Bromige Immortalized!

The Immortalization Of David Bromige

by Steven Lavoie

“The Prelude”

The Immortal Broms

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bronze”

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

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

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

The Intrepid Vartnaw

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

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

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

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

if wants to be the same

the same as is

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

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

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

“The Book”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresco Frieze: Professors, Poets & Editors

 

“The World Tour”

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


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

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Rothenberg Poetry University

Rothenberg Poetry University
Heuristic Maps For The Mastery of Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Poetry Reading

The Poetry Reading 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One does with what one has.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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Plagiarism and the Poetry of Ulalume González de León

Plagiarism and the Poetry of Ulalume González de León

by John Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Dos adivinanzas 

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

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

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

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

 

Two Riddles 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noticia 

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

           

News

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

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

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

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

and…

so much depends
upon 

a red wheel
barrow 

glazed with rain
water 

beside the white
chickens 

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

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

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


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

 

 

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Lost And Found In Translation

Lost And Found In Translation

By Pat Nolan

“To produce a translation that may be accurate according to the dictionary, but bland and distant from the spirit of the poem because one has either ignored or misunderstood the author’s poetics is not at all the same thing as performing a translation from the viewpoint of a radical poetics or creating a version.  Translation is a total engagement with language and identity not a means of testing foreign language skills.”
 —Eric Selland, The Poem Behind The Poem (2004)

In the early 1970’s I published a small poetry magazine called the end (& variations thereof).  I was one among many individuals and coteries of poets doing the same thing: producing limited edition poetry magazines and books using any means necessary. These necessary means were often mimeograph machines, the DIY desktop publishing of its day (desktop in the sense that the machine was portable enough to fit on top of a desk or table).  Those days are gone, thankfully or not, but the artifacts remain.  One of the unique aspects of the mimeo revolution of the 60’s and 70’s was the network of poets and editors that came into being through the distribution and exchange of magazines and books. For many, distribution was mostly through the mail to a select list of subscribers and reciprocal trades with editors of similar transient productions.  This informal network was known to some as “American samizdat.”  As a result, I have accumulated quite a few archive boxes of poetry publications. Not all are mimeograph, many professionally bound and offset printed, but the bulk consists of borderline letter size side-stapled representatives of an vital unaffiliated North American underground poetry.

I get the urge every so often to put some order in the chaotic hoard of these side-stapled sheaves.  By now the cheap materials used in many of the earlier productions are beginning to show the tell-tale pox of paper’s version of rust, foxing.  Yet I am hesitant to get rid of them no matter how obscure and ephemeral they are.  Among the few rarities I can boast are a limited edition copy of Frank O’Hara and Bill Berkson’s mimeographed Hymn To St. Bridget, Joe Brainard comic book collaborations with a number of New York poets, early Notley, late Schuyler poetry collections, with covers by Guston and Grooms, The World from the Poetry Project in its signature New York School “more poems to the page” legal size.  I recall a conversation with the poet Joanne Kyger years ago as we surveyed her collection of archived little magazine.  “Do you think that these little magazines will be worth a lot of money one of these days, too?” she asked.   I had to admit to a similar fantasy.

 

man’s hypothetic double
flew
out the door

 

                sideways 

 

Sorting through the musty dusty pages of these paper bricks can trigger allergies as well as call up poignant memories.  I resolved, in one of my fits of organization a few years ago that the rare editions I really treasured would have to be kept in clear plastic archival envelopes if they were going to be preserved.  I also realized that it might be a little too late for some of the older cheaply produced editions.  Still, it was not at all an unpleasant nostalgic meandering.  There is a lot of history in those moldering pages, mine and that of my contemporaries.  And surprises.  One such surprise was the discovery of a mimeographed selection of poems in French by Robert Hébert.  My French is adequate enough, considering that it was my primary language up until the age of ten. Unfortunately a lapse of some sixty years, while keeping the deep structure wiring intact, has resulted in gaps in vocabulary, particularly of contemporary usage. Over the years I’ve translated the poems of a number of French poets, primarily for my own benefit and as a way of staying in touch with the language of my origins. I guess that qualifies me as bilingual although my formal schooling leaves much to be desired. Yet I seem to have retained an ear for capturing nuances in the original French and rendering them into American English, the language that I now speak exclusively. As I stood there diverted from my archiving task, I translated a few of the Hébert’s minimalist offerings in my head.  Hey, not bad, I concluded, I can totally do these.  Famous last words.

 

topology 

 

                        little shit
                        bound to be
                                                great

 

Histoires Naturelles

I had never before heard of Robert Hébert, and I don’t remembered how I came to acquire the selection of minimalist poems entitled Histoires Naturelles.  I assume that it was through the active exchange of magazines decades ago.  I have to also admit that I don’t recall having ever seen this particular selection of poems in my previous failed attempts at sorting and classification.  Curiouser and curiouser.  The publication date was listed as 1971 and from a small press calling itself Blue Pig.  The cover consisted of  a grainy half toned photo of a large boulder in a sylvan setting with a cable attached to it and whose contours and protuberances bestowed upon one end of the large stone the physiognomy of an animal, sheep or pig.  The artist was listed as Jean Le Gac.  My curiosity was piqued.  Who was this poet?  Who were the publishers?  In a previous era questions of this sort might have been merely idle conjecture, impossible to answer without a lot of interpersonal legwork consuming months if not years of correspondence.   And who has the obsessive energy to chase such capricious questions down the rabbit hole?  Never one to dodge the lure of a distraction, I availed myself of the resource of infinite distraction, the internet.  In the space of an afternoon I had the names of the culprit poets behind Blue Pig magazine, David Ball and George Tysh, and a line on Robert Hébert.

If one searches “Robert Hébert” any number of entries, from real estate agents to photographers, will appear, none particularly French by anything but ancestry.  On a hunch I searched the name with a location.  France didn’t turn up anything useful.  Then I tried the city of my birth, Montreal.  Bingo!  A wiki entry gave me my first real lead for a Robert Hébert, French Canadian philosopher and writer.  The terse one line biographical entry, considering the minimalism of the poetry, was a tantalizing clue.  “After his studies, he taught at the Collège de Maisonneuve [Montreal, QC]. He is the author of several books.”  No picture of author available.  Not that it mattered. In terms of publication Hébert’s curriculum vita was quite impressive: nine books since 1978, a recent one published in 2015, all on what appeared to be the subject of philosophy or cultural history.  Also listed was a raft of essays in a variety of magazines of a philosophical bent.  The publisher’s site of one of Hébert’s books provided a photo of the author.  In the meantime, a query to George Tysh as to whether Hébert was French Canadian came back with “I’m inclined to believe that Robert might be in Montreal, since I seem to remember him having that connection (and I remember his wife’s Quebecois accent).”  It was beginning to look like I was on the right track.

 

animal 

            mineral 

obsessional

 

            sky etching
            word shifting
            fictions

 

I also had, as they say in espionage novels, a source on the ground.  I first met Lucille Friesen, poet, letterpress printer and artist, when our orbits crossed in the gravitational field of a local literary and art scene in Sebastopol in Northern California.  I knew her to be an ex-pat American world traveler who made annual treks to Patagonia and had previously lived most of her adult life in Montreal.  As a PhD candidate at McGill University she made a study of Charles Olson’s poetry.  Perhaps most impressive was her history as the former owner and co-founder, with her ex-husband, Adrian King-Edwards, of The Word,  a used book store in Montreal housed in a former Chinese laundry.  The bookstore to this day remains a thriving enterprise under the management of her son, Brendan King-Edwards.  Much like Moe’s in Berkeley, The Word is a local institution and literary hotspot on the fringe of the McGill University campus.  As Luci and I were both fans of the Latin American author Roberto Bolaño we always had something to talk about over the occasional cup of coffee. She was also passing familiar with the French Canadian poetry scene in the Provence of Quebec and had piqued my curiosity about the poetry being written by native French speakers (essentially writers who shared my roots) by providing me with a couple of books of Quebecois poetry, one of them an anthology. That had led to talk about perhaps finding someone to translate my own poems into the language of my naissance–a quest that is still ongoing, incidentally.   Luci had been back in Montreal for a couple of years by the time I came across the Hébert poems in my musty archives.  We’d kept in touch by email and I queried her about this author.  She replied that the name was not familiar to her, but she would ask around.  To perhaps jog her memory I sent her the picture of Hébert I had found at the publisher’s website.  Luci replied almost immediately: she remembered the man in the picture as a regular customer of The Word!

With that promising lead, Luci offered to find out if Hébert still came around.  Soon I learned that he had been in the bookstore just recently.  Later I would discover from reading more of Hébert’s recent writing that Adrian, Luci’s ex, and he were long time friends.  Brendan, the bookstore manager, kindly provided me with Hébert’s phone number.  All I had to do was call to confirm that I was on the right track.   That proved to be harder than it might seem.  I had to ask myself, first of all, now what?  The ease with which I had found Hébert was something of a surprise.  I figured that I’d be chasing this chimera for months so to come up with a potential resolution this quickly gave me pause.  Also it felt like an invasion of privacy.  It would be easy enough to cold call Robert Hébert.  But just how rusty was my spoken French?  I knew from experience that not all French Canadians speak or understand English, nor do they feel that they have to.  I practiced phrases in my heads, studying my Larousse for those words that had fled from me and gone into hibernation.

 

be cause 

            the abyss of your beliefs
            always 

turns up
            under your   tailbone

 

I resolved to do a little more digging to confirm that the Hébert I had tracked down was the Hébert whose selection of poems I had found.  I had also got it in my head that translating these dozen or so poems would be an interesting diversion from my already full schedule: online serial novel, poetry blog, publishing venture, not to mention my principle task, writing poetry. Looking over the list of Hébert’s published books I was able to pick out a more substantial selection of poems published in the early eighties entitled Rudiments d’us.  The titled alone should have warned me of the steep linguistic gradient I would soon encounter.  As the book’s publisher was located near Montreal I wrote to Brendan asking if the bookstore carried a used copy.  In less than a week he replied that he could procure a copy from M. Hébert himself.  Now the cat was out of the bag and Hébert was at least alerted that some American writer was asking after his work.  I considered placing a call, having worked out what to say when the receiver on the other end picked up.  Again I hesitated. The rehearsal of what I planned to say had not gone well.  Since an email address was not yet forthcoming, I was able to track down a street address using a reverse directory.    Now I only had to compose a letter in French, something I felt a little more comfortable doing.   Introducing myself, my background, and explaining the reason for my approaching him would be easy enough.  To do so in French was the challenge.

 

    Con
  cealed
     by
   your
   urine
 the  pin
  point
    of
  your

 madness

 

My bilingualism is like a rusty bike that I too seldom take out for a spin, often requiring first pumping up a flat tire, sweeping cobwebs out from between the spokes, and greasing the chain.  Then the physical memory of balance and center of gravity come into play navigating down the prescribed path, wobbly in the beginning.  Wobbly would be a good description of my letter to Robert Hébert.  I introduced myself, apologizing for my rusty French, and gave him a brief rundown of how I had discovered his early work.  I explained that I was drawn to his poetry because it was quite familiar to me.

