The first time I saw Anselm I did not know who he was.
I’d gone into San Francisco to hear a talk on Walt Whitman by Kenneth Irby. The talk, offered for poetics students at New College, was open to the public. A sunny day in San Francisco, the room spacious, old, wood-floored & dusty. Fifty people sat by tall windows in folding wooden chairs. Irby delivered his afternoon talk, whipcord smart, peppered with random Irbyesque facts, ideas, notions, and approaches to the poems of Whitman. From the back of the hall came voices, a bit loud for the occasion’s solemnity. Not really voices, but what sounded like honking & cackling.
Two men seated on wooden chairs in the room’s last row were passing a bottle in a paper sack. They were also heckling the speaker. Not with fervor, certainly not malice, more like they were sharing a noisy few jokes, tossing offhand comments, contradicting an opinion, countermanding a fact, mimicking a word or two that sounded odd or overtly pedantic. This was a glimpse into the old relaxed world of poetry readings when speaker and auditors shared a playful arena. For the serious New College students—these poetry years of the early eighties had become very serious indeed—it must have seemed impossibly rude…
…or a lesson in what poetry could be.
Years later, I figured out the hecklers were Bob Grenier and Anselm Hollo. They knew Ken better than anyone else in the hall did. Why did they heckle? 1982 or thereabouts we lived through an era when poets scrunched up their brows. People took to poetry with Leninist fervor: “poets are revolutionaries, poetry better change the world, you fucking better change your life….” Here sat and shifted these two cacklers, old time immortal bums, sharing wine, making sure the room did not take itself too seriously. Maybe poetry has a higher purpose than changing the world.
I would not meet Anselm for another eight years. By then he had quit drinking. My memory might be deceptive too. Anselm might be more of a coyote than I suspected. What if that companion of Grenier’s hadn’t been Anselm? As I said, I didn’t know him in the early eighties. I did not know him as a drinker.
When I joined the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at The Naropa Institute, Anselm was faculty. He’d landed a year or two earlier, joining Anne Waldman, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, and Jack Collom. I saw him every day—at meetings, parties, we swapped books on poetry & translation, ate meals together, poked in and out of the rooms of the little clapboard buildings that housed the poetics school—from 1990 until he stopped teaching twenty years later. I’d gotten to town from the dead serious days of Bay Area poetry, late seventies through the eighties. Animosity between austerely militant language poets and the “mystical” crew over at New College had resulted in trench warfare: the goals of the poem were at stake. I credit Anselm with reminding me that poetry can be fun. Even if you want a leftist politics, poetry’s counterculture influence (New Left zaniness) remains the high spirited friendships. Be whip-smart if you like, go any direction you can, avoid the doctrinaire or the mean-spirited. And keep making word-objects with grace. Want to go to hell in a bucket? Then laugh as you go.
Having watched first-hand the nation-state furies of 20th century Europe, Anselm had no need to climb into a trench with Marx in his back pocket.
Anselm wore black. Shirt, pants, coat, roper-style boots, a brimmed hat, always black. With silvery-white hair and beard, he looked old-fashioned, bohemian without apology. Boulder in the early nineties still had the tang of a former mining town sixties enclave—not the high tech fantasyland it has turned into. Anselm was Baudelaire in riding boots. Late in life for reasons I never figured out he took to wearing loud colored Hawaiian shirts in the summer. And a straw hat.
One day in the small asphalt lot behind Naropa’s principal buildings we fell into conversation. He said, “My sister has died in Finland.” A few words went back and forth. His eyes settled on the redslab Flatirons of compact Dakota sandstone, jutting through dark pines to the west. “She’s the last person who knew me as a child.” He looked like the loneliest man in the world.
Anselm taught a course on translation. He studied the economics and politics of translation. He could tell you, for instance, the percentage of books published in the United States each year that were translations, what the main languages were, what trends stocked the bookshops, practical details of the translator’s trade. This made sense; he translated into English and into Finnish, from a confounding range of tongues. His father had translated Homer, Cervantes, and Dickens into Finnish.
Anselm’s polyglot skills stood him on solid ground when he taught French poetry, European Modernism, or brought the Cubists, Surrealists, or Russian avant-garde to class. The Kerouac School from its 1974 beginnings had taken poetry to be an international field of activity. Anselm’s presence on the faculty provided—what to call it? Credibility? Authenticity? I cannot stress how important his courses were, along with his publications, in helping set the Kerouac School apart from the suppositions of most writing programs in the USA, which look militantly one-language.
His translation courses were lowgrade Dada. He would assign students odd tasks. Some arrived knowing languages other than American English, but Anselm took Ezra Pound’s view: you don’t need to know a full language in order to translate. If you work hard you can get pretty far with a bilingual book and a dictionary. He’d have people try translating older English verse into modern forms. He had students to mistranslation, homophonic translation (by ear, don’t worry what it says). Try a bit of French, look into Italian. His orientation was, of course, avant-garde European. One year he received a decoration from the Finnish culture ministry. He and Jane drove into Denver to accept the award at Finland’s Consulate.
I arrived at Naropa with a rucksack full of Sanskrit, so he and I began to mix things up. Anselm wrote a over note for my first book of old India poems:
These dear ancients deserve a translator like Andrew Schelling: with gentle authority, he helps them raise their hands to bid time halt for a moment in our heads. Their brief translucent poems in Schelling’s “rekindled translations” (William Carlos Williams) demonstrate the coexistence of past, present, and future in the perennial vortices of human emotion; they are gists of the heart.
This could be one pointed note describing his own notion. Jane later told me it was this book of “dear ancients” that got him looking at old-time Greeks, a way to go back before Europe was Europe. To catch what from the past had whirled into our own vortex. In the note he names Williams but notice what he takes from Ezra Pound: vortices & gists. He would have gotten to the old Greeks in time no doubt; his father had translated Homer.
The first outcome of his quest for a dear ancient was “Hipponax of Ephesus.” He found in Hipponax a like spirit. Hipponax had discovered “limping iambics” (bust expectations apart) to deform standard Greek metrics. These “lame feet” had caught the eye of William Carlos Williams in Paterson. Anselm took notice. It aligned the bitter Greek elder with Anselm’s dry humor. He gave quite a hip title to his Russian translations from the City Lights: Red Cats.
Anselm savored the curses, invectives, & complaints Hipponax flung at—here’s Anselm’s list—“dribblers, gluttons, imitators of Homer, corrupt judges, dumb painters, witches, sadists, masochists, [and] con-men.” A tiny Baltimore press put out the 13-page Hipponax book. Anselm handed me a copy, “To Andrew, aren’t we lucky? and, let’s remain so—.”
I take lucky to mean, who else gets to swap happy, dirty, philosophical words with the ancients, bitterly, drunkenly? To converse with the dead remains a joy had by Ouija board fanatics, and by translators. “Translation,” Anselm wrote, is “the closest reading you can give a poem.”
He & I swapped off the translation course. I ran it differently since my work took place on other language territory than Anselm’s. Our tempers differed too. In those years Summer Writing Program guests came to Naropa and offered work that included translation, or they dug into linguistics. Poets came from Austria, Mexico, Holland, India, Japan, South Africa. He and I figured we had enough to add a course of study to the Kerouac School. To the basic MFA tracks, one in poetry, one in prose, we added translation. We had people in class working and publishing poems from Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Ladino, Ukraine, Tibetan, Czech, Russian, Latin American Spanish, Arabic, and the run of West European tongues. Someone even translated Basque.
During the years I knew him Anselm didn’t touch liquor. He smoked cigarettes and weed. When he visited our house my daughter would place ashtrays outdoors and post handmade signs telling smokers to take their smokes out back. A lot of people found their way to the “smoking section” at an iron lawn table, just to talk with him. Some people smoked but Anselm smoked a lot. He carried a Sucrets tin in his pocket for the butts; he stripped his cigarettes.
Did he learn field stripping from Bobbie Louise Hawkins? She did not smoke. I always figured she learned about it from him. The way he’d take care of his smokes gave rise to one of Bobbie’s monologues. At the first gathering of each year’s Summer Writing Program—the large white tent on Naropa lawns—she taught neophytes how to field strip their cigarettes, not drop them into the grass. Each year Bobbie ran through her instructions, Anselm rocked with laughter.
How did Anselm fare as a teacher? Some students became friends, some he met with to collaborate on translation. There were those who complained Anselm didn’t offer much. He didn’t act like a college professor. His lectures came off like spare, funny collages. I think students who wanted feedback on their poems before they had read widely bored him. Get him to talk, you’d find a trove of ideas, languages, history, poetry forms. His thinking was Beat, Dada, steeped in the schools of the anti-academic. He didn’t give up his thoughts for nothing.
Today rockets thunder into Kyiv. I remember when U.S. missiles rained over Iraq in the first Gulf War. TV showed footage of nighttime green flashes lighting up the turrets and domes of Baghdad. Anselm said the sight reminded him of Helsinki. The Soviet Union military attacked Finland throughout World War II. The night sky over Helsinki had lit up with green stars and comets, from when he was five.
The Naropa Institute’s Board of Trustees decided to change the school’s name. They thought Naropa University a better way to go, now that there was a B.A. degree along with the dozen Masters programs. At a meeting of Academic Council—the gathering of Naropa’s faculty—we were asked who supported the change. (I’d carried my first paycheck into the bank in 1990 and the teller said, “What’s Naropa? A mental institute?”) A show of hands by the forty faculty ratified the change. We now worked at a University.
Anselm was the sole dissenter. I think the term Institute means something different to a European.
Andrew Schelling is a poet and translator of old India’s poetry, largely from Sanskrit. Twenty-odd books. These include The Facts at Dog Tank Spring (poems), three recent books of translated poetry from Shambhala Publications, and a folkloric account of linguists, bohemian poets, wilderness, and myth, Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture. He teaches poetry & Sanskrit at Naropa University in Colorado.
The Parole Officer notes: The Anselm Hollo Challenge is ongoing. Parole continues to be interested in publishing writing that reflects on the life and work of the extraordinary poet Anselm Hollo, be they anecdotal, reminiscences, or critical reviews and appreciations of his work and its influence on the American canon (more of the latter). Queries to nuallainhousepublishers (at sign) gmail (dot) com.
If Wants To Be The Same As Is: Essential Poems of David Bromige; edited by Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, and Jack Krick, with an introduction by George Bowering. 624 pages, paper, New Star Books, New Star Books Vancouver, B. C. [Canada]; Point Roberts, Wash. 2018) $35 USD (Available through Small Press Distribution). Originally published in Poetry Flash
Rarely do collected poems have titles that capture the fundamental nature of the poet whose work is gathered between two covers. The reader has to be content with a generic The Collected Poems of (insert name here). Not so with David Bromige’s collected poems. The title, If Wants To Be The Same As Is; Essential Poems of David Bromige, highlights the poet’s sly subversive humor and hypersensitivity to the potential of a playfully creative grammar. As Bob Perelman, one of the editors of this volume along with Ron Silliman and Jack Krick, states, “the title is an eloquent bit of rueful stoicism.” The cover photo depicts a younger David Bromige as a better looking D.H. Lawrence. The title also sidesteps the question of “When is a collected poems not a collected poems?” The answer being “When it is a collected selected.” In David Bromige’s case, that this representative six hundred plus pages contains only the “essential poems” is unavoidable. To have included all the poems from his more than two dozen books of poetry would have most likely entailed two volumes, at minimum.
As Jack Krick, whose editorial expertise shaped this impressive volume, explains, the poems are selected from twenty two of Bromige’s books, chapbooks, manuscripts, and assorted ephemera. Two of the books, My Poetry (1980) and Red Hats (1986), are complete versions. Also the texts of chapbooks Please Like Me (1968), P-E-A-C-E (1981), and The Melancholy Owed Categories (1984) are reproduced in full. And a chapbook dating from 2003, Indictable Suborners, is also included in full but minus a forward by David’s alter ego, Bouvard Pécuchet (a nod of the lyre to Flaubert) and the afterword by Stephen Ratcliffe. The difficult choices, and possibly why it took nearly ten years for this collection of poems to reach publication, were in selecting poems that exemplified Bromige’s particular genius. For the editors, this was undoubtedly a task devoted to assuring that a significant lifetime’s work received the attention it deserved.
Introducing the essential poems, George Bowering, Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, provides a biographical thread that charts the progress of his old University of British Columbia chum from conservative columnist for the campus magazine to avant-garde subversive rubbing elbows with the likes of Ron Loewinsohn, having lunch with Robert Duncan, declaiming Olson, and asserting “Call me Bromige!” all the while maintaining the cover of mild mannered college professor.
“So, in the next four decades,” as Bowering relates, “Bromige became an important part of west coast poetry. He finished up in Berkeley [grad school], became a straw hat academic [Sonoma State University] in California wine country, and wrote book after book of curious phrasing. . . . Sometimes he was grouped with the west coast contingent of the Language poets, and he certainly took language as his particular job, but he was too restless to stop poking his formidable nose in elsewhere. . . .”
For Editor Bob Perelman, Bromige’s work is “beautiful, deeply amusing, and continually surprising.” One of a younger generation of poets attracted early on to Bromige’s poetry, he finds it “endlessly interesting to grapple with David’s writing. The self-awareness of his mind choosing the words and experiencing their sound, his wonderful ability to play with (and be played by) syntax; the lightness with which he wore his considerable erudition; his perpetual mixing of high and low, dead serious and silly. . .happily, it remains impossible to pin down the multiple effects he produces.”
In the late sixties on through the early nineties, Bromige published with an impressive regularity. Desire: Selected Poems 1963-1987 from Black Sparrow Press (in whose catalog Bromige titles were regularly featured), was merely a sampler of his productivity in the twenty odd years previous. There was much more to come in the succeeding two decades, not with the same frequency perhaps but nonetheless tirelessly prolific. As Ron Silliman points out, late Bromige has “different needs than a younger writer seeking to find. . .[a] place in the world.” In those later years Bromige was the Bay Area’s best kept poetry secret, living a quiet unassuming life as a retired college professor in a quiet and unassuming community.
Some of his early poems display a creative spelling that perhaps owes something to the influence of Canada’s great avant-garde poet, bp Nichol, an affectation that disappears after the first selection of poems published in 1964. Yet even then stealth wit underlies every presumption.
Not the last crack of the ashtray on my skull was the indicator but her repeated scream, What do I want with a husband — never once my name.
The ashtray was calld Niagara Falls & on our honeymoon, not spent there, I was calld David in different accents & responded differently.
(“At Last” from The Gathering, 1964)
What can be observed across the range of poetry selected for this volume is not so much an evolution of style as a willingness to engage with language. Bromige was an opportunist who was receptive to the various isms, inclinations, and coteries as a playground for his own originality. Rarely did Bromige come across a form he didn’t like or appropriate for his own purposes. He referenced a personal anthology of poetry and poets as indicators, as ignition points. And he practiced the poet’s intentionality of amusing one’s self with the play of words, all with the precision of a Creeley, the correctness of an Auden, and the effortlessness of a savant. His points of departure are legion in a knowing and knowledgeable engagement with language as easy going turns of mind skillfully put. In this respect he can be compared to Ashbery for the density of his poetic weave. His is a tone of quiet authority that gives even the surprising and whimsical weight. Couched in syntax classical in its formalism, these poems are informed by an impish ironic wit of someone fully cognizant of the power of language.
In My Poetry (1980) Bromige walks a postmodern tightrope of the self-directed gaze. It is, by his own assessment, the most representative of his esthetics and candor. With a title archly ironic and not a little mocking tongue in cheek, dedicated to Bob Perelman, it begins
My poetry does seem to have a cumulative, haunting effect—one or two may not touch you, but a small bookful begins to etch a response, poems rising in blisters that itch for weeks, poems like ball-bearings turning on each other, over & over, digging down far enough to find substance, a hard core to fill up the hand. It’s through this small square that my poems project themselves, flickering across the consciousness, finally polarizing in the pure plasma of life. The reader grows impatient, irritated with my distancing style, coming at him the rare book format, written under not one but two different kinds of dirty money, & knowing me to be an english teacher.
Placing Bromige in an esthetic and historical context, Ron Silliman’s afterword points out that his “relationship to Language Writing proved as ambivalent as his previous allegiances to Canadian & Black Mountain poetics, his rep as a langpo resting primarily on three collections, Tight Corners & What’s Around Them, My Poetry, and P-E-A-C-E.” Silliman goes on to praise My Poetry as “the most complex and satisfying collection to appear under the rubric of Language, demonstrating not just the layering and nuance integral to the project, but the deep historical consciousness at its heart. Nobody could out-polyseme Bromige.”
In her 2008 essay, “Irony’s Eye” (Golden Handcuffs Review, 1:10) Meredith Quartermain uses Schlegel’s definition of romantic irony, “playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden,” to get at what exactly is happening in Bromige’s poetry. “Who could be more playful and serious, more guilelessly open and deeply hidden than David Bromige? One of the most enjoyable things about his writing is his keen sense of paradox in language, its hinging of the ‘real’ to a multitude of fictions, starting with the real fiction of Bromige himself. [His] artistic practice refracts humanity in the prisoning/freeing mirrorland of language. Yes, there is plenty of philosophy in these poems. . .equally a meditation on human relationships with cars, love relationships in general, and the relationship of reader to writer of the poem. . .[and] invokes notions of history from the personal to the mythical.”
For Quartermain, Bromige relishes “puncturing linguistic illusions” to detach the world from the “manufactures of language” and “escape the fiction of a unified self presented in the word I. . .because talking about himself in the third person makes it impossible to take either third-person or first-person speech in the pieces at face value. But also because the language in the prose commentaries has been thoroughly loosened up and allowed to play.” Citing a passage from Threads (1970), she shows Bromige well advanced into the terrain later claimed for Language Writing.
This is the first book where I use ‘I’ to declare experiences which I did not ‘have,’ to question assumptions of (non) identity. . . . I’d also note that the shifting sense of I raises the issue of language and its mediations, and that henceforth this awareness comes increasingly to the aid of the subject in the attempt to constitute the object.”
“Bromige discovered,” she concludes, [the] “play with multiple personae via pronoun shifts early in his career, and it was a discovery that inspired many who later became known as Language poets.” The pervasive edge of irony throughout Bromige’s poetry leads the reader on a merry ride in the thrall of language where ambiguity and refraction undercuts any anticipation. As he says in Red Hats, “Poetry mocks the spirit of sober objectivity.”
The attention given to Tight Corners (1974) as, according to Silliman, “important in the evolution of the prose poem” confirms the emerging popularity of the form as a counterbalance to the minimalist trend of the early 70’s. Also of importance were the prose poems of Max Jacob, the colloquial cast of Blaise Cendrars’ poetry, and the zany wit of adjunct professor and colleague Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s grammatical illustrations later collected and published as The Well-Tempered Sentence (1983). Serge Gavronsky’s Poems & Texts (1969), an anthology of contemporary French poetry that featured two masters of the prose poem, Jean Follain and Francis Ponge, were an informing factor as well. Though mostly forgotten now, those notions and vectors were the subject of much discussion among some of Bromige’s close contemporaries.
Playing with the expected trope, A Cast Of Tens (1994), a series of poems whose combined lines or groups of stanzas add up to ten and perhaps determined by a cast of the die, real or imagined, Bromige offers an oblique homage to Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés. As well, flaunting mordant aphorisms in “Lines” (The Harbormaster of Hong Kong, 1983) he displays an off-the-cuff whiplash wit that hovers in the realm of the koan.
keep it to yourself ___________________
write it down
weird and repulsive at first ____________________________
division of labor _________________
i write it i admire it
In the same collection, Bromige’s steel trap intelligence blitzes the syllogism.
He was carried into the garden Therefore he was infirm The block was lined with bars Therefore the town was friendly She was just like one of the family Therefore we neglected to disarm her The night was about to be buried Therefore we hired lovers of sleep
As the anti-logic of this lyric, and many other examples too numerous to cite, reveal, Bromige approaches in spirit the surrealism of surrealism’s most surreal, Benjamin Peret. Nor does his flow of inspired logorrhea ever falter, even when he is stacking checkers as in the centered lists of T As In Tether (2003):
A mattress factory explodes And then the ticking is noticed
from “Poem beginning with a line by Pindar (1)”
Hand me that thorazine I want to read something
from “Defeat’s Deafeaters (2)”
Bromige’s poetry has a wry elegance that finds its source in the sheer joy of composition, of setting the products of language down on the page. Despite the myriad paths to its realization, there is always some assumption of an underlying coherence if not semantic progression, of resolution that will render the poem an artifact, done. His constant search for definition, any kind of definition no matter how momentary, is rife with a dense irony spun by precise usage. He has a keen ear for the colloquial, as much in its lexical aspect, viz; “Zounds Loik Zumthin Oi Wud Mayake,” as in its patterns and phrasing. And he was a master of the sarcastic interrogative retort which he employed as a counterpoint. David Bromige’s greatest appeal, however, was his singular intelligence.
As an overview of taxonomic categorization, Bromige and his poetry could be bracketed as “Post-Modern Anglo-American Pacific Rim proto-Language neo-formalism” which is a fleeting and insufficient description at best. As to the question, “If you’re so good why ain’t you famous?” Silliman’s contention that Bromige was “ambivalent to being the next generation of anything” rings true. There is a certain “lotus land” side to Sonoma County where he lived the majority of his life, what Luther Burbank called “the chosen spot of all this earth.” It is the impression of the banalization that occurs in the equanimity of living in paradise. But as Bromige counters, “I didn’t care. Banal or brilliant, it made no difference in the world I was living in. Besides, sometimes the banal turned brilliant as I listened.”
In his later years, retired from teaching, with local honors of the Sonoma County “Living Treasure” award in 1994 and Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2002-2004) bestowed on him, Bromige was occasionally addressed as “Don David,” the godfather of poetry. Yet the social component of his recognition as an important poet after almost ten years has faded some. Even at the time of his death in 2009, some of those memorializing him were more familiar with his reputation than his work.
Bromige was generous with himself as poet and mentor as evidenced by his attentiveness to the community of working poets. He favored creativity over any particular cant or affiliation. And he was fortunate to find among some of those writers a determination to make available instances of his authentic genius to a more inclusive readership. That in the gathering of these essential poems greater emphasis was given to selections aligned with a particular school’s agenda is not a fault, merely an accentuated perspective. Students of poetry, the obsessed and the merely curious, are indebted to that particular bond for once again focusing attention on the savant virtuosity and chameleonic versatility of David Bromige. In George Bowering’s words: “. . .he was always better than you thought he was.”
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and three novels He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society, and Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
In which Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, with the look of a well-worn Alex Trebek but the pit bull demeanor of a Mickey Rourke, flaneur, art critic, jazzbo, and last of the two fisted hard drinking hard boiled poets in a city not quite Frisco, hustles some much needed operating funds by delivering a lecture to a creative writing class at City College, and encounters the future of poetry.
from Ode To Sunset A Year in the Life of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan
He was late partly due to Angie. She had to get ready which meant that after she was fully clothed, she had to dress her face. She was heading to South City to look into long term storage options and agreed to give him a lift to City College and the morning class. Then finding the classroom on a campus he’d never been to before took more time. The security guard was only a little more familiar with the layout than he was. Finally it was determined that the class was being held in a basement classroom in the Science Annex.
Russell Kennston was pacing outside the room in a poorly lit green hallway chewing his cheek.
Wendt didn’t bother to explain as Kennston hurriedly opened the door to the achingly white artificial light of the windowless classroom. “You have my fee?”
Russell frowned and rummaged through his soft case and extracted a number 10 envelope. “As we discussed,” and handed it over.
Wendt peered inside to ascertain the amount. He nodded his approval. As he’d explained to the young professor over drinks a few days earlier, anything that involved explanations was extra. If it was just a poetry reading, he’d charge his standard hundred bucks an hour, but since he’d be explaining shit, it would cost more.
He turned to the class as Russell called for their attention. “Everyone! This is Carl Wendt!”
Everyone was less than a dozen youngsters, some barely out of their teens, only a few trying to look radically different than their peers. A white guy with a mop of unruly curls slouched in a desk near the front with an I-don’t-give-a-shit smirk of skeptical nonchalance. Three girls, their desks close enough together to signify that they were BFF’s, the girl, woman, with the cobalt dye job in the center of the triad doing nothing to hide the mischievous sly smiles she cast his way. A couple of young guys, nondescript black and or Chicano, looked like they’d made a wrong turn at Riordan High. An Asian woman, girl, sat in a row toward the back, furiously and seriously copying down every word her professor was saying.
Wendt waved a dismissive hand. “A PhD is like a prison tattoo, stay in an institution long enough and you’re bound to get one.”
“Mr. Wendt is a well-known poet, author of numerous books of poetry, most recently, Synthetic Lament, and a critic who has published many articles on literature and esthetics in some of the top literary journals in the country, internationally, in fact, including Poetry Now and the Pan-American Review of Literary Esthetics, and in such collections as Reconsidering Language, Examining the Puritanical Roots of American Literature. According to another well-known and respected poet, Mitchell Tjantor, someone whose views on poetry we were discussing just last week, Carl Wendt and his work have had a significant influence on the poets of the younger generation. You may know him from his weekly column Gone With The Wendt, a running commentary on the rich and sometimes scandalous art and literary scene in the city. As a young poet very close to your own ages now, he was chosen by the legendary editor and publisher Dorian Pillsbury for the prestigious Singled Out Foundation Award, also known as SOFA, and the publication of his first book of poems, Pay Attention.”
Wendt had stopped paying attention. Done checking the student fare, he let his gaze drift across the professor’s desk. There were two books among the scatter of stapled handouts and assignments, one, a thick poetry anthology he assumed was a reference text for the class, Advanced Creative Writing 1B, and another smaller volume sprouting numerous colorful page markers.
“Please welcome our guest, Carl Wendt.” Kennston swept his hand toward him, yielding the floor. “Carl, it’s an honor to have you here.”
“This book!” Wendt held up the slim volume, “Nonsense and Stuff, How To Read Modern Poetry?” He glanced at the cover. “By Bertrand Stephens! This whole book is total bullshit! Do not believe a fucking word this asshole says about modern poetry or poetry in general!”
Russell stiffened as if he’d been stung. “Wait, he has a PhD!”
Wendt waved a dismissive hand. “A PhD is like a prison tattoo, stay in an institution long enough and you’re bound to get one.”
The white guy gave a loud guffaw, everyone else suspending judgment, not sure on which side they were going to land.
“And this anthology, edited by the same guy, PoMo, Hybrid Poetries at the Beginning of a New Century? PoMo stands for postmodern or in this case, postmortem. These clowns are dead and they don’t even know it.”
Kennston, still aghast that the recommended reading was being so summarily criticized, interjected, “But he teaches at Harvard!”
“Every time I hear the word ‘Harvard’ I reach for my mental spray can to tag it, Americano style, con safo. The English Dept. there is bent on ruining American literature.”
The young Asian woman now visibly incensed, partly due to her affection for her professor and partly because she perceived Wendt as being rude, blurted, “That’s better than you could do!”
Wendt laughed. “Hey, look at that, someone’s awake.” The outburst had the effect of easing the formality and tension.
“Alright, let’s get this straight. First of all, Pomo are a Northern California indigenous peoples, not a collection of sanctioned poets picked by a self-appointed committee. This boat anchor is more of a directory than an anthology, and if anything, acts as an annotated bibliography for the commercial purposes of those listed. The notion that it is in any way representative of the art at any one time is sadly mistaken. Political concerns always override esthetics.”
“How come you’re not in there, Mr. Wendt?” It was the white guy.
“Good question. Actually mediocre question, but what can I expect, this is a friggin’ junior college. However, the very good, actually excellent reason I’m not in that anthology is because I’m a Marxist Lennonist. Groucho said, ‘never belong to a group that would have someone like yourself as a member,’ and John said, ‘love is all you need.’ In other words, I don’t need to be included in no stinking misleading misnomered employment list of poets to know that I am a poet. The middle class definition of which, incidentally, implies being employed.”
“I got another question. I know the Lennon Beatle dude, but who’s this Groucho?”
If he hadn’t noticed it before, the immensity of the generation gap hit him across the face like a wet flipper. He paused a beat as a few late arriving students found their desks, a large black woman who sent a myopic frown in his direction, a skinny black woman, actually café au lait with incredibly straight hair, and a young man of the same beige complexion with a head of dreadlocks, his half closed eyes and sheepish grin saying LOADED loud and clear.
“So you think you wanna be a poet. Well, you’re gonna need a toolkit, because being a poet depends on your tools and how you use them. Out there in the cold cruel poetry world, and let me emphasize cruel, it’s just you and your toolkit on the way to the job. Except for most of you going to a job is like putting on a suit and goosing the receptionist at the office.”
There was an uncomfortable chuckle from the class and Russell cleared his throat.
“Or a skirt and being goosed at the office. On the other hand, being a poet is like gearing up to go spelunking, it’s physical, you’re going to sweat, it’s mostly dark and close, and it can be dangerous which is why you need to have the right toolkit.” He cast a glance around the classroom to make sure they had followed him thus far.
“In case you think I’m pulling monkeys out of my ass, let me remind you that it was Wittgenstein who said, ‘Think of the tools in a toolbox – there’s a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw driver, a ruler, retractable or fixed, a glue pot, nails, screws—the functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.’ Experience, of course, is important, as long as it doesn’t make you careless. It provides you with content. Personality is no less important as that is the source of your wit. And intelligence provides the form, how you actualize your wit and content. It’s a formula, P plus I plus E equals PIE. The formula for being a poet.
“Everyone has access to these tools. A poet, unless he’s a minimalist, and nothing wrong with that if don’t you mind having orange crates and cinder blocks as your literary furniture, has to learn the use, and practice the use, of necessary tools, in this case, parts or figures of speech.
“Let’s start with the basics, simile and metaphor. Simile is what the name implies, similarity, the comparison of one thing to another, animal, vegetable or mineral. I could say this class room is like a dungeon.” The class snickered, rasta-head giving a loud guffaw in spite of himself. “And you are obviously seeing the similarities that are essentially square, windowless, and enclosure. The handy thing about a simile is that it doesn’t have to be perfect, you’ve got wiggle room. Unless you’re a sphincter tweaker, and that’s largely a matter of personality because some things don’t always line up, specifically. Dungeons are generally thought of as tiny, dark, and dank, and primitive. This classroom is not small, nor is it dark, and only a little fetid. More like a cell or an interrogation room, but still generally confining. And there I’ve added more similes by my further comparisons. We use similes every day, all the time, to express general ideas to relate more easily what we hold in common.
“The downside of similes, particularly in poetry is that they’re too easy, cheap, common, and eventually too formulaic. A good simile is a needle in a haystack. And what I just said is a metaphor.” He paused to gauge their attention. The stoner was going to nod, that was a given.
Your generation unfortunately is at a disadvantage because you’ll never be as smart as your phones.
“I could have said like a needle in a haystack but in this case the fit is a little tighter, not as much wiggle room, and I’m not making a comparison, I’m equating an abstract concept, a figure of speech with a physical object, the needle, and by placing it in a haystack, a collection of similarly shaped yet unlike objects. I am emphasizing its rarity and at the same time capitalizing on the assumption that you’ve heard the trope ‘as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.’ Like similes, a good metaphor is hard to find. A good metaphor will have the reverberation of a brass bell, a shimmering presence for as long as it’s contemplated. Similes are basic arithmetic in that ‘like’ serves as an equal sign. Metaphors, depending on their resonance, are a more complex calculus. Metaphor attaches a picture to meaning, and simile invites a comparison, subjective at best”
He stopped and looked out at the scattered desks only sparsely occupied, essentially by children. He might as well have been singing a lullaby. One of the BFF’s, the one with the bad complexion and numerous facial piercings, had dropped her eyes to the watch on her wrist. There was a thick silence in the large airless classroom crowded with stale personal scent, off the shelf deodorant, and someone’s half-eaten salami sandwich saved for later.
“Why is metaphor in poetry essential you might ask? One way of focusing on our lives is through metaphor—we do it every day. Something is always compared to something else, and how closely the match is made is how its intrinsic value is established. Symbolism is an attempt to synthesize or institutionalize metaphor which is essentially a spontaneous act of consciousness available to every conscious being. The vitality of poetry relies on its ability to remain spontaneous. Metaphor is what we place between ourselves and the mundane to renew experience. And from this you get the satisfaction of the straight forward, the unwavering line drawn by analogy.”
He could never be a teacher. Not that he didn’t have the chops and an autodidact’s insatiability, he certainly knew what he was talking about. It was that other thing. He didn’t care enough. A good teacher gives wholeheartedly the requisite knowledge and delights in the comprehension when it blossoms in self-realization. He wasn’t interested in giving anything. He’d heard it said before, he was a selfish son-of-a-bitch. Interest, curiosity would lead to discovery, that’s the way the game was played, and he had no desire to spoon feed a bunch of unformed psyches into thinking that they were poets. You’re a poet when you know you’re a poet. Advanced Creative Writing 1B wasn’t going to change any of that.
“Now what I just said, you could easily find online. It’s all there. That’s the advantage over having to physically search through books, page by page, looking for what you want to find or think you want to find. Metaphors and similes are known as parts of speech because we use them every day, without thinking. The same goes for most literary or rhetorical devices. And writers teach themselves how to organize these parts of speech on the page so that it sounds like someone talking to you when you’re reading it, trying to convince you, convert you, instruct you, dissuade you, entertain you, lie to you, make you laugh, make you cry, jump for joy, drop into the abyss.
“Metalepsis, antonomasia, hypallage, catachresis, metonymy. . .not monotony, that’s what’s going on here. . .metonymy is like when you say uniform when you refer to a cop, or suit for a businessman, and maybe somebody in upper management as corporate.” Wendt shrugged. “Well, you get the drift. And there’s synecdoche, not a place in upstate New York as a certain film maker would have you believe. Litotes and antiphrasis, pleonasm, hypotyposis, and lest we forget, hyperbole. Nothing like a little exaggeration to make a body feel good about themselves.
“A poet’s job is to learn these components, these rules, and how they relate to their sense of language and twist them, pervert them, turn them upside down, maul them, mangle them, stretch them, ignore them, and then break them. Wittgenstein was full of shit about the tool box after all. You think you’re gonna build a poem with a hammer and saw? Sure, a novel, maybe, but not a poem. A poem is a house of cards, you need a steady hand, a cool reserve and the understanding that the entire thing could collapse at a moment’s notice.”
A hand shot up, the young black woman who had come in late, and Wendt nodded his assent. “Don’t you have to be, like, really smart to be a poet, I mean. . . ?”
Wendt shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt to be smart or educated as long as you don’t let it get in the way. Poets don’t need smarts, really. A poet needs guts and the determination to stick with it. Like the great Frank O’Hara once said,” he paused looking for glints of recognition, but nada, “‘you go on your nerve.’ Your generation unfortunately is at a disadvantage because you’ll never be as smart as your phones.”
One of the post high-schoolers asked, “Why did you become poet?”
“Because it’s the most dangerous thing, in all existence, that you can do and requires nothing but your nerve, like walking a tightrope. Without a net. From the tallest building in Frisco. To the tallest building in El Fuckin’ Ay. Naked. A poet needs perfect balance to survive. To fail is to fall. That’s why some so-called poets can’t do it without a safety net or the assurance of a zipline harness. By safety net, I mean a nine to five that has nothing to do with the art of poetry, and a zipline can be equated to a teaching job or professorship at some university which is like the ultimate dream job for wannabe poets.”
The Asian woman. “How does that translate into success?” The pen in her hand pointed accusingly.
“The successful writer is of a class, mostly middle, educated in the better schools, and with a worldview that really has nothing in common with the real hard scrabble world, and everything in common with a privileged point of view that is entirely self-serving. There are other writers, actually great writers, who are self-taught either because they couldn’t afford better schools or would have little patience with them in the first place. You may never hear of them unless you are, or someone you know is, an intrepid scholar and goes looking for them. The assumption of privilege is what success is all about. There are two avenues open to what you might term success, the public and the private, as a means of gaining entry into the poetry world. The government will fund those who can or will fill out the necessary forms in triplicate and have the connections, i.e., name recognition as a social gadfly. One can eke out a ‘living’ in poetry by constant application and tenacity, and an undeniable belief in one’s own worth. In other words, you get a job at a college or university or you live by your wits.
“And it is for this reason that the role of the ecstatic, the real poet, will always be marginalized because it is essentially an antisocial role. We tend to forget that poets are descendants of shamans. They practice the techniques of ecstasy, and are basically eccentrics, off center so to speak. What writing classes like this one, and workshops and writing programs, attempt, and which you will encounter if you continue in this course of study, is the socialization or the normalization of the ecstatic experience which, because of its individualistic character, can’t be done or done without destroying or diluting that ecstatic quality or nature. Much that is done in the name of literature is self-advertisement. It has a purpose or aim beyond the function of the art, and that is to promote the poet. Once poets cum artists achieve acclaim they can slough off their art like a snake with its skin.
“Poetry is not a means, it is the end, a practice, and in many respects, it is the ultimate end, that’s to say the terminal point of sentience, death itself. A true poet should always be on the verge of literary suicide. The achievement of poetry is self-negation through the discovery of self, through an understanding of self that leads to a point of vanishment. Know yourself to the point of no point and integration with everything visible and invisible, as an ecstatic oneness.”
The café-au-lait student with the straight hair raised her hand. “What if I don’t want to walk a tight rope to LA naked? What if I just want to write poetry?”
Wendt smiled at the question. Someone was paying attention. “Poetry is the most inclusive form of thought yet devised. It is a conscious call upon those resources which underlie all language and all thinking. If you are involved in any working system of thought, recognized or not, then poetry, identified by your somatic complicity, is in fact nearest to reality. Poetry, metaphor, mythology are highly realistic and down to earth. It is logic and mathematics which are the imaginative and fantastical exercises. Besides, being a poet means that you believe in yourself in a very basic way, that you have faith in the unknown.”
If he listened carefully he could probably hear the cosmic microwave background above the rock bottom glassy-eyed silence. He gave a quick glance at the clock above the whiteboard at the head of the class. A quarter hour had passed. That was probably enough.
“Alright,” he clapped his hands in a clasp, “I’m good, how about you? What say let’s go get a drink? I seem to remember a friendly neighborhood bar around here, The Kit Kat Club?”
Some of the students frowned not sure if he wasn’t exceeding his authority by dismissing them. Others got to their feet tentatively, wide grins that class had been dismissed, looking for confirmation from their prof who, leaning back against the front edge of his desk staring at his shoes, looked like he didn’t know what hit him or that he’d made a huge mistake by inviting Wendt to speak to his class and was momentarily unable to respond.
“That place still open?” curly mop wondered aloud.
“Yeah, I think so, but you know it’s kind of like a dive,” one of the chinegroes offered.
“Then what a better place to continue our discussion on the merits of poetry!” Wendt declared with triumph at the obvious. “Like Orpheus we must descend into Hades in hopes of winning the release of our fair muse, Eurydice!”
The large black girl with the bright yellow backpack and matching plastic eyeglass frames sitting at the back of the room joined her classmates gathered around Wendt. “I don’t know what the hell he just said, but I’m with him. I wanna know more about this UR A DC in hell.” Then as an aside to the skinny black woman, “Sounds kinda like my life.”
The flirtatious one of the three BFF’s proffered her smart phone. “Look, my friend just wrote a poem on her phone and texted it to me!”
He glanced at the device and read the future of poetry.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
“What a fool to be tricked into seriousness.” —William Carlos Williams from Kora In Hell
This year marks a century since the publication of Sour Grapes by Williams Carols Williams. The previous year, 1920, in the aftermath of a global pandemic, Williams had published his most radically modern work, Kora In Hell, Improvisations—prose improvisations in part influenced by what he had read of Gertrude Stein’s work in Alfred Stieglitz’s art magazine, Camera Works, (an early indication of the visual bias/esthetic in 20th Century) as well as Kandinsky’s essays on art. Kora In Hell was the starter’s gun that signaled Williams’ sprint into a decade of innovation and imagination, and in which he would develop and integrate esthetic concerns that would follow him for the rest of his days.
The germ of modern American poetry is in these 42 poems, a synced modernism in which Williams focused on the trends of the day (Expressionism, Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, even Dada) from his semi-rural suburban redoubt and made them his own, using what fit with his vision and discarding the rest. To reread the poems in Sour Grapes is to contemplate the flourishing of a unique shift in American poetry, one that has endured a century and is practiced widely, often with barely an inkling of its provenance. They are poems of ease and elegance, notations of a particular perceptual identity tuned in to the times. In quoting Kandinsky’s “Every artist has to express himself, express his epoch, the pure and eternal qualities of the art of all men,” Williams affirmed what he was setting out to do. Just about everything in modern American poetry that is currently conventional can find its roots in Sour Grapes, the succinct paratactic directness of the poem stripped bare of its allegories.
As an independent professional, William Carlos Williams, M.D., was free to explore a certain radicalism in the arts without fear of it affecting his livelihood. The language would be spare yet elegant, with the objectivity of a scientist in its experiential expression. The poems have no theme (aka prompt) except for being in the moment, and the language that precipitates its transcription, once organized in verbal expression, can be viewed as the material from which a composition is articulated, the product of the writer/artist and a typewriter, the de facto canvas of the letter size sheet of paper implicit. The convention of topic and syllogistically clever resolution as homily, moral judgement/indignation, or resolute declaration (i.e., rhetoric) are abandoned for the perceptual/cinematic pan across a sequence of images to trigger a piano roll of subtle and harmoniously linked synapses much like the eyeful of a painting in which interest is aroused by various aspects of artistry, a sense of cohesiveness that is ineffable in nature. As Bruce Holsapple notes in his excellent Birth Of The Imagination, William Carlos Williams on Form (University of New Mexico, 2015), Sour Grapes and the poems of that period cued off the pictorial arts Williams would have seen in Stieglitz’s gallery, the Armory show of 1913, the Duchampian/Cubist fracture of planes, and a revelatory reading of Kandinsky’s essays on esthetics,
Kandinsky’s The Art of Spiritual Harmony (1914) is a point of reference around which much of Williams’ subsequent vision of a liberated poetic for the new age would revolve. Kandinsky and his ideas about art were hot topics of discussion, relevant to a particular coterie in the Stieglitz circle of artists and writers in the first decades of the 20th Century with whom the doctor from New Jersy was peripherally associated. Williams appropriated the terms “improvisation” and “composition” from Kandinsky, and was familiar with Kandinsky’s triadic sources of inspiration, responsibilities of the artist, guiding principles, and the mystical elements of inner need. Kandinsky’s idea of complementarity aligned with Williams’ idea of correspondences between unlike elements in apposition, of a resonance that ensues similar to the complementarity of colors, the binary of juxtaposition familiar from Seurat and pointillism but extended to a larger domain of abstraction and pure form. In absorbing Kandinsky’s idea of composites and composition, design and form, Williams removed himself from the literary sphere in his approach to writing, adopting extra lyrical methods closer to the visual esthetic of the 20th Century.
The pictorial arts played an influential part in Williams’ self-definition as a poet. He was a contemporary of Duchamp, in the era when literature became art (vividly retold in Shattuck’s The Banquet Years). The example of Mallarme’s Coup de des, with its emphasis on chance operation, juxtaposition, and the unpredictable, and Apollinaire’s graphical Calligrams presented the bridge to the visual esthetic in the way the poem could appear on the page. Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Imagism, Dada were all part of the artistic buffet available to Williams. In the new century, paintings were now visual poems, lyric, geometric, primitive, psychological representations of a nonverbal right brain. Poetry became indistinguishable from prose, imagistic verbal sketches, experientially schematized, sensually parsed, with the immediacy of the new now.
As Duchamp professed and predicted, anything and everything that can be appropriated is art. The outcome is a blending in which the literary incorporates (is incorporated by) the spatial approach of the plastic arts, and vice versa. Duchamp, as an example, is literary and literal: he creates a narrative with his objects by their confounding explicitness—you have to consider them. And Duchamp exemplified the new artist, one who is conceptual as well as intuitive. Expressionism added the analytical comprehension of form as an essential and spiritual element of artistic creation. Cubism, as a juxtaposition of elements in a brash remote mechanically abstracted assemblage, reflected the undaunted lines of machinery, supreme icon of the age, creating an environment of jarring loud designs, confounding in cacophonous announcement the representation of their workings. The Futurists were in love with machines as were architects and graphic designers. Dada, in all its seriousness, was aimed at producing laughter (albeit nervous), a release, an escape velocity from the grave grip of tedium and the troughs of repetition when things weren’t all that funny anymore.
If there is anything Dada about early Williams innovation, it is invisible to us now unless we take into consideration the provocative in Dada is the outrageousness of Williams’ method for the poetry readers of his time. What Williams realized is that the disjointed fragmented illustrative irony that dominates the eye can also be represented as a verbal construct. The found, the juxtaposed, the technical, scientific, photographic, cinematic, anecdotal can be objectified in situ by the form of the page. Like abstract paintings, poems “need not be intelligible to others,” Williams states in the Prologue to Kora In Hell, as they are unique engagements of perceptual identity and the creative impulse to frame sentience.
When considering Williams and form, the forms are not those of literary convention: sonnet, terza rima, ballad, villanelle, ode, blank verse, and so on. Nor is there rhyme or meter. “Nowadays poets spit on rhyme and rhetoric,” Williams states in the Prologue. The point of emphasis is that they are not literary forms at all, but products of impression, imagination, and composition, all guided by an initial stance in the moment of inspiration and self-organized according to the author’s esthetic understanding of what has presented itself, and not fit into the strictures of antiquated cleverness. Conventional literary forms would have no bearing on the new poetry, the one with the American voice.
In TheBirth Of The Imagination, a fascinating and erudite close reading of the good doctor’s early work, Bruce Holsapple examines what distinguishes Williams’ approach as a radical shift from the conventions of literature. “[T]he innovations of Sour Grapes entails minimizing propositional content and decentralizing imagery. . .boosting the significance of the simplest of phrases, heightening all elements equally. . .[with] meaning distributed throughout, not located in a macrostructure or in what the poem is ‘about’.” Many of the poems in Sour Grapes are extraordinary for their “painterly organization” as well as their use of “prepositional phrases” and their “conspicuous lack of propositional content.”
Holsapple uses the poem “Approach To Winter” as an example to focus on Williams’ method. The poem is distinguished by intense visual focus, lacking overt propositional content as well as being “an esthetic event in of itself.” Williams naturally thinks of the poem as “a kind of object with its own ontological status.” With the physicality of an objet d’art, the poem is now more than just literature—the typewriter had allowed the writer to own the page as an object of his making. Nor is the poem structured by theme but schematically (visually) as perceived events with bits of inner reflection sprinkled throughout. The absence of propositional content doesn’t invoke an outside referent in support of its non-theme nor is it especially representational in its non-expository presentational directness. The poem is not about anything in the conventional sense and as a consequence diminishes the distance between the subject and speaker to emphasis a unique and personal intimacy. “What occurs takes place on the page, resulting from a ‘poetic’ design,” Holsapple insists. The shift from an ideational to an experiential mode of organization has the effect of decentralizing the poem, an innovation begun in Kora In Hell.
Williams realizes his aim by first establishing perspective, accomplished in distinctly spatial terms, decentralizing the poem, and allowing the eye to follow the imagery much like it would in looking at a canvas. Point of view is flattened, redistributed, and the background brought forward to engage the reader much as modern painting does away with perspective for the effects of color and shape. The poems in Sour Grapes are not possible without the radical reappraisals of linear modes of poetic organization. As well, notions of content have undergone similar transformations. The poem is not meant to be taken as a representation of experience, but experienced as an artistic construct, one in which theme is no longer the primary principle of development, and that “the meaning resides in the very structure.”
“The form of the work, the compositional design, gives evidence of thought. . .innovative design is the [poet’s] primary task,” Holsapple notes in his conclusion to the section detailing Williams’ groundbreaking method in Sour Grapes. “The content of the poem arises from experience. . . the poet’s attention. . .focused at the point of origin, on immediate experience, as a legitimizing moment. The organization of the poems becomes schematic. . .rather than organized by hierarchy,” he maintains, and consequently the poems in Sour Grapes are allowed to expand beyond the bounds of literary conventions into those of visual tropes. Williams’ improvisational modes become part of a calculated method as requisite to composition.
There is not a little irony in Williams’ titling of his 1921 poetry selection Sour Grapes, an expression that suggests dissatisfaction and envy. When I first noticed the title in the table of contents of my 1951 edition of The Earlier Collected Poems many years ago, I thought, “Sour Grapes, now there’s a fitting title for a book of poems.” It certainly articulates a universal mood, especially among poets who feel marginalized or don’t get the attention they think they deserve (on a sliding scale). Despite his current status as a major literary figure in the American canon, a thirty seven year old (in 1921) Williams Carlos Williams was shoveling shit against the tide and he knew it. His ideas did not have a chance in “hell” when the literary establishment was favoring T.S. Eliot whom he viewed as a subtle conformist, a conscious simplicity, a man content with the connotations of his masters, and the antithesis of the radical poetics he was advocating, one that did away with the old world methods for the new perspective of the 20th Century. What Williams proposed then is still radical despite being marginalized and disparage in the institutional canon.
A further irony is that it took René Taupin, a Frenchman, to grasp the significance of Kora In Hell and by extension Williams’ later innovative work. In his 1929 L’influence du Symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine (1910-1920), a time when Williams was receiving little or no critical attention, Taupin writes that “Williams knows more about the work of the imagination than any American poet today,” and that perhaps it was Williams who had come up with the formulation that would become the basis for American modernist writing. He had no difficulty in positioning Kora In Hell as the seminal text for a uniquely American approach to modern poetry and seeing the text as probably the most important in the evolution of Williams’ poetry, that in the composition of Improvisations, [Williams] had posed all the relevant artistic questions of his day, and in its writing, had brought himself into intimate contact with his means. Williams makes no bones about delineating these means in the texts of Improvisations as well as in the original 1920 Prologue to Kora In Hell (omitted in the 1957 City Lights edition). The poems of Sour Grapes and subsequently in Spring And All and The Descent Of Winter would illustrate his means, his gift, his talent, his genius, his vision.
Williams’ influence is hardly insignificant in modernist American letters. He is the subject of numerous and laudatory biographical/critical studies that get to the root of his supreme importance in the development and direction of modern poetry, certainly in the Anglosphere. Yet he is still denigrated as a minor poet, dismissed by the likes of Vendler and Bloom, and paved over in the institutional curriculum of entrenched academe and the sentimentalized techni-centric workshop/wokeshop where students (future poets?) are taught to write meaningful captions to their selfies and pass them off as poems. Lip service is paid to Williams by including his “wheelbarrow” poem (Spring And All, “Poem XXII”) in anthologies without providing the necessary context, and without which the glaze of rain water and white chickens is rendered simplistic and superficial while so much depends upon its revolutionary complexity. Remarkably his poetry and his ideas about poetry have gone on to influence generations of American poets too numerous to name but would include, as just the beginning sketch of a very very long list in the generations that overlap my own, Paul Blackburn, Elaine Equi, Anselm Hollo, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, Alice Notley, Kenneth Rexroth, James Schuyler, and Philip Whalen. (Add your list here.)
