Lost And Found In Translation

Lost And Found In Translation

By Pat Nolan

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

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

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


man’s hypothetic double
out the door




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




                        little shit
                        bound to be


Histoires Naturelles

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

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






            sky etching
            word shifting


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

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


be cause 

            the abyss of your beliefs

turns up
            under your   tailbone


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


 the  pin



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


polymorphously perverse
irrational liturgical essence  

eyeball   things
persistence of the visual                    


     I am


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

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


           the beck of wistfulness 


      drinking her fill of 

                              her full  



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


testament of an eviscerated

           die white
    in the washed out dawn of an


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

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



squirrels ranged between two

   etched     desire


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



earthshaking perfume 

asleep among your veins 

                              a different


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

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



               spruce beer breath
              your Verlainian  speech


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

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


Staccato tacca stac
   ur love 

olive grove tracts
behind your partisan 



Robert Hébert

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



 rue de la vistule

 love rages
in the dizzying

street address
                    of your



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


The least of our humble stock

 for their exceptional
              shapely distinction


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


                    impartial galaxy 

        refreshing the spit stream 

to be born again



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

Select bibliography of publications by Robert Hébert

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



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now be clay in the ground

now be clay in the ground

by Mark Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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Gary Snyder’s Myths & Text

Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts
by Keith Kumasen Abbott

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

Some History 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at the Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Texts Evolve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Gary Snyder inserted a few words to create runaway emotions.

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

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

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

8: 5: 06


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

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The [Attempted] Assassination of Ted Berrigan

The [Attempted] Assassination of Ted Berrigan

(researched & compiled by the Z-D Generation
originally published in Life Of Crime in 1985)

“Why is it that seven out of ten years San Francisco is a boring poetry scene, and now it’s hotter than New York, and why is it that the most obnoxious people are the energizers of the whole scene?”  –Ted Berrigan, 80 Langton Street, June 1981

Ted Berrigan, c. 1981

In June of 1981, Ted Berrigan was writer-in-residence at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco. On the first night Berrigan read and talked about his first major book, The Sonnets.  The second night featured a talk entitled The Last Word On The New York School, to wit: “If Bill Berkson is New York School, the rest of us are New York Reform School.”  The third might was taken up with a panel convened to discuss the topic, “What Are You Making?”  The final night consisted of Berrigan reading from recent work.  This was a usual enough program at this south of Market emporium of avant-garde art & literature.  Just below the surface however there seethed a conspiracy marked by jealousy, self-righteousness, and infantile anxiety.

Berrigan’s opening remarks make it clear that he realized he was in the same fix as Caesar on the Capitol steps or JFK in Dallas when he spoke, “I stand in the dock in judgment, condemned. . . .” As the residency progressed attempts were made to discredit Berrigan and to undermine his position as a major figure in contemporary American poetry.  There were two such coups de claques attempted, one on the evening of the talk and the other on the evening of the panel.  To his credit, Berrigan ignored them both.  At the end of his four days, he left the residency at 80 Langston Street with new respect from all but a very few.  It is indeed unfortunate then that the final word on this important literary event has been left in the hands of the very few who could easily be deemed antagonistic toward the late great poet’s esthetic.

80 Langton Street, as part of its art program, commissions a descriptive narrative of each of its residencies and then publishes them in a yearly compilation in catalog format as documentation of the events.  The 1981 edition features a description of Ted Berrigan’s that literally drips with condescension.

“When Ted Berrigan took to the rostrum to begin the four day residency at 80 Langton Street this past June, it was the actual start of an event that had already been taking place psychologically for some time, given all the anticipation, excitement, rumor, and resentment that only the arrival of a major figure can engender.  This first, and final, fourth night were reserved for readings by Berrigan, a well-conceived bracketing for the residence, a gesture reiterating the primacy of the work amid a flurry of official and unofficial conversation about to ensue.  However, a definitive accomplishment at 80 Langton’s series of residencies has been the public interchange among serious writers about issues in their work.  Berrigan’s ambivalence about this element of the series was not the only thing soon apparent.  His informal yet highly revealing introduction to the first public reading of the entire Sonnets became a microcosm of the residence and perhaps Berrigan’s esthetic approach in general.  Rather than the straight-forward, clearly-stated goals, interests, and principles that the Langton audience has come to expect from its residents, it became apparent that Ted Berrigan doesn’t care to articulate his poetic so much as embody it.  Additionally, the issues raised by this introduction include those of autobiography and personality in post-modern writing, issues which came to dominate the residency, and these issues were raised, typically, not by confrontation but by constant reference to them in a de facto manner.”

If one is to believe the innuendo, Berrigan failed to live up to the pretentions of this arts organization’s over-ambitious expectations.  Berrigan is “ambivalent” meaning that he would not be drawn into the obscurantist foolishness.  Besides, only the pompous and pretentious would ever concern themselves with such things as “the public interchange among serious writers about issues in their work.”  And since it was, after all, Berrigan’s residency, he was certainly free to call the shots.  Then it is inferred that Berrigan disappointed the audience.  Berrigan was not “straight-forward,” he had no “clearly-stated goals, interests or principles.”   And, of course this was done purposely because “Berrigan does not care to articulate his poetic.” The veiled hostility of this paragraph is indicative of an attitude Ted Berrigan encountered during this residency.

For the author of the document, and undoubtedly this is a collective opinion. Berrigan was not “text-book perfect” enough in his presentation.  He was not pedantic enough to satisfy their anxious anality.  He was too personal, relying on (horror of horrors!) autobiography to inform the audience of his intent.  But then being Ted Berrigan was never having to say what you were expected to say.  Hence he left himself wide open for such gratuitous judgments as “This is not to imply that this (the opening remarks) was wholly inappropriate” which serves to imply exactly that.  He is also subject to pronouncements such as “Berrigan can never be more than an observer of his peer community exchange, no matter how important his work is, by the simple fact of age” and “The audience is being coerced into dealing with the theatrical nature of any public self-presentation.” It is very doubtful that anyone there felt that they were being coerced.  As Berrigan himself said, “I’m not trying to impress anybody with my story, I’m just talking about myself to inform insights into my work.”  Another judgment doubts the success of the residency: “Perhaps the choice of an historical, retrospective cast to the residence was a planning error.”  To paraphrase John Cage: what plan, what error?

This judgmental attitude is typical of the tiny minds that operate this petty little piece of poetry turf.  Ted Berrigan was a great poet with a personal sense of his own importance, and rightly, a sense of his place in the pantheon of American poetry.  This particular self-awareness was begrudged him as an egotistical affectation and was the cause of much resentment on the part of the envious few. He had a true sense of his own worth, and it was entirely unpretentious and honest.  This very honesty and revealing self-appraisal is what is being attacked in this narrative as it was during the residency.  Why, if for not some trivial, self-serving end, were these tactics even employed?  There are not many poets who had such a sincere presence as Ted Berrigan.  He was an artist whose belief in himself and his art was positively inspiring.  He was his art and his art was him.

The first attempt at the disruption occurred on the evening of the talk on the New York School.  Berrigan was reading from a piece entitled “Talking” when he was interrupted by a member of the audience who demanded that he paraphrase what he had just read.  This was clearly harassment.  Berrigan ignored the question and went on talking in a casual, conversational, even rambling fashion, about the experiential value of being alive as opposed to being buried in a book, dead to the world.  The heckler persisted, however, demanding answers to such questions as “How do you relate your post-Sonnet work to the fact of The Sonnets?  Are there constant new frontiers?”  To which Berrigan responded, “Can you put that in fewer words?

Ted was continually barraged with demands that he fit his answers into a prescribed mode, that he get “intellectual” and come on like he had no emotional attachment to his own writing.  Berrigan objected to the inferences that all writing could be fit into some preset linguistic formula as a test to its “rightness” or originality.  He also admitted that “maybe newness isn’t all that important right now anyway.”  He expressed the fear that some kind of moral litmus test was being devised by the so-called “language” school to root out and kill, literarily, those who did not prove positive, a possibility he alluded to as waiting to happen to him in the wings.  He was bothered by the perceptible arrogance and closed minds of a particular faction who were attempting to restrict the field of poetic experience with gratuitous, qualitative judgments. “No mode is ever closed down or used up, only the writers who use them,” he said.

The tone of the third night was set when one of the panelists was taken aside by another, more partisan member and told that they had to stick together and not take any of Ted’s “bullshit.”  The fix was in.  The documentation, however, continues in its biased assessment, apologizing and making excuses for the inept intellectualization of one of the panel’s members, claiming that he did not feel comfortable “showcasing” himself (a likely story), and instead “took the opportunity to raise the issue of the meaning of self , and the values attached to that meaning, especially in terms of contemporary writing’s agenda.”  This approach was certainly more in line with what the narrator, and apparently the arts organization, had in mind.  It unfortunately, with its incredibly dull, self-congratulatory smugness, had the effect of putting the audience into a stupor from which it was seldom roused, except for two instances, the whole evening.  After offering what can only be termed as pseudo-Freudian, Marxist encounter group half-baked Jesuit didacticism, the panelist ended his “prepared presentation with a reading of one of his works, one which exemplified (his) concerns (at least for himself), if not so clearly for the audience.” 

As panels go, this particular one can be said to have represented a fair cross-section of the various esthetics and attitudes towards poetry that were currently prevalent.  Each panelist presented a prepared piece with the exception of Berrigan who spoke extemporaneously.  There followed an intermission.  The second instance of disruption occurred as soon as the panel resumed for what was ostensibly a question and answer period.  However, the continued insistence of the one panelist to make value judgments and pronouncements only served to kill the discussion with overly ponderous assumptions and presuppositions. The unwieldiness of such cumbersome notions had the effect of grinding the whole proceedings to a halt which then degenerated into a Babel of shouted opinion (from the audience) and counter-opinion (among same and some panelists).  The evening, for all intents and purposes, had been sabotaged by a perverse, selfish, single-mindedness out to prove a point.  The narrator, however, clearly sides with these verbose tactics.  As Berrigan said during the evening of the talk, “Only you agree with me Darrell (Gray)? Then I’m afraid we’re in trouble.”

The description of the final night should be quoted in full as an example of smug, condescending dismissal.

“Berrigan gave a thirty minute reading before some 45 people the last night of his residency.  After all the talk of the recent days hearing Berrigan’s mature and confident new poems reminded those of us in the audience of the reason we had gathered together.  A master poet was up there, best alone reading his work. 

The quotidian was much in evidence, from gossip and the required references and dedications to friends, to great humor and rage.  His final poem was a ‘troubadour love poem’ written in response to another poem written by someone else about Berrigan.  Its concern with his public self, and its searing funny lyricism provided an appropriate end to the residence.”

Considering the time spent plugging the esthetic of a bunch of tight-assed Protestant drones, the consideration given Ted Berrigan’s brilliant, triumphant final evening is unspeakable arrogance and insult.  It is an attempt at literary assassination which with its repressive half truths almost succeed in making it seem that Ted Berrigan’s was a failure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Z-D Generation takes its name from Z-D GENERATION, a manifesto by poet Edward Sanders. Taking Emile Zola and Denis Diderot as heroes of precise protest, accurate investigation, and intelligent infiltration, he names a new Generation capable of overcoming its enemies and organizing its energies, all in the interest of guarding life and creating a new civilization.

Parole Officer Addendum:

The collected newsletters of The Black Bart Poetry Society were published in 2010 by Poltroon Press as Life Of Crime, Dispatches from the Guerrilla War on Language Poetry.  This article appeared in the August, 1985 issue of Life Of Crime, Number: Not Again! Volume: What Next? edited by Pat Nolan and Steven Lavoie, co-technicians of the obscure. While the button down figurative assassins were certainly deserving of the vitriolic wedgie at the hands of the Z-D Generation, their bias against the college crowd elite is perhaps keener than it should have been.  But as Andrei Codrescu said, it was a fine piece of “hepatic journalism.”  And it was “simply a fact of age.”


from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, page 632


From  notes to The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California Press, 2005):

At 80 Langton Street (S.F.) Dated “1 Dec 83 NYC,” this poem was also one Ted never typed up but left to exist only on a postcard.  It was transcribed by Bill Berkson, to whom the Mikolowskis finally sent the card.  The poem refers to a four day residency by Ted, at the San Francisco arts center, 80 Langton Street, in 1981, where Hollo, Thomas, and Acker had held previous residencies.  There was a clash between Ted and the Language Poets, thus the final word “Duck.”

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Bathroom Art Galleries

Bathroom Art Galleries

Reflections on Broadsides, Poem Cards
and Literary Artifacts of The 70’s and 80’s
by Pat Nolan

The bathrooms in these transient student garrets served as galleries of an equally transient art thumbtacked to the water stained walls becoming themselves water stained, pin holed, snail tracked, foxed, and smudged, not worth much except as bookmarks for memories.