 

polymorphously perverse
                                            octopus
irrational liturgical essence  

eyeball   things
persistence of the visual                    

                   noon 

     I am

 

As my letter declared: “You must realize how familiar your poems are to me.  In the same time frame, the early seventies, you and I were seduced by the minimalist trend in poetry.  For me, among the Americans and Brits, I was aware of poets Clark Coolidge, Bruce Andrews, Tom Raworth, and Aram Saroyan who were also exploring the resonances of the succinct.  That trend evolved into an academic centered coterie who became known, somewhat dismissively, as the” language school.”  It was enough for me to “dip my toe” in the language poetry pool to understand that my direction was in more extended improvisations even though I still retain an appreciation of the inherent appeal of minimalist distillations.”  The fact that Hébert was French Canadian added a significance I felt to my Quebecois roots.  He and I belong to the generation of war babies who grew up in a French speaking culture dominated by a pervasive Anglo hegemony.

In his reply M. Hébert generously gave permission to translate some of his early poems with the understanding that he had bid a “sad goodbye”  to poetry in 1983 and that Rudiments d‘us was his sole collection published that year by Ecrits des forges.  He also mentioned that he had felt the calling of “le mode ironique” in recent years.  Accompanying the letter was a copy made from the pages of his latest book, Derniers tabous, featuring a long poem entitled “Mingling” explaining that it was “an experiment in code-switching.  Your childhood French ear can surely enjoy the semantic shifts.”

 

memory
                  at
           the beck of wistfulness 

foal 

      drinking her fill of 

                              her full  

                                               self

 

The first thing about translating everyone acknowledges is that it is impossible.  Then why do we do it?  It is in our perceptual nature to seek equivalences to maintain our equilibrium.  Language itself is abstract definition of the circumstance of existence. The more abstract the language the more abstract the definition, abstract being the distance from the act or actual.  The minimalist poem acts as quale, that particle of sentience. Translation then becomes like particle physics to the degree of possibility that a word can mean oscillating at a subtle frequency and how it can cross into a radically different cultural system (since language is culture) and still retain much of the original vibration.  Related systems of cultural and linguistic origins, the daughter languages so to speak, will retain similarities, points of transparency, that often pass over in the other system as a corresponding node with little or no change in its semantic vector.  The fact of my bilingualism I now understand plays an important role in my approach, and perhaps that is the subtext of all this.

 

testament of an eviscerated
                                            whale 

           die white
    in the washed out dawn of an
    armpit 

 

In translating the poems of Histoires Naturelles I was reacquainted with the concise esthetic of the practically indigestible word construct.  Minimalism, like concrete poetry, is a poetry whose context is the page, a hybrid bound by edges and utilizing the blank space in juxtaposition with the text. It is a poetry that is compellingly visual in its presentation– its reason for existence is the page. [Note: unlike the way they are presented in this article each poem in Histoires Naturelles occupied its own page, a full 8½ by 11 space.] While there are resonant ambiguities that may strike an allusive chord, the page itself acts as an echo chamber to contain any incipient reverberations.  And like concrete poetry, it is almost entirely visual, depending on the immediacy of the coup d’oeil.  Some minimalist poems resemble tiny word sculptures or mobiles a la Calder, and others with a syntax that approximates the mind bending illusions of Escher.  The minimalist poem plies the deceptive waters of ambiguity with its rafts of playful, punning fragments.   In the 70’s minimalist poetry, a tangle of open ended relationships and linguistic cul de sacs, was an eschewal of the more verbose metaphysical tendencies of conventional poetry, not that it would ever be free of metaphysics, the mitochondria of language—it was still there but condensed, subtle, subliminal.

Words or phrases in translation generally arrive with a cushion of context.  Minimalist poems have little or no such safety net. They are spare linguistic landmarks in the rectangular park of the receptive page. The surrounding blank space draws attention to word clusters that appear numinous before they give way to potential meaning. Dilemmas proliferate.  Is it transliteration versus approximation? What is the idiomatic weight of a phrase in translation?  Minimalists sample the continuum by isolating “isotropes” of language by their half life.  How quickly does significance decay?  How deep is its reach?

 

intelligence
          honesty 

squirrels ranged between two
                                                icons 

   etched     desire
                         ambivalence

 

“It is not possible to speak of translation outside of the context of poetics,” Eric Selland states in The Poem Behind The Poem.  “It must confront the poetics of the original, the text under examination (or exhumation). Even translation itself is poetics. There is a paradox at work that involves entering into a total intimacy with the poem, entering into its space, and yet encountering an otherness that brings meaning into question; this comes from the fact that the original word and its associations must be broken open, initially lost, and then recreated in a different form.  Many meanings and associations present in languages that radically differ from each other simply cannot be brought across.  They can be explained but then the poetry is lost.”

 

flesh
     incarnate 

earthshaking perfume 

asleep among your veins 

                              a different
                              torpor

 

What gets lost as poetry is often the impossibility of an equivalence of the idiomatic.  Unless there is a constant engagement with the colloquial where the idiomatic resides, the meaning of a particular phrase or word usage will be out of reach to the translator. An academically learned language will enforce the grammatical rules and proper usages.  Learned by rote as a first, second or dual language during childhood imparts the rules reflexively to the ear rather than to the intellect.  For some time I’ve held a suspicion that my sometimes odd syntax and sentence construction or way of putting things in English had to do with the fact that French was my first language and that the “wiring” for French (Quebecois) was still intact and at times overriding the English.  Perhaps this was the “code-switching mechanism” gone awry or possibly this is common among bilinguals and polyglots where deep structures conflict and the ear prevails over the standard.  Having no formal schooling in French I found that I could read phonetically without much difficulty, vocabulary being the biggest hurdle.  Armed with a Larousse I set about to read and translate the poets that interested me.  The translations I attempt are done as a test or challenge, primarily of my grasp of the French text, and its potential as a poem in demotic American.  Among those that I’ve tried my hand (ear) at were the innovators of early 20th Century French poetry, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy,  Blaise Cendrars, Philippe Soupault (Apollinaire was adequately covered by the pros), even the formalist Jean Follain.  And I have been fortunate to have a number of my translations published in anthologies and literary magazines.

