The NO HAT Lecture

THE NO HAT LECTURE: Kerouac’s Haiku
by Keith Kumasen Abbott

Jack Kerouac’s Book of Haikus (Penguin, 2003) functions as a literary collection but also as a collection of various contemplative perceptions, intuitions of Buddhamind.

Kerouac joked that he possessed “a bear trap mind”.  Once in, nothing got back out or faded away.  In his childhood he was given the nickname of Memory Babe in honor of his prodigious and precise recollections.  More importantly Kerouac’s artistic skills selected and shaped his intuitions inside these memories.

Kerouac’s novels were the most popular of his productions and they contain large blocks of vivid intuitive memories.   His novels were constructed from his notebooks full of character and scene sketches—some entries written quite mundanely—and he improvised on and expanded these for his fictions.

In his Paris Review interview [1968] Kerouac made distinctions between composing a prose paragraph and a haiku.  To Kerouac these two genres were different species of the same need to tell a story. In writing haiku he had different methods and principles.



Kerouac’s Haiku Principles


You have said that haiku is not written spontaneously but is reworked and revised. Is this true of all your poetry? Why must the method for writing poetry differ from that of prose?


No, first; haiku is best reworked and revised.  I know, I tried. It has to be completely economical, no foliage and flowers and language rhythm, it has to be a simple little picture in three little lines. At least that’s the way the old masters did it, spending months on three little lines and coming up, say, with: 

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

That’s Shiki. But as for my regular English verse, I knocked it off fast like the prose. . . in poetry . . .you don’t have to tell a story. . .that’s why I always say, when writing prose, “No time for poetry now, get your plain tale.”


How do you write haiku?


Haiku? You want to hear Haiku? You see you got to compress into three short lines a great big story. First you start with a haiku situation—so you see a leaf, as I told her the other night, falling on the back of a sparrow during a great big October wind storm. A big leaf falls on the back of a little sparrow. How you going to compress that into three lines? Now in Japanese you got to compress it into seventeen syllables. We don’t have to do that in American—or English because we don’t have the same syllabic bullshit that your Japanese language has. So you say: Little sparrow—you don’t have to say little—everybody knows a sparrow is little. . .because they fall . . . so you say 

with big leaf on its back—

No good, don’t work, I reject it. 

A little sparrow
when an Autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back
from the wind.

Hah, that does it. No, it’s a little bit too long. See?


Seems like there’s an extra word or something, like “when.” How about leaving out “when?” Say:

A sparrow
an autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back—
From the wind!


Hey, that’s all right. I think “when” was the extra word. You got the right idea there, O’Hara!  A sparrow, an autumn leaf suddenly—we don’t have to say “suddenly” do we?

A sparrow
an autumn leaf sticks to its back—
From the wind!

(Kerouac writes final version into spiral notebook)



As Basho, Zen master of haiku, once wrote, haiku are by their nature intense moments of perception enacting or embodying “change in the universe” and so therefore haiku are contemplative acts.

D.T. Suzuki wrote, Haiku, like Zen, abhors egoism in any form of assertion. The product of art must be entirely devoid of artifice or ulterior motivation of any kind.”

To write haiku you examine perceptions, ride with any responses until, as Kerouac explained, you “compress into three short lines a great big story.”  In order to compress the writer notices what and where the essential elements are and where the gaps between those elements occur.

Haiku writing for Kerouac was a meditation practice similar to sitting meditation where one notices the quality of one’s breath or similar to brush practice when one brushes a line of characters and notes where and how the white space interacts with the black ink.

Suzuki wrote, “First of all, we must know that a haiku does not express ideas but that it puts forward images reflecting intuitions. These images are not figurative representations made use of by the poetic mind, but they directly point to original intuitions, indeed, they are intuitions themselves.”

Suzuki here paraphrases Sakyamuni who said that Buddhism is “Direct pointing to the human heart”.

Kerouac’s haiku comments and his haiku demonstrate that his practice was also similar to editing a movie where one distills the images into three photos or into three scenes, all irrelevancies or digressions pruned away.   When this process of revision (to see again, literally) is finished, as in the Kerouac haiku, his original intuition on that windy Autumn day is embodied in the poem.

Often there’s a gap where the matter at hand, or the first perception, abruptly and intuitively changes into a second perception.  This principle of gaps or white space is a structural device that is essential for Japanese art and haiku.

Abrupt or gentle or clowning changes embody the artist’s perceptions of the world, mind or self.  Some lines may even be or become quotations from classic koans—the primary method for training Rinzai and Soto Zen priests.   I would suggest that some of Kerouac’s haiku enacted basic Buddhist concepts and these concepts may be found inside his haiku’s intuitions, perceptions, gaps and changes.



Kerouac explained how, among many Buddhist paths he explored, the haiku tradition of Zen connected with him.

What’s really influenced my work is the Mahayana Buddhism, the original Buddhism of Gotama Sakyamuni, the Buddha himself, of the India of old. . .Zen is what’s left of his Buddhism, or Bodhi, after its passing into China and then into Japan.  The part of Zen that’s influenced my writing is the Zen contained in the haiku, like I said, the three line, seventeen syllable poems written hundreds of years ago by guys like Basho, Issa, Shiki, and there’ve been recent masters. A sentence that’s short and sweet with a sudden jump of thought in it is a kind of haiku, and there’s a lot of freedom and fun in surprising yourself with that, let the mind willy-nilly jump from the branch to the bird.

The haiku in Japanese has many structural principles.  But one of the most important, usually, is a “cutting word” (what Kerouac calls “a sudden jump of thought”).  This word has also been described as just a sound, such as ya!  Something changes after that sound, and the reader has to make an adjustment.  Suzuki quotes Basho’s famous poem to make this point.

Furu ike ya! /Kawazu tobikomu, / Mizu no oto.

The old pond, ah! /A frog jumps in:/ the water’s sound! 

The cutting word “ya!” functions in the cinematic sense of inserting a visceral signal or gap that results in a change.  This works much like cinematic visual effects do.

We now are quite used to these effects.   Films may employ many signals for change such as a fade in, a fade out, a jumpcut or a matchcut. Nowadays we have a flashcut or swipecut, which is both a sound and a movement: say a swiping sound as if someone has erased a gritty chalkboard along with a grainy motion on the film stock.  From these actions the viewers know instantly to reset their expectations as there will be a change:  a new time, place or character.

The gap in haiku (or what sumi brush paintings term “air strokes”) leaves blank or white space.  D. T.  Suzuki speaks of that white space in a composition as the unknown and that is the genesis for art.

“When feelings are too fully expressed, no room is left for the unknown, and from this unknown start the Japanese arts.”

Haiku Notes

For my Buddhist texts in the previous commentary I used work that Kerouac read during his most intensive study of Buddhism, from 1953-1956.   In this commentary on Kerouac’s haiku, I am going to rely mainly on writing by the Japanese Soto Zen master Dogen, because his unique poetic textures speak to Kerouac’s haiku.  Kerouac never read Dogen, to my knowledge, probably because there was only one translation of his work available in English when he was doing his Buddhist reading.

1. Cup of Water
“You should reflect on the moment when you see the water of the ten directions as the water of the ten directions. This is not just studying the moment when human and heavenly beings see water; this is studying the moment when water sees water.”

                                                                        Dogen, Moon in a Dewdrop, p. 101 

Take up a cup of water
            from the ocean
And there I am 

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p. 66


Here is a moment when Kerouac’s haiku manifests Buddhamind.  From first word to last word no differentiation is made between matter or self in the haiku’s process of change between our actions and our salty selves, between our bodies as containers of briny water and the water itself.

Self and non-self are seen as whole, in an instant of interpenetration.

We are born and reborn in an instant without walls floors or roofs.  Even inside this 98% water body we are thus simultaneously outside.

We are present as salt water is present.  We share the same substantial sentience.  Kerouac distills this realization into a single perception of our selflessness.  As Dogen writes, this is “the moment when water sees water.”

2. No Hat
Everyone holds a luminous jewel, all embrace a precious gem; if you do not turn your attention around and look within, you will wander from home with a hidden treasure.

Dogen, Rational Zen,  p. 59

All day long wearing
            a hat that wasn’t
on my head.

Kerouac, Book of Haiku,  p. 26

Kerouac captures that moment when the entire picture of ourselves that we carry around, confident that this picture is correct, certain that this image suffers no change, that our self-portrait is even unavailable to change, but whap! that picture changes.

Sure I have a hat, oops no I don’t; well not with me; it’s at home.

Or, more conceptually, if you don’t think so, so you think.

Dogen writes, jushaku shoshaku, “One mistake after another.”   Or more poetically translated, “Wave after wave of error.”

Actually any picture of our selves has an absent component, one that involves loss.  Loss is what we carry hidden inside.  That loss is vast, so vast that loss is us fundamentally.

Because that loss of self is never the loss of the personal us: this perception is big-time loss so limitless that we have no choice but to embody it by losing all boundaries of an I self, a we self, or a thing self.

In short, inside is that brilliant luminous void called MU.   The Buddhamind.

Kerouac once listed an essential principle of his writing methods: “Accept loss forever.”

3. Butterfly Flower
Once you get this mind to appear, it is not even for sake of enlightenment that you seek enlightenment; this is the true mind of enlightenment.  Without this mind, how can you really practice the way to enlightenment?

Dogen, Rational Zen, p. 49

My butterfly came
            to sit in my flower,
Sir Me

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p. 65 


This hilarious haiku revels in the idiocies of our devotional practice, how we invest in their illusionary abilities to claim merit.  I assume this event occurred during Kerouac’s outdoor meditation sessions.

Contemplate nature: get three times better, three hundred percent better, win the meditation lottery, sit in full lotus for three hours longer than anyone else in the zendo, get a butterfly to come to you and your flower.

Dogen qualifies it, “Not even for the sake of enlightenment . . . .”

A triple dose of tautological self-satisfactions (My butterfly, my flower, my Sir Me) cancels out all ownership, ridicules all claims to self, and all samsara dissolves in a burst of laughter.

Close observance of the ego, as the Dalai Lama remarked, is necessary at all times; which might be a compassionate variation of the Italian notion that it is more prudent to keep your enemies closer than your friends.

Kerouac’s haiku humor and its mental velocity and sweep remind me of certain Zenga paintings.

For instance, the Sengai painting of Shoki the Demon Slayer slicing a demon in half with a major league home run swing of his sword.   Delight and joy radiate in every ink stroke of his body and robe and sword outline; the two halves of the puzzled and alarmed demon fly off in different directions.  The joke is on us: demon, Shoki, sword are all just flashes of energy.  But someone’s got to do it, why not Sir Me! Whack!


4. Fish Sign
When Sudhana visited Manjushri, Manjushri said to him, “Go outside and get a stalk of medicinal herb.”

Sudhana went out and looked all over the earth, finding nothing that was not medicine.

He returned and said to Manjushri, “The whole earth is medicine; what should I bring?”

Manjushri said, “Bring a stalk of medicinal herb.”

Sudhana brought a blade of grass.

Manjushri took the blade of grass then showed it to the assembly and said, “This blade of grass can kill people and can also enliven people. Before it was a blade of grass; later it was a blade of grass: how far apart are before and after?”


“They’re a blade of grass apart.”

Dogen, Rational Zen, p. 52 

That’s an unencouraging sign,
            the fish store
is closed

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p 22.

“The basis of art is change in the universe.” Basho on the nature of haiku.   Here the change is of a commercial nature impinging on survival.

Often it is a mystery to us why one thought or thing one day one hour one minute one second seems dangerous and the next time common or very helpful.   Of course we construct rational explanations for our changes of heart and perspective and perception.

Kerouac makes a joke here, “unencouraging” as in the store window sign states: Closed.

So you cannot get your fish to eat that night because of a single word. Closed.

Did you suffer during that moment of seeing the word Closed?

Its presence Closed now a pain?

Or accept the word Closed as one more defeat in a life full of them?

A blade of grass cannot be eaten some days just as a Closed sign can’t bring food: one may die.

Other days the blade of grass is medicine and the Closed sign is a prompt to do better, a corrective that you must come earlier for your fish.

5. Catfish
Mind like a fan in winter, body like a cloud in a cold valley, if you can see “doing it yourself” then you will see “who will do it”.  When you don’t go by either of these routes, an iron wall stands steep and precipitous.

Dogen, Rational Zen, p. 52

Catfish fighting for his life,
            and winning,
splashing us all 

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p. 20


Often what happens has nothing to do with us.  But some actions stick around in our minds.  We may watch someone do something while obviously hoping to share some mutual advantage or pleasure or reward they receive for their actions.  Like fishing.

But the catfish slips off the hook.

Mutual failure then may be shared or not, depending on our generosity.  Or our empathy.  Or our compassion.

The question comes to which particular you shall do a thing and has that you taken into account how open your multiple selves are to teaching at any given moment.

Kerouac’s generosity in his haiku toward others, toward accepting teaching from all sentient beings, even a catfish, all sentience in fact, is notable.

Here he is all wet.

He has assumed the ways of water.  No iron wall blocks his path.



  1. Missed Kick

Even dismantling fixed structures is whirling in the flow of birth and death; even imparting the middle way is still illusion and error.

When you study thus, you are studying along with the Buddhas.  When you study it as not thus, you are studying along with your self.

Studying along with the Buddhas and studying along with yourself, explaining a furlong and explaining a foot; these are different.  Speaking of ten and speaking of nine are different.

What is “not thus”?  It is your self.  What is “thus”?  It is the Buddhas.

Dogen, Rational Zen, p. 47

Missing a kick
            at the icebox door
It closed anyway

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p. 16 

I don’t know that any commentary is needed on the relationship between this quote and this haiku.  I’ll resist commentary, though I might get a kick out of providing one. 

7. Wet Shoes
When you measure the space in ten directions, it seems to have no partner.  When you realize half emptiness, it seems like freedom and ease. Do you want to understand this principle?


Dusky yellow does not stain my clear jewel; when does a clear mirror ever dream of “fine” and “hideous”?

Dogen, Rational Zen, p. 57

The bottoms of my shoes
            Are clean
From walking in the rain 

Kerouac, Book of Haiku, p. 8 

The bonuses of “this” and “that” from the previous quotation appear in this poem.  This: no need to clean my shoes!  That: I don’t have to wipe my feet!  What a relief.  Or, what a surprise!  One more daily discrimination laid to rest by the forces of nature without our personal interference!  Blessed rain!

One of Kerouac’s delightful traits is his love of the domestic rituals, his acute observations on the ordinary rounds of a day, which are filled with such gratitude.

(“And I promise you, God—and I think you know it—I will continue to be conscious of my debt to life itself and be grateful whatever happens,” he prayed as a young man early in his writing career.)

But think: distinctions arise unbidden it seems.  However upon closer examination your real mentors appear.  You must remove or clean muddy shoes if you come in the house.  Everyone must be taught that.

When you become a parent, your child does something and you have perhaps five seconds to make the right decision or correct comment.  Out of your mouth comes your fourth grade teacher or your mother or your father’s voice.

This is disappointing to you more often than not.  You want your own child to have your own teachings, perhaps, because you feel you can be a better parent to them than your parents were to you.

Perhaps you are a dreaming mirror of your parents.

Back to your shoes.  Clean already or in need of cleaning?  Already taken care of for you or not?  And in either case are you thankful?

This commentary also honors my teacher Kobun Ottawa Roshi who was always by my side to help me with my choices.

Keith Kumasen Abbott
8: V:05

No Hat Lecture was delivered during the Summer Writing Program, Naropa University, 2005.  Kerouac portrait and Catfish calligraphy by the author.

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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Nothing Is Forever

Nothing Is Forever:
Philip Whalen’s “Kozan-ji” and Kyoto catalysis
by Keith Kumasen Abbott

From Whalen’s notebook 16:IV: 68:
Walking, looking at blossoming rhododendrons—I thought how much I used to love them, to be turned on by them: I depended upon them, consumed them–& now they are only flowers: I’ve been turned on by Kyoto & depend on that feeling & have that necessity until, I guess, the next great beauty gets in my imagination.

Gary Snyder noted that early during Whalen’s life in Kyoto he thrived on a rich heritage of its literature and history. In his Introduction to Whalen’s Collected Poems Snyder wrote: “Then [Whalen] began to be drawn more and more to the message of the big Buddhist temples, and the lessons of impermanence their vast graveyards out back provide: thousands of little stupas for the priests of the past.  Thus moving from the seductive cultural fascinations of old Japan to a deeply realized samsaric awareness.  Note well his poetry and prose from the Old Capital.”

My interest was during his last days in Kyoto what event opened such experiences for Whalen?  After four summers of research at the UC Bancroft Library archives I spent several spring weeks at the UC Davis Library going through their Gary Snyder archives. Those contained more intimate Whalen materials alongside Snyder’s insights into Whalen’s Kyoto successes.  Whalen’s letters to Snyder reported his own discoveries during his last wandering weeks among Kyoto’s cultural riches.

Lew Welch, Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen all sent each other lists about their discoveries, pratfalls, good news and future plans. As usual such exchanges were tests for each other’s advice, experiences, amusement, reactions and potential outcomes.  On July 3, 1970 Whalen wrote in his Kyoto notebook a list of wishes / pep talks / reminders about how and why his accomplishments would and/or could appear during his second stay in Kyoto:

“I came back to Kyoto because I need things to keep up my enthusiasm, to keep up my curiosity, to remind me that there’s a vast deal I must learn, viz. the Japanese & Chinese languages, the real scoop about Shugendo, Tendai & Shingon, about Shinto, about Kyoto & music & Noh—in America this information can be obtained from books, but here it can be seen & touched & smelled &c.”

Most readers would regard these as a remarkable display of hubris. Here Whalen mixes in dubious hopes, conflicting emotions along with typical Whalenesque tenuous verbal sprees that resemble an ad hoc script for Marx Brothers’ fractured dialogues. He trusted that all these listed items were within his intellectual and spiritual grasp.  And as many of his friends can affirm, Whalen did possess and use his astounding eidetic memory banks.  So, for him, complex or stark insights or three other languages were often possible and doable on short notice.  He did respectfully admit that the practical odds of his Kyoto wish lists might be regarded as personally marginal when he flashed through his unstable emotional states. His previous achievements for articulating Zen Buddhism often had to deal with a persistent unease that sparked his past history of self-inflicted breakdowns.  An example is found among notes in his Kyoto journal of June 1969 where he wrote more admonitions, hopes and cautions about his own limits for experiencing transformations.

“Live long enough to discover autonomy – the governance {& use} of the self: authentic choice and action.  Authority in the sense of acting straightforwardly, immediately, spontaneously the experience of actual poetic discovery and invention in other terms: integrated physical and emotional act  . . . For the 9th trillionth time: Not Buddhism, but being a bodhisattva— not art but being an artist.”

Whalen’s notebooks list more failures than successes during his last stay in Kyoto even as he indulges in scolding his lack of self-discipline. He tried to be content with practical needs for his cultural ambitions, but became bored, frustrated and/or angry. Often he was prone to launch into what a fellow poet labeled “The Whalen Immaculate Tantrum”. He’d whip himself into passionate whirlwinds by calling up his past grief, failures, rudeness, guilt, and anxieties then abruptly halt, as if a curtain dropped and nothing just happened.  Whalen knew that for his anticipated progress he needed to participate in supporting foundations for a composed daily life.  Snyder and others in Kyoto had provided him with enough organized domestic and practical setups plus Kyoto maps and guides in his apartment. But he had such social pressures either real or imagined while using these, he often derailed himself.  One example is before leaving California he had been alerted about the possibility of losing Snyder’s Kyoto teaching job, as its school was changing courses.

Without a job and paycheck, his passport and work visa would be cancelled, in his case after March 1971.  And then, typically he reverted to fretting and waiting until too late, and only then did he plunge into scavenging for teaching jobs, grant money, any official position for him to support his life in Kyoto.  Eventually he had to go back to California.

After his first Kyoto tour was over Whalen sailed away, and on the boat he described his situation like this.  “The entire affair of suddenly traveling to Japan living there & then leaving still seems impossible or improbably or something.  It was something which I had planned to do, or for which I had hoped & schemed & passionately demanded, —it simply turned out all unexpected, strange and magical.  I can’t really believe it.  Why not.”

Throughout his notebooks Whalen reveals hopes for launching himself into abundant connections while exploring more formal stately Buddhism. But usually his erratic self-esteem was linked to his inability to tolerate organizations for any lengths of time. Fulfilling contracts or meeting daily schedules could sabotage his goals.

But to his credit he did finish two literary projects brought over from his recent California past. In 1970 both his selected poems Severance Pay and novel Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head were accepted for publication. Whalen felt them to be flawed, especially his novel.  Novels were his bête noirs and hopes for royalties.  They provided rich angsts about lurking stylistic flubs, weak characterizations, lame scenes etc.  Those carousels of anguish added to the truth that he had little talent for promoting his books or writing career.  His friends and publishers provided some publicity, future reading and teaching gigs.

But as Whalen stewed over the futures of two new books, his daily walks continued where he recorded details of any discoveries.  Each day he usually roamed through three to five temples, museums or shrines. Tourist crowds, mobs of school kids and other intrusions distracted him and his concentration on rich Buddhist culture. But such irritable conditions also sparked off some sharp observations, such as this tranquil poem on the 16th of October 1969.

Praying mantis moored on top of flower stalk

grooms itself like a cat, preens its

two tail feathers

Hammerhead shark face on mantis

This last detail reveals his wry observations that these beautiful delicate insects are voracious killers and ironically their bodies sport fascinating portraits of even a larger predator.

Some of his main breakthroughs arrived via psychedelic experiences. In his earlier first visit Kyoto notebooks he took 20 mg of Psilocybin. When I read this I thought that he brought it from Bolinas.  Earlier in his notebook Whalen wrote that in Kyoto there were “lots of goodies to be had”.  I assumed he as usual was talking about food delights. But then on the morning of November 6, 1969, before exploring Kozan-ji temple, Whalen wrote down that he had “swallowed a big yellow capsule of mescaline—gift of Roy Kiyooka somewhere in Canada.”

Once inside the Kozan-ji temple grounds its contents seemed to smoothly connect him to both the present and his past. HisKozan-ji poem was created and edited from November 6th to the 12th.  It appears that he wrote and then edited hisKozan-ji poem with its cast of past spirits, charms, horrors, gods, frenzies, anxieties and doubts. The poem blossomed via a gentle integration of Whalen’s physical, spiritual and emotional phantoms.

Later on the 16th of November, he described emerging from his recent adventures and waking up viewing his same old bugaboos but they were met with insouciance. “Wake up nightmare [rejection] ostracism story—memories of army life etc. & headache. Aspirin help temporarily . . . Gloomy gold morning; so 10 a.m. I ingest a giant lump of bhang in strawberry jam, & hot coffee.  Things will look better in an hour from now, ok?  Shut up.” 

Notable in the final draft of his poem Kozan-ji was how he eerily reviewed placid but mixed events of his Oregon past and its working class humiliations, along with those found in his military life, because mescaline continued to give him clean confrontations so that past and present habitual negative reactions continually mutated into wisps of phantoms and illusions. Kozan-ji temple was giving Whalen models for cultivation of a flowing disciplined attention that dissolved his past antagonisms, defeats, anxieties and specters. During the following days Whalen experienced more other equally potent and benign emblems of past events; the ones in his poem Kozan-ji demonstrates how he had calmly observed their coming and going, the same as one regards changes in light.



Absolutely defenseless, completely

Crowds of people are billows of smoke

Burnt or burning leaves
The silence unbroken idea of purity

Cuts down impatience,

Grinning mob

No feet Japanese ghosts, no

Fingers, an empty parka
Leaf jewels rave and rage cold flames

The blazing wisdom Fudo

As I must look at them they must

See me, flaming,
Harmless fangs eyes to hell & heaven
Bare feet on squared rocks of Kozan
All absurd, a film of mistaken

Proprieties, culture of dim Oregon

To burn, to dispose of instantly
If what was never real can be

Created or destroyed,
Clouds moving over them change their colors
Walking under them changes color
Light changes all,
Spaces colored means something else
Where in all this tight &
Elegant disorder—a thousand-year old
Hoax, frail campy china,
The box it comes in more important than

the gift.

Throughout this poem were the necessary events for his future Zen Buddhist monk career.  In David Schneider’s Whalen biography Crowded By Beauty, the chapter “Japan, Bolinas, Japan, Bolinas” covers how Whalen’s second return to Kyoto provoked ways for him to learn and share his practices.  Up to then Philip mostly did solo meditations, chants, but not with others. A crucial turning point was when Whalen asked a friend / translator to set up his first dokusan with a Zen master Daishu-in San, Head Priest of a Kyoto temple.

Philip Whalen c.1970

After that experience Whalen confirmed that Daishu-in San was the right teacher but more importantly he witnessed how a Zen Priest accepted a life inside an organization, while remaining as tranquil and useful as a temple. Philip’s following description of his Daishu-in temple experience could serve as a prose version of his previous satoris found in his poem Kozan-ji.

“The temple and the celebrated lake were beautiful, but being with Daishu-in-San the beauty & interest & history all disappear, the man is more important than the place ….all surrounded by those wisdom flames & raging impotent demons, absolute stillness, absolute stillness, absolute self-control in midst of tremendous chaos, turbulence & catastrophe.”

In Kyoto Whalen did not sit with Daishu-in-San for another dokusan or attend services at his temple.  In California he moved into San Francisco Zen Center. His Kozan-ji poem and Daishu-in San dokusan were essential for him.

17 January 1971 Whalen wrote:
“Daishu-in San made Zen seem easy.  . . .  Daishu-in San is more important than the beauty & interest of his temple (Ryoanji). See him as completely secure like a fly on a stone, bird, frog, some autonomous being who don’t need a roof, educations, Kulchur to be great & marvelous . …? 

But but but . . . . Daishu-in San’s training had to spring him out of that beautiful complete traditional Japanese Origami / stonework / garden / culture before he could appear as he does now—otherwise he’d be like all the other Japanese I see around me.  Contrariwise, he was born & raised & remains completely Japanese. 

Light Up And Be Somebody 

I just now understood that my head is so packed with contradictory orders & “categorical imperatives” & messages from various power systems that my eyes don’t focus .  . .  and have fits of anxiety, temper tantrums, depressions, manias, obsessions etc. which are killing me. Did this head-packing job happen by accident or design …part of it is ‘cultural’; part of it is ‘free compulsory educations’ . . .  & maybe 9/10ths of it my natural dullness & gullibility.”

Whalen never wrote about his Daishu-in events for publication.  Kozan-ji poem was never published or included as part of his collected work. 

Kōzan-ji (高山寺?), officially Toganōsan Kōsan-ji (栂尾山高山寺?), is a Buddhist temple  of the Omuro sect of Shingon Buddhism in Umegahata Toganōchō, Ukyō Ward, Kyoto, Japan. Kōzan-ji is also known as Kōsan-ji and Toganō-dera. The temple was founded by the Shingon scholar and monk Myōe (1173 – 1232) and is renowned for its numerous national treasures and important cultural properties. The Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, a group of ink paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries, are among the most important treasures of Kōzan-ji. The temple celebrates Biyakkōshin, Zenmyōshin and Kasuga Myōjin, as well as the temple’s tutelary Shintō deity. In 1994, it was registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. Courtesy of Wikipedia

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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Edgy Dreams

doteDreaming On The Edge; Poets & Book Artists in California
Alastair M. Johnston, Oak Knoll Press, 2016

Some finely crafted small books, despite the richness of their contents and the originality of their design, often pass unnoticed at the time of their publication.  Most are selections of poetry produced on the margins of a mainstream literary milieu, independent of the commercial presses, and whose distribution is minimal and limited by comparison.  Yet it is through these small presses that many poets, a majority of them in fact, see their work first published in an artful and attentive manner.

Alastair Johnston’s anecdotal history Dreaming On The Edge; Poets & Book Artists in California surveys small marginal presses peculiar to California from the late 19th century up to the near contemporaneous products of the early 21st century.  In doing so he uncovers a unique cultural characteristic of the American West: a penchant for hyperbole and tall tales, put-ons and elaborate fakes, practical jokes and cheeky shams.  As the cover reproduction of a turn of the century hand-colored California postcard depicting gargantuan raspberries (an appropriate enough visual pun) stacked on a flatbed railcar illustrates, this is indeed the land of exaggeration and outsized expectations.

Dreaming On The Edge begins its chronology with the irreