Schools of Poetry, Part I

Schools of Poetry, Part One

 An excerpt from Pat Nolan’s online fiction
Ode To Sunset—A Year in the Life of American Genius

 Wendt met Andy Porter for lunch at Bebop Dim Sum Café on Clement.  The place was run by a jazz lover from Taipei who still had not mastered his adopted tongue.  The musical ambiance was Golden Age bebop.  Whenever the owner saw Wendt he would shout “Bud Powell!” but unfortunately it came out sounding like “butt powwow!” Invariably heads would turn.

Andy was cheerful, maybe a little more than usual.  He was young, after all, hopeful, full of ambition, full of himself.  This was different.  He was bursting with what he wanted to say.

“Good news?” Wendt asked as the waitress placed the pot of green tea between them.

“I got the fellowship. I’m going to China!” Then he shared his excitement, in Chinese, with the waitress who giggled and moved quickly back to behind the service area.  Andy liked to practice his Chinese on restaurant staff, often with hilarious results.  Wendt was clueless but amused by Andy’s apparent discomfort.

“I think I just said ‘a dog’s leg is bitter as ashes after sex.’”  He shrugged, resuming his cheery demeanor.  “I’ll be a year in Shanghai.  I’m really looking forward to it.  I don’t leave till late August, but I’m going to make an exploratory trip in June, just to get a feel for it.”  Andy was beside himself, “It’s going to be really cool,” and blushed at his enthusiasm.

“That’s great, Andy.”  Wendt poured the tea into both their cups.  “Your girl friend will be house sitting for you while you’re gone, I assume?” The wheels had begun their spin, tumblers rolling in the slot machine behind his eyes. Andy lived in a studio apartment on Turk, a pied-à-terre owned by a relative or a friend of a relative.

“I don’t think so.  She’s spending the summer with her parents in Rhode Island, and she’ll be gone as soon as her classes are over.”  Andy made a fake sad face.  “We’re kind of in the process of separating.  She’s going to intern in DC, and I’ll be in China.” He turned over a hand, palm up, as if letting something go. “Why?”

Wendt explained his upcoming eviction from the Balboa address. He would need a temporary launch pad until he could find a more permanent situation.  He mentioned that Nora was arranging a reading tour for him.  He did not mention that nothing had been settled and often Nora’s schemes resulted in miscommunications and the threat of lawsuits.  So, ostensibly, he was assured, virtually, of a cash flow.

Andy agreed readily.  And having Wendt look after his tiny apartment would be perfect for the month he was away on his recon mission to Shanghai.

Ka-ching! Wendt thought, which is not in itself a Chinese expression meaning jackpot. The perfect solution had presented itself, an archipelago of house sitting for his friends dotting the summer months while they vacationed in Big Sur or Yosemite, Paris or Athens, someone to collect the mail, stack the newspapers, water the plants, pet the gold fish.  The wobble of his flight for the last couple of days stabilized, and his smug became a little more self-satisfied.

There was more to Andy’s show and tell. He handed over an issue of Autoclone, a literary magazine from Tasmania, for Wendt to page through.

“International, with a twist.”

“It’s the first time my own writing has appeared outside the country. That is if you don’t count the poems I published in Perverse Notions, an on-line magazine from Oslo.”

Wendt recited a list of his foreign publications. “Translated into Hungarian, Czech, Finnish, and Romanian.  I have no idea if they even came close.  I was in that French anthology and whoever translated those poems made me sound like a tight-assed academic.”

“Weren’t you in an Italian anthology?”

“Right, I was.  Do you know that in Italian my poems rhyme? But then so do everyone else’s.  It’s a wonderful lyrically rich language.”

He tried to remember the name of the anthology, but that had been years ago. Secret Ballot?  Something like that. And that had been Sheila’s doing.  One of the editors was a friend she made when she’d studied a year in Padua.  He remembered how delighted he’d been at the thought of being read in Italian.

Interesting also that the French experience had turned out to be so phonetically askew.  And his inclusion in that anthology had been with the help of Val Richards who was a lycee schoolmate of the publisher of the volume.  He remembered the name of that anthology because of his original mishearing of the title, something that caused him additional consternation once he learned the truth.  He had been told by Val, who had a habit of slurring her words when she took certain pills, that the anthology would be titled L’heure du temps which his rudimentary French told him was a typical Gallic redundancy but, loosely translated, was The Time Of Day.  When he finally got his hands on the volume he read his mistake.  The title was L’horreur du temps.

