redeemed from time, the lyric meditation of “Credo” must unfold as if in time and lead out to a recognition of time and process that eclipses the poem.  The poem invokes reality in order to point to it and drive an apprehension of the real that is beyond the poem rather than being in the poem.  It must, that is, unfold as a heightened moment of speaking, a witness, that happens to be recorded in writing.

Just as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” show Pound and Williams using the page to intensify writing as visual code, “Credo” shows Jeffers using the page to intensify writing as a representation of speech.  The line break that intensifies the word “only” in line seven illustrates this:

. . . the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The emphasis the break gives to “only” can (unlike the emphasis on “depends” in “The Red Wheelbarrow”) be fully conveyed by the voice and perceived by the ear.  Similarly, the way the seventh line offers “the ocean in the bone vault,” then follows “only” with two phrases that play against it uses the aural echo and near repetition to make both the image and what might be termed the conceptual action apparent to the ear and emphasize it.  The writing, that is, functions as a script, and the spacing suggests how the line should be said and heard.  How it is imagined as heard speech controls the experience.  The repetition of words and sounds similarly works for and by the ear.  It heightens or intensifies the language beyond ordinary speaking, yet the resonance and interplay of sounds reinforces the sense of the language as voiced and as a mode of speech.  In the following lines some of the repeated or echoed sounds are noted in bold face, and several key repeated or varied words are italicized:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.

One might also note the effect of the “er” sounds in the last of these lines and the way the hard consonants that close the word “salt” and the first syllable of “actual” sound out against the more open sounds that close most of the words (“magic” is the other word in these lines where the final consonant brings the sound to a hard stop) and add a dramatic and auditory emphasis to the phrase “the salt, the actual” that matches its conceptual emphasis in the poem.

The enriched sound and rhythm of the speaking voice in “Credo” has several functions.  It marks the piece as “poetic,” as artful, as more than ordinary speaking.  Yet it also intensifies our sense that we are hearing a voice, situated in time and addressing us.  This gives the page a certain (albeit illusory) transitivity.  In the imagist lyric as Pound theorized it, the poet composes (writes) the poem onto the page, and the written page becomes the poem.  The page might be said to function reflexively: the poet interacts with the page in fashioning an aesthetic object; the reader in turn re-enacts this interaction with the page by regarding the aesthetic object in the proper way (much as one might regard a painting).  In “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” we infer the poet as maker (writer) as having once stood, as it were, on the other side of the page, but we are not asked to imagine interacting directly with this figure.  Indeed, the textual dynamic, what might be termed the textual rhetoric (along with the various critical essays and manifestos Pound offered) make it clear that we are not to imagine ourselves interacting, as if in dialogue, through the poem to the poet.  To do so would be to erase a key element in what was, for Pound, Modernism’s modernity and its break with nineteenth century poetics.  As readers we necessarily engage the poem, but our interaction is to be with the written object inscribed on and stored on the surface of the page—the constructed (i.e. meticulously composed) aesthetic object.  As Modernist readers of the Modernist poem/object (later so aptly evoked through Cleanth Brooks’s image of the poem as “well wrought urn”) we engage the poem through its written gestures, the visual elements these project, and their functional interaction (that “equation” that Pound imagines as transforming the raw material of actual perception and emotional response into the aesthetic moment).  In “Credo,” though, the way the writing is cast as speech asks us to hear a voice that speaks not only from the page but as if through it.  The one approach casts the page as a space for organizing writing; the other treats it as a space for enacting voice.  The one approach brings the reader to a seemingly direct apprehension of, and participation in, the poem’s aesthetic energy (its equation); the other approach depends on the reader’s ability to empathize with the figure who speaks as if across and through (though actually from) the page and poem.

In the case of “Credo” it is the reader’s ability to empathize with the speaker’s affirmation of the “heart breaking beauty” of the natural world—even as the speaker implicitly acknowledges that this acceptance of nature as other also confronts one with a sense of one’s own mortality—that gives the poem its energy and pushes the reader to experience this same mix of affirmation and loss.  The poem looks beyond the social realm of speaking and listening but does so by harnessing the empathy of the social act of speaking and listening.  One could, of course, see “Credo” as simply a chattier (and thus lesser) version of “To a Solitary Disciple,” where an “I” also presents the material of the poem, and the poem offers a heightened awareness of beauty, but in Williams’ poem the speaker is not dramatically specific nor dramatically active to the same degree or in the same way as the speaker in “Credo.”  In “To a Solitary Disciple” the speaker is a device used to focus our attention on the written equation that the interplay of the visual elements embodies and that the reader can apprehend (“grasp”) through the right kind of looking at the poem and its writing.  If we reach the perceptual and imaginative breakthrough that the poem sets up, the speaker simply drops from the picture (much as a catalytic agent drops out of a chemical reaction).  In “Credo,” though, the figure of the speaker experiences the dilemma of the poem as if directly, speaks from this dramatic participation to the “you” of the reader, and remains engaged throughout the poem.  The speaker is, in fact, doubly engaged—with the terms of the experiential dilemma and with the reader as the addressed other, and the speaker remains an active mediation between the reader and the terms of the poem—and actually, the speaker is most present at the end, when the speaker and reader both recognize and share their mutual yet distinct isolations in a redemptive nature in a moment of intensified awareness that derives from the poem but moves beyond it.

As the example of “Credo” illustrates, the difference between poems that use alphabetic characters as visual language (writing that need not be mediated by and perceived through the sound of the words to be understood) and poems that use this same set of visual alphabetic characters more as a system to represent composed acts of speech (that happen to be stored and transmitted through the visual units) isn’t that the latter place more emphasis on the sound of words (this is sometimes, but not always, the case).  Rather, the difference has more to do with the function of the page itself.  In poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page is a visual field for structuring written units.  In poems like “Credo” the page is an aural field for enacting speaking.  The former operates as if beyond our outside or having transcended time; the latter operates as if enmeshed in time, the passing of time.