At the turn of the century of the visual cortex and dominant esthetic of the gaze, writers necessarily had to be freed from their subcategory and integrated into the greater field of creative individuals. The poet became the painter and the painter became the poet: colorful emotions, anti-narrative flights of fancy predominated the canvas and artfully arranged words and phrases in tandem graced the page. The poet manifests as artist, not simply a man or woman of letters—there are no longer such distinctions—participating in the breaking down and redefining of the arts in culture as increasingly more complex interpretations of the modes of the psyche. As Julia Kristeva observed, “The 20th Century saw another reordering of the esthetic until it got to the point that art became a continuous reordering of the esthetic as the process of signifying.”
Process over product in American modernist writing begins with Williams Carlos Williams who understood that visual bias, already well established in photography and the cinema as well as the plastic arts, would be the dominating influence of the new century’s art. The dynamic of the poem is its construction as a movement not only as a creature of the page but as the process of the unfolding of the imagination through deft improvisation that on each occasion rewrites the history of literature as a unique composition. Form is self-determined in that it is the result of imagination, improvisation, and intelligence. The poem must offer something other than the old syllogistic cul de sac. The poems in Sour Grapes were among the first steps toward dismantling the antiquated mechanisms of literature and are the rootstock feeding the diverse branches of American poetry.
Obviously much of what I have written here is the result of long held opinions and perceptions of the importance of Williams in relation to my own writing and to the vast entangled field of modern poetry. However, I delight in being joined in my speculation by others who have articulated their views and have done the leg work. Bruce Holsapple’s The Birth Of The Imagination, William Carlos Williams On Form (University of New Mexico, 2015) is one such study I feel fortunate to have chanced upon. For those not familiar with the material of Williams’ early groundbreaking work, Holsapple presents an informed exposition on the development of the radical esthetic at the root of modern American poetry. Readers better acquainted with the breadth of the Williams oeuvre will discover a brilliant, thoroughly considered refresher into the revolutionary vision of the new poetry by the foundational figure in modernist American writing. Recommended as a companion volume is Imaginations (New Directions, 1970), a collection of Williams’ seminal work of the 1920s, edited and introduced by Webster Schott. The 42 poems of Sour Grapes, found in The Collected Earlier Poems (New Directions, 1951), will no doubt surprise the contemporary reader with how current and fresh they remain.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and three novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems, Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society as well as Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine. His poet-centric fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
It’s that time again: books received by The New Black Bart Poetry Society have been piling up ever since the Society’s librarian took a lunch break more than 12 months ago and hasn’t returned. Below are some recently received and not so recently received books that were recovered from a dusty nook in the Society’s office.
Donald Guravich, Joanne & Donald’s Trip To NYC, April 2002 Blue Press, 2021 —Joanne & Donald’s Trip To Boulder, June 2002, Blue Press, 2021
The titles say it all, two charmingly illustrated chapbooks by Donald Guravich detailing the salient and exhaustingly social aspects of his and Joanne Kyger’s trips to two of America’s poetry meccas, in limited editions from Blue Press.
Red Pine, A Shaman’s Lament, Two Poems by Qu Yuan, empty bowl, 2021
This translation of Qu Yuan, besides the usual Red Pine amply notated clarity, serves as a glimpse into an early manifestation of poetry illustrating its shamanic roots. Qu Yuan, contemporaneous with the Greek Golden age, in 93 quatrains treads the line between praise song and incantation, allegory and oblique criticism resonant with Daoist lore, that the heaven will be set right by the power of his testimony (lament) as a shaman. A terrific read, both poem and commentary. And supports Steiner’s contention that “poetry is lament.”
Sabina Knight, Chinese Literature, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2012 —The Heart of Time, Moral Agency in Modern Chinese Fiction, Harvard University Asian Center, 2006
Moral agency is not something that is front and center in the Western imagination or is so buried in levels of deist hierarchy as to be almost invisible, even irrelevant. It is certainly more evident in Chinese literature where personal responsibility provides the ground for moral action found in the Buddhist teaching of “right mind, right act.” Perhaps that’s what makes Chinese literature so different and compelling is its world view.
Sabina Knight’s A Very Short Introduction, from the Oxford series of the same name, is a great primer for those unfamiliar with the traditions and authors of Chinese Literature, and a terrific refresher for the aficionado and armchair scholar. While Chinese Literature focuses on classical literature, Knight’s The Heart Of Time covers modern Chinese fiction to reveal a contemporary literature reflecting the growth pains of modern China, the tug of war between progressive and reactionary, and brings to the surface a public soul searching that is relevant to understand this ancient culture and tradition in literature transitioning into the secularity of the modern world.
Takuboku Ishikawa, Romanji Diary & Sad Toys, translated by Stanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda, Tuttle, 1985 Shuntaro Taniwaka, Selected Poems, translated by Harold Wright, , North Point Press, 1983 Chuang-Tzu (Burton Watson, tr.) Basic Writing, Columbia University Press, 1964
All three of these books were bequests from the Keith Kumasen Abbott Estate and for the most part are so obscure as to be lucky to find space on anyone’s shelves. Yet Kumasen and the Society’s tastes in such exotic appetites overlap and renders them treasures worthy of frequent perusing.
David Schneider, Goods (Short Stories), Cuke Press, 2020
David Schneider is the author of two biographies, Street Zen and Crowded by Beauty,The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen. He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. If you thought that being a Zen priest might be nothing but doing zazen and seeking enlightenment, Goods , Schneider’s selection of short stories of an unconventional Zen priest is bound to give you a different, very secular view of monastic life.
Mark Young, Sorties, Sandy Press, 2021
Mark Young is the editor and publisher of the Otoliths enterprise from Australia and its omnibus poetry magazine of the same name. Sorties consists of prose vignettes full of “intelligent, humorous, precise, well-informed observations.” If you haven’t seen a copy of his 2008 Pelican Dreaming (Meritage Press), a selection of poems spanning fifty years, you are missing a treat.
Robert Hébert Coulisses, La Compange A Numero, Montreal, 2020
Another gem of philosophical musing and poetry from the interior of a little appreciated literary French Canada and French Canadian soul, in French with some English
18 When exploring inside the tombs with a bear don’t be paradoxical Flaherty’s films are generous Man of Aran on Isle-aux-Coudres syzygy between humans word not said in discussion
(from 24 ossement exquis)
Elizabeth C. Herron, Insistent Grace, Fernwood Press, 2020
A handsome and substantial selection of poems from Elizabeth C. Herron, four time Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry, a fellow International League of Conservation Writers, and a poet in the forefront of ecopoetics from the beginning.
Clifford Burke, Rain, Etcetera, 2018, Deer Creek
A beautifully produced selection of poems by the man who wrote the book on how to print poetry. The master of letterpress printing brings his talent and his considerable knowhow of this elegant desktop version of meditations on the nature of the world and the nature of self as realized in these concise beautifully realized poems
Eric Johnson, The Type Dreams of Ab Fulsom, Iota Press, 2020 —Excerpts from Tapered Pitch by Iklipz Dopplur, Farflungland Editions, 2020 —This, by Ekl Partz, Farflungland Editions, 2020 —Short Sorties, Iota Press, 2021
A particular school of the printing arts has sprung up around Eric Johnson much in the same way that fine letterpress printing and its esthetic took hold in the last quarter of the 20th Century under the guidance and tutelage of printers like Clifford Burke, Alastair Johnston, Kathy Walkup, and Susan King (to name just a few). As the founder of Iota Press, Eric helped establish North Bay Letterpress Arts, a fine arts printing coop, practicing the methods of handset type and printing on various antique but fully operational hand presses. His recent limited edition handmade books highlight his mastery of the book arts as well as a sense of language and humor peculiar to this who stand at the typecase.
Lucile Friesen, Blue Bicycle, Ideal Café Editions, 2021
Similar in its style to Johnson’s hand printed handmade books, Lucile Friesen, an alumnus of North Bay Letterpress Arts, who now practices her art in Montreal, offers her meditations on blue bikes and their permutations in the peddling of her witty and insightful poems on a bicycle built for blue.
John Johnson, Idiomatic, printed at Iota Press, 2013
The fine art of letterpress printing is also evident in this selection of John Johnson’s short incisive poems handset by the author and printed at Iota Press on a 193 C&P platen press.
Fell Swoop 164, Last Gasp Swoop, Joel Dailey, ed 2020 Scoop Bibliography, Dick Martin, Compiler, 2021 Roberto Hortikulture, Liquid Paper, Moron Channel, 2021 Joel Dailey, Current Manifesto of the Dumbass School of Poetry or Puncture Reptilian, Unarmed Chapbook (nd, St. Paul)
Fell Swoop is dead! Long Live Fell Swoop! His excellency, The Reverend X.J. Dailey, NOLA, has performed the last rites on his long running faux mimeo literary magazines after 164 issue thrown onto the bonfire of the vanities—that’s a lot of paper. Fortunately for the archivists (those that can, do, those that can’t, teach, and those that can’t do either become archivists) a Fell Swoop Bibliography complete with pithy comments and obvious omissions was compiled by the intrepid Dick Martin. Yet fear not, the Rev has reincarnated as another publication destined to be long lived, The Moron Channel, in which the authors all share the Rev’s outrageous wit and humid humor if not actual corporeal presence.
Tinker Greene, Flaming Serpents In The Desert (poems), Chicago, 2021
Tinker Greene’s infrequent but much appreciated poetry pamphlets now arrive as dispatches from the Midwest where winters are always a good reason to be from there. Flaming Serpents and all previous such outing are available for the asking from email@example.com Nice translation of a Reverdy poem from Les ardoises du toit.
Sandy Berrigan, Song Rhymes, 2020 — Viajes, When It Was Possible To Travel, 2020 —Spring Ahead, Fall Behind, 2021 —Random Wanderings of a Wayward Mind, 2021
When you are raised in a literate family, spend your adult life in the company of artists and poets, from the brick tenements of the lower East Side to the lush gardens of Hawaii and the redwood forests of Northern California, and are as well a seasoned world traveler, it seems only natural to set down your words to share your impressions, explore the sentiments of a communal investment in the life of literature and the art of poetry. That’s what Sandy does in these poems, she presents the disarming and unpretentious cadences of her authentic soul.
Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, but one of the last of the hard boiled, streetwise, post-Beat Neo-Romantics (in other words, a dinosaur) not sucking the institutional teat, author of Synthetic Lament, (rhymes with cement), recent winner of the Pillsbury Prize in Poetry, finds himself washed up like a wounded lovesick sealion on a sandy stretch of Pacific Ocean beach north of Frisco, and later a cliff overlooking the crashing surf, rehearsing the rhythms of his thoughts as strophes for an ode to sunset.
(excerpts from the final section of Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, originally published in 2017 as an online serial fiction by Pat Nolan)
The glare of white sand shadowed to gray, rumbling waves lost their green sheen, and the hiss of dissipating foam edged closer. Sea birds screeched, gulls hopped among the debris of apple cores, carrot ends, food wrappers left by his rescuers, and his own empty beer cans, slim jim sheaths, and chip bag. Otherwise he was alone. A wind skimmed the waves chilling the air. In the distance the orange orb crushed a stratum of cloud dyeing the horizon with the blood of its muted fire. “Suppose you really do, toward the end, fall away into a sunset which is your own self-ignited pyre,” the dying sun sang in his ears, a siren chorus with the shrill voices of cicadas.
Stupid. And I am the exemplification of that stupidity. Shake it off. Gulp in breaths of denial that it can’t be all that bad. But which is worse, the headache or the heartache. The topsy-turvy scramble to regain mental balance in the face of an onslaught of contradiction and self-delusion painfully limited by my bone headedness or the gut churning, heart arresting, adrenal fueled, fear-based realization that it must end, and the immense futility of it all. Is there hope, that mocking seductive chimera, fickle as flickering day or is there only dark despair and night? Well, you live, you die.
Getting to his feet, wrapped in the blanket and feeling the full cold weight of being soaked to the skin, he stared out at the giant orange eyeball above the vast eyewash sea that seemingly demanded, “Just who the hell do you think you are?” He replied, “Nobody.”
All the bad luck, terrible accidents, cruel circumstances, the waking horror I’ve been through, brushed off simply to continue. I can hear people say, “What great promise he had when he was younger.” At least I haven’t self-immolated as have so many of my contemporaries. Nora likes to joke, “There’s the smell of smoke about you, Carl, and I don’t mean cigarettes. It’s all those burned bridges.”
Me and my shambling machinations, in the end the question is who are these worthless pricks and why am I wasting my time trying to be one of them? I have no use for tight-ass flyblown poets, confining my associations to a few friends and lovers. The lovers never hang around for very long, and the friends have become victims of the three deadly D’s of friendship: disaffection, distance, and death. It’s when those names come with a face and a memory of palpable interactions that are no longer active on the perceptual plane, having achieved the stasis of the infinitesimal, that the truth of mortality sinks in or at least gives pause to the recall of a vivid impression. You live. You die.
I shouldn’t think of life as disappointing. If nothing else it is consistent in its suffering, and that, in the face of it all, I am helpless. There’s suffering because nothing stays the same which plays havoc with my desire to hold on to what works even if only for an instant which in turn causes the anxiety that makes me suffer. Nothing lasts forever and even that is gone in an instant. Life isn’t anything unique by itself. It is what comes after what went before and what goes before what’s to come. Conditioned by the past, it affects the future as a chain of instances linked by memory, desire’s intelligence. It matters not one way or the other. It is all the same. Life or death.
All I can hope for is a kind of intuitive understanding of death, dying, which surpasses reason and rules out any further discussion. All things, being impermanent, have no separate and independent identity. The absolute is inherent in all phenomena. Ultimate reality can’t be explained in terms of existence and nonexistence. Everything is real. Each thing is identical with all things. To exist is to be in relation to other things that exist. The universe is simply the set of all these relations. You live.
What comes of the illusion that even though I am edging toward the last days of my life that it is far from over, and joy and dread combined will find time enough to grow, planted in the fertile soil of anything of any moment up till now? Should I regret that at the end no one really ever got what I was doing and all the fame and attention are based on a house of cards, not on truth but on assumption and conjecture that have nothing to do with my poetry? You die.
I acknowledge that there can be no other way. I must say my goodbyes with the realization that the world says goodbye to you long before you leave it. Goodbye means the same in all languages although for some it is more definitive than others. In my language I must say goodbye to friends because either they died or I did, or they have alienated me, or me them, by their, or my, thoughtless behavior, which is a kind of death to me, and to them. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. So goodbye to those of parted ways, you are dead to me as I am to you. And those who have through necessity and circumstance physically removed yourselves from the immediacy of my presence, might as well be dead because memory is fickle and the longer separation is maintained the less the fact of your being matters. Nostalgia is merely the stubbed toe that calls attention to the foot and the blindness of inattention.
As the limping man, I am Jason, and all smithies made lame or hamstrung. The limping hero, one shoe on, one shoe off, the missing sandal, the single footed, the dancer, the shaman. I go through life doing the same old thing over and over and then one day it’s different. I’ve reached a threshold. Step across, carrying the bride of my enlightenment or disillusionment.
All I know is that every six months or so I die. I have died a hundred times a hundred, and it’s always the same death. I don’t know what dies, and why I have to be reborn again, always with the same high hopes, always the identical death. Death is a return to the cocoon. I should have died young like all the other promising poetry talent but through some fluke I was passed over. Now I am caught in the thrall of the denial of death syllogism: other men die, I am not other men, therefore I cannot die. I live.
What will they say about me when I’m gone? “He was a bit of a bastard and a bit of a genius too. He could be an egotistical drunk and even he hated his guts.” Some might even say I was being too easy on myself. Besides when I imagine someone saying something about me, they never say anything I don’t already know. I die.
When I still held the idea that I would end up in the ground like everyone else, I wanted the quote from Tristan Shandy on my tombstone, De Gustibus non disputandum est. I’ll settle for I am not done reading. Now more like the Icarus of my previous days I’m tempted to fly into the sun, but reborn in my epiphany as Daedalus, I hesitate, my shadow tangled around my feet. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, something that Daedalus should have reminded Icarus, when the sun’s effect on wax wings is diminished. Where does that leave me? People don’t want the soul-fashioned-out-of-thin-air stuff anymore. They want conceptual and commercial or tritely trendy tried and true. No soaring on wax wings, no clambering up to a seventh heaven, no leaps off cliffs, metered feet fitted with the conventional cement of sensible shoes.
So who is the one called Wendt? To whom the mail is addressed, whose name appears as a byline or on the title page of books and in discussions on the art of poetry. It would not be obvious just by looking at him that he was well known as a poet although in the eyes of some he was a poseur, a mountebank, a throwback, a full-time charlatan. As it was, he recognized himself less in his own books than he did in those of others. His life was a flight from himself. Everything he ever was or could be was lost to inevitable oblivion. He couldn’t even remember which one of his selves had written this. Ink like blood flows in the slow spill of a lifelong intellectual sacrifice or suicide.