Andy passed a book the size of a small shoebox across the table.  “Here’s that anthology I was telling you about.”

“Whenever I read an anthology I always think of all the poets whose poems are not represented, and that’s an anthology in itself.” Wendt scanned the columned gallery of names on the back cover.  Not one signaled recognition.  “Ok, here’s one, A. W. Porter.  That’s you, right?”

A rosy glow colored Andy’s cheeks.  “Yeah, but you know, the editor was a year ahead of me at Stanford.  It helps if you know someone.”

“You’re telling me?” Wendt flipped the volume and read the cover. “Poets of A Later Latitude, A Geography of Poets Under 30.  No wonder I didn’t recognize any names.”  He set the large book on its spine and let the pages flop open at random.  “And look at that, it opened right to your poems!  Good placement.  Do you have to pay extra for that?”

The noodles arrived and Wendt ordered a Tsing-tao.  He was beginning to feel pretty.  A significant worry had been alleviated.  It made him feel a hundred pounds lighter, virile even.  He felt like having fun, special fun, rather than his usual mundane day to day fun. A frenetic Charlie Parker solo punctuated his musings.

“I always like looking through the contributors notes, sometimes they’re more interesting than the poems.”

Andy chuckled his agreement.

“Let’s see now, herewego, Andrew Walter Porter. . . .”

“Walter’s my mother’s dad, my grandfather’s name.”  And then as an afterthought, “Isn’t Walter your first name?”

“You are correct,” Wendt said considering his first taste of the old German recipe of his Chinese beer, “but, no offense, I didn’t want to be known as Wally so I go by my nomen, my middle name.  It’s one syllable so it’s direct, to the point.  Kind of like ‘shit’ or ‘fuck,’ both of which I’ve answered to, by the way.”

“What about Walt? That’s one syllable.”

Wendt feigned consideration with an impish grin, “A little too Whitmanesque, I’d think.” He referenced what he’d been reading with his finger on the page.  “Anyway, your note says, born in Santa Barbara in, hmm, for some reason I thought you were older.  Currently pursuing a post-graduate degree in Asian Studies at Stanford.  Published in Yadda Yadda, This Then, and Contemporary Literature In Translation.  So you’ve got some cred, that’s good.”

Wendt turned a page. “Who are these other clowns? Jesus, look at this guy, Ross Arbuckle, associate professor and he’s hardly a few years older than you.  Two books of poems, too.  You’ve got some catching up to do.

“Jerrold Lloyd, professor of Creative Writing, a string of books from presses I’ve never heard of, the recipient of the Golden Lyre and he’s barely twenty-nine.  Ok.  Laurel Hardy, also twenty-nine, lives in Vancouver, MFA from SFU, recent book, Special Agent from Screeming Lesbo Press.

“Barbara Keaton, professor of European Literature specializing in Beowulf.  How can someone so young specialize in Beowulf?  Baffling.” Wendt shook his head with mock consternation for Andy’s benefit.  Andy, for his part, was enjoying the running commentary.

“You’re traveling in some pretty rarified company.  And Darla Costello.  A Steiner Fellow.  How nice.  She’s like a year younger than you and yet she has two books of poems, Don’t I Know You From The Microwave? from Platypus Press. . .must be an Australian publisher . . . .”

“I think that’s a misprint. It should be I Don’t Know You From The Microwave.”

“. . .and Last Warning, Poems of Self-destruction and Resurrection.  Her titles are intriguing.”

“Get this, the guy she studied with is the Buddhist poet who runs the monastery outside of Omaha.”

“Omaha.  Perfect place for a Buddhist monastery.  Om. . .Aha!”

“ So essentially Costello studied with an abbot.”

“You know her?”

“Sure, she’s part of our gang, you know, the writers down in Palo Alto, the two Steves, Panke and Timey, Alfred Falva.  Darla’s married to Ben Turpin.”

“The musician?”

“Right, the horn player.  He’s been on Leno.”