My method is to start with a quick transliteration sketch keeping the rhythm of sense established by the ear with certain words left in the original as place holders for further  consideration and lexical parsing.  Next I review them in isolation as works in English to get a sense of them in the target language.  I then make comparisons between the original text looking for points of transition that will be faithful to the French as well as carry weight in English.  With Hébert’s poems, I have a familiarity with the minimalist style, early on appreciating its relevance to contemporary culture as proto-meme generation clearing the way for twitterture (sic).  Additionally there is always the question of what does the poet (poem) mean or what is the poet’s (its) intent.  The poem is spun as its own entity yet connected by invisible (magnetic) strands to the poet and the meaning of that poet within the “meaning-verse.”  Is the poem ever separate from the poet? And there is the minimalist consideration of the poem as meaning itself rather than a description of meaning artfully composed.

 

correctly            

               spruce beer breath
       beneath
              your Verlainian  speech

 

Sometimes the simplest proposals require incredible contortions to arrive at an equivalent meaning.  My lucky find of Histoires Naturelles and decision to translate the text turned out to be a particularly thorny challenge.  It’s taken me down a lexical garden path that made me wonder if French was merely a language that I imagined I knew. I must confess that those word nuggets made me doubt that I could actually make sense of the language of my birth.

As Selland further states, “To produce a translation that may be accurate according to the dictionary, but bland and distant from the spirit of the poem because one has either ignored or misunderstood the author’s poetics is not at all the same thing as performing a translation from the viewpoint of a radical poetics or creating a version.  Translation is a total engagement with language and identity not a means of testing foreign language skills.  It is also an important and an essential part of the production of literature.”  The poems of Histoires Naturelles interspersed with this essay have been hammered into their present iteration in the forge of my understanding of the language and intuition of a common poetics.  (The translation worksheet is available as a pdf file here.)

 

Staccato tacca stac
o
   ur love 

olive grove tracts
behind your partisan 

                              cheek

 

Robert Hébert

On the other hand translating these Hébert poems and delving into his work has turned into a remarkable learning (relearning) experience particularly because I was working with a contemporary rather than some old dead French guys.  Histoires Naturelles was written in the turbulent late sixties in Paris while Hébert was a student there.  Was it by accident that he titled this selection of minimalist poems after a book of the same name by Jules Renard, the 19th Century French author whose work Sartre called the beginning of contemporary literature in France?  To read Renard is to find sympathetic experiential threads in Hébert’s later philosophic musings in Depouilles (1997) and the more recent Derniers Tabous (2015). Immersed in the intellectual history of his marginalized Quebecois culture and Acadian roots, he exhumes the obscure and the meaningful with wit and panache.  An independent scholar whose writing can’t be pigeon-holed, Robert Hébert pursues his calling unflinchingly.  He bumps up against the limits of philosophy in his exploration of genealogy, childhood, autobiography, identity, the ephemeral, the imaginary, poetics, challenging the institutional position forbidding inquiry that strays from the beaten path.   As he has been quoted saying, “In the meantime, if nothing else, rattle the cage.”                                   

 

                                    fifteen

 rue de la vistule

 love rages
in the dizzying
neighbor
hood 

street address
                    of your
                                mammalian

 tenacity

 

Here then context for the poems in Histoires Naturelles was provided to me by the recovery of the work and the path it opened to conjecture and criticism in the acquisition of additional knowledge, of myself and of a unique North American culture. Admittedly this delving into my early beginnings looking for a connection has all the marks of nostalgia tourism.  However it did allow me to view a history of my ancestry whose roots were in Champlain’s early settlements in New France, sustained by their somewhat stoic Jansenist proclivities under Anglo repression and in proximity to the terrible fate of the Acadians.  The brutish British deracination of the Acadians, an integrated French and native community as the promise of a new world in the brotherhood of man, and subsequent suppression of the French speaking inhabitants is an insult to this post indigenous culture that remains to be addressed and redressed.  Being French Canadian has meant inhabiting the fringe of the dominant Anglo culture in a dual language environment.  But writers and intellectuals, of which Hébert is merely the tip of the iceberg, flourish along the banks of the Saint Lawrence, from Montreal to Trois-Revière to Quebec City and the outer reaches of the Gaspé Peninsula.  Here is evidence of a rigorous intellectualism and a unique cosmopolitanism with ties to the mother tongue as foreseen by Champlain, a proud realization of his inclusive utopianism.

 

The least of our humble stock
          climax
                       vigorously                        

 for their exceptional
              shapely distinction

 

What began as happenstance and diversion resulted in a virtual voyage of discovery and rediscovery highlighting that old saw “you can’t go home again” or that there is a “return by date” of which I am way past. Would my history have played out differently had my parent not immigrated to the US?  Would my engagement with my native tongue have been addressed with the same thoroughness as with that of my adopted Western drawl?  These questions require further scholarly soul-searching which I am inclined, as a poet, to do anyway.  Robert Hébert’s work is my point of entry.  I am fascinated by the idea of a dual language culture and the literature that can emerge from code switching fluency.  In Hébert’s most recent collection of work, Derniers tabous, he returns to poetry after a long absence with a poem dedicated to Keith and Rosemary Waldrop entitled “Mingling”.  Unlike the stark minimalism of the poems of Histoires Naturelles and Rudiments d’us, this multipage poem has the elliptical nature of strung fragments whose subtle shifts, puns, bilingual appropriations and blends flavor the work’s cosmopolitanism, effortlessly switching between languages, and which presents altogether new challenges for this translator.  But as Bogart says to Claude Rains on that fog bound runway, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

                    impartial galaxy 

        refreshing the spit stream 

to be born again

 

 