To be successful you have to believe in something. At the very least, yourself. I am too skeptical of everything, even myself, to be truly successful. I follow Descartes’ original proposition, dubito ergo sum, I doubt therefore I am. Even my small successes are not my own, but those of others who see something in my work, something worthwhile. Moments of faith have allowed me to write and being able to write allowed me faith. Yet I undermine it all by my lack of conviction beyond that original instance of creation. I’m only as good as my next poem. And a poem is just another bread crumb in the journey through the deep dark forest. The older I get the more I realize that it’s not just that the competition gets better, it also gets cuter. As Granahan once advised, “If all you got is technique, you ain’t got much.” Rationalizing with every breath, I follow the way of why, seeking the answer, any answer. But it’s always someone else’s answer and I hate being told what to do. Imprisoned behind the solitude of a fervent smile I am a virulent fever passing through a lukewarm crowd as my natural cowardice shrinks from the occasion. I mythologize my life to give it meaning at the most basic anthropomorphic level. Impatient with the slow return and low interest yield of poetry, impatient with a life that continually marginalizes me. Poets, like gypsies, are each about as welcome in polite society.
The wind riffled the edges of the army blanket wrapped round him lifting the free folds like the edges of a cape and in turn shuffled the neocortex rolodex between his ears and stopped at the appropriate citation. “It is he of the billowing greatcoat, Cedric Silkyshag.” Or Lazlo Pierce, his alter ego lothario, expert in passion. How does the Iliad end? He was a refugee from the age of heroes.
I am the hero poet awakening the sleeping images of the future which can and must come forth from the night in order to give the world a new and better face. I am the enemy of the old ruling system, of the old cultural values. Poets are necessarily anonymous. “I am a voice with no name,” echo the ages. Poets should prize their anonymity.
The absurd excitability of my system which forces me to create crisis out of every experience and puts drama into the smallest incidents of life makes it impossible to count on me in any way. I am no longer a poet. And then I am. At most I am a rendezvous of poets who, from time to time, appear as that one or this one with cocky insistence. For this very reason, like in some B western I find myself riding off into the sunset. Destiny imposes its own consistency and my thoughts and wishes are but a pretext for what I find myself doing. No passion, no act of heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling will preserve my life beyond the grave. All the labors of all my days, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the high noon brightness of my genius are destined for extinction in the vast solar munch, and the whole edifice of my literary achievement will inevitably be buried with me. A poet once wrote, “When I die I want to be buried in a book.” Needless to say, it was his own book. The Fates do not have “needless” in their vocabulary. Death is the ultimate defining instance. To live in the present is to live facing death. Man invented eternity and the future to escape death, but each of these inventions is a fatal trap. Only in facing death is life really life. Within the now, death is not separated from life. Both are the same reality. The search for immortality is a dead end in the labyrinth of existence. Death chews us up from the moment of birth and then shits us back out into a hole in the ground.
The blanket slipped from a shoulderand the dying breath of sunset pushed against his chilled torso, pulled at his sodden sanded hair. “I’m rich! I’m famous! Why can’t I happy with that?” And that caused him to cackle knowingly. He imagined the mess he must look. He just wished the day would end. Even if there was no guarantee of another one? Even. He was nothing when he should have been everything. The search for absolute beauty is the quest for death, the exercise of reason’s constant critique of mortality. From a technical point of view, the world is comical. Death knells come cheap.
I tell my life to myself as dreams, images, fantasies, and an array of deliberate states reflective of the vast inherent power of cerebral activity underlying consciousness. What I speak is never the absolute truth. It’s either a half truth or a truth and a half. I understand now that I am essentially a monologist in poet’s clothing. First of all, the monologue is an art without an audience. And without an audience, the expressions of artist and art don’t exist. It is an art of forgetting and of forgetting myself as a function that eliminates the subject, indifferent to the outcome. In this boundless universe everything is arranged according to the principle of cosmic necessity as a manifestation without self-consciousness. My monologue begets the world itself. The boundaries of art are breached yet no originality is attempted because to try to treat the monologue in terms of esthetics is pointless. The eternal monologue that accompanies my consciousness overcomes all obstacles and concentrates much too much in every nuance in the steady erotic connection with language only possible in perfect solitude. All distraction disappears and nothing remains but a hidden maze and the echo of fragments in endless pursuit of each other. I don’t know of any more profound difference in the whole orientation of an artist, whether I look at my work in progress, essentially at myself, from the point of view of a witness or whether I have forgotten the world, simply humming a tune to myself.
Well, it’s been going this way for a while, impatient with the inevitable, I want to hurry it along, don’t cry for me Argentina or Paraguay or Slovenia or Madagascar. It’s been a great ride, and I got everything I deserved, good and bad, and maybe a little something that belonged to someone else. And know that I loved you, all of you, but there was only so much I could give after I served myself. Thank you for your belief, your disbelief, your indulgence, your indifference. You won’t get hurt if you stand back out of the way, look on objectively and consider it the end of an era, my era and error, a bid for freedom, me free of pain and suffering, you free of me and my pain and suffering.
He felt a chill that cooled his liver and made him shiver. “This is the way the world will end, in rays, red,” Kerouac had dreamed, “silent, tired—the world of the mind is the real world—the rays of the mind, the real rays.” The old king must die before a new one is born, his legacy his grand illusion.
Gazing at the dying sun, what anthropomorphic arrogance is it that steals the essence of cosmic eternity and absurdly imputes it to an immortal self? Why must I insist on combining the attributes of myself with that of the universe? To be a poet means to calmly weigh the eventual terror and degradation of impotence at averting my own death and that of my friends and lovers, and by extension, the death of a clueless feisty species, the death of the planet, incubator of a vaunted sentience. And even the death of its vital star, that bright orange dollop sinking into the ironic sea. Will anyone mourn that in this place over a span of untold eons there once lived poetic intelligence?
He lit his last cigarette and stepped to the edge to relieve himself. As he watched the unremitting froth of breakers spray phosphorescent arcs among the jagged dark shapes below, hypnotic in their mutability, his attention turned to the next swell of wave approaching as the edge of a mysterious and chimerical energy. And what exactly is the attraction of that shaped force consisting of undifferentiated particles caught up in concert until it breaks into the disarrayed individual wash of ephemeral droplets? It was all he could do not to join the cosmic undulation and become a part of it all. He contributed a little of himself anyway which pretty much summed up his life as a poet, a piss in the ocean.
I am as eternal as the universe and so the endless sea of matter, constantly unfolding enfolded forms, will find something else to do with me. Then my spirit should not be afflicted or frightened for I am this enchanted unity stable in my oneness and will remain so eternally. I am a non-symbolic thing signifying what I am. Those who consider the divine one thing and I another do not know. I is another, the rest is silence.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
Poetry, Art, Photos, Memories, Anecdotes, Interviews, and Essays on her Life and Work by friends, contemporaries, poets, and fellow writers, compiled and organized by Sara Safdie (with technical assistance from the Parole Officer)
Introduction Sara Safdie
(click on the bold type to go to a particular section)
Set One Ammiel Alcalay • Dawn-Michelle Baude • Michael Boughn • John Daley • Jennifer Dunbar Dorn • Mark DuCharme • Stephen Emerson • Kathleen Frumkin • Gloria Frym • Robert Grenier & John Batki
Set Two Anselm Hollo • Stefan Hyner • Alastair Johnston • Larry Kearney • Ku Yün • Nafet Le Renyh • Lewis MacAdams • Phoebe MacAdams • Duncan McNaughton • Genie McNaughton • Diana Middleton-McQuaid
Set Three Jim Nisbet • Pat Nolan • Alice Notley • Arthur Okamura • Kevin Opstedal • Simon Pettet •
Set Four Red Pine • Steve Potter • Michael Rothenberg- Joe Safdie • Sara Safdie • Edward Sanders • Miriam Sanders
Set Five David Schneider • Cedar Sigo • Dale Martin Smith • John Thorpe • Anne Waldman • Michael Wolfe
Set Six Art & Photo Gallery and Links to Videos and Miscellany
Introduction Sara Safdie
As I write this, it’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since my good friend, Joanne Elizabeth Kyger died. Her death came as a complete shock to me, even though I knew she was ill, but I never knew how ill she really was—nor did most people, including Joanne. It was hard to break the habit of thinking I’ve got to call Joanne to tell her about what I just saw or where I went. She came to me in dreams, often. In January I began to feel that I had to do something for her, to keep her memory present in all those in her large circle whose lives she touched. I have been truly amazed, though not surprised, at the response I got from so many of you, so I thank everyone who has contributed a poem, an essay, a memory, or photos that are gathered in this volume.
I especially want to give particular shout-outs to those who made this possible. To Alastair Johnston, who suggested I get in touch with Pat Nolan to provide the platform for this special edition of Parole, blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society. To Duncan McNaughton who was kind enough to provide email addresses and suggestions about inviting people whom I might have overlooked. To Anne Waldman, Joanne’s good friend and poet-in-arms, who also provided email addresses, her own work, Anselm Hollo’s poem to Joanne, a series of emails between them, as well as enlisting the aid of her Naropa assistant, Caroline (Swanee) Simpson. To Donald Guravich, whose loss is probably the greatest of us all, who also helped with email addresses, suggestions about contributors, and the photos he has shared here. Finally, I want to thank Pat Nolan, whose generosity in time and spirit has made this all possible.
Thank you all so much for everything you’ve shared to make this the celebration it should be of the life of a great friend, a great poet, and an undying spirit.
Submitted to the membership on March 22, 2021 by the Parole Officer who would also like to thank the contributors for their effort in this tribute to Joanne Kyger. The amount of material collected made it imperative that the work be presented in alphabetic order and parceled out in sections so that everyone received a fair viewing and that the readers did not suffer from scroll fatigue. A special thanks to Sara Safdie for her diligence and to Stephen Ratcliffe for his treasure trove of photos. And last but not least, to Donald Guravich for his blessing.
In anticipation of arranging a reading for Joanne in New York in 2012, I began thinking about a project we might be able to do together that could fit into the Lost & Found chapbook format, using unpublished archival material that might shed new light on her life and times. Knowing that there was correspondence between Joanne and others we had recently published or were about to publish, namely John Wieners and Michael Rumaker, I began floating the project to her. On September 11, 2011, Joanne wrote:
Those dates sound fine!
Some of the correspondence I had with John was very arch and funny, circa 1965 etc. We had a close friendship and understanding over the years, having met in 1957 when he was doing Measure, and having enough energy to swoop through the poetry bars of North Beach every night.
A week later, on September 17, 2011, Joanne wrote:
I wonder if San Diego has all the letters catalogued—I sent them the rest of my letter and mss. archives last October. Up to 2007. Wieners would be lots of fun to do. The language is a little arch. I did send carbon copies of my letters TO people, but am not sure who—that would have been in the 50’s and 60’s. Letters to and from Philip Whalen is another possibility, but those too are fraught with style. A sampling of correspondence, and replies, might be lively, if it didn’t pose too many editorial decisions.
By January, a plan started to emerge:
What a great idea to use the Rumaker and Wieners’ correspondence. We were close friends during that time, and YES, so young and brash and screwed up, but loving most minutes of it. Do send the scans when you have time.
By the end of January, excitement started building:
What a rush of the late 50’s North Beach scene. I often typed letters on the book order sheets at my job at Brentano’s which entailed using carbon copies. I don’t know what happened to the copies of the missives I sent to ‘Pip’ Wieners, I thought there might be some in the Mandeville Collection which I sold to them in the early 70’s. I don’t have a list from then. I love John’s tone. The letters to Michael certainly give a picture, I think they may have to be edited a bit to protect the shredded reputations of those still around… The ‘humor’ is very wicked, slashed reputations etc. This from a cursory look.
I’ll try and put them in some kind of order and get back to you.
The very next day, this came, with subject heading: “Giddy reading at dawn”:
I think this is after Ebbe [Borregaard], Michael [Rumaker], Jerome [Mallmann] and George Stanley were hauled off to jail in North Beach, after Ebbe gave a policeman the finger. Ida Hodes of the Poetry Center bailed them out the next day and they all returned triumphantly to the Sunday poetry group.
He told me to run run, or they’ll get you too. I got a taxi back to my apartment at 949 Columbus.
The evening started out with ‘cocktails’ made at Michael’s suggestion of Rhine wine and gin.
We did have some kind of dinner, and then went out on the town, which was North Beach a few blocks away.
Who are the roving gang in the archives–and where are Michael’s letters?
Cheers from a very cool dawn,
As we got into details of the trip, by the end of February, Joanne wrote:
I also have a few other John Wiener’s odds and ends to send. A poem he wrote for me, in 1972, which may be from a time later than what you were looking for; and a long account written on the bus, of going to the dentist after he had swallowed one of his teeth. It was written on the inside of my paperback Hart Crane poems, in 1958.
At some point, a letter from John to Joanne answered a question I had about a reading I went to, where I had, as a teenager, taken pictures of the readers, including John, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, and Ron Lowensohn, at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. I knew it was tied to a political event and always thought it took place in 1969, on Moratorium Day, in protest against the American War in Vietnam. But John described another event, in 1970, for the Chicago 7, and Joanne wrote: “John’s letters are like messengers of the moment, replayed and replayed.”
By mid-March we had a series of letters, but were creeping closer and closer to the deadline. In “the middle of the second day of storms,” Joanne wrote:
Sometimes it’s difficult visiting a 23 year old self. I thought Michael Rummkaer, at times, needed ‘cheering up’ mmediately. And I was charmed by everyone else’s letters. I’ll read through them again to check for redundancies. And Thank you for all the attention you’ve given this project —actually you created it!
We continued working through April, with back and forth commentary, filled with Joanne’s meticulous detailed thought and laser-like editing. At some point Joanne realized that the event planned in New York would include a “reunion” of sorts with Michael Rumaker and, given that they had been out of touch for decades, this entailed some sense of uncertainty. But they began corresponding and by the end of April Joanne wrote: “It’s been great hearing his Enthusiasm for the series. He wants to have a good time, and that sounds like the right attitude.”
And a good time certainly was had, as an enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear Joanne and Michael Rumaker read some letters from those we collected for the chapbook, and talk to each other, after all those years. I treasure the time we had, whether that week in New York when Joanne was my houseguest, or on visits to Bolinas. I deeply miss her unfaltering clarity and uncanny ability to respond directly to the world in her own inimitable way, and there is still much to learn from her work and how she carried herself in the time she had.
“Joanne Kyger’s poetry terrified me”
Joanne Kyger’s poetry terrified me, although I didn’t know why. I first encountered it in the early ‘80s when she delivered a lecture at New College of California. Drawing on Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman, she described the shamanic journey via a visionary hole in the earth—I was astonished at how matter-of-factly she delivered this information at a time when hyper-rationalism in the poetry community was ascendant. Three days later, I ran into her at a Bill Berkson reading. I told her that “I went down the hole.”
Joanne gave me a look that eventually I learned to recognize—an intense, anticipatory pause she savored before replying—though at the time I worried she didn’t believe me. She asked what happened, and that was the start of a 37-year friendship. Soon, I joined lively roommates in Duncan McNaughton’s Bolinas house as part of a permissive intellectual community with Joanne at its center.
Those were difficult times for me: I was processing everything life had lobbed my way. Joanne had no patience for self-pity. “That’s not interesting!” she snapped when I explained my feelings. It was one among many vital lessons. Once when I poured wine into a clay cup, Joanne snatched it away and found a glass. “You must see the wine,” she said. “Respect Dionysus.” The lessons kept coming, everything from Robert Duncan’s mysticism and the “de-meter” of her prosody to the finer points of anal hygiene. She helped draw up the list of participants for The White Rabbit Symposium and Jack Spicer Conference on one hand, and explained the superiority of a salt spoon to a shaker on the other. Turkey buzzards, men, the necessity of scarves: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Joanne was the mother I never had, but she picked up slack.
When I moved in with Joanne’s friend, Alastair Johnston, in Oakland, a new pattern was established: visiting Joanne and Donald in Bolinas, when Joanne would heap the table with books, fill my head with ideas, and insist that I learn something, anything, about the natural world. Over the years, that pattern solidified: returning to Bolinas from France and visiting Joanne and Donald. Returning from Egypt, Lebanon, Italy, wherever. Joanne was a lifeline, an anchor. Each time we exchanged gifts. I brought a jacket I’d found for her in Beijing, salt from the Camargue; she gave me earrings, bracelets, scarves, her latest chapbook or broadside, the Bolinas Hearsay News. The gifting ritual was born of Joanne’s generosity of spirit, her drive to inclusively connect with others, to mark meaningful occasions with mementos that concretized the transience of life as surely as her poems.
Occasionally, I reckoned with Kyger’s books, publishing a review of Again: Poems 1980-2000 in First Intensity (2002). But I delayed immersing myself in the entirety of her work; I was saving it for when I was ready. That moment came in 2015, when I was living in Las Vegas and realized Joanne wasn’t receiving enough attention for her contribution to American poetry at the moment when her health was fading. I got a Huffington Post editor on board for an On Time (2016) review, but when it posted, the lines excerpted from her poem were yanked flush-left to the margin, ignoring the open-field prosody essential to sound and interpretation. I phoned Joanne to apologize. “I’ve had this problem my whole life.” Her voice was wistful; I realized that, given the tyranny of the left margin, indeed she had (the layout in the review was later corrected).