“That’s some glamorous crowd you’re running with.”  And referring to the book again, “How about Laurence Mot-Kerlit?”

Andy shrugged.  “I’m like you, I haven’t heard of a lot of these clowns, either.”

“Professor of Abstract Languages at Buffalo.  Now there’s a job for a poet, a buffalo job.”

The noodles had cooled to an edible heat though their spice ensured that they were enjoyed tentatively.  Distracted, while they slurped and then inhaled big gulps of air through their mouths to cool their tongues, Wendt leafed through the paper brick.

“Ok, so explain to me what these guys are about.  Are they any good?  Besides you.  I know you’ve got chops.”

Andy was bursting to please.  “Well, there’s a real mish-mash in here because the editor wanted to be representative.  A mistake, I think.  Anyway, you’ve got your conpo. . . .”

“Whoa, whoa, your what?”

“Conpo, conceptual poetry.  Or poets.”

“Alright, I can see poets as a concept.  But I thought conpo would be more like the poetry my friend Deidre Davis, DeeDee the Destroyer we call her, for the number of marriages she’s torpedoed, taught to the inmates at San Quentin or here at juvenile hall.”

“Uh, no, it’s like when you say Ampo for American Poetry.  Or Fopo for foreign poetry. And formal poetry too, I suppose.”

“I’ve heard of faux pas, never Fauxpo.  But I can dig it.  Pretend poetry.  That could be what I write.”

“And there’s Fempo and Gaypo.”

“Is there a bipo, you know, for bisexual poets? Or would that stand for bipolar poets?  Like Jimmy Schuyler. Or Ann Sexton.”

“That would probably be bipopo,” Andy said without cracking a smile. “And Avpo which stands for avant-garde, or average poetry.”

“Sometimes they’re the same.”

“Mopo for modern poetry.”

“Mopo sounds like one of those Japanese toys you keep on a key chain.”

“And there’s Autopo, Surpo, Clapo, NeoClapo, Pomopo.”

“Northern California Indian poetry?”

“No, Postmodern Poetry.  Native American poetry would be Napo.”

“It’s like you’re naming off future generations of Marx Brothers. I mean, look at all the possibilities.  Synpo, Cypo, Actpo, Poactpo, Slapo, Slangpo, Slampo, Slurpo, Minpo, Haipo, Gypo. . . no, wait, he really was a Marx brother.” Wendt pointed his faux porcelain spoon at Andy for emphasis.  “So by what you’re saying, it sounds like schools of poetry are similar to vaudeville acts.”

“There is a Hypo. It stands for hybrid poetry.”

“Oh, I see, I was thinking of haiku poetry.  Hybrid poetry, isn’t that a little redundant?  On the other hand, hypo could also stand for hypothetical poetry.  I’m pretty sure that’s what I write.”

“That would probably have to be hypopo.  And I suppose you could have hypnotic poetry which would be hypnopo, and you’d have to have posthypnotic poetry and that would be pohypnopo.”

“Now you’re talking!  We’re starting to sound Greek!”


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


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


Parole Officer Report: SNARK ALERT!

In the early 80’s Steven Lavoie and Pat Nolan published Life Of Crime, the mimeo newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society, originally a one-shot put-on satire of the East and West coast poetry whirl.  After the first and putative only issue, the reaction was such (both negative and positive) that they concluded it might be worth the trouble to produce a few more.  The content then became more pointed if not sharp, the targets of the satirical broadsides broader, with a more vengeful agenda due to contributions of obvious bias.  Thus for the ten years Life Of Crime sporadically published, the contents and tenor of the newsletter was what might now be termed “snark.”  Snark found a fertile medium on the internet in blogs and in the comments sections (aka “snark tanks”) and spread like an infection in the cultural Petri dish.  Today, the record of rivalry, real or imagined, between institutional bastions and schools of poetry, once ephemeral whimsy, has niched itself, thanks to cyber ubiquity, as an agent under the rubric of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars (DPW) in an historical nod to the Bureau of Surrealist Research.  It was inevitable that this one function of poetry, delicious catullian gossip, would be bureaucratized and as a consequence, banalized.  For the pathologically curious their wide array of antic antics can be viewed here.