Pat Nolan’s translations have appeared in numerous literary magazines including Otoliths, The World, Big Sky, Exquisite Corpse, and Contemporary Literature in Translation as well as in The Random House Book of Twentieth Century Poetry (1982) and Poems for the Millennium, Vol. I (1995).  His translation of Philippe Soupault’s Aquarium was published by Doris Green Editions in 1984 and a further selection of Soupault’s early work was issued from Pygmy Forest Press as Where The Four Winds Blow in 1993.  His most recent book of poems, So Much, Selected Poems 1969-1989, was published by Nualláin House, Publisher in April of 2018.  His online serial novel, Ode To Sunset, A Year in the Life of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com


Select bibliography of publications by Robert Hébert

Histoires Naturelles, Blue Pig, 1971
Mobiles du discours philosophique, Hurtubise HMH, 1978
Rudiments d’us : 1971-1981, Écrits des Forges, 1983
L’Amérique française devant l’opinion étrangère, 1756-1960, Hexagone, 1989
Le Procès Guibord ou l’interprétation des restes, Triptyque, 1992
Dépouilles : un almanach, Éditions Liber, 1997
L’homme habite aussi les franges, Éditions Liber, 2003
Novation. Philosophie artisanale, Éditions Liber, 2004
Usages d’un monde, Éditions Trahir, 2012 (available online)
Derniers tabous, Éditions Nota bene, 2015

 

 

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now be clay in the ground

now be clay in the ground

by Mark Young

My first fulltime job, more than four decades ago, was as a member of the consular staff of the Embassy of Japan in New Zealand. The Japanese Foreign Ministry had a policy of employing two local staff for every diplomat, in order to draw on local knowledge & also provide something of a buffer. Anti-Japanese sentiment was nowhere near as strong as it was in Australia, but memories of the Second World War were not too distant.

I will never forget my interview. It was in November, the end of spring, almost summer, but the day was cold & wet. Wellington is in the path of the winds that come up from Antarctica, so such unseasonal days are quite common, & the Norfolk pines around Oriental Bay where the Embassy was situated bent & complained, threatening to blow away. I was wearing an overcoat, suit, jersey. Outside I was barely warm. Inside, in the central heating, even without the overcoat, I sweltered & sweated.

There were three people interviewing me. The Counsellor with not much English, an Assistant Attaché who said almost nothing, & a New Zealander who, I discovered later, was an ex-Army Colonel whose final military job had been interviewing officer candidates. (& who, a career military man, started to become disenchanted by war during the Korean War & now, ten years later, was a pacifist who, a few years on, when conscription by ballot was introduced for Vietnam, assured me that the Embassy would raise an official protest should my birthday be drawn.)

I sat across the desk from the Counsellor. The Colonel on my right a meter or so back from the side of the desk, the Attaché also to my right but behind me. I felt like a windscreen wiper answering their questions. The Colonel’s interviewing technique was to ask non-sequential questions. We talked about sport, & then, from out of left field, I was asked what religion I was. Although by now I had moved away from the beliefs of my parents, they were still close enough, & I was intent on coming across as a proper young man, so I answered that I was Church of England. “Practising or non-practising?” “Non-practising.” At which point the Counsellor let out a great guffaw, beat his fists on the desk & chortled “Me Buddhist. But me non-practising Buddhist. Have paid for my shrine for when I die, but I never go to the temple.” It was at that point that I knew I had the job.

Officially my work mainly entailed ensuring that visa documentation was in order. Fairly straightforward though there were moments. I remember a wrestler, Bulgarian-born but now stateless, with identity papers rather than a passport, the hairiest man I have ever seen, who, because he was carrying out his profession in Japan needed a special visa & with whom, through his bad English, my bad German, & a surfeit of gestures, we managed to get all the appropriate paperwork together. & the one truly “Ugly American” I have ever come across, who insisted on calling me Boy until I lost my cool & told him to “Sit fucking down & stop calling me Boy or you’ll be blacklisted from ever going to Japan.”

But mainly what I got out of my time at the Embassy was a preparedness to be surprised by nothing, to think on my feet, to handle whatever was put before you. You dealt with people of many nationalities, many stations in life. Painters, musicians, practitioners of religion, business people, the flow going both ways. The Japanese Prime Minister paid a visit to New Zealand; in the hierarchical society that the Embassy was part of, the place went crazy for a month before & for the duration of his visit.

& then there were the benefits, some official, some not so. The Embassy had a collection of 16mm films, a lot of tourist stuff but mixed in amongst them were films on woodblock prints – ukiyo-e, ikebana, the tea ceremony, Zen monastries, stone gardens, castles, ryokan. I watched them & wrote articles for the monthly Embassy newsletter. I acquired prints of Utamaro & Hiroshige, calendars from a shipyard whose owner had the greatest collection in Japan of sumi-e, black ink drawings, by Sengai. I discovered the novels of Junichiro Tanizaki & Yukio Mishima. The Embassy brought out new Japanese feature films each year, but never Kurosawa because he was “too Western”.

& then the unofficial benefits. Duty-free cigarettes, crates of Kirin & Sapporo beer which were shipped out from Japan every three months & which nobody but myself drank. &, most importantly of all, the books.

My first book acquisition venture was through official channels. Courtesy of the diplomatic bag I got pirated editions, printed in Taiwan, of Henry Miller’s great early trilogy – the two Tropics & Black Spring. & then, because the Embassy could access foreign currency easily & because diplomatic mail was never opened, I acquired a significant part of the Olympia Press catalogue, all of which was banned in those days of censorship in nearly all English-speaking countries. I brought in Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers & The Thief’s Journal, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch & The Soft Machine, Durrell’s Black Book, Lolita by Nabokov, Miller’s Sexus & Nexus — I already had Plexus, bought from the greatest second-hand bookstore I’ve ever come across, but that’s another story — Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, Terry Southern & Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, & many others. Because of the foreign currency I could take out a subscription to Evergreen Review & City Lights Journal, as well as buy books from most of the small poetry presses in the U.S. My cup most certainly overflowed.