Next, Jennifer Burke and I began the Herculean task of assembling Joanne’s Wikipedia page, which entailed piecing together a biography as well as familiarity with as many of her publications as I could get my hands on. It took months. During that process, I discovered much about Joanne’s family, training in philosophy, lovers, travels—the life she’d lived before I met her. I also realized that what frightened me about Joanne’s writing was the white-hot truth at its core. I was angry with myself for not having seen her books, journals and letters in a tight web of controlled continuity, for not reckoning with Joanne’s phenomenological project writ large.
The Wiki page occasioned frequent correspondence and calls, including a delicate loop when Joanne refused to be associated with either “Bolinas” or “Buddhism.” This refusal was problematic, first because Joanne clearly is associated with Bolinas and Buddhism, and secondly, from a technical standpoint, Jen and I needed the links to authenticate her page. She wouldn’t budge. I knew she was refusing to be pigeonholed, as she had throughout her life; I also knew that other scholars and readers would come forward to grapple with her work, and that the Wiki foundation needed to be solid. I argued that omitting Bolinas and Buddhism called into question anything left in, and she relented.
The last time I saw Joanne was in fall 2016, when, at the age of 82, she flew to Las Vegas for the Vegas Valley Book Festival. I’d worked to get Joanne and Jim Nisbet invited so we could have a reunion in the Mojave, along with Kathleen Frumkin and Jim’s wife, Carol Collier. When I showed Joanne the guestroom, she gave me the look. “Well, it’s a start.”
For the next thirty minutes, Kathleen and I moved furniture, changed bulbs, dug in the garage for lamps, fetched different bedding, and arranged plants and flowers until we’d made Joanne comfortable. She was nervous at being away from Donald, when I so desperately wanted her to feel at home since so many times over the years she had extended to me that very privilege. I noticed that she positioned herself near the statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva in the dining area. I made sure that she ate from the lacquer bowls she spotted in the cupboard and requested.
Joanne gave, I believe, her last reading at the Writer’s Block Bookshop; many people in attendance were discovering her poetry for the first time. They crowded onto benches, stood along the walls. She chose poems mostly from On Time, a book—like many of Joanne’s—dealing with death, or the “transit,” as she corrected me during discussion of the endless drafts of her Wiki page. Her reading was sober. No jokes, no asides. The poems were chiseled, cut from marble, so deliberately did she read them. Their truths made the crowd roar.
“It wasn’t my best reading,” she said, afterwards.
“It was perfect,” I replied.
February 2021, Banner, Wyoming
The Gardener —for Joanne
Walking around in colored sheets mumbling prayers; the vegetables don’t care. Nor good vibes. It’s like that. The wind doesn’t whisper and the trees (or columns) huge and shaggy in wet gray air speak for themselves. Here spook. Don’t stream. Listen to the men in plaid skirts out by the oaks blowing into bladders. They dream of someone named, while beyond the sea devours edges of earth. Licks its chops. Dozens of others, each with a little wire in hand, crisscross the ground in search of the fluid beneath. The wires wiggle with delight, kirilian energy, or oedipal undertones. But they wiggle, you dig it? Trombones here, trumpets there, girls in short skirts waving flags. Each to a different drummer than the drummers. And oh those piccolos, off in a corner near the gardener watering the rugosas which are tough and hardy, capable of withstanding hard freezes, wind, drought, and salt spray from the ocean.
Earth bends with heaven’s shoulders Tamalpais dream of desire fades with the morning star at sunrise Every day prayers to Kwan Yin Yet at first apprehensive with marriage fire starting, chores, meals, but then wrote such deft flower poems and worked hard to take 100 breaths without a thought, Joanne Kyger sailing to study Zen in Kyoto and spoke to the end of her life “Donald san” as the Japanese with a charm sort of deferential, returned alone after four years in Asia coming at dawn to go under the Golden Gate Bridge, “Only Phil Whalen waiting when I disembarked.” But listening to the murmur of Mnemosyne there comes fresh subtlety of voice out of the air, whether of goddess or penumbra, but what the echo yields or its opera nor any word spoke anger Heard the voice and distance within the voice, shadow, occultation, but relaxed, unafraid she had lost her own dear place nor was there much time to celebrate inflection, adorable pitch of her thought beyond ambient sounds wind’s breath gulls’ screech cross Bolinas Lagoon phoned the off-rhymed echo from unrhymed space
Jennifer Dunbar Dorn
In her poem “Encircling Folds” Joanne quotes Robert Duncan saying he is “disturbed” by her work because “actually, buddhism isn’t part of the poem it isn’t a part of the imagination so you get a little homily in the middle of the thing.” She repeats
like a question mark hanging in space she drops another mystery into thin air:
What I want to know is which is the homily here and what the thing?
I love the way you write poems, Joanne so casually, so cool, in the moment like you’re plucking cosmic strings as you listen to waves roll in with the latest gossip wars without end on the radio a bird in the window, flowers, trees what you see and hear is all there is—pure Zen not a thing Robert Duncan is wrong your poems are true all the way through as are you who live on in them always.
You always gave exquisite gifts, Joanne, small delicate things—a shell, a tiny envelope containing a fragment of the Soledad Virgin on red tissue-thin paper. A miniature wirebound notebook with “Bonheur” and a 4-leaf clover embossed in gold on the cover its blank-dated pages way too little to write in—or so I thought— but today, thinking of you, I threw the I Ching and, dating the first page 2/23/21 drew the ideogram and wrote down the last line of commentary: “no blame, there are things more important than life.”
Cento: In Memory of Joanne Kyger
That individual will die in my back yard over the septic tank I don’t change your flamboyance into the neighbors’ lives, therefore living pressed to the earth. Just resting and dreaming
I saw him like a shadow rise I’m full of French ideals. Which happen way before the case of what passes by the eyes This is the ghost one I was referring to I am in Paul McCartney’s new house Elizabeth arrives his grace is of love and charm, as I have seen him from the blue of the farm house tile roofs on honeymoon, peeling slightly
How much time can I spend regaining these refreshing circumferences of the day.
Joanne Kyger in Flight
At dinner before a reading (hers), in the Bolinas shack I shared with friend Andy Berlin, she pulled a book off my shelf. Long ago. She’d driven down in the orange Datsun she called “Pumpkin.” The book was Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. “Hugh Kenner was my teacher,” she said. That made sense: UC Santa Barbara. Still, pretty fascinating, and what a span among those three. She also told me, grinning, that she was from Vallejo, CA, and so was Bugsy Siegel. This was, perhaps, a prank. I find no evidence Siegel ever set foot in Vallejo.
Joanne Kyger was a poet but she was also a person. I knew both. The identities overlapped in ways they don’t always. Certainly the poems coming straight from the quotidian in daily life, not entirely unusual. But there were also her readings. Everything sounded fabulous, crackling with vitality and surprise that might not even exist on the page. She was as brilliant a reader as she was a poet, and if you knew her for a minute or more, you knew she was dazzlingly quick on her feet, her brain answering each surrounding moment with the alacrity of a hummingbird.
And so at her readings. Did she always alter the poems? The sense of improvisation was strong, the question moot. But it was almost as if there were as many versions of poems as there were readings (a lot). She was renowned for this, of course. Also for her contributions to the readings of others. No tolerance for boredom and no feeling she should have any. More than once I’d be giggling next to Joanne at an hilarious aside she’d made at somebody’s reading, only to have heads spin and loud “sssshh” sounds issue. Some listeners actually thought her commentary wasn’t what the reading was about! Few readers objected.
A hummingbird, but maybe birds in general as well. For such a large personality, Joanne stepped very lightly. She was discrete (the -ete discrete), as in “clean around the edges.” When you remember Joanne’s demeanor, there’s a smile because so often she was laughing. I think she cultivated that—a sense of bemusement. She knew the world too well for that stance not to have involved some real work on her part.Once at Smiley’s Bar in downtown Bolinas, my friend Mo approached her as to a third party. He guilelessly asked, “Joanne, will you go over and cheer him up, he’s depressed and morose.” “I can’t, it’s too hard,” she told him.
Miss Kyger (in her quoting of John Weiners, ever etched in memory) was a Buddhist and at the same time, a hipster of the most virtuous kind. And she was what very few people are, a talisman.
THE MORALITY OF ATTENTION for Joanne Kyger 8.8.13
Count the words
funny little guy
you and your dopamine squirt
behind the scenes I see you going out in nature
I have you in my sight You spend more noise
eye of white
eye of newt
I go fight sharks You out me
What would Charles Olson say?
monopoly of the polis
of strangers gathered
The customer is iron the customer is always water
some kind of sentiment analysis
So, go count the woods
I saw your jaw as if a relative beckoned
why are we speaking through analogues which poets hate
because so pedantic and we are not referencing foot surgery here
at Blackhawk Bardo Plaza ducks sleep in the drainage pit at the bottom of a waterless pond on gravel
where can they go my heart is above my head
always go to the bottom of the page that is where you will discover the surface
no less than you
penny thrift upon the pylon
will harvest the moon
in the meantime I will be content
to pull weeds from the sidewalk
between places where we once lived
and welcome trousseaus of another order *
MIDNIGHT JOY (brain)
Oh you silly fossil that tells me what to do
We were all sitting at the breakfast table on McGee Ave. in Berkeley (so long ago now!) drinking coffee and Joanne had taken a fresh piece of paper to begin writing a poem (which she often did in the midst of lively conversation back and forth with other poets) at the table. There was an incident of spilled milk or was it coffee? on this “first page” on the table, and Joanne had not really written anything on it yet. So, she simply started a new page, “p.2,” that you see in the scan above, in which the spilt milk/coffee is included as part of the phenomena and structure of the poem in the field. So much like Joanne to let something impromptu like this, even accidental, become part of a poem, including the grease blobs on the page she delineates with her red pen. I think “page 1” ended in the trash as it was covered in milk and could not be saved. This was Joanne’s decision if I remember this correctly.
Remarks on Joanne Kyger Delivered at her Memorial Service, Bolinas, 22 July 2017
Conversation with Joanne: JK: How are things going with the new work? GF: I’m sick of it. JK: Why? GF: I’m trying to get the wars out of my writing. JK: Why would you want to?
This is classic Joanne, in the sense that she believed that anything belonged in a poem; the smallest thing and the global could enter the poem and be the poem. The daily had to enter. What could be more daily than war?
Can you imagine Joanne when Jack Spicer asked her, “What are your plans for poetry?” As a young woman in her early 20s, it must have been a daunting conversation, but she got right to work and never stopped. I like to think that she respected consciousness more than most of us. In any case, to me, the work knew itself, early on and continued steadily, with no guile and no bile. Well, maybe an edge here and there. She tells us, “Be in awe of the tiny things under your paws.”
A Kyger poem says whatever it has to say in the most plain, direct language possible in a poem. There’s the surprise of it! We don’t expect a poem to be so natural. In Joanne’s world, things are exactly what they are, not what they’re like or close to being like. Early on, she figured out a way to avoid poetry’s little helper, the figurative. Metaphor falls away in her poems even if it’s implied. So that she fulfills Spicer’s mandate, “We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem.” And . . . “words are what sticks to the real. And to paste a real lemon in it. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste—a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. Poetry is a collage of the real.”
I could say that the totality of Joanne’s work is a mythology of a real life, a metonym for a poet’s life. “Prose invents, poetry discloses.” I feel grateful to have been alive in the orbit of her extraordinary disclosing consciousness.
From On Time, 2010, “Last Rays in the Garden”
They lasted a long time didn’t they those rays
Blurb for The Japan & India Journals, Joanne Kyger, reprinted by Nightboat Books, 2015
In language forever lucent, Kyger is always all present—natural, graceful, honest. One is never her student, though the work is sensei in dialogue with us. THE VERGE—is the only creative/truly creative/moment—when things have not yet condemned them/selves—by coming alive—to extinction. The Japan and India Journals introduce the reader to a mind and life of attention. Keep this book close to you as a cherished wedding ring.
How, he wonders, watching the apple blossoms drift across his path, can one ever repay all this grandmotherly love?
I met Joanne in North Beach in the spring 0f ‘64. Nothing really changed between us when she died, and if I’d opened my gate in the dark this morning and she’d been standing across the street I’d have felt nothing but recognition and a deep, unsurprising reinforcement.
I’d have said ‘Hi Joanne,’ and put up a hand, palm out.
The way it’s always been, I sometimes meet someone I know, immediately. We look at each other and there’s nothing in particular said, just the sudden and overwhelming sense of ‘Oh, there you are.’
I think it happened more in North Beach than anywhere else, and my first day there I met Joanne and Jack Spicer.
The events have the edge of what happens when you catch the eye of a meadow-cow by a fence. You look at each other steadily and there’s a deeply moving sense of ‘She sees me exactly as I am, and it doesn’t matter.’
From the moment we said ‘Hello,’ up in Nemi Frost’s apartment on Telegraph Hill, some things were understood. There were ripples over and under the table and a certain blankness of knowing, a kind of nod to how things are, when you notice.
Through all the years I knew her there were always four of us―in the company of others there’d be one of each, brittle and a little tentative, sometimes on the edge of irritation. When it was just the two of us, walking here or there, alone, as simply the people we knew ourselves to be, aspirants to an impossible understanding and moving through talk and presence with a minimum of strain and that occasional, seamless sense of allowed to be.
It was quite lovely.
The problem with the poetry has always been that we’re not quite up to hearing because that’s how we’re put together―of consciousness, the required unknowability of the universe, and the haunt that comes with it.
Joanne was a master to the degree that’s possible.
We had different obsessions and different dictions and saw the real arriving differently, but one thing was constant―the outside, right over there, and whether it was perceived phenomenologically (Joanne, mostly), or phantasmagorically (Spicer, mostly), it was the real, here and there and whispering in the rooms in the head marked ‘Open.’
I think there are only a few things worth saying about the outside’s willful poem and the first and most generative for me is that we need to be able and willing to write down what the poem wants to say when it wants to say it.
And Joanne was a master at making the necessary space for her floating, creeping, settling-in information. The only description I have for that is The Real Thing.
Getting old can open up the haunt a bit, and while it still won’t declare itself now, it clearly owns the mumbling-light landscape that says ‘Hey, yeah, I’m talking to you.’
Joanne listened and looked and heard and saw and did it in the fugitive ways that come with allowing oneself.
In North Beach, tough as it was, I found more of that outside, between and attentive that I’d find anywhere else. Sequentially, I met Joanne, Jack Spicer, Jamie MacInnis, George Stanley, Richard Duerden and Richard Brautigan. There were others, too.
In Bolinas―Terry Bell, Duncan McNaughton, Shao Thorpe, Bob Creeley.
Some would become close and some not, but what was always there was the recognition, the clear understanding that could run back and forth silently under a five chair bar table in the light from a neon waterfall―Hamm’s beer, from ‘the land of sky blue waters.’
Between those who were what?
Over the years what I’ve come to believe (not really―belief signifies a judgment I don’t honor) that those who, for whatever reason, had appeared with a premature and sort-of conscious sense of the womb itself. Of the previous, too, the particularities, the thrum―a shared a way of observing and staying private that let us know each other unspokenly, at a distance.
Joanne broke open in my head immediately. She listened. Her whole body showed it, posture and movement and a tremulous, tight-rope balancing of eye and mouth.
At Nemi’s, Joanne was sitting at the kitchen table in a morning wrap kind of thing. Coming in the front door the first thing noticed in Nemi’s apartment had been her enormous painting of Fred Astaire in mid-leap.
The second had been Joanne.
She was newly back from Japan where she’d been traveling with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, and she was living in a very small apartment on the back-stair landing just off Nemi’s kitchen.
God she was alert. Hungover but there, and for me the focus of the room. I was just off the plane from Brooklyn and I was babbling a little but Joanne as focus point had a serious talent for babble and time passed in an okay fashion. At one point Nemi said, ‘Larry’s in from Brook-lyn,’ with that slightly mocking Santa Barbara drawl she had. ‘He writes po-e-try.’
Nothing much happened.
‘Really,’ Joanne said to her cigarette and asked me to read something. Which I did. She said ‘Oh my,’ whatever the hell that meant. I didn’t much care because I’d been able to see her listening, and that was something to appreciate, and remember.
Later, I’d think I could tell when a poem had come in her head. There was a stillness and a little parting of the lips, a shift of attention from where to somewhere. It was deeply interesting. As she was, almost always.
The day wound around to afternoon when we all retired for what Nemi would call ‘trick naps.’ Then we had dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and headed to The Bars. Nemi liked to say that, ‘Hey kids, let’s go to the bars.’
Gino & Carlo’s which was the bar, really, was full but not crowded, long and not very wide. There were pinball machines flanking the door, and pool tables in back.
There were two tables against the wall on the right and one of them had two guys sitting at it, observant maybe, maybe just bored. They were Jack Spicer and Graham Mackintosh. Again, I knew Jack right away. The feeling was ‘Looks like I’ve done something right.’ I was introduced and sat down.
Joanne was at the bar ordering and her head was like a searchlight. She was self-possessed and what? Maybe just possessed. I watched closely.
‘I see you’ve met Joanne,’ Spicer said, and I smiled and he smiled back. It was all okay though I was scared to death. My good luck was that I’d spent my teenage years drinking in Brooklyn and had my defenses in place.