 


 

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Bill & Lou, Part II

Bill & Lou, Part II

 The Descent of Winter

By Tom Sharp
(excerpted from The Objectivists) 

Louis Zukofsky took Ezra Pound’s suggestion to edit The Descent of Winter by William Carlos Williams for “Exile 4”. Williams began the sequence “on board the S. S. Pennland in the fall of 1927 . . . having left his wife in Europe to care for their two sons who were attending school in Switzerland for a year,” and he continued and finished it living with his mother in Rutherford. 

Zukofsky sent his edited version of the manuscript to Pound on 28 May 1928, noting that the Sundays he had spent with Williams in Rutherford had been more than reassuring.  The first two months of their friendship had established lasting trust and understanding between them, a secure basis for future collaboration. Pound received the manuscript and wrote Williams to make further suggestions. Williams replied on 25 June 1928, and noted: “I’m really delighted that you like Zukofsky’s batch of choosings. You’d be amused to see the stuff he didn’t take. Yet he did a fine job, believe me—”.  On 1 July 1928 Pound wrote Zukofsky: “/// Re/ the Bill Wms. I have merely deleted 4 lines. Any further emendations HE chooses to make, might be added to mss. (or deleted from same) before it goes to press) . . . Bill seems please[d] with the way you have edited his mss.” 

The Descent of Winter, one of the first results of collaboration between “Objectivists,” is important not only to the relationship between Williams and Zukofsky, but to the history of the “Objectivist” movement. Editing Williams’ work for Pound must have taught Zukofsky or confirmed in him the poetic values which Pound and Williams had developed from their innovations in the second decade of the 20th Century. 

The Descent of Winter remains in the journal format in which Williams wrote it; each piece is dated, beginning “9/27” (27 September 1927) and ending “12/18” (18 December 1927). These dates, as Webster Schott notes, “literally document Williams’ title. Winter was coming.”  Williams had just turned 45 and felt the descent personally; however, in his work, corresponding to the archetype of Kora in Hell which was rooted in his psyche, he found Persephone’s blessings in the imagination’s revitalizing of physical perception, in the spontaneous creations of his mind, and in his old mother’s memories of her childhood in Mayaguez. These blessings countered his disgust with the death he felt of art and culture. The central concern of his attempted revitalization was writing itself. His restoration of the problems of art and culture to the writer’s poetic discipline proved to be characteristic of “Objectivism.” Williams attacked the death of his art by experimenting with form and content, and by directly attacking the problems before him either metaphorically (9/30 “There are no perfect waves— / Your writings are a sea / . . .”) or critically (11/1 “Introduction / in almost all verse you read, mine or anybody’s else, . . .”).

The work opens with two poems, “9/27” and “9/29,” both of which present objects at that time new to poetry. “9/27” (printed in quotation marks and italics) expresses a man’s elation at discovering the underwear he had long taken for granted. “9/29” focuses on the oval celluloid disc in Williams’ sleeping cabin which identified the “No. 2” berth. The form of each poem is uniquely adapted to its feeling, and the feeling is a direct response to the object:

My bed is narrow
in a small room
at sea

“9/30” begins Williams’ direct confrontation with the problems of writing. His language like the sea is imperfect—broken, restless, monotonous, and uninhabitable. But perhaps in it is “a coral island slowly / slowly forming and waiting / for birds to drop the seeds.”

Subsequent entries are seeds, some of which fall on fertile ground. “10/23” begins a long section of free-form prose which reveals Williams’ refusal to take the marksman’s properly rigid stance but also shows his ability sometimes to hit the mark. He begins by declaring: “I will make a big, serious portrait of my time,” which is only partly ironic. It will be like the Aztec calendar which survives its cheap Mexican imitation. As in the opening of Spring and All, Williams felt that poetic excellence repels idiots but suffers because of its nakedness:

. . . the art of writing is to do work so excellent that by its excellence it repels all idiots but idiots are like leaves and excellence of any sort is a tree when the leaves fall the tree is naked and the wind thrashes it till it howls it cannot get a book published it can only get poems into certain magazines that are suppressed . . .

Williams howled when his work lost its leaves as winter descended. He felt his poems in the world were like seeds drowning in gasoline.