I left after three years, to move north to Auckland. Things had changed somewhat. The Ambassador when I joined was on his last posting, & took things reasonably easily, delegating a lot. He was replaced by a career diplomat, young enough to have the major posts of Washington or London or Paris in his sights. We agreed to disagree, though a year or so later we met again in Auckland & embraced warmly, as friends, although such shows of emotion are rare amongst the public Japanese persona.

All this brought back to me through re-reading a book of poems written in Japan by an American, included in which is a poem about an English potter who was killed in a motorcycle crash in Sydney. Whose visit in company with the great Japanese potter Shoji Hamada I had helped prepare for. Who came close to New Zealand, but never arrived.

The potter, John Chappell. The book, The Back Country. The poet, Gary Snyder. The poem, “For John Chappell.”

 

 

“Over the Arafura Sea, the China Sea,
      Coral Sea, Pacific
chains of volcanoes in the dark—
you in Sydney where it’s summer;
I imagine that last ride outward
late at night………”

(The above piece first appeared as a post to my pelican dreaming blog, on 4/2/2005.)


Mark Young lives in a small town in North Queensland in Australia, & has been publishing poetry for almost sixty years. He is the author of over forty books, primarily text poetry but also including speculative fiction, vispo, & art history. His work has been widely anthologized, & his essays & poetry translated into a number of languages. A selected poems, Pelican Dreaming, was published by Meritage Press in 2008. His most recent books are random salamanders, a Wanton Text Production, & Circus economies, from gradient books of Finland.   He is the editor of Otoliths.

 

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Gary Snyder’s Myths & Text

Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts
by Keith Kumasen Abbott

“. . .academic fashion judged poets and other artistic innovators as suspect or irrelevant; critics were essential. . . the academically based literary or art critic was more important than creative artists and affirmed the critic as the acknowledged arbiter of taste and societal approval.”


Some History 

The long poem Myths & Texts was Gary Snyder’s first book, written before he wrote Cold Mountain poems or Riprap, though they were published before Myths & Texts. This was not widely known, but the critics now accept and use the order to explain certain aspects of Snyder’s thought and writing practices.

The poem has elements of Snyder’s personal history but the collage structure recalls the scholarly process of cut and paste quotes, examples and opinions inserted into articles, theses and dissertations.  His Reed College thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: Dimensions of a Haida Myth, used such multiple sources and techniques.

The techniques of this type for poems were present in three of the most famous long poems in modern English: T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Snyder knew all these works and authors.

Myths & Texts’ common structure also owes a debt to the invention of the movies and its serial collage-like nature of splicing in discrete sequences between jumpcuts in time, place and character.   The cinematic use of montage, overlapping images, also influenced these poems.  Another significant genre for all modern artists was the newsreel, but seen as an anti-art.  Walker Evans, one of the seminal photographers for the 1930s Depression era, “devoured [newsreels] on a weekly basis” because some theaters only showed them, not movies.  Newsreels “were essentially skeins of raw facts gathered straightforwardly.  These films were the opposite of art: gritty scenes of life and death, wars and the signing of treaties, natural calamities and the launching of ships, a panorama of what seemed like unprocessed reality.” (Walker Evans, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000)

By the 1950s such methods of writing poetry and prose were not unusual.  However, academic critics regarded it as risky, fake avant-garde, passé, or just rude.  The New Criticism discouraged the personal in poetry, prized the ironic and/or neutral tone, and an urban or European setting.  Poetry, they maintained, is best interpreted without recourse to its author’s intentions or its historical context.  Some academics claimed all invention had ceased to be necessary because all inventions within the Modernist tradition of invention had been already tried.  To call this particular time in American literature conservative is an understatement.

This academic fashion judged poets and other artistic innovators as suspect or irrelevant; critics were essential.   With the rise of the universities as the centers for intellectuals and the gradual disappearance of “the man of letters” (who wrote literary opinion, reviews and literary history for popular venues) the academically based literary or art critic was more important than creative artists and affirmed the critic as the acknowledged arbiter of taste and societal approval.  Publish or perish for job tenure cemented this role.  The official USA poetry became tame or outright dreary, largely produced by pre-approved academic poets.

Political and social repression was common, free speech censored, and paranoia a product vended by the U.S. Government in the name of freedom, democracy and the American Way of Life.  A state of constant war preparation and vigilance was demanded of American citizens. A multi-level picture of this society may be viewed in the documentary The Atomic Café.

Snyder’s long poem did not involve itself much in the 1950s, for all the above reasons, preferring to engage a large long view of time and culture.  The poem’s settings are distinctly Western (as opposed to Eastern seaboard); as Snyder’s dominant interest was wilderness and wildness and how they co-existed with or in societies around the Pacific Rim.  His setting was neither urban nor European, although both cultures enter the poem.

Referring to the book, Snyder said, “The title comes from the happy collections Sapir, Boas, Swanton, and others made of American Indian folktales early in the century; it also means the two sources of human knowledge—symbols and sense impressions.” (Allen New American Poetry, 1960)

His characters—animal, vegetable, mineral and human—often exist in a state of transformation and transmigration.  Few return to the poem after their initial scene—so there was never any dramatic through-line for the poem.


Looking at the Book

If we pretend we are new to any book, we may make some observations as we hold it and then open its first few pages.

Myths & Texts’ first edition cover features a sumi brush characters for its title, and its sections are illustrated with sumi brush pictures.

After the title page, the acknowledgements page features a quote from The Bible, from Acts 19:27 about how “our craft” is imperiled and why both “the temple of the Great Goddess Diana and her magnificence” must be razed because she has devotees in “all Asia and the world”.  The speaker is an artist Demetrius, a silversmith, who says his craft will be lost along with other idols of worship if the Apostle Paul’s commands are carried out.

The next page displays a sumi-brush version of a pine tree, the word Logging, and leafing ahead we see that the other two sections Hunting and Burning have similar brush illustrations.

The first line of section 1 paraphrases the last line of Thoreau’s Walden: “The Sun is but a morning star.” 

            The morning star is not a star
            Two-seedling fir, one died
                                                              Io, Io,
            Girdled in wisteria
            Wound with ivy
                                                “The May Queen
            Is the survival of
            A pre-human
            Rutting season”
            The year spins
            Pleiades sing to their rest
                                         at San Francisco
                                                dream
                                                dream
            Green comes out of the ground
           Birds squabble
           Young girls run mad with the pine bough,
                                                                                          Io

Obviously, after only a few lines into the poem, this book has taken a different point of view from the dominant culture in which it was published.   This part of Myths & Texts is titled “Logging” but talks about fertility rites during astronomical events, rites that occurred before the Cold War 1950s, but how some Western societies keep one vestige of those bacchanals in May Queen ceremonies, where school children dress up for twinning ribbons around a May Pole.  Io was the mother of Dionysus and that Greek myth is conjoined to a Coastal Californian Native American myth about the setting of the Pleiades stars as the sign of spring.

Reading on, the words and concepts sometimes come from that culture, but not the official mouthpieces, such as television, Time magazine or the New York Times newspaper, but rather from other sources: ecumenical religions, anthropology and art history, from vernacular, biological and industrial texts.

This poem itself multiplies through the infusion of both myths and texts, dealing with death and destruction, fertility and renewal, all feeding each other and creating one new synthesis after another, voices conjoining other voices, to multiply into multiple myths and texts.   So Snyder is engaged in “mythopoesis” by describing particular sensory experiences—texts—and juxtaposing and melding them into myths that nourish and promote formations of culture.

The three sections deal with the following subjects. Logging: the devastation of the natural world and whether the damage may be undone before biosphere regenerates. Hunting: the recovery of animal sensibility through wise adaptations of alternative belief systems.  Burning: transformation of all living beings via a deep spiritual reality within a whirling galaxy of experience.


Who Is Talking? Who is Witnessing or Doing these Things?
 

In reading Snyder’s poetry the job is often to distinguish between the narrators.  The speaker in some sections is not always the same person as the narrator.  The speaker may not, also, be confined to a single ego as a function of the speaker’s identity.  The voice may be speaking as a member of a tribe, a species, a nation, or a representative of a scientific discipline.  A critic Tim Dean has argued, “the characteristically Snyderian voice is one in which many voices can be heard.”

So the voice you hear may not be Snyder’s narrator, but some voice inside a larger more complex narration.  The same goes for the Witnesses in this poem; Snyder is not necessarily the witness or the voice for the witness, even if the passage does not have quotation marks around it.  Some voices are masks, only one aspect of a given culture given over to a fictional character.

There is also more than one consciousness watching or involved in the actions.  We can realize that belong to some place in the United States or that they belong to the Turtle Island Tribe.  Or both.  And in those roles they may change their ways of speaking or addressing a situation.  These alterations or morphing of speaking roles happen often in Myths & Texts.

Orders of procreation are this: the myths that arise from actions, in Snyder, may arise from specific texts: the action of a deer or a logger may be generalized into a myth for all Deer or all Loggers.  Results in the visual or perceptual field may expand in time or influence or space; the field may be multi-dimensional, a web of connections much like the metaphor of Indra’s Net: jewels at each crossing reflect all the rest of the connections.   Snyder may put “emphasis on the action or event rather than on the person causing or witnessing such an event.”  (Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring)

This suspension or transformation of a particular human or generic actor or perceiver has its roots in various religious rituals, in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, in ecological techniques and also in the poetic practices of Snyder’s favorite Modernist writers.  The poems inside Myths & Texts’ sections are full of human beings, however they are neither the center of attention, nor are they a protagonist in a drama, an existence or the behaviors of other human beings.   Snyder at times does or doesn’t write from an anthropocentric or ethnocentric point of view.  And drama, with protagonists and antagonists, with conflict or transformation via motivation, opportunity and intentions, for Myths & Texts often occurs in fragments: a labor strike, a love affair, or a family crisis.  The sources for such human comedies or tragedies are outside the poem’s sections; the contexts for the players are outsourced, brought in only as a part of the ongoing collage or montage.  We only see facets on them at any one time; again in as in the metaphor of Indra’s Net, a single facet may reflect other webs or gems elsewhere in the interpenetrating spaces of our reading experience.


How the Texts Evolve

Here we look at how the texts evolve into myths and what the dominant concerns are for Snyder’s poem.  In Myths & Texts the texts are sensory experiences, but instead of our culture’s five senses, the Buddhist fashion it regards mind as the sixth sense.  Myths are the little stories that we create or someone else creates for us, which distill the elements of the stories into archetypes or clarify the qualities of the elements so the elements are seen as archetypes.

For Snyder, in Myths & Texts first part, Logging section 2, there is a collage of texts, which trace several ways of seeing the harvest of lumber.  The first is religious, how cutting down sacred groves was a way to destroy another religion.  Then a quick jump from Biblical times to China and then into the Northwest where we hear the tone of a documentary.  This voice-over gives us just the facts in technical terms with shorthand lumbering slang along with a quick shift in time as we follow the lumber being milled and sent down the coast.

Squared beams, log dogs,
              on tamped-earth sill
San Francisco 2x4s
             were the woods around Seattle

Then a much more rhythmical voice, in measured ritualistic cadences as if chanting, tells us of the anonymity of the ancient religions and people for the men producing this onslaught of new transplanted societies.

Someone killed and someone built, a house,
                        A forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
                        & burned by men, in their own praise.

Then from those particular tones Snyder’s narrative turns into a personal first person vernacular account of logging, with the logger suffering “from bitter dreams”.  The Cat that ends the stanza is a Caterpillar Tractor, used to bulldoze hillsides and carry or drag downed lumber.

The last stanza shifts tones again into a quote of what appears to be a translated Chinese couplet with mythic Taoist overtones:

“Pines grasp the clouds with iron claws
Like dragons rising from sleep.”

Then the documentary or official tone reenters the poem, giving us the figures for the logging operation if the optimum circumstances are maintained: “If both Cats keep working/& nobody gets hurt”.

The irony of the last phrase is intended, whereas the speaker is only speaking for the employees or the loggers.  Actually a great many creatures get hurt or killed or displaced when a bulldozer cuts paths through forests.

Of course as with all collages how the tone changes invites us to read the meanings of these little stories differently.  The last line could be read as a reassurance, that this logging business, when conducted efficiently, hurts no one.  And another irony of that is, of course, throughout the section: razing a religion’s sacred groves hurts not only people’s homelands and erodes their spiritual lives, but also damages their culture and their survival.  So, as with many of Snyder’s works, value is a cultural matter, and here ignorance of history an invitation to violate the values of our ancestors

Another technique Snyder uses is more cinematic, less reliant on the juxtaposition of tones from shifting texts.  In section 4, there occurs a polyphonic montage of a lumber harvest, but with visual references to Japanese culture.  One way to imagine this section is as a newsreel documentary, images intercut with sparse commentary.  This string of images will demonstrate how lumber comes from trees and what end products—pine boards for theater floors—that particular species may provide.  Intercut into this documentary are images of a mostly bare stage with a wooden floor with an actor stamping his feet.

Seami Motokiyo is the most famous Noh theater playwright.  Here, spliced into the film, the main actor stamps his feet on the pine floor boards as he plays the Doer in Seami’s play Takasago set in the city of Ise, where a shrine to the Sun Goddess is surrounded by ancient pines.  Toward the end of section 4 the Doer moves off-stage, metaphorically gone, physically returned to being an actor, just as Kwanami, Seami’s father, who was also a Noh actor and author, may be also absent from life, but not memory.

According to Katsunori Yamazato, one of Snyder’s critics, the play’s plot portrays the Doer as the spirit of one of the great pine trees.  In the shape of an old man the Doer/pine spirit engages a traveling priest in conversation.  By telling his story to a priest the Doer gains release from this world as a ghost and the Noh play ends with song and/or dance in celebration of this transformation.

The journey of the felled pine trees “A thousand board-feet/Bucked, skidded, loaded—” through its natural habitat of water with all the attendant creatures is also shown, along with the sparse actions and only one line “Today’s wind moves in the pines” which is probably from the Noh play.

Snyder often employs this particular montage technique leaving the reader with a complex image, series of images or cycle of pictures.  There is no explicit meaning or commentary supplied.  The question of values—does this belong to the preceding actions—often is left open.   The reader acts as witness to this dual journey, images and values in transformation, and may draw some conclusions about it from his or her experience.

The next section shows us an array of conflicting value judgments about the worth of texts, words, philosophy, politics, economics and art.  How do we or don’t we apply these value judgments retroactively to Section 4?

That is left up to the reader, again, but the juxtaposition of this cinematic rendering of wood while it becomes a sounding board for an actor’s feet next to a highly inflected and opinionated language polyphonic collage does create in the reader the need to try.  And this is how Snyder creates “a story of the land-in-process, the travelers upon it, and the spirits within it” that also includes the reader.


Buddhism

The notion of enlightenment is central to Buddhism.  And this transformation also is its central contradiction. According to tradition, because everyone is already enlightened, everyone has or is Buddha-mind.  What comes between our own Buddha nature and our actions is ignorance created by some of our delusive emotions.  In Myths & Texts Snyder presents a selection and dispersal of negative emotions and ignorance and indicates how this occurs and/or shows when an entry into an enlightened state may occur.

The technique of selection is crucial because this poem is by its nature not the quest for something, or someone’s quest, but a journey among multiple events, actions and things.

I am indebted to the scholarship of Katsunori Yamazato for the following example of how Snyder works with the notion of enlightenment. In Myths & Texts Gary Snyder edited a passage from John Muir for his poem’s own needs.

The original passage in John Muir that Snyder edited follows.  His edits are crossed out here, but the insertions by Snyder are not indicated

“After scanning its face again and again, I began to scale it, picking my holds with intense caution.  I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down.  My doom appeared fixed would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down to the glacier below. My mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke.  But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness.  I become possessed of a new sense. my trembling muscles became firm again; every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing to do.

Gary Snyder inserted a few words to create runaway emotions.

“After scanning its face again and again,
I began to scale it, picking my holds
with intense caution.  About halfway
to the top, I was suddenly brought to
a dead stop, with arms outspread,
clinging close to the face of the rock,
unable to move hand or foot
either up or down.  My doom
appeared fixed.  I must fall.
There would be a moment of
bewilderment, and then,
a lifeless rumble down the cliff
to the glacier below.  My mind seemed to fill with a
stifling smoke.  This terrible eclipse
lasted only a moment, when life blazed
forth again with preternatural clearness.
I seemed suddenly to become possessed
of a new sense.  My trembling muscles
became firm again, every rift and flaw in
the rock was seen as through a microscope,
my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
with which I seemed to have
nothing at all to do.”

Katsunori Yamazato in his dissertation, Seeking A Fulcrum, Gary Snyder and Japan (1956-1975) states that when we see some significant content words left out by the poet, we begin to understand how he would like to interpret Muir’s rare experience.  In the middle of line 19, the poet omits the following passage from Muir: “The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel–call it what you will–came forward and assumed control.”  Muir’s dualistic notions are rejected by Snyder, and instead, he seems to direct the reader to the monistic notion of satori (or kensho) in Zen Buddhism.

Satori, in D. T. Suzuki’s definition, is “an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradiction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.  It brings forth an unfolding of a new world, hitherto unconceived.”

8: 5: 06


 

Keith Kumasen Abbott is a poet and calligrapher, and the author of numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).

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