Joanne was odd around Jack. She seemed almost afraid of him and spent a lot of time tapping her cigarette and looking up blankly before quickly turning her head.
Bright as a penny they used to say when I was a kid. Flippable might have been added to that, with some accuracy.
Joanne, I knew, was apprehensive, a bit distraught. She’d split from Gary Snyder in Japan, I think it was, and he was due back any day.
It all gets a little blurry, but every time I saw Joanne over the next few months I watched her intently. I read her book The Tapestry and the Web, and bits and pieces stuck in my head though I had the feeling that it was kind of a blue book handed in to god knows which teacher.
It wasn’t Jack, at least not on the surface.
Jack had died after falling in ‘66―one of the very few times I’ve cried as an adult. There’d been someone with him at the hospital most of the time.
I wasn’t there when Joanne came, but I was told that when Jack had started to raise his arm in greeting, Joanne had flinched and stepped back, as if he’d been about to hit her.
I don’t know what it was between them but it was deep and there’s no question in my mind that it probably involved Jack pontificating, being helpful, He had an acute eye and I always figured he’d found something in Tapestry in the Web that he’d thought was the poem, and had got buried.
Joanne had more than a passing familiarity with the terrors of Spicer’s rooms in the dark, and when his name would come up her voice would change, just slightly, as if a changed chemistry of air were affecting vocal chords.
They knew each other well, Joanne and Jack, but she was a bit afraid.
Gino & Carlo’s started to fade and sometime in the very early ‘70s a lot of us would end up in Bolinas, a town up the coast with a population of 400. Five years later there’d be seventy or so poets.
Joanne lived in a few places but finally got a cottage about two-and-a-half blocks from me and when I got up and the morning opened in a particularly blank way, I could walk over to her place and sit.
The things we talked about involved two very different transcribers―who we were, where we were and what the hell our obligations might be to poetry, to the poem.
There were four of us, as I’ve said, two in social settings, brittle and occasionally sharp tongued, and two by themselves, perfectly at ease and talking about where we were, what we were attempting, and how it was arriving.
Joanne didn’t belong to any clubs.
She had protective coloration, my god did she, but it was all bullshit―defensive flicks and jumps verbal and otherwise, occasional bits of Ginsbergian dogma, opinions so little real or central that sometimes I could just sit with my mouth open.
But none of it mattered and god knows she’d earned the right to any evasion she needed. The last time I saw her I was back in Bolinas, can’t remember the occasion.
I went to see her and she dressed a bit and off we went on the walk, the long hello/goodbye with the secret smile ending. We traced old paths on the mesa and went downtown on the steps by the tennis court and walked to the beach and headed out toward Duxbury. We must have been out for a couple of hours but there wasn’t a single piece of difficult time. Nothing but the real thing, the special knowledge of process, the flooding incoming, the threatening presences and the grace in crocuses and time itself, fictional and not.
She was kind and honest and a poet.
It was like having an invisible friend with an infinitely surprising mind and a deep, reflexive and embracing compassion. When the alcohol was almost finished eating me, she was the one place I could turn for the news of things as they were, had been, and might be. She kept me alive a few times, and she helped my twelve year old son, too. Because she could, because she chose.
I remember one afternoon when we were living in Duerden’s garage, waiting for the
house on Birch Road we’d just bought to let us move in, and I was out in the backyard with my son when Joanne and Lew Warsh came down the side-path and Joanne saw us and smiled and I swear she lit up the whole yard, the whole of the day.
It was like that with her, always―her eyes and mouth conjoining in their own bright secrets. It was a foodstuff. It was the poem in waiting and the willingness to wait, the information about to happen. Joanne at rest electrically.
During my early years in Amsterdam she sent me a copy of a new book, and when I opened it what I found on the title page was the most perfect inscription with which I’d ever been graced. It just said ‘Oh Larry, remember?’
Sitting with Don Guravich after her death, I was trying to describe how she’d helped keep me alive in the dark, and found my eyes filling up with an enormous pressure. Stupidly, I was embarrassed and hoping it went unnoticed. I should have rung the Bolinas school bell. I should have stood on the corner of Birch and Alder and said to anyone passing, ‘I loved that woman in every particular.’
Last night she was present all through my half sleep and, as I was waking, halfway out of the screen, the line that came was,
‘in the drawn-on gloves of the dead are the re-membered hands.’
‘it’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me.’
Ku Yün Translation and calligraphy of Joanne Kyger’s poem ‘Night Palace’
The World of Transformation is Real or The Goddess Never Dies either… (…she rides off into the sunset in a red Mercedes convertible, a Janis Joplin song on her lips)
It was at a workshop during the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam 1978 with Franco Beltrametti (South), Reidar Ekner (North), and Nanao Sakaki (East) that i met Joanne Kyger for the first time where she personified the West with all the wisdom and humour she cud display so effortlessly.
The last time i saw her was in April of 2016 at a party at Jim Nisbet’s home after the reading at the Green Arcade Bookstore in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of Franco Beltrametti’s Collected English poems.
In between lay 38 years of friendship marked by a sympathy for nothingness that didn’t exclude anything and where manners made all the difference, manners and the white table linen, for the private was public and the public where we behave. It was pea stew from a light blue enamel pot with a hint of curry and instant pickled cucumber with sesame seeds. We almost got busted at the Austrian border and when the excitement had just ebbed away got caught in a snow storm crossing the San Bernadino Pass. In Riva S.V. she stayed up all night and cleaned the apartment of her host and back at the Boat we let Ting’s hamster escape while we sampled the local Riesling.
There was a roof to be shingled, and a fleeing porch to be reattached to the house, a kitchen counter to be refinished and all the while i was sleeping in the skew whiff shed struggling with a runaway blanket while the fog moved in thru the open door. Not just that roof beam set on the new addition wud have made J.D. Salinger blush, there was this taste of New York Zen, as in Bill Berkson, a sharp witted elegance, like the Tapestry which covers the chairs at Circe’s home and there was always the chance that one woke up in very different shape, not necessarily a pig, tho waddling off into the sunset definitely ranges among the higher teachings and always a cup of tea and always a stick of incense lit now to remember again my four bears and how one of them went thru the cabin when nobody was home …
P.S. Not as to put Decartes before de Horse, but that bear appeared again 1998 at the dinner after reading at the Lyrik Kabinett in Munich, when Michael Köhler, who raised a monument to the international poetry Avantgarde with his audio-edition S-Press, asked Joanne who’d taken that photo of Snyder, Ginsberg and Orlovsky in the Himalayas. Joanne looked at him with a squinting eye and asked, “Who do you think, the bear?“
The world as seen from Joanne’s kitchen window
A butterfly flutters by on a column of light. It’s almost night. The mud puddles on Evergreen Road reflect the sky at sunset. The great work will never be complete or left undone; The puddles on the path will neither be empty or filled. The night is so dark you can’t even see your reflection on Evergreen Road turning into a path. What can I tell you? She’s gone.
(transcribed by Phoebe MacAdams)
Happy Birthday Bolinas for Joanne Kyger
Good morning, Joanne. This country is two hundred years old. One green car. One white car. One convertible. The heart is a muscle, the heart is a door.
Dream 1: I am in a concentration camp. I am on the beach. The water is black. I am standing by the wire. I am talking to someone outside the wire. We are standing face to face talking. There is no difference between life outside and inside except for the wire. I am in the apartment of the commandant. I strip in front of an empty bed. I get in and make love to the air.
Dream 2: There is a car machine, stripped down. There is a driver somewhere. A voice says, “Now you have to make another one.” The second car will be identical to the first. A death’s head.
Dream 3: I go out of my house to the pre-shamanistic exercises. We do splits handing on our hands in preparation for the shaman movie. I am awkward. The woman teaching is a shaman. She has silver discs on the tops of her hands and on her palms.
O Great Tongue, do not abandon us. Our conversations make a difference. All I want out of life is to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit. The tone was honest and the words fell about in the length. The song is resilient. The song is a muscle. Birds fly over, grass moves in the breeze. Rational Mind, you are so stupid here in the morning, in the gentle aching where the door is open and the view is clear.
from Sunday Tombouctou Press 1983
the chemistry changes the black chemical earth becomes yellow earth the old sky, ethereal grey ethereal infinite grey
vast ceiling timeless grey
through this hallway of infinite depth one wanders errant like they say so many doors gleaming white so many rooms it’s a bit like a hotel’s hallway on an upper floor seemingly but perhaps the only floor if not, how does it communicate above or below one never reaches a stairwell though occasionally the hallway turns it never ends
now and then one tries a door there are people in the rooms some familiar alive or not others not who don’t mind that I come in in that way like a dream
everybody looks okay especially the dead although not as I remember them they look better healthier untroubled no one expresses surprise that I am there they hardly notice I guess they grow older dead though they don’t appear older until finally it’s enough and they lose the appearance of body what happens then is beyond me this hallway which is so like that of an old hotel in the States or Canada has its romance too its unaccountably erotic episodes or rooms one is suddenly in the arms of a total stranger however one knows by the quality of kiss that each lover knows you inside out this is a fantastic relief one’s embarrassment finally as it’s meant to be
this hallway of infinite timeless ethereal grey shining white doors must be emblematic of an innocence so vast one can only conclude that the sweetness of life is more real than all the illusions of bitter disappointment and cruelty
personally I’ve never encountered anything but extraordinary pleasure in those rooms while to walk alone through that ethereal hallway through melancholy is never sad
meanwhile in the usual world the black earth has become yellow
THE REAL THING CAME ALONG
There, now, cálmate, she said. Cálmate. I’ll explain everything.
Though I had heard about her and read her work, I didn’t meet Joanne until we moved to Bolinas in 1973. It was a wonderful time, full of listening, learning, becoming part of the community, of poets, painters, musicians, environmentalists, and long-time Bolinas folks. We did party quite a bit, though I was very often home early to relieve our babysitters of the care of our three pre-school and elementary school children. Once in a while, I was envious of the life that Joanne was leading, a full-time poet with a well-deserved reputation and no kids.
Joanne and my son, Dan, were born on the same day, which brought us somewhat closer in the circle of friends, though a double-birthday party at our house on November 19, 1977, left Dan a little put out. The perceived slight was overcome in time, and she officiated at his marriage.
Joanne did work, giving poetry readings nationally and internationally, producing wonderful volumes of poetry, teaching in the summer at Naropa and editing the Bolinas Hearsay News, the local, informal three-day-a-week newspaper, for many years. She also gave what she called journal classes, and I was lucky enough to be able to take one in the fall of 1993.
We met at Joanne’s house on Evergreen. I think it was either outside or in the main house, as this was before the shed behind the house was torn down and a new shed, more like a living room, was added to the property. There were twelve of us, some of whom were published writers, others who were interested in writing and were curious to take a class with Joanne.
She was an excellent teacher. She gave us reading and writing assignments. I probably have some notes somewhere, but I didn’t really want to recapitulate the six-week session. I remember that we read our writing assignments out loud and that some of us were praised, but not by Joanne. There was no sense from her as to what she thought of our writing, just a seriousness in teaching that made it a thought-provoking, pleasure to be there.
I have the compilation of our writings, that contains a list of contributors in order, but no one’s name is found on the pages of writing, which is mostly prose. And there’s a mysterious “she” at the end, after a page of gertrude stein demonstrating the difference between narrative and diary. Sarah’s pages are slipped in, unbound, at the end, the only one that is signed. It was very satisfying to have something to take away, the “Journal Class fall 1993,” purple cover copied from one of those black-and-white composition books from our school days. It is one of those curious items that the children will be glad to read when I, too, am gone.
I think of Joanne often, and I miss her.
February 14, 2021
Three For Miss Kidz
01/01/18 Joanne would say just put your hand to the paper and write the date & the time 5:55 PM Lucky Time Blown
03/30/18 Good Friday
Nine (9) Turkey Buzzards riding thermals Joanne Kyger I am thinking about you about Greg Hewlett about Russ Rivière about warriors & now “you got to give it up” bring it good just regular bombs good & funky to the Sewer Ponds 4PM
Joanne’s dark grey turtleneck cashmere sweater two sizes too big freebox sweater I sleep in she left us left us left us so much …….what time is it?
On page 269 of the Tombouctou edition of The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964, Joanne Kyger reproduced a honey-do list handed her by then-husband, the poet Gary Snyder, towards the end of the book and their marriage. Some two pages, headed “Someday you really ought to try:” it reads, in part,
Fold your clothes in a drawer Don’t save everything Quit reading so much trash What about history and prosody?
Notwithstanding, and indeed, Joanne remained renowned among her friends for reading anything and everything. Madame Blavatsky? E.F. Benson? Freya Stark? Wilfred Thesiger? No problem. All of Agatha Christie? H. Ryder Haggard? Ditto and ditto. Vanity Fair? A subscription to the bitter end. I, for one, came to terms with the sub-voracity of my own reading when, with a sort of triumphant enthusiasm and, perhaps, the assumption that we were siblings circumvallated beneath a shot-raddled flag, Joanne handed me the Pyramid paper edition of The Yellow Claw by Sax Rohmer, which I found to be seriously unreadable. She may have been a little disappointed but, as goes self-adumbration, read on.
My first published novel, The Gourmet, appeared in 1981. Produced in an edition of 35,000, retailing at $1.95 per example, it materialized on twirly racks in drug stores and bus stations across the land and was firstly, and lastly, detected, in San Francisco, face out in a matrix of its confrères in a cigar store on Union Street, right up there with 14 titles by Louis L’Amour, 9 by Barbara Cartland, 6 by Danielle Steele, and, do not doubt it, the latest installment in the Executioner series. (At least six of its 435 titles were penned under the series-spanning ycleptic of Don Pendleton by my friend Steve Krauzer — a real pro.)
I heard about this fugitive sighting and, since the publisher had sent me but a lousy pair of author’s copies (welcome to the club) and, hell, I had ten bucks, but by the time I got down to the north side of Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna as I recall, the five copies were gone. In response to my query, the stogie-fellating grayling in a checked hickory shirt and sleeveless sweater vest on a riser behind the cash harvester unparked the damp snipe from the groove in his lower lip long enough to tell me: That’s it, bub. Even if they sell, they don’t get replaced. Them five copies? One week on the stand. By now, some or more likely all of their covers are on their way back to some warehouse in New Jersey, for credit, and their guts are in the landfill in Colma, for nourishment. Next!
The Japan and India Journals was published the same year. By and by, as is customary among authors of a certain camaraderie, Joanne and I exchanged books. Her inscription in my copy of The Journals, with its fabulous cover by Ken Botto, reads
So may we well worm/warm our further trails… Joanne
The cover of The Gourmet features a peroxide blonde in a tight red dress (a transvestite, in context) arm and arm with a guy in a trench coat wearing a striped tie and a fedora, withal constellated by the Chinatown Gate, The Golden Gate Bridge, and a trolley car. Sparing you its uppercase scarlet, the jacket tease reads, “A baffling case involving murder and kinky sex.”
“Oh,” said Joanne, clasping the pulp to her breast, “I’ve always wanted to know somebody who writes this kind of book.”
The inscription inked into her copy of The Gourmet reads,
Quit reading so much trash.
In 1983 Joanne invited me to read at the Bolinas Public Library. I hitchhiked from my home in Monte Rio to a bus stop in Santa Rosa, rode the bus down to San Rafael, and hitched the rest of the way to Bolinas. I wrote a little travel journal in the manner of Basho about my adventure. It was originally published in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse. In 2009 I published it as a limited edition handmade book titled Ah Bolinas! I sent a copy to Joanne of course. She replied: “Just a wonderful thrill to read…and the prints are so handsomely precise for the book and the text. We all enjoyed ourselves immensely. I read it out [loud] yesterday, just having returned from Oaxaca a few days before—to one of ‘Joanne’s great looking women friends’ who of course thought She should be the center of the quest. Tom Sawyer meets Timothy Leary is one of the great comments on Bolinas.”
Back at Joanne’s, we sit around the kitchen table sipping tea with a little of the creature in it. This is the first time I’ve really had a chance to sit down and talk with Joanne, someone I’ve known in passing for almost twenty years. I remind her of the first time we ever met. It was at a book party in San Francisco. I was a campus radical literary magazine editor then—shoulder length hair, ratty, patched Levi’s, cast-off Army jacket, I really looked the part. Joanne had come up to me and asked if I was one of those new “revolutionary” poets. I’m certain now that it was all in jest, but back then, being an ill-tempered young upstart, I mumbled an angry reply and cut short any opportunity to make friends.
On the mesa a lost world of mostly older single women
Joanne doesn’t recall the incident, but then why should she? She’s Joanne, after all, la belle dame sans merci, accomplished acknowledged poet on more than one continent, confidante of Gary and Philip, dowager of the local poetry minions, sponsor and patron of the literary arts, representative of the Muse on this muddy spit of land, promoter of esthetics, and so on. The list is quite long, and after a while, quite boring. It’s not like she’s the Virgin Mary or anything like that. But she has the presence and the posture and the stature of a great woman whose approaching grayness is the badge of her wisdom. I comment on her collection of little magazines. I collect them too, especially the ones with my poems in them. “Do you save them because you think they’ll be worth a lot of money someday?” At least we share a common delusion.
Jungle of entanglements gentle tigress digresses moon in mist
from Ah Bolinas! (Not My Hat Press, 2009)
you have no body even when it hurts so much some matter has arranged to be you hasn’t it then you go to the fortune-teller I went to sev- eral when young one even had a membrane over her iris but they didn’t understand me as well as I did oh I was just curious Remember
signs; what remember I remember my imag- ination houses I visit non-existent or a grotto no remember when Joanne got me to write a collaborative note with her and leave it in a tree for Donald Allen who was feeling bad we rolled it up a scroll tied with ribbon mostly she made me shy at some point I re-
alized, though, she liked human niceness more than I —the scroll — she liked surprise birthday parties what I liked was her voice I never knew what she and Bob Creeley were going on about I was 25 later she said everyone in Bolinas loved me I know that isn’t true and Philip loved her so much
did she really not know that? ‘batty inexor- able logic’ I’ve said all these things before Like when suddenly her aesthetic was chang- ing from Duncanism and Ted wanted her for the New York School some part of her joined it remaining Joanne but I remember that
moment when Ted, Bob, and Tom Clark all seemed to be courting her esthetically she had such brilliance and one wanted her to write like one she would always follow her voice — and Lewis Warsh ‘she’s becoming more autobiographical’—no she wasn’t she was doing mind/nature/voice partic-
ular to person/life finds expression as ‘that flicker’ bird as mind of no-god drifting coastal moment You were so beautiful and I’m remembering how right before Ted died he placed new books on shelf by bed, by Joanne, Joe Ceravolo, and Anselm Hollo and said ‘I have a generation’ b. 1934 I’m sorry I’m just crying
i.m. Joanne Kyger
originally published in Kenyon Review
“There are 4 voices in your poems but you should have at least 8 & one of them should be mine” – JK to KO, Nov. 2012
An email from Joanne Kyger to Kevin Opstedal – 6/16/13 Friday 14 June
Noon. The chainsaw gang on their third day next door. Three saws wanging thru the green big wood. Chunks. One pine trimmed Japanese style. One take down. Kevin called at 10am on his way to Bolinas for soup. Pretty quiet for a moment, just the ukulele music. 1:05pm Here we are. And here HE is. Hi Kevin. He drives a ’65 white Ford Ranchero pick up
4pm It is Flag Day. Any flag will do as long as it’s red, white and blue yellow, pink, & turquoise–in downtown Bolinas the museum, the appalling ‘park’–is this Camarillo? A Yater longboard we never went to see plus a brief walk in/walk out at Smiley’s. Did you see what I saw? I’m not sure I saw it myself, maybe I only ‘heard’ it. 5:45pm Four charcoal colored dinner plates from Ikea at the freebox in the Plaza, the real people’s park. 6:05pm I’m going to be 90 this fall. So please put in a hand rail on the way to the barbecue.
The Phone is Ringing for Joanne Elizabeth Kyger
She said “Everyone deserves to be a bodhisattva if only for one day”
But missing the evening of slack key guitar at Pt. Reyes
due to television or immigrant authority or elbows at the Food Bank I suppose we should opt for a bag of rice & some seaweed “You might feel bad but you won’t starve”
The “burden of opportunity” has a certain charm but I’m not sure that it’s the truth
These things must be sorted out So many sand pebbles to choose from agate, quartz, jade, glass, wood, iron, bone, styrofoam–
I’ll take the one that’s shaped like my heart
Let me know when you’ve found it
Joanne Kyger and Simon Pettet in Conversation
SP: Hi Joanne!
SP: First, how would you put together a sentence, if you were the ‘master (mistress) of all time and space’? 1
JK: I would issue an edict that all mandatory sentencing is over. I would advise discretionary sentencing when needed.
SP: Discretion, discretionary, distinction – ”discrete” – what a beautiful word! I look it up in the OED, and come across this (among other citations) – from Henry Peacham: ‘Raine or water, being divided by the cold ayre, in the falling downe, into discreet parts’. So just what are we distinguishing here. It’s all water, right? – and air? – or words? – so what do we do with them?
JK: Finding focus is like winnowing words ‘til a larger fragment floats to the surface, or drifts through the air and lands like a word in a book. Your recent book, for example, More Winnowed Fragments. 2 When did you start writing that particular book? Is it chronological? Do you write in the morning or the evening?
SP: I think of poetry as accretion – (just like Walt Whitman!) I love the fact that there is continuing presentations of, what is, finally, the same book. More Winnowed Fragments, (the title) is a little…dead-pan – ‘Here’s some more fragments, you might want to check out the earlier ones!’ I wish I were disciplined about my writing hours. Are you disciplined?
JK: If I write down at least one thing a day, I call that discipline. A “thing’“ can be a sentence, a dream fragment, or a telephone number. But it is “of the moment”.
SP: I think of that as accomplishment. If I can “accomplish” at least one “thing” a day, that’s good (if I get to accomplish more things, that’s good too!). I wish I wrote (sentences, a poem) every day, but I don’t. I write letters and scribble notes, but that doesn’t “count”, right? Do you think the epistle is a sad lost art? (‘now, with e-mail…’) Do you think we’re apt to squander? (our attention, I mean) –The Wonderful Focus of You (sic) 3 – you mean focus of attention?
JK:’The Wonderful Focus of You’ is the focus of the “other”. And when that other ONE is no longer in your life, all that energy and concern and heart has to go somewhere, so it can open out to include everyone – the mucho plural “you”. And, of course, I mean always a focus of the moment, in the moment. Much poetry I read now-days is so self-consciously poetic and opaque that I am never introduced to an interesting reality. It’s like writers are trying to hide themselves, as if the “self” is no longer of interest. The epistolary voice has such a personal confidence about it, one is always included. I mean if you’re writing a letter, it is to someone, you aren’t just whistling in the dark. Email has certainly engendered a kind of epistolary short hand literacy.
SP: …or epistolary short-hand laziness?
JK: I try to practice a kind of daily notational writing. I often don’t bother with the “I”, it takes too long. One “checks in” to the world of the written self. If I stop for too long I get anxious and think I have to reinvent the poetic voice again. I use my portable notebook for jotting in the morning. And then try and write at least one line, dated, on the computer I use in my studio.
We (Donald Guravich and I) were planning a trip to Veracruz last January-February (2006), but had to cancel it. It was a very stormy, wet winter here, and I wrote a daily line or two, which incorporated the weather damage, along with news of the U.S. administration’s current horrors, and including occasional hopefully illuminated states of mind, dream bits, and observations as to the state of ”nature” around me. I call it Not Veracruz. It is fragmented in that there is no narrative line that draws the piece together, except a daily chronology.
SP: Could you perhaps quote some fragments from it?
”I really can’t stand the ‘formality’ of ‘intelligence
Who really ‘cares’ if the eucalyptus have the smarts”
JK: (So) How many years does your More Winnowed Fragments cover?
SP: Oh a long time, maybe ten years? , it’s that “winnowing”, can a poem (every word, every line) “hold up”? I’m pretty tough with myself, I think, but for the best (at least, I say it’s for the best!). There’s a major proportion of attrition. I know, “hold up”? – to/for what?
JK: Do you “test” your poems by reading them at poetry readings to see if they “hold up”? I find if I can’t bear to read a poem anymore, it probably shouldn’t be in print.
SP: I find that, by the time it comes to a public reading, I’d better have some confidence in its worth, otherwise, crikey, what am I doing?
I often let poems “marinate” for a little while before I “re-discover” them, and then, how interesting, did I write that?. Well, manifestly I did, but…or, alternatively, did I really write that (and what on earth was I thinking)? Yes, I have scattered things in print that I’m embarrassed about. You too?
JK: Yes. But that was long ago, and those magazines are gone — except for the collection in that Granary book, A Secret Location on The Lower East Side.4
SP: Alice Notley in her review of your work 5 speaks of your “honesty” as perhaps your abiding characteristic. What do you think of that?”
JK: Well, are you attracted to poets who you think are lying to you?
SP: (Francois) Villon? Gregory Corso? – but wait a minute, the poem can’t lie, can it?
JK: Your reader will know if you “fake it”– i.e. if you’re a spin-master of verbal acrobatics. Laura Riding 6, back in 1938 in a rather profound flourish defines a poems as an ‘uncovering of truth so fundamental that no other names besides poetry is adequate except truth’.
SP: I like that, summoning up the essence, fundamental (but not fundamental-ist!)
JK: Laura Riding was also prone to pronouncements like ‘historical time has stopped with me’.
SP: Ah well then maybe I’ll reverse my opinion! What do you think about time-travel?
JK: I think it’s happening at this very moment.
1 Simon acknowledges that he’s “stolen” this as his opening salvo from Tom Clark’s wonderful interview with Ted Berrigan in United Artists 4 (re-published in Talking In Tranquility: Interviews With Ted Berrigan (Avenue B/ O Books, Oakland, CA, 1991). 2 Full disclosure. Simon’s recent book of poems, More Winnowed Fragments, appeared at the end of 2005, with a cover note from Joanne – ‘More Winnowed Fragments/Ah, romance, the hint of mystery/perfect, quirky interludes -/this is the lesson he comes to teach/Charmed in every wryly conceived moment’. 3 The Wonderful Focus of You (Z Press, Vermont, 1980). 4 A Secret Location on The Lower East Side: Adventures In Writing 1960-1980 (Granary Books/NYPL, New York, 1998). 5 Alice Notley – Coming After: Essays on Poetry (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005 – the article on Joanne first appeared in Arshile 9, 1998) 6 Laura Riding in In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding – Deborah Baker (Grove Press, New York, 1993).From The Argotist (2005)
Phenomenology. Consciousness. Existence.
Who is this “I” that experiences−and what does it experience (what is it experience- ing)? What is the relationship between the “inside” (note quota- tion marks) and the “outside” (note harmonious parallel, and further quotation marks), what’s really “important?” (again the qualifying rabbit ears, revealing the strictest attention to language, in the futile (it would surely seem to be?) practice to capture (register?) attention and awareness in this continually shifting (floating? dissolving?) world).
How might one be? How might one act (being and action being acknowledged as integral, one and the same, perhaps?)? What would one possibly need to say, or write, (given the truth, spiritual or otherwise, about the illusory nature of our perception of time and space)? What might this mean, then, a “Buddhist poetics,” (a life-and-poetry, a life in poetry)? Radical simplicity. Personal integrity. Non-invasive traces. The long-awaited publication of About Now, Joanne Kyger’s Collected Poems provides an exemplary demonstration. This is a beautiful (because recognizable, human) collection, a gathering, a life lived (could there be, is there ever, anything else?).
The literal title provides the key – the momentary, the present tense (the accretion of moments providing a narrative—an illusory narrative, it’s true, but, enough — a unifying, expansive, sympathetic, consistent, portrait). The discipline of writing, like the discipline of meditation (it is the discipline of meditation), permitting a natural, organic, growth (since the “now” is each and every time experienced (re-experienced) as new). It’s easy! You simply practice every day.
Dailyness, the quotidian, is Kyger’s patch, that is, it is the enviable grounding and locus of the poems (allowing the poet (mind) to range high and low, far and wide, without further need to justify, apologize, explain, etc. (all, derivative, secondary, acts)). Indeed, juxtaposition of the cosmically profound and the gloriously matter-of-fact (even, on first glimpse, the seemingly banal) is at the very heart of these poems, something of a signature trope. It is a laudably open-minded, truly democratic, stance towards “phenomena” that we see here, recognizing the primacy of the local, the immediate, the domestic (ah! Bolinas, California! ah! the world!)—of friends, visitors, the weather, of the fine art of deep gossip.
Sentience—we’re all breathing, we’re all feeling, we’re all experiencing (thus the thrill, the delight, not at all shock, of recognition). A good Buddhist, a good pantheist, Kyger recognizes the numen in all things—birds, trees, flora and fauna, the landscape, the ocean, even so-called “inanimate objects” (kitchen utensils?— Carl Jung used to greet his, she informs us, each morning (“Good morning frying pan—hello cup”). Kyger approaches the world, and the poem, in the same (respectful, reverential) way).
This attitude of mind, a graceful cohabitation with all things, allows for an extraordinary transparency in the poem as poem— the attainment of a seemingly autonomous free-floating thing, vivacity, pure surface. Objects (attentions) are seen, unimpeded —and instantly transmitted as seen, (as is the poet herself, a dis- tinctive presence), with a charming intimacy. The analogue might, indeed, be Zen brush-work. The particular skill here is focus. It’s—it’s true—a kind of magic.
Could be on Earth
anywhere and Time
focused on chopping
the tomatoes, chillies, and onions.
In another poem, she makes this analogy direct:
Stroke of brush in painting Pitch of tone in writing
Such ease and grace (such deftness) manifests itself (also) in a complimentary (exquisite) attention to both music (her ear, her poetic ear, is pitch-perfect), and the formal presentation of her carefully-scored breath-line (see, for example, in the lines quoted above)—or this, (from the last stanza of an early 2000 poem, written in Patzcuaro, Mexico, home-away-from-home for Kyger for many years now, “I Can’t Help It:”
There you go again Awakening The pure three note
song really listening Look I’ll do it for you once more To WAY wheet wheet
Here’s another Patzcuaro notation. The entire poem reads:
It’s so quiet you can hear
the wasps sipping water in the courtyard fountain
“Time and measure make up your voice / So keep it sparse to parse it.” I have refrained from quoting at length from Kyger, because, quite simply, each poem in this embarrassment of riches that is the Collected Poems has lines eminently quotable (whole stanzas, whole poems, whole sequences, in fact). She is adept at the miniature, but, as one of the original students of Jack Spicer (not forgetting her unofficial apprenticeship to Robert Duncan and, pre-eminently, Philip Whalen), she’s no slouch with the “serial poem” (Collected Poems is, I’ve been arguing, one big serial poem). Among the many remarkable long (longer) sequences included here are Joanne (1970), her “novel from the inside out,” Up My Coast (1980) (a redacting of Native creation myth)—
First, there were the First People and the First People changed into trees, plants, rocks, stars rain, hail and Animals and then Animals made Our People
Light comes from Sun Woman. Whose body is covered with shining Abalone Shells….
—the legendary Dharma Committee (1986) (witness here, but indeed throughout the book, her coruscating wit!) and several remarkable biographical-historical examinations—Some Sketches From The Life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1996) (on Madame Blavatsky) and her distilled life of the Buddhist poet-saint, Milarepa’s teacher, Naropa (sweetly dedicated to Ted Berrigan).
These poetic peers and antecedents, this lineage (poetic and spiritual) is a central fact of Kyger’s work – reverence for the seekers, reverence for the ancestors (a further generative accumulation). Consciously, but humbly and gratefully, she takes a walk (writes) in their path (sic–the tao), in their footsteps. Simultaneity of time and space means that she’s right there, alongside them.
You know when you write poetry you find the architecture of your lineage your teachers
The book ends with a typical piece of sympathetic magic. Queen Lili’okalani, “the last Hawaiian Queen,” is evoked (in a kind of ars poetica)
“a soft rustle of bamboo quivering with the wind’s touch”
A tear, a sigh sure sounds
like poetry to me….
Her aspiration is Kyger’s too
“The expression of my thoughts in music as natural
and easy as breathing…”
I have neglected to remark on the groundbreaking early work (The Tapestry and the Web, Places To Go—wrestling with male hegemony—always wrestling with male hegemony!). Likewise, the great (truly great!) explicitly political later work (The Distressed Look (2004), originally published by Jim Koller’s Coyote Books, is one of the most clearly-articulated expressions that I know against the evils, twin evils, of Bush (American politics) and global capitalism
… Corporate capitalist oligarchies own the war Feel terrified? The “war”
Can go where it wants, when it wants with bizarre expansions
Endless war fear hysteria Great
There is never an end to profit. There is never enough There are no “acceptable losses”
when it means more “money” … and this, (from a poem, “Whatever It Takes”)
… Didn’t foresee
the horror of free global trade
terrorizing innocent patches of mahogany hillsides
—the tyranny of the shareholder is foremost—
So far from the Tao planes need to spy
to check the profit margin
Oh do me a favor and don’t rile me …
Long-time Kyger scholar Linda Russo provides a thoughtful, intelligent, and useful introduction to this volume (kudos to her), and mention should also be made of John Bryan’s (La Alameda’s) gorgeous and utterly-apposite cover-design (by the great Japanese wood-block master, Shiko Munakata, a pleasant first for these NPF Collected’s, yes?—usually, for all their immense value, dour, mildly forbidding, functional tomes—this (and the rest in that estimable series), of course, having no need for elaborate window-dressing).
What’s this I hear about them only printing 750? That can’t be true! That’s a serious under-estimation! Make sure you have one of the 750. Order yours now. This here, Joanne Kyger, she’s your sister! This is an essential book. I cannot (and she need not!) say it more plainly.
From The Poetry Project Newsletter #213 (December 2007-January 2008)
The New Black Bart Poetry Society is not a school of poetry nor does it endorse or espouse a particular philosophy of poetry. The Society will entertain most any presentation on the art of poetry, its past, its present, and its future. Explications, delineations, categorizations, taxonomies, and various sundry groupings of poets and their work are of vital interest to the Society membership. See Conditions of Parole for more information.