Yet inherent in their construction is “the great law”: that care for quality, for integrity of materials, is love:

. . . and all I say brings to mind the rock shingles of Cherbourg, on the new houses they have put cheap tile which overlaps but the old roofs had flat stone sides steep but of stones fitted together and that is love there is no portrait without that [that] has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it every day.

Love is the attention which creates objects that will not date or decay. It is an active and creative assertion of the value of the part of the whole, of the order which frees not only the creator’s energy but can free the energy of others and of the world. Zukofsky’s  natura naturans (nature creating rather than created) is such “love, whose proof in writing is “sincerity”. Williams’ concept of love is further elaborated in January: A Novelette. Here, he continued:

But there is a great law over him which—is as it is. The wind blowing, the mud spots on the polished surface, the face reflected in the glass which as you advance the features disappear leaving only the hat and as you draw back . . .

Attention to the effects of “the great law” revealed to Williams the relevance of the birth of Dolores Marie Pischak in Fairfield, September 1927, which he celebrated in “10/28.” Her birth killed the decency and order that obstruct creation and writing. She was a seed dropped to germinate on a coral island; she was Williams’ “hero,” and so her portrait is the portrait of his time:

born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs. 2 ozs. The hero is Dolores Marie Pischak, the place Fairfield, in my own state, my own country, its largest city, my own time. This is her portrait: O future worlds, this is her portrait —order be God damned. Fairfield is the place where the October marigolds go over into the empty lot with dead grass like Polish children’s hair and the nauseous, the stupefying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything—dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong.

Williams abolished in his creation the order in her birth love abolished. Poetic liberation established for the “Objectivist” a political liberation. Williams became free from the loveless and pleasureless monotony of the suburbs:

Oh, blessed love where are you there, pleasure given out, order triumphant, one house like another, grass cut to pay lovelessly. Bored we turn to cars to take us to “the country” to “nature” to breathe her good air. Jesus Christ. To nature. It’s about time, for most of us.

Nature is disorderly. To order is to drive out pleasure and health: “A cat licking herself solves most of the problems of infection. We wash too much and finally it kills us.” Writing must reveal the vivid “truth of the object” without attempting to order it, to clean it up; it must experience the poverty and dirtiness of nature without comparing it to something else:

and the late, high growing red rose

it is their time

of a small garden

poetry should strive for nothing else, this vividness alone, per se, for itself. The realization of this has its own internal fire that is “like” nothing. Therefore the bastardy of the simile. That thing, the vividness which is poetry by itself, makes the poem. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem. This is modern, not the saga. There are no sagas”*only trees now, animals, engines: There’s that.

The thing itself reveals the whole of which it is a part, as synecdoche. The universal is in the particular, the idea in the thing. This became the ultimate justification of “Objectivist” sincerity—their emphasis on concrete and specific particulars, their distrust of abstraction and generality.  In The Descent of Winter, “Russia is every country,” and in “A Morning Imagination of Russia,” a man frees himself of everything (sleep, cities, walls, rooms, elevators, files, fashion, shaving) that comes between himself and the earth and sky.

Williams’ love is a development of Keats’s negative capability. Both react against the rationality that interferes with creativity. “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” Just as Keats felt the setting sun always set him to rights “—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel,” so Williams praised Shakespeare’s “mean ability to fuse himself with everyone which nobodies have . . . that is what made him the great dramatist.“

“11/13 SHAKESPEARE” continues this argument, and here, where Williams described the “unemployable world” of Shakespeare’s mind outlasting those destroyed by their artificiality, it is clear that Shakespeare’s virtue applies as well to Williams. The “scaffolding of the academic, which is a ‘lie’ in that it is inessential to the purpose as to the design,” and the “defense of the economists and modern rationalists of literature” are done away with by “intelligence . . . subjected to the instinctive whole,” by the poet who “lives because he sinks back . . . into the mass.”

The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them—clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.

God—Sure if it makes sense. “God” is poetic for the unobtainable. Sense is hard to get but it can be got. Certainly that destroys “God,” it destroys everything that interferes with simple clarity of apprehension.

To sense the plain core of the facts and the natural “stores of the mind” is difficult but not impossible. This core is not therefore transcendental but immanent. Creation from this “simple clarity” is freer from the perverse, inane, oppressive, cheap, and “fragmentary stupidity of modern life.”