Went looking for something.  Couldn’t find it. It was gone or put someplace where it won’t be found.  Found other things in the mess of pulling out and putting back.  A stash of broadsides and poem cards dating from the late 60’s/early 70’s and 80’s wrapped loosely in a cardboard carapace fell from where I was wedging something back in.  They were items I had not seen in quite some time though I immediately recognized them for what they were and where they had fit into my life those many years ago.  They were bathroom art.

I lived in some low rent student ghetto accommodations attending college on the GI Bill, from a rooming house on Cannery Row to an early century former dry goods store converted to a duplex with a water closet (literarily) and shared tenant shower.  This was in Monterey, late 60’s.  In Oakland in the ’70 I lived in a tiny (tiny) apartment that leaked water along the bottom of the bedroom wall.  Later, while attending Sonoma State University (then merely a college), one kitchen wall in the country rental leaked streams of water from above the windows.  All had in common small dismal bathrooms with rusty accessories, moldy showers, and peeling paint.  To liven up the squalid monotony, I hung posters and handbills announcing protests, gatherings, music festivals, poetry readings, and various kinds of literary ephemera held in place by a thumbtack or a strip of tape.  The bathrooms in these transient student garrets served as galleries of an equally transient art thumbtacked to the water stained walls becoming themselves water stained, pin holed, snail tracked, foxed, and smudged, not worth much except as bookmarks for memories.

The resurgence of letterpress art and craft printing of the late 60’s and early 70’s and the esthetic of the poem on the page found an outlet in the counterculture literary world and was brought to a peak of excellence with David Hazelwood’s Auerhahn Press, and Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press, to name just a few in the Bay Area.  Following the letterpress approach of esthetically pleasing production were Holbrook Teter’s Zephyrus Image, also of San Francisco, Allan Kornblum’s Toothpaste Press out of Iowa City, and Ken Michelowski’s Alternative Press from Grindstone City, Michigan.  They were not the only ones involved in reviving the art of fine handset printing by producing exquisite limited edition poetry books, but they were the ones I had most frequent contact with—the tip of the iceberg perhaps, but certainly a fine representation.  In the process or as a byproduct of these carefully crafted literary editions, broadsides and poem cards were also printed for special or whimsical occasions—the Richard Nixon Memorial Flyswatter from Zephyrus Image being just one example—and freely disseminated to all who would care to have one.  I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time or on the right mailing list to be on the receiving end of a lot of literary ephemera, some of which I chose, in my wild and no less impetuous youth, to pin to the wall as a badge of my literary cred or just plain good luck.

Item 1

Dublin—wood or linoleum print, red ink, 5×8 (12.7×20.32cm) on print paper by artist Bob Duvall, c.1969, Monterey, CA.  Bob was the art editor for the student literary magazine at Monterey Peninsula College for which I edited two issues.  The magazine had previously been known as e.g.  The first year I changed the name to The Brand New Testament.  The second year I renamed it Dog Bite after an incident on campus.  Instead of a saddle stitch offset edition from a local job printer, I brought the material for two issues to be letterpress printed and produced by Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press as a portfolio of broadsheets.  Bob said the image was supposed to be James Joyce.  I always thought it looked like me.  I used to have those kinds of sideburns.  Note pinhole top center.

 Item 2

A Cranium Press Free Poem  4×5 (10.16×12.7cm) printed offset when Cranium Press was located on Schrader Street in the Haight, included as an insert for Hollow Orange 4 edited by Clifford Burke, ‘67/’68.  Referred to as “You are a great. . .” or the Cindy Riedel poem, it is a reproduction of Steve Carey’s scrawl along with the picture of a high school girlfriend.  Steve lived one block over on Stanyan Street.  I partied there once after the Richard Brautigan happening at Glide Memorial.  Lew Welch showed up to deliver a sermon.  Bill Bathurst and I unintentionally traded eye glasses. But that’s another story.  I’m just glad he wasn’t Robert Creeley.  The three holes at the top indicate that this item had occupied at least that many postings and from the water stains, likely in bathrooms.

Item 3

Things To Do Today, Ted Berrigan, placard, 5.25×9 (13.33×22.86cm), offset, early 70’s, signed (or facsimile?).   I was publishing a mimeo poetry magazine, the end (& variations thereof), out of my apartment in Oakland at the time.  I had solicited some poems from Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley which I published in the second issue, The Living End.  Poetry magazines in those days were mediums of exchange.  Similar to a chain letter they generated a lot of interesting mail.  I began receiving items in the mail from Ted and people Ted knew.  This is one of them.  It has a single pinhole at the top center, and one to the right near the bottom.  I probably had it pinned to the wall near my typewriter and bookshelves (not a bathroom item).  The second hole indicates that I had overlapped another poetry artifact on to it, possibly the following item.

Item 4

Moroccan Variations, Clark Coolidge 3.5×20 (8.89×50.8cm),  printed on beige chrome stock at Cranium Press, commissioned by Bill Berkson for Big Sky in 1971.  Folded for storage.  Single tack hole at top testifies that it too occupied the space of my literary accouterments.  Coolidge was associated with the New York School poets and was one of a group of young poets published by Harper & Row back then.  The other two I remember were Dick Gallup and Tom Clark.



Item 5

Playing It Out, Charles Bukowski, 5×7.5 (12.7×19.05cm), letterpress on dark green stock by Toothpaste Press, printed for Bookslinger at the ABA, Dallas, 1983.  A fine example of Allan Kornblum’s presswork.  Another item that found its way to my mailbox, this time at my permanent abode along the Russian River.  Not pinned so an odd piece that ended up in that bundle.




Item 6

After Ling Ching Chao, Anne Waldman 5.75×10.25 (14.6×26.03cm), letterpress on rag paper, faint watermark imprint of eagle feather (?).  From Anne Waldman’s Toothpaste Press book, Make Up on Empty Space.  Printed for 9th New York Book Fair, May 1983.  Number 88 of 175.  Probably arrived in the mail with the previous item, and another example of fine press work.





Item 7

The Woman & The Child Disguised, Jean Follain, 6×11 (15.24×27.94cm), letterpress on light coffee stock, printed in the Collins Street basement at Cranium Press for an Open Printing Saturday on a Vandercook Proof  Press, design and execution by Clifford Burke, c.1971  One of my early Jean Follain  (1903-1971) translations (more of an approximations).  Three pinholes, water stains, and snail track.  Obviously a mainstay in the bathroom art gallery.




Item 8

Spel Against Demons, Gary Snyder, 11.25×17.25 (28.57×43.81cm) printed letterpress at Cranium Press, 1971.  From the pinholes in each corner and water stained edges likely occupied a central position in every one of my bathrooms from the time of its acquisition.  Folded for storage.





Item 9

Fourth of July, Mary Norbert Korte, 7×13 (17.78×33.02cm), printed letterpress by Holbrook Teter as a Hermes Free Poem, 4 July 1970.  Clifford Burke trained Holbrook Teter on the platen press and linotype machine at his shop on Collins during the production of the two issues of the literary magazine from Monterey Peninsula College in ’69 and ’70.  Holbrook along with the artist Michael Myer went on to found Zephyrus Image Press.  Hermes Free Press was an adjunct for the dissemination of free poems, broadsides, and literary ephemera.  Mary Norbert  Korte was an activist, poet, teacher, and a Catholic nun who found inspiration at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965.  Leaving the convent in 1968, she continued to write and teach poetry eventually moving from Berkeley to the redwood valleys of Mendocino County.


Item 10

Scenes Along The Road, Tom Clark, 6×12 (15.24×30.48cm), offset, a free poem from Seattle, May 1971 published by Michael Waiter’s Toothpick, Lisbon, and the Orcas Islands poetry magazine.  From the single pinhole this poem probably held a privileged place on the wall near my typewriter.  Arthur Akamura is undoubtedly the artist Arthur Okamura and places the composition during Mr. Clark’s residency in Bolinas, land of the lost poets. Pinhole at top center.




Item 11

Larry Fagin & Lewis Warsh reading at The Bishop’s Coffeehouse in Oakland, July 6, 1970.  8.5×11 (21.59×27.94cm) xeroxed on newsprint.  Pinholes and water stains testify to pride of place in the bathroom art gallery. For a brief time I hosted a reading series at The Bishop’s Coffeehouse in downtown Oakland. Bill Berkson, Scott Cohen, and Clive Matson were some of the poets who read for that series.  Larry Fagin was visiting Bolinas, the new watering hole and refuge for New York School poets—what Ed Sanders called a “psychedelic Peyton Place.”  Lewis Warsh was living down the road in Stinson Beach sharing a place with Tom Veitch.  Both poets eventually returned to live on the East Coast.

Item 12

Reading Flyer 8.5×11 (21.59×27.94cm)

Michael Brownstein & Anne Waldman reading at the Intersection, SF, Tuesday Sept 14, 1970 (?) 8.5×11 (21.59×27.94cm).  I recall this as a rather uneventful reading.  Michael and Anne both read well.  There was one heckler, however.  When Anne asked me afterwards if I knew who it was I told her, “Baudelaire.”  This was an early incursion of New York School poets into the Bay Area and they were not always well received by the entrenched Frisco poets, particularly the North Beach scene. The Tom Clark reading introduced by Ted Berrigan is a case in point.  The illustration looks to be by George Schneeman or someone imitating his minimalist style.  Tack holes at each corner and one in the top center as well as water stains easily places this item as a perennial in the gallery of humid air and ephemeral artifacts.

Item 13

Good Bye, Monte Rio, Michael-Sean Lazarchuk, scrap newsprint, 7.5×14 (19.05×35.56cm), Olympia table model (West German manufacture), black ribbon, signed and dated.  Left on the typewriter after one of Sean’s visits to Monte Rio in 1975.  I kept it pinned to the wall in my office where I could see it at a glance.  Sean made many visits to these environs after that date but this goodbye poem resonates with his lighthearted humanity years after his passing in 2008 and his abandoning the literary scene in the early 80’s.  If I were still tacking poems to the wall, this one would be the first to go up.



This odd assortment of ephemera, some examples of fine craft poetry printing, brought to mind events in which I participated and items I received from connecting with poets and presses with a stake in presenting the poem with finesse and craft on the page.  Unlike the pieces (shards more like) offered here, most are stored in archive bags in airtight containers, carefully set aside and valued for what they are, artifacts of a pre-digital style and esthetic.  Archived, however, they remain out of sight, out of mind.  It took a search for something quite unrelated to accidentally uncover this set of dusty forgotten literary relics and belatedly berate myself for not taking better care to preserve them.  Tacked to my walls they were a daily reminder of my involvement, even if only peripherally, in the Bay Area literary scene of the 70’s and 80’s.

Although most texts today reside in the electronic ether of cyberspace, the art of letterpress printing remains seductively tactile and has its fair share of practitioners unafraid to get their fingers smudged or delight in the precise bite of cold steel on fine paper.  Antique presses, such as the 18th Century Stanhope iron press, are salvaged and restored and put to work as the brilliantly uncomplicated machinery they are.  Words, sentences, stanzas, paragraphs, pages are painstakingly assembled at the type case by printers in inky aprons transfixed by the task at hand.

Digital texts and on demand printing allow for expedient egalitarian simulacra, some never moving beyond the pixel grid of a computer display, but they don’t hold a candle, even a battery powered one, to the printed object into which hours, a precious commodity, have been applied to the esthetically pleasing results of fine print artistry.  Fortunately there are still havens and refuges from the overshadowing digital noise where the tradition of letterpress printing continues its meaningful work.  I have to count myself fortunate to have among my correspondents and associates a few esthetes of the craft of ink and steel, and to have remained on the receiving end of their meticulous creations.  They are no longer tacked to the walls, and if hung at all, framed behind glass, not in the bathroom.

Here is a slideshow of the items if you’re not interested in scrolling through the text again.

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Pat Nolan’s most recent book of poems is Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017).  His poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in magazines and anthologies in North America, Europe, and Asia.  He is the author of numerous poetry selections and three novels.  A volume of selected poems is scheduled for release in early 2018.

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Snyder’s Cold Mountain

by Keith Kumasen Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waley version:

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

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

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

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

Snyder’s Version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Say, that sounds like you.”

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


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

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

Snyder made no such assumptions.

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

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

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Report: Scenes From Life

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

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

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

Fresh off the boat. Photo by Gary Snyder

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

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

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

Old Kyoto Hand

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

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

mockery trumpery pink chenille fuzz elephant baby mockery
trumpery trumpery mockery
monger                                  freeny-monger?                   fundle

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

Our main difficulty : fear and distrust of freedom

[ ]

Liberty in other hands is “license”


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

[ ]

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

[ ]

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

[ ]

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

[ ]

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

[ ]

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

[ ]

6th month, 1180

[ ]

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

[ ]

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

After Kyoto

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


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

Submitted to the Memebrship
by the Parole Officer

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