At least for poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, using the page as a space for writing as a visual system and using writing as a way to transmit composed speech have different rhetorical tendencies and implications.  In poems where the page is more a visual field, the speaker is often effaced or is a figure or set of figures inscribed within the field of the poem (as are the various voices and registers of voices in The Waste Land) rather than being a subjective other or agent who (implicitly) stands beyond the frame of the poem addressing the reader as if a “you” who might hear and respond.  We may, if we choose, project a disposition behind the text that we label Eliot or infer a position from the various figures of the epic heroes in The Cantos that we equate with Pound’s constructing consciousness, but we do not, for the most part, treat poems like The Waste Land or The Cantos as if the figure of the poet addresses us directly[2] (the crisis, both poetic and personal, that drives Pound to a more direct, confessional act of speaking in The Pisan Cantos is, I’d suggest, an exception that proves the tendency).  And this is even clearer in pieces such as “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Red Wheelbarrow, which seem to have no speaker but seem instead (to borrow the poet Louis Simpson’s suggestive pun) to have an “eye” instead of an “I.”[3]  In these poems the speaker (perhaps more properly the speaker function) is, finally, contained within the poem, while in poems like “Credo,” conversely, the poem seems contained within the speaker who speaks as if through the marks on the page.  We cannot actually reply to the “I” in “Credo,” but we hear the poem as if we could, and the way the poem invites the reader to share empathetically in the final recognition functions something like a moment of response where the “I” and “you” are linked by their parallel participations in the process of projecting beyond the frame of the poem.

Today our canon of modern American poetry tends to privilege poets, like Pound and the early Williams, who focused on the potentials of writing as a visual system rather than poets, like Jeffers, who worked more in terms of writing as represented sound and speech and cast the reader in the position of listener and hearer.  Perhaps poetry that treats writing as a visual code is inherently and inevitably more worthy than poetry that treats writing as an auditory system, but perhaps (and I think more plausibly) our critical training and current critical preferences have helped us be more alert to poems that must be seen than poems that must be heard.  If so, perhaps we need to learn how, why, and when to hear the page as well as how, why, and when to see it if we are to understand more adequately the array of poetic projects that made the first half of the twentieth century such a rich period of innovation and achievement.


[1]  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume I, 1920-1928, Ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 239.

[2]  If we do imagine such a voice in these poems, we are, of course, reading directly against the grain of Eliot’s position in his highly influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

[3]  Louis Simpson, Adventures of the Letter I (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971).  This distinction relates, clearly, to the vexed contemporary question of “presence,” a matter not addressed in this piece but which I hope to address elsewhere.


Tim Hunt is professor emeritus in Literature from Illinois State University. His scholarly publications include Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a FictionThe Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, and the five volumes of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  Hunt has also published three collections of poetry.  Fault LinesThe Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his the poem “Lake County Elegy” has been awarded the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize.

Showing vs. Telling is reposted from Professor Hunt’s website at THunt.com

 

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Showing vs. Telling, Part II

Showing vs. Telling:
Toward a Rhetoric of the Page

~Part 2 of 3~

by Tim Hunt

“This is not to suggest that listening is inferior to visual processing.  It is, rather, to note that speaking/hearing and writing/reading are different modes of language and that poems that are imagined as operating more within the aural domain (as if performed speech recorded in writing) and those that are imagined as operating more within the visual domain (as compositions made from the visual system of writing) engage and deliver language differently.”

Section XXII of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1923), usually anthologized as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” is a poem that exploits writing as itself a visual system of language, and it illustrates how the page can function as part of the poem’s measure—an element in the writing:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens[1] 

The poem presents a single visual moment, a single image.  How the page and phrases interact is clear if we read it as if prose: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”  This reduces the poem to a flat assertion that is of little (actually no) interest—at least without a story or argument to specify why anything could “depend” on a wet wheelbarrow in the chicken yard.  But breaking the sentence into lines creates a seemingly energized moment of visual perception.  In prose the words are a kind of summary; but arranged against the field of the page, the words become a set of visual recognitions, actions, where we engage texture, color, and spatial relationships.  Chunked as smaller than usual perceptual and linguistic units, the scene’s elements gain specificity and energy (the way lines five and six split the word “rainwater” into two so that we attend to “rain” as action and thing and to “water” on objects as outcome illustrates this).  The cumulative effect is to intensify an ordinary glance into a moment of energized seeing in which the discrete details become a set of visual qualities and relationships that in turn become an imaginative whole.  In this sense, “much” does “depend” on this poetic still life and the active, engaged mode of looking that it enacts and elicits.

William Carlos Williams

In “The Red Wheelbarrow” the page functions as a visual space that modulates the writing on it and is necessary for the poem to work at all.  “The Red Wheelbarrow” does not represent speech and need not be voiced (or heard) to be experienced.  It can be read silently, so long as it is not read as prose but is read with attention to the conceptual emphases and linguistic disruptions the line breaks and space create.  The functioning of the crucial word “depends” demonstrates this.  In reading the poem aloud, we would presumably emphasize “depends” because of its position at the end of the line.  This emphasis is not, though, driven by the way the sentence of the poem would be read if it were treated as a unit of speech, nor is it driven by any aural patterning of rhyme, meter, or rhythm.  The emphasis is conceptual, and it depends on the visual action of reading (the way our eyes stop when they reach the end of the line, before shifting down and left to begin processing the next unit) and on our recognition of how this break and those that follow cut against the syntactical grain to re-organize the units of the sentence as units of visual apprehension.  Similarly, the way the whole poem hangs down from, and conceptually derives from, “depends” (literally hangs from or on) is a play that energizes the word but turns almost entirely on how “depends” functions as a visual unit of writing (a word) in a specific visual position on the page.  The occasion of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” then, is visual; its action is visual and conceptual; the writing emphasizes the words as visual units rather than units of speech; and the way Williams’ uses the page to disrupt and recast the written visual system energizes the language.  We can, of course, choose to hear the poem, to read it aloud with the pauses and inflections the line breaks mark, but nothing requires us to do so, since the inflections derive from the writing that is the poem, not from speech or speaking.

A somewhat earlier Williams’ piece, “To a Solitary Disciple,” (first published February 1916 in Others: An Anthology, then collected in Al Que Quiere! in 1917) underscores the visual, writerly basis of his approach in his early Imagist work:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its color
is shell-pink

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.

Rather grasp
how the dark
converging lines
of the steeple
meet at the pinnacle—
perceive how
its little ornament
tries to stop them—

See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
escape upward—
receding, dividing!
—sepals
that guard and contain
the flower!

Observe
how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.

It is true:
in the light colors
of morning
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue.

But observe
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
Observe
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.[2] 

The poem’s language, because cast as an address to an imagined disciple, seems to suggest that the writing, here, functions as stored speech and that we should hear, rather than see, these phrases.  But, as with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem’s system and logic is actually visual (emphasizing writing as itself language) rather than aural.

For one thing, the disciple is less an auditor than a device that provides an occasion for the speaker to respond to the visual scene (imagined or actual) and develop how it might best be composed in writing.  This requires, first, setting aside prior conceptions of what might make the scene beautiful in order to experience its elements and their relationship freshly.  This scrupulous regard for the scene, this rejection of painterly and poetic conventions of the picturesque, allows the speaker to perceive the scene actively and participate in it.  As with “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much “depends” on this imaginative apprehension of world.  But also “To a Solitary Disciple” delineates the nature of the looking that supports the writing of poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  It shows the speaker avoiding (and instructing the imagined disciple to avoid) both conventional perceptions of the picturesque and conventional expressions of it.  One reject the conventional satisfaction of seeing “that its color/is shell pink” if one is to grasp—and express—the scene’s actual set of relationships and its dynamism.  And by doing this one can reach a moment where the perception of “the jasmine lightness/of the moon” is genuine rather than trite because it is engaged specifically and as if directly without conventional mediations.  This enables the image to function as the apprehension and expression of what is actually there and also as an imaginative intensification of it that can enable the viewer to apprehend the scene’s energy.

The way the page disrupts language as speaking to foreground, instead, writing as a visual system is less obvious in “To a Solitary Disciple” than “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but the speaker of “To a Solitary Disciple” is more properly a perceiver/writer than a “speaker.”  Although the speaker explicitly addresses the disciple (“Rather notice, mon cher”), experiencing the poem is more a matter of seeing the writing on the page than hearing it, as the break between the second and third lines illustrates.  The way the second line can stand alone as the completion of what the disciple is to notice (“notice, mon cher,/that the moon is”) emphasizes “is” and allows the line to function as an assertion of the moon’s physical being, emphasizing its presence as a matter of primary importance.  The third line then recasts “is” more simply as the linkage of “moon” to its being “tilted”:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above

The way “is,” in this stanza can be both an assertion and a simple linkage depends on writing operating as a visual system.  It requires the position of words in visual space rather than the syntactical modulations of speaking.  And it requires that the poet and reader have a shared sense of the conventions for how the units constructed from the visual code—the “lines”—interact with the space of the page; how, that is, the page as space and surface mediates the interaction of the lines a composed units of writing.  This point is, I’d suggest, more apparent when we recognize that there is no direct equivalent in speech.  We can read these phrases to emphasize the final “is” of the second line (“Rather notice, mon cher, that the moon IS tilted above”), but doing so does not underscore that the “moon is” in the way that responding to the written code on the page does.  Reading the lines as actual speech (rather than voiced writing) instead emphasizes the need to attend to the quality of being “tilted.”  The modulation of “is” as we voice this written construction is not a product of the language as speech recorded in writing; it is a product of writing and the way units of writing relate to each other spatially on the page.

“To a Solitary Disciple” is composed as writing (with language operating first as visual code and the aural dimension of the words not only secondary but to a significant degree disposable) rather than as speech that has been encoded and thereby preserved in writing.  The way the poem builds from verbs emphasizing perception and how the pattern this creates functions conceptually and aesthetically underscore this.  In the poem’s first verse paragraph, the disciple is to “notice,” in the second to “observe,” then to “grasp.”  The three verbs show the speaker/writer demanding that the disciple’s looking become progressively more engaged and active; this pattern helps create the imperative energy to the directions “See” and “See” in the first two lines of the fourth paragraph, and this progression of “notice” to “observe” to “grasp” to “See/See” shapes how the imperative “observe” (repeated three times in paragraphs five through seven) functions.  In the second paragraph, “observe” is more simply the instruction to pay careful, accurate attention; in the fifth and seventh paragraphs it becomes not only a matter of observing but of grasping, seeing, and projecting the images that are the scene’s true and actual beauty (and its imaginative realization and expression).

The way the sequence of these verbs shape their precise meaning in the poem is a feature of the writing.  The eye can track such patterns, because the page allows the eye to move back and forth between the written elements arranged on it.  The eye, that is, can follow the unfolding of the writing as linear process (and thus, in this poem, the way these commands evolve through the poem as a series), while also constructing the imperative verbs as a set in which each element takes something of its meaning (its particular nuance or resonance) from the way it repeats, extends, and diverges from the set’s other elements.  The eye can hold (or review) the words as visual units and thereby process the writing both as linear series and as spatial set, process these two in terms of each other, and generate the poem’s system.

That these qualities involve writing (i.e. the visual elements on the page) as itself language rather than writing as speech represented visually is, I think, clear if we imagine hearing the poem rather than reading it from the page.  In hearing the poem, the speech action of addressing the disciple would be immediately clear, as would (if it were read well) the way the perception of the scene becomes increasingly engaged and energized as the poem moves from “moon is” to “jasmine lightness/of the moon.”  The poem might well be a compelling emotional experience, but the ear could not track the way the poem as composed writing builds from the more specific unfolding of the series of verbs nor construct them into a functional set.  The ear can track inflection, tone, and pace better than the eye can see them, but the ear cannot stop the text and reflect as it listens, cannot move recursively up and down the page, cannot extract and pattern the units of a set of elements from a text with the same power or precision as the eye.  “To a Solitary Disciple,” that is, builds more from the simultaneity of the images and phrases as a systematized visual set than from the unfolding of sound in time that characterizes speaking.

This is not to suggest that listening is inferior to visual processing.  It is, rather, to note that speaking/hearing and writing/reading are different modes of language and that poems that are imagined as operating more within the aural domain (as if performed speech recorded in writing) and those that are imagined as operating more within the visual domain (as compositions made from the visual system of writing) engage and deliver language differently.  “To a Solitary Disciple” was written to be read visually more than it was written to be heard.  And this becomes, I’d suggest, even clearer if we note that the gesture “Rather notice, mon cher” functions less as speech (either as monologue for the benefit of disciple and reader or as imagined dialogue with the disciple) and instead functions more as an “equation” as Pound uses that term in his essay “Vorticism” to explain the distillation and transformation of an actual experience in the metro station into the aesthetic perception that becomes “In a Station of the Metro.”[3]  In “To a Solitary Disciple” the imperative verbs support a series of equations (notice a not b; observe x not y, and so on).  And the poem itself becomes a larger equation that is the sum and result of this series (attending to a not b transforms the landscape from sentimental convention into energized visual field).

Ezra Pound, 1913

For Pound “To a Solitary Disciple” might have seemed a lesser poem than “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  It is more discursive, less distilled; and one could argue that it circles around its “equation” rather than expressing the equation directly (as “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “In a Station of the Metro” perhaps do).  But one value of “To a Solitary Disciple” is that it models the perceptual process that would yield the particular moments of seeing in a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  And it illustrates why “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be read visually (both in the sense of attending to the scene being evoked and in the sense of mapping the poem’s linguistic units both from the surface of the page and against the space or field of the page).  And it shows that poems that emphasize writing as visual code may well incorporate moments of represented speech and spoken touches, yet still require primarily the attention of the eye, not the ear, to engage not only the poem’s material but also its mode of language.  In these three poems the external world is a text to be read—that is, seen and possessed through the imaginative energy of the eye.  And this process of reading as seeing becomes the written text (the distillation and realization of the imaginatively apprehended “equation”) that the reader, reciprocally, sees and possesses in reading the visual code of words and images.  The poem, that is, is a textual object to be viewed and appreciated, and its value comes in large part from the power of the textual object to elicit a recognition of the “equation” that distilled the original experience and transformed that biographical and discursive reality into the poem.  In this sense the poem as writing does not refer; rather it “is” as the “moon is.”


[1]  The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, Ed. A Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions Books, 1986), 224.

[2]  The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 104-05.

[3]  Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions Books, 1960), 81-94.5.


Tim Hunt is professor emeritus in Literature from Illinois State University. His scholarly publications include Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a FictionThe Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, and the five volumes of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  Hunt has also published three collections of poetry.  Fault LinesThe Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his the poem “Lake County Elegy” has been awarded the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize.

Showing vs. Telling is reposted from Professor Hunt’s website at THunt.com


New to the Society’s Shelves:

David Bromige & Richard Denner, The Canto Berry Tales, DPress, 2007
Sandy Berrigan. The Tall Man, (privately published), 2017

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Showing vs. Telling, Part I

Showing vs. Telling:
Toward a Rhetoric of the Page
Part 1 of 3

by Tim Hunt 

“The medium of writing must be, it seems, either an attempt to subvert, an attempt to ignore and hide, or an attempt to engage the differences between the twinned but solitary moments of writing/reading and the social interactivity and speaking, listening, and replying. . .”


If we think of the page at all, it’s probably as something necessary to writing but of little interest in itself. While writing, publishing, and reading are, we recognize, socially and culturally mediated, the page seems neutral enough and constant enough across time and genres that it can be ignored.  It simply stores language and conveys it to the reader.  The page, it seems, is like a shoebox.  If we were shopping for shoes, we might note the label (“Are these authentic Air-Shakespeares?”) and ponder the shoes themselves (“To style or not to style, that is the question”), but we wouldn’t analyze the box.  All shoes—high heels, sports shoes, wingtips, cowboy boots—come in a box.  The particular shoe dictates the size and shape of the shoebox.  The shoe is all; the box nothing.  But is the page simply a “box” for the shoes we fashion from writing?  What if it’s, at times, more than a surface for the writing printed on it?  For poetry, at least, this seems to be the case.  In poetry written for the page and circulated in print, the page is not a passive surface for conveying words to the eye.  It functions as part of the poem’s system of measure and partly determines how its sound and its linguistic gestures function.  In poems, the page and the writing it holds are not shoebox and shoe but, instead, an integrated, culturally mediated system that can shift over time in response to such things as how writers and readers treat the relationship of writing to speech and speaking and how they theorize their relationship to that broader phenomenon—language.  The surface of the page is itself rhetorically constructed—for both the writer and the readers who try on a particular poem and walk about in it.  And, if the rhetoric of the page is in part historically constructed, it may well be that a writer’s assumptions about the system of the page and writing may differ at times from the various assumptions that later readers may hold and that this can complicate, even compromise, how readers engage various poems without the reader being aware that this is the case.

This claim that the surface of the page matters as something more than just an empty box for written objects is based on the assumption that writing and speaking are two different modalities of language and that our various ways of understanding what writing is and how it functions necessarily reflect (and embody) a response to this difference.  The medium of writing must be, it seems, either an attempt to subvert, an attempt to ignore and hide, or an attempt to engage the differences between the twinned but solitary moments of writing/reading and the social interactivity and speaking, listening, and replying—whether we are consciously aware of these different options or whether our approach to writing and reading leaves these options as latent, unexamined matters.

Josef Vachek

The work of the linguist Josef Vachek offers a way to understand how the dialectic of speaking and writing as distinctly different modes of language can support different uses of the page and how the page can function as an element in the system of writing.  Vachek argues that writing can relate to speech in several ways.  It can, for one, function as a visual image of the sound of speech.  Appropriately clustered letters evoke spoken sounds, and writing can, thus, be used to represent approximations of speech on the page and thereby both store these approximations for later use and circulate them beyond the place of their speaking.  Similarly, writing can be used to construct texts that we, as readers, hear as if the systematically arranged letters represent something that was spoken, even when the writer may have reviewed and revised the writing so that the final product has an economy or density or stylistic finish that we seldom manage in the impromptu exchanges of actual speaking.  In both of these approaches—whether writing represents actual instances of speaking or has been fashioned into a kind of distilled or supra-speaking—writing is an analogue to speech.  It is, that is, a visual representation of an aural system that derives from and emulates spoken practice.

But writing can also, Vachek notes, function directly as a visual system that need not reference the sound of speech, restrict itself to practices that would actually work in the give and take of speaking, nor mime speaking in any way.  When we write expository prose for silent reading and read it silently, the letters of words needn’t imply sound.  In writing operating as visual language (rather than representation of spoken language) distinctions such as “to,” “too,” and “two” are visual cues that contribute to the processing of the visual units even though they do not register as aural differences.  When writing and reading are manipulations of a visual code, a visually self-sufficient system, there is no need understand what is written as if it is a representation of speech and speaking.  Writing is no a way of encoding and presenting an aural system.  Writing becomes, itself, language rather than an analogue storage of language.  But writing, once its potential to function fully as a visual system through writing for the silent eye and reading silently comes into play, is no longer restricted to being a mirror of speech and the dynamics and processes of speech.

For Vachek, then, the single code of writing can operate in two different ways: (1) as a visually encoded representation of speech (where speech is the expressive system) and (2) as a self-sufficient visual system where writing is the expressive system.  For Vachek, writing in this second sense, while it has evolved from speech and speaking, has come to operate through and for the eye and has over time come to have its own norms and practices (distinct from speaking) that reflect its particular advantages and limitations as a visual rather than aural medium.[1]

For the most part we shift so easily between these systems, these media, that we seldom consider the different norms, occasions, or capacities and limitations that shape our practices of speaking and writing as two distinct modalities of language.  We are, in a sense, bi-languageal.  We talk one way; we write another; and we are so comfortable with the occasions for each and so adept at their respective dynamics that we have little reason even to notice their differences, much less reflect upon them.  Yet, our practices of language do not always divide so cleanly into the separate realms of the immediately interactive exchange of speaking/listening and the deferred interactivity of writing/reading.  Our practice also includes various hybrids.  We have all encountered conference “talks” that are lucid and reasonably paced if read by the eye as “writing” but when heard as if speech (what might be termed voiced writing) are so turgid that even a triple latté can’t keep us awake.  Similarly, anyone who has “transcribed” a taped panel discussion knows that what seemed a brilliant point brilliantly made in the actual give and take can be a baffling series of elliptical fragments when transferred verbatim to the page.  People who write good “talks” adjust their prose to accommodate the needs of the ear, and people who are skilled transcribers often must translate what was spoken into a prose that “sounds” to the eye as if it could have been spoken.  Such hybrids as conference talks and transcribed discussions illustrate that writing for the ear is not the same thing as writing for the eye and show that voiced writing is not the same thing as interacting in speaking with a listener who functions as a responding “you” rather than an audience.

These hybrids also illustrate that the doubled system of writing (its capacity to function, on the one hand, as a visual representation of spoken sound and to function, on the other, as a visual system derived from but not limited to the action of speech) often plays out in our actual practices of language not so much as a binary either/or but as various intermixtures that combine writing as represented sound (and potentially image of speech) and writing as units of visual meaning in different ratios.  The unvoiced efficiency of technical prose suggests one end of this dialectic.  Written speeches that emphasize incantatory rhythms, repetitions, and the like as performance elements fall somewhere toward the other end, while conference talks and transcribed discussions fall somewhere in between.  The practices that we aggregate as literature, I’d suggest, also fall somewhere in between.

If voicing writing (that is reading aloud) is not the same as speaking and if writing speech is not the same as writing writing, the way composing in language can involve various negotiations of writing as represented sound and writing as visual code seems especially, and unavoidably, a factor for poetry with its roots in oral practice and its history of emphasizing auditory elements (rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc.).  While the novel has been from the start a written form, produced for print and read silently, poetry preceded the advent of writing.  And though poetry’s successive formal incarnations in writing and print have changed the role of sound in it, we continue to believe that poetry is written at least in part to be voiced and heard.  The belief that poetry should continue to relate to the ear (even as it is composed for the page and circulated on the page as writing) has never fully died out.  This may be one reason why the history of poetic experiment is so much a history of poets attempting to come to terms with what it means to transcribe sound onto the page and work out ways to utilize the page as a visual field, to make the line function as a visual unit of measurement, and to exploit typography as a stylistic element.[2]  It may also be a reason why the history of experiment in the novel tends to move in the opposite direction and to involve more a series of plays on and with the spoken—Sterne, Joyce, Faulkner—that push us to hear the page in ways that supplement or disrupt the written mode and its visual norms.

In any case, the relationship of writing to page tends to differ in prose and poetry.  In prose, the page has relatively little to do with measuring the writing.  Whatever the ratio of representation of sound and speech to visual code a particular writer’s style might involve, we tend to read as if the writing unfolds continuously without being measured or bounded by the margins or page breaks.  The modulations within sentences and between groups of sentences come from syntax, punctuation, shifts in register that we may hear within the style, paragraphing, and chapter divisions.  In most prose, then, we “read” the page as a relatively neutral surface, and prose that breaks up the space of the page to create visual, spatial relationships among the written units seems experimental (or it reflects a specific, codified use of space and spacing such as hanging indents and bullets in certain kinds of technical writing).

In poetry, though, the page is not a neutral surface for writing.  It is an element in the poem’s system of measure that helps create the specific ratio of writing as represented speaking to writing as visual code in a given work.  In poetry, the page is much more than a shoebox that stores the poem on the shelf until we slip it out to try it on for size.  Rather, the surface of the page and the writing on it are a single mechanism that enact the various conventions poets and readers have negotiated over time for what the space of the page actually is, what poetic “writing” is in relationship to this space, and the system for how this space and the verbal units in it interact.

In modern poetry the page can function in at least two contrasting ways: (1) as a space where writing as a visual system can be inscribed and measured against the field of the page, and (2) as a space where writing as represented sound enacts a voice.

(To Be Continued)


[1]  Josef Vachek’s seminal 1959 essay, “Two Chapters on Written English,” is collected in Selected Writings in English and General Linguistics (Prague : Academia, 1976), 408-41.  Vachek later updated and extended his discussion of these matters in Written Language: General Problems and Problems of English (The Hague, Mouton, 1973).

[2]  Jerome McGann’s discussion of Anglo-American modernist poetry in Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) provides an extended example of this.


Tim Hunt is professor emeritus in Literature from Illinois State University. His scholarly publications include Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a FictionThe Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, and the five volumes of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  Hunt has also published three collections of poetry. Fault LinesThe Tao of Twang, and Poem’s Poems & Other Poems received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his the poem “Lake County Elegy” has been awarded the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Prize.

Showing vs. Telling is reposted from Professor Hunt’s website at THunt.com


New to the Society’s Shelves:

The Farflungland Review, ed. Eric Johnson, Iota Press, 2011
Rene Char’s In 33 Pieces, Lee Perron, trans., limited edition, 2017
Michael Hannon, The Muse Turns Her Back, Word Palace Press, 2017
Joel Dailey, Post-Hypnotic Suggestions, The Moron Channel, 2017
The Ultimate Actualist Convention, Morty Sklar, Cinda Kornblum,
Dave Morice, eds., The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 2017

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Broadside Swipe

The Great Broadside Swipe
and Other Proceedings of
the 2nd Black Bart Poetry Society Convention
Celebrating the Life and Work
of Joanne Kyger (1934—2017)
Commonweal Retreat Center
Bolinas Calif. July 22, 2017.

by Steven Lavoie

Decades passed, yet she persisted. At least once during every conversation I had with her, Joanne Kyger would prod me to put together another Black Bart Poetry Society convention somewhere in Bolinas. She wanted to have one in Bolinas:  a really good idea, in theory. Someday the time would come.

That time came on July 22, 2017 at the Commonweal Retreat Center in Bolinas. Sadly, Joanne would not have the opportunity to experience it, nor would the hundreds of participants, or the organizers, have a clue that they were a party to it.  Billed as “a celebration” of Kyger’s “life and work,” this second Black Bart Poetry Society convention had little in common with the first, held 35 years before in San Francisco. This time the site was rural, with an infrastructure marginally equipped to handle the throng of fellow poets, neighbors, former newspaper colleagues and associates of Kyger’s,  and possibly some curiosity seekers clued by an announcement on the Internet.

A convoy of mostly fuel-efficient, hybrid or all-electric cars heading coastward on the Mesa Road out of Bolinas converged on Commonweal Retreat Center where the now defunct RCA Corp. once delivered radio broadcasts across the Pacific.  After staking out parking spots along the grassy, elevated edges of the long, level roadway leading to the venue, celebrants and unknowing conventioneers trod the gravel surface under extraordinary sunshine reminiscent of the recurring scene in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisies.  Some silently grieved, others panted in exertion, still others engaged in conversation while others secretly listened, hearing tales of past encounters with the singular figure to whom they had all gathered to pay last respects.  One octogenarian couple debated details of a particular gathering long ago at what sounded like the Russian Hill home of Margot Patterson Doss, where Kyger and her colleagues would often congregate during the waning years of Beat-era San Francisco. Another group was overheard recalling the wry sarcasm of Kyger’s remarks during a more recent colloquy of local poets held somewhere in the more densely populated tracts of Marin County, a dreadful but obligatory gig, no doubt, especially from a Black Bart Poetry Society perspective.  Everybody, it seemed, had a story to tell about Joanne Kyger.

The multitude funneled through the narrow entrance to the central structure of the compound, the only venue in all of Bolinas that could conceivably accommodate a gathering of this size, up a flight of stairs, across a broad exterior landing to another flight of wooden stairs into the main meeting room. The landing provided a perfect platform for earlier arrivals, such as author Jim Nisbet, to hold forth and be seen by everyone in attendance. It was that kind of a gathering, after all. Be there or be L7, for sure.

Donald Guravich, Joanne’s husband and companion of many years, greeted friends, acquaintances, and literary celebrities with somber affection and in return received heartfelt and sometimes tearful condolences.  The celebration of Joanne Kyger’s life and genius joined by the many who loved and cherished her was yet another step toward closure at the passing of his inamorata a mere three month earlier.

Many of the expected guests and attendees arriving from the greater Bay Area found themselves significantly delayed due to the near Biblical traffic snarl clogging the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the Shoreline Highway blocked by a severe landslide caused by the winter’s historic deluges. (My trip from Oakland, 29 Google miles to the venue, took two hours and 40 minutes, longer than it takes for a typical trip to society headquarters on the Russian River.) Consequently the memorial venue was standing room only when they arrived and were relegated to the fringes of the convocation.

The Commonweal is a project of Michael Lerner (not to be confused with Rabbi Michael Lerner), a prominent former Ivy League professor of psychology and political science and MacArthur Foundation fellow, who acted as Master of Ceremonies. Lerner exemplifies the range of Kyger’s circle of acquaintances, one of the many, many prominent figures Joanne had befriended during her long tenure as flag bearer of the Bohemian intelligentsia in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which she was a rare and singular native. After his welcoming comments, the celebration of Joanne Kyger’s life began.

The lights dimmed and a large projection screen filled with the somewhat grainy, black-and-white frames of Part V of “Descartes,” a work completely unknown to many of Kyger’s readers. Made in 1968, “Descartes” is “among the first and most extraordinary works produced as part of NCET (National Center for Experiments in Television)…(a) highly successful attempt to translate concepts of poetry in the video medium,” wrote Glenn Phillips of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in the companion volume (California video: artists and histories, 2008) to a retrospective at the Getty Museum that included the film on its 40th anniversary.  Joanne made “Descartes,” under the direction of Robert Zagone, in the studios of KQED Television in San Francisco, as poet-in-residence at NCET where artists were given access to the now ubiquitous video medium and the then costly and challenging technological devices associated with it. Part V is a particularly abstract rendering of that part of Kyger’s poem, “Descartes and the splendor of,” containing lots of cinematic tricks first explored by Dada filmmakers in the early days of motion pictures and revived for use in the age of psychedelia. The text concludes: “…we find the soul, our language, our reason, our mother god, immortal.”

Video had also been integral to the success of the programs at the first Black Bart Poetry Society convention in 1983 at Dirk Dirksen’s North Beach club, On Broadway, with Joanne Kyger on stage in person, her reading captured on video.  For the second convention, beyond any spiritual presence, she could only be experienced in videos.

Bolinas neighbor Diana Middleton-McQuaid, best known for Invisible Future Chickens published by Smithereens Press in 1982, presented Kyger’s autobiographical work, “Communication is Essential,” in which stories of the heavily mythologized Sunday-afternoon poetry circle that surrounded, at the tail end of the Beat period, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser were told. During one of those sessions, Kyger reports poet David Meltzer stood reading to the group from a long length of teletype paper that he had torn off a roll. This was at the acme of the fad of writing on paper on continuous rolls as Jack Kerouac had done for his novel The Subterraneans, set in the North Beach hip scene of the late fifties. While Meltzer delivered the text with all his characteristic flourish, Spicer and Duncan crawled in unnoticed to set fire to the trailing end of his manuscript with Zippo lighters.

With this image set in the minds of the audience, the “readings” by a carefully selected cast of Kyger’s literary comrades began with the one and only Anne Waldman, who had travelled all the way from Boulder, Colo. for the event.  Well-known to members of the Black Bart Poetry Society, Anne Waldman was subject of a skewering critique in the society’s now defunct newsletter, the scurrilous Life of Crime, that stands alongside the critical writings of Edgar Allan Poe in the corpus of immortal prose of that genre, and which Joanne found particularly entertaining.  According to one unnamed source and eyewitness to the phenomenon, Kyger would recite said essay with great aplomb (and hilarity) to audiences of young protégés, raving as to its brilliance.  Now here was Waldman, unwittingly a featured reader at a Black Bart Poetry Society Convention, hailing in hyperbolic literary jargon the magnificence of Kyger’s talent and the gargantuan scope of her personality. Waldman recalled a particular conference at the Naropa Institute Summer Writing Program addressing “counter poetics” at which Kyger was a prominent participant in the discussion while judging the entire subject of the conference as nothing more than “nonsense.”

As always, Waldman would be a tough act to follow so organizers scheduled another Anne for the segue. However just then poet Michael McClure and company made their way through the SRO crowd prompting a significant disruption at the far end of the auditorium to an area already occupied by some VIPs, including the cofounders of the original Black Bart Poetry Society who resisted the temptation to wave in parade fashion at all the people casting their gaze on the spectacle of an aging late-comer finding a seat in a crowded room.  “I have a funny story about Michael McClure,” I overheard being muttered from a seat behind me.

When Anne Valley-Fox took the microphone and attention was redirected to the podium, a glance around the room revealed a significant number of very puzzled looking faces, seeming to ask, “Anne who?,” as well as many other blank stares from those too proud to let on just how provincial the Bay Area poetry world can be. After all, Valley-Fox is one of New Mexico’s most important poets. Duh!  Anne Valley-Fox made a brilliant choice of reading a cover letter written by Joanne to Donald Allen accompanying a submission of poems by Gary Snyder for the New American Poetry Anthology. In it, Kyger asks why Allen doesn’t like her poems, suggesting that perhaps he lacked the appropriate appreciation of what is really cutting-edge. Valley-Fox then read a letter from Kyger to poet Ron Loewinsohn, her colleague among the “Baby Beats,” dating from 1968 in which she told of her work as secretary to Dr. “Hip” (“Dr Hip Pocrates” was the pen name of Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld for his popular counterculture health column in the Berkeley Barb and in syndication in the underground press), the first mention of Kyger’s seldom recognized work in the press. This followed by the words of poet Philip Whalen, writing to Kyger in Japan, reporting on her growing reputation in San Francisco.

Valley-Fox was followed by poet and cofounder of One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change, Michael Rothenberg, who had traveled from Florida, making him the presenter who came the farthest, and who wept the day’s first visible tears during an extemporaneous memoir on his relationship with the deceased and the emotional value of their conversations.

Rothenberg’s touching tribute was followed by the handsome but often sullen Duncan McNaughton, embodying the stubborn determination that he has used to fend off the grim reaper during some very challenging crises of health, to be here to honor a very dear friend and ally. McNaughton recalled how Kyger provided the constant reminder that “poetry is a need,” and how without it, “you can’t get off the dime.” “I am unaware of a more complete poet, and I’m unaware of a more complete poetry,” than Kyger’s, he said with great authority, possessing as great a knowledge of the entire body of poetic expression as any  living poet. He would certainly find no one at this convention who would challenge his assertion. And besides all that, “we had so much fun.” And continued to have fun in his reading of Joanne’s poem entitled simply, “Philip’s Hat,” which depicts a shapeless yellow bucket hat adorned with a green band with representations of tropical plants that poet Philip Whalen had purchased at Walgreen’s and loved to wear on sunny days much to the chagrin of his more fashion conscious friends.

Lewis MacAdams

Another dear friend and former neighbor of Kyger’s, poet and journalist Lewis MacAdams, now wheelchair bound, spoke next, with his son Ocean, Kyger’s godson and Hollywood new-media executive, there to hold the microphone.  MacAdams recalled the splendor of the apple trees that Donald Guravich, Kyger’s partner, has cultivated in that couple’s yard. He spoke of the paths that he and Joanne would stroll together and her acute observations of the life around them.  And then, for the first time at this memorial, MacAdams offered her poem “September” which opens with the lines

The grasses are light brown
and the ocean comes in
long shimmering lines
under the fleet from last night
which dozes now in the early morning

 

Next at the podium West Marin County’s best-known Muslim, Michael Wolfe, manifesting his blue-blood education in the classics, linked Joanne Kyger to the poets of antiquity:  how she “was living on the Western edge of an empire she challenged till the end, the way that certain ancient Greek poets had done,” all the while as a great neighbor whose “rules of the game included magnanimity,” a characteristic that seemed to spread throughout the town of Bolinas while Kyger was present there.

That spirit of magnanimity certainly set the stage for poet Gloria Frym, who later confessed her surprise at being asked to join the list of august presenters, that she had never considered herself to be in Joanne’s inner circle, despite private lunches and other intimate social encounters.  Frym noted that “in Joanne’s work, things are exactly what they are,” concluding with a reading from On Time: Poems 2005-2014 from City Lights Books:

Last rays in the garden 

            They lasted a long time didn’t they

   those rays

Cedar Sigo

The most recent editor of Kyger’s new collection of interviews, journals and ephemera, There You Are, from Wave Books and former star student at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, Cedar Sigo, took his turn at the microphone and read a poem, “Nov. 19, 2016” that he’d written on Kyger’s last birthday, preceding it with her poem, “Nov. 19, 1982,” written on her 48th. This form of tribute, writing works in the manner of another poet seems to be undergoing a significant revival following a lengthy period beginning in the late 20th century when the adjective “derivative” was used to deride and dismiss an artistic endeavor of this kind.  Sigo displayed exquisitely how profoundly original work can result from this method, just as it had with the great poets of the Far Eastern traditions who would use such manneristic writing to help perfect their technique. And imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery—and much easier said than done in the case of the poetry of Joanne Kyger.

Puzzlement accompanied expressions and some murmuring from the audience when Simone Fattal followed Sigo to the microphone—the baffled looks from the more bookish types of a certain generation, i. e., mine, as a case in point. I have since learned of her international reputation as a visual artist and the significant role she played as publisher of Sausalito’s Post-Apollo Press.

The shame of my ignorance was quickly replaced by a discriminating  smugness when I noticed considerable perplexity with Bill Porter taking the podium.  Because I have knowledgeable friends I know of Bill Porter as Red Pine, esteemed translator of Classical Chinese poetry.  Red Pine, an English translation of the Mandarin “chi song” was the name used for a Taoist “immortal” associated with rain.  That sobriquet certainly applies to Porter who has spent most of his life in rain-soaked climates, that of Taiwan where he lived for many years, and currently at the northernmost extreme of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  Porter’s fluency in Mandarin was demonstrated by his sonorous readings of poems by Li Qingzhao, the great woman poet of the Song Dynasty and by Xin Qiji, poet of the subsequent generation in their original language followed by his own original translations. He ended with Tang-dynasty master Hanshan’s thousand-year old poem, no. 16, that gives directions to the pathway through the clouds.

Michael McClure

Timing was perfect up to this point drawing to a close the tributes and “readings” with what was to be be a grand finale delivered by Michael McClure.  McClure had been delayed by the same near Biblical gridlock snarling the itinerary from the southeast, where he began his trek to Commonweal. “I’ve never seen this kind of traffic,” he said. Even on the highways, McClure draws crowds, something he has mastered and delighted in over his fabled career as Bohemian prince of the West.  He added to the parade of reminiscences, telling of his recollection of Kyger when she first arrived in North Beach in 1957, of her virtually inseparable companion, the artist Nemi Frost, best friend from UC Santa Barbara, bounding together around the various hip haunts of the neighborhood’s Beat-era heyday.  McClure had come west a couple of years earlier (in 1955) from Kansas, ostensibly to study with painters Mark Rothko and Clifford Still, two ultra hip Abstract Expressionists who it just so happened had both left town by the time of his arrival. While pondering a Plan B for his future, there he was, occupying a bar stool at Gino & Carlo’s saloon, next to Miss Kids, as Kyger was known in North Beach, Frost, printer Joe Dunn, writer Richard Brautigan and sometimes poet Robert Duncan and Jess, his partner. He would see her regularly, too, usually alongside Frost, at the Blabber nights where poets read their work to frequently packed houses at Leo Krikorian’s The Place on upper Grant Street. He then related a story about a trip he’d taken with Kyger to a conference at a “very Christian” retreat on a hummingbird reserve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. The two shared a cabin while they were there. The first morning, over coffee, Kyger told of the dream she awoke from, in which a bear had invaded their cabin and after finding and ingesting the peyote, proceeded on a merry raid through the kitchen, emptying every container into his gullet until the cupboards were bare. Wrapping up the program McClure gave the day’s second reading of Kyger’s poem, “September,” whose last stanza reads,

It is inner luxury, of golden figures
that breathe like mountains do
            and whose skin is made dusky by stars.

McClure’s reading of “September” was to segue into a montage of archival video of Joanne Kyger compiled by Jim Zeno. But wait…next on the program:  “Open Tributes.” And here’s Stephen Ratcliffe mounting the stage.  Ratcliffe described the details of a snapshot he held up of his son at age one taken at the Kyger-Guravich home with the baby holding a rattle that Joanne had just given him. Next he read the text of an email from Kyger politely apologizing for behavior as a dinner guest that followed drinking a bottle of wine on an empty stomach. The shimmering clarity of her language is evident even in that transient medium. Ratcliffe concluded with a poem of hers and its line: “you grow up to be post-human in a past that keeps happening ahead of you.”

Stephen Ratcliffe

Bringing the memorial to a close the projection screen showed footage of Kyger reading her work and engaged as the subject of interviews. As if by magic, there she was reading a prose poem about a bear on psychedelic drugs that had looted the kitchen cupboards in which she presents an extensive list of all the containers that had been emptied during the animal’s joyful raid. She did not, however, read “September.”

Poltroon Press publisher and printer Alastair Johnston, along with his comrade, Grace Gomez, had in fact arrived late, bearing a stack of broadsides he’d printed up as a keepsake for the occasion. They, too, had been caught in the near Biblical gridlock on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The broadside featured a poem entitled “New Smell in the Writing Room,” with illustrations by the late Arthur Okamura, long-time Bolinas neighbor of Kyger’s and faculty member at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, who began his tenure there while San Francisco was preparing to become the epicenter of hippiedom.

At the conclusion of Jim Zeno’s video montage the crowd slowly made its way out of the building pausing to sign the guest book and receive one of Johnston’s broadsides.  Many made their way to the Kyger-Guravich homestead down Mesa Road closer to town.

Elm Road, the site of the post-celebration festivities, resembled on a much smaller scale the road to Max Yasgur’s Farm on August 15, 1969. Red Pine had already found the wine, a line forming behind him at the service table. Clusters of assorted acquaintances stepped up for cups or simply greeting someone or other they had not seen around lately. Most of the elite intelligentsia of West Marin County was on hand, as was most of the urban Bay Area’s Bohemian core. Attendance vastly outnumbered the most optimistic expectations for a Black Bart Poetry Society Convention. Leading academics (George Lakoff), MacArthur fellows (Michael Lerner), artists, Academy Award winners (Frances McDormand), world-class winemakers (Bill Hawley of Random Ridge), many leading American poets besides those who had been part of the program, (Alan Bernheimer, et al.) and even an important palindromist (Jennifer Curtis) paid tribute to Joanne Kyger as unwitting conventioneers.  Bernheimer‘s presence meant that every surviving performer at the first Black Bart Poetry Society Convention had shown up for the second. Although, missing was George Mattingly’s laugh—unmistakable and prominent in the soundtrack for the first convention. A growing clutch of Generation X (and younger) literati, each known personally to Cedar Sigo, gathered around Kyger’s writing cabin, some of them electing to make careful examinations of each of its artifacts.

Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, attendees repeatedly approached Alastair Johnston to request a broadside for one or the other familiar person unable to attend, a list that grew longer and longer with each degree of decline in the angle of the sun. Poet Bob Grenier, for example, who had not made it out for the event, needed a copy. But when the fourth and fifth person asked for a copy for Garrett Caples, the jig was up, the great broadside swipe caper exposed for what it was, not that it was very well concealed in the first place.  So many other absent people besides Caples, such names as Ron Padgett, David Highsmith, Keith Abbott, Andrei Codrescu, Alli Warren, Alice Notley, Maureen Owen, even G. P. Skratz or Clive Matson could have been used to extract an extra broadside. Instead, the conspirators all dropped Caples’ name. So much for their lives of crime.

It’s guaranteed that very soon, the Joanne Kyger memorial broadside will have found a prominent place on walls throughout Northern California and across the country, making “New Smell in the Writing Room” an odds-on favorite to be the poem associated with the memory of “the Muse of the Mesa.”


Postscript:
Subsequent circumstances have doubled those odds. Only three short weeks after the Second Black Poetry Society Convention Celebrating the Life and Work of Joanne Kyger had concluded with the entire run of Johnston’s broadside having been distributed, Moe’s Books in Berkeley hosted a book launch for Joanne Kyger’s posthumous There You Are: Interviews, Journals and Ephemera, edited byCedar Sigo, and newly published by Wave Books. Again, a keepsake in the form of a broadside was printed for the occasion, this time by Patrick Reagh at his shop just outside of Sebastopol, with the very same “New Smell in the Writing Room” as the text. Now the poem has two opportunities for ubiquity on the walls of kitchens, hallways, offices and living rooms, to capture the substance-induced stares of a whole new generation.


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 and on the Actualist Movement’s dispersal to the San Francisco Bay area.

 

 

 

 

 

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