“Genius” is realizing this intense clarity: “It is to see the track, to smell it out, to know it inevitable—sense sticking out all round feeling, feeling, seeing—hearing touching.” Genius is the corollary to “the great law” of love. Great art is the product of this genius. The dramatist must identify “situations of the soul (Lear, Harpagon, Oedipus Rex, Electra)” so closely with life “that they become people,” and he must identify so closely with these people that the drama comes to life. “But to labor over the ’construction’ over the ’technique’ is to defeat, to tie up the drama itself. One cannot live after a prearranged pattern, it is all simply dead.” The theater is dead unless the actor does more than mimic the script, and unless the script does more than mimic the life. To be scrupulously realistic, to copy the prearranged pattern, kills the life. “The painfully scrupulous verisimilitude which honesty affects drill, discipline defeats its own ends in—”. Creation depends on the subject as well as the object; life depends on author as well as nature.

Shakespeare’s ability to “live,” like Williams’ ability to “love,” was to escape the rational inhibitions and inane imperfections of language and of the world for the full realization, in the mind and in the senses, of the vivid truth of the object. The Descent of Winter therefore established the “Objectivist” solution of political and personal problems as a poetic concerned with registering “clarity of apprehension” in terms of facts objectified by a structure within which both the human psyche and the shared world participate.

From Tom Sharp’s The Objectivists.


The entirety of Tom Sharp’s scholarly appraisal is available at The Objectivists with all the attendant footnotes and proper permissions.


Tom Sharp is the author of numerous books, including Spectacles from Taurean Horn Press, and a member of Seldovia Village Tribe.  He was a student of David Bromige’s at Sonoma State University and studied with Albert Gelpi at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D.  He is retired from IBM where he was a writer and programmer, and currently lives in Seattle.

 

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Bill & Lou, Part I

Zukofsky and Williams 

By Tom Sharp
(excerpted from The Objectivists)

The extent of the friendship and mutual influence of Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams is not sufficiently known. Williams’ autobiography records that the two were “good friends” but not that they read and criticized each other’s work with interest and a sense of common purpose from the day they met until Williams died. Critics fail to acknowledge the importance of Zukofsky and “Objectivism” to Williams and his work because they do not know the facts. Webster Schott, for example, fails to credit Zukofsky for editing The Descent of Winter for Pound’s Exile and A Novelette and Other Prose for the Oppens’ To Publishers.

Pound’s letter of 5 March 1928 suggested that Zukofsky meet Williams: “Re/ private life: Do go down an’ stir up ole Bill Willyums, 9 Ridge Rd. Rutherford (W. C. Williams M.D.) and tell him I tole you. He is still the best human value on my murkin. visiting list.” It also enlisted Zukofsky’s service as editor: “I shd. be inclined to print anything of Bill Wm’s that you picked out. Editing ought really to be done by the young (?? what/ d– age are you) not by the senile or even by the mature. -eh- save for the purpose of commerce.” Pound was 42; Williams, 44; Zukofsky, 23. Zukofsky responded to this on 20 March 1928 by noting that he had written Williams and Cummings and that, meaningfully, his previous letter to Pound, which crossed Pound’s in the mail, had expressed interest in meeting Williams.

Williams replied to Zukofsky on 23 March, beginning: “My dear Zukofsky: By ’human values’ I suppose Ezrie means that in his opinion I can’t write. Dammit, who can write, isolated as we all find ourselves and robbed of the natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments?” Apparently mistaking Zukofsky’s role as editor, Williams wrote: “So you are responsible for Exile now. Is that so?” Since Zukofsky came “with an introduction from my old friend,” Williams invited him to Rutherford “for a country meal and a talk.”

Zukofsky

Zukofsky wrote that he could visit Saturday, but Williams countered on 28 March that he would “not be home this Saturday evening” but that he could meet Zukofsky “in the city” after “being interviewed — at five o’clock by some stranger.”  The two met, then, on 1 April 1928. Williams remembered in his autobiography that “one day I met Louis Zukofsky in the city after I had been sketched for a caricature by a person named Hoffman. Louis and I became good friends.” This friendship brought Zukofsky to Rutherford in April, and repeatedly thereafter, affording, as Pound observed, “some pleasure and consolation” to them both.

The facts of William Carlos Williams’ life are well-known. He was born 17 September 1883. Although, as Mike Weaver wrote, “He was half English, one-quarter Basque, and one-quarter Jewish,” he is known for his insistence on the value of the American language and locale. Like Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Rakosi, his American values were not inherited; they were earned.

Williams met his life-long friend Ezra Pound while he was in medical school and Pound was in graduate school studying romance languages. Pound involved him in the free verse movement. His job as a general practitioner with specialties in pediatrics and obstetrics left him little time for his main passion, his writing. In 1928 he was feeling the lack of recognition that should normally come to a writer of his merit in middle age. He felt isolated. Attention from other writers more than flattered him; it provided the “natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments.”

Of the years following his return from Europe in 1924, he remembered:

These were the lush Republican years when money flourished like skunk cabbages in the swamps in April. . . .

Damn it, the phone ringing again. . . . That was Mr. Taylor who said excitedly, You never wrote a poem in your life, Doc. What you write is prose, like Shakespeare.

when Doc. K. was selling week-ends at two hundred dollars a shot, complete: liquor, keep and a woman guaranteed; and when stupidity had no measure.

Mr. Taylor’s stupidity makes his criticism into praise. Coolidge prosperity did not improve the intelligence or integrity of Williams’ contemporaries. “Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found.” In these years, Williams banged off his work between patients. “Then would come the trial. The poem would be submitted to some random editor, or otherwise meet its fate in the world. I would observe that fate and so come to judge the intelligence of my contemporaries.”

Zukofsky swiftly became Williams’ special editor and critic, extending the care taken between Williams’ creation and submission. His first visits left Williams with suggestions for cutting deadwood from his first novel, A Voyage to Pagany, which was in progress and would be published in September 1928. Williams wrote to Zukofsky on 17 May 1928: “What you had to say about the novel did me much good. I felt that you had hit on some very raw spots. Oh well, I can’t quite bring myself to throw the thing away though I wanted to do so after you had left.”  And, on 25 June 1928, after working on it, Williams added that “the book looks about as presentable as I can make it. I cut out a lot about the Rhine! which should give you a special pleasure.”

Williams’ novel was based on his trip to Europe with his wife in 1924. When in Vienna, as he described it in Chapter XXVI, titled “Bach,” he attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Soon after their first meeting, Zukofsky invited Williams to attend with him a performance of the Passion at Carnegie Hall. Williams could not make it. His letter of regret on 2 April 1928 attested to the importance of this new friendship:

This has been a pleasure, the reading of your poem. You make me want to carry out deferred designs. Don’t take my theories too seriously. They are not for you–or for you, of course, or anybody.

I’d give my shirt to hear the Matthaus “Passion” this week, but I doubt if it can be done. If I do get there in spite of everything, I’ll cast an eye around for you.

But your work’s the thing. It encourages me in my designs. Makes me anxious to get at my notes and the things (thank God) which I did not tell the gentlemen. Thanks for the supper. As soon as work lightens a bit for me here in the suburbs, I want you to come out. I congratulate Pound on his luck in finding you. You are another nail in the –coffin. Damn fools.

It is likely that Williams and Zukofsky had read together “Poem beginning ’The,’” Zukofsky explaining its allusions and structure and Williams, as he suggested, extemporizing poetic theory. Already Williams had found Zukofsky to be a compatriot and perhaps a disciple in his struggle against the “damn fools” who did not accept the value of his work.

Zukofsky went to the Passion alone; “A”-1 is his reaction to the performance:

The Passion According to Matthew,
Composed seventeen twenty-nine,
Rendered at Carnegie Hall,
Nineteen twenty-eight,
Thursday evening, the fifth of April.

“As a matter of fact,” Celia Zukofsky remembered, “the poem ‘A started out as a letter to William Carlos Williams.” The Passion became one of the themes for this work, whose 24 movements took Zukofsky the next 46 years to complete:

“A”
of a life
—and a time

 Bach is a theme all thru the poem, the music first heard in 1928 affecting the recurrences or changes as may be of the story or history.

Zukofsky referred in “A”-1 to A Voyage to Pagany directly and indirectly. The lines “I heard him agonizing, / I saw him inside” are unchanged from their occurrence at the end of “Bach” chapter, where they form the thought of Williams’ protagonist, Evans, after the performance in Vienna, and refer to Bach empathizing with Christ. Further, Zukofsky’s vision of Bach hurrying to church, “Ah, there’s the Kapellmeister / in a terrible hurry— / Johann Sebastian, twenty-two / children!” reflects Williams’: “Funny old figure he must have been going across the street after having generated another child in the night.”

Williams’ letter to Zukofsky on Easter expresses his feeling of direct relation between himself and Zukofsky:

Williams

I did not wish to be twenty years younger and surely I did not wish to be twenty years older. I was happy to find a link between myself and another wave of it. Sometimes one thinks the thing has died down. I believe that somehow you have benefited by my work. Not that you have even seen it fully but it proves to me (God Damn this machine) that the thing moves by a direct relationship between men from generation to generation. And that no matter how we may be ignored, maligned, left unnoticed, yet by doing straight-forward work we do somehow reach the right people.

Williams’ feeling is confirmed by a consideration of the importance of the two other topics in his letter in the history of their work and association. First, Williams expressed curiosity and regret, having missed the performance of the Matthew’s “Passion.” Such interest had already inspired the beginning of Zukofsky’s life’s work, “A”. Secondly, Williams claimed:

There must be an American magazine. As I have gotten older, I am less volatile over projects such as this (a magazine) less willing to say much but more determined to make a go of it finally—after I am 70 perhaps—. Perhaps it will crystalize soon.

Williams and Zukofsky continued in the years that followed to be interested in publishing the “straightforward work” which others ignored.

Williams was temporarily rescued from the need to begin a new magazine by a request from Pound that he help with the “Exile”. Williams responded on 16 April 1928:

Pound

Dear Ezra: Your present letter rescued me from an oozy hell. Your offer is generous. I hereby give up any thought of a new magazine. Within two weeks I’ll let you know what kind of material—what kind of impetus it is that has been stirring in me. If you feel impelled to give me a whole number of Exile when you have the material in hand, well and good. But I’ll be content with as much space as comes my way. 

But it is a delight to me to feel a possible bond of workmanship being exercised between us today. Damn it, why don’t–why didn’t I seek you sooner? Exile is a good venture; let me from now on really throw my energy into it—not for my name or for myself in any way, but just to do it. I’ll do it. For a year at least I’ll shower you with anything I can rustle up or squeeze out. I want to. I need to. I have felt sometimes of late that I am sinking forever.

Williams again referring to Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The,’” in Exile 3, was perhaps one of the reasons he considered Exile “a good venture.”

This is just to accept your offer. More later. I heartily support your judgment of Zukofsky’s excellence (in the one poem at least) and he seems worthwhile personally.


The entirety of Tom Sharp’s scholarly appraisal is available at The Objectivists with all the attendant footnotes and proper permissions.


Tom Sharp is the author of numerous books, including Spectacles from Taurean Horn Press, and a member of Seldovia Village Tribe.  He was a student of David Bromige’s at Sonoma State University and studied with Albert Gelpi at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D.  He is retired from IBM where he was a writer and programmer, and currently lives in Seattle.

 

 

 

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How To Write A Preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Carl—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required

Bill Berkson’s “Memoir In Pieces” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading:

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

 

 

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Poetry Is A Crowded Room

Poetry Is A Crowded Room

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whadyamean?”

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

Wendt made to pass through the door.

“And remember, don’t flush!”

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

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

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

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

“You ok?” Wendt offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Waiters?”

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

“I don’t think I follow you.”

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

“That must be discouraging.”

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

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

“You mean like altruism?”

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

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

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

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

“You must know everyone here.”

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

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

“Did Heraclitus really say that?”

“I’m paraphrasing.”

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

“Someone else you’re surprised to see?”

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

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

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

“What oldie but goody is she with you?”

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

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

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

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


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


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

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Bromige Immortalized!

The Immortalization Of David Bromige

by Steven Lavoie

“The Prelude”

The Immortal Broms

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bronze”

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

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

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

The Intrepid Vartnaw

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

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

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

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

if wants to be the same

the same as is

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

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

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

“The Book”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresco Frieze: Professors, Poets & Editors

 

“The World Tour”

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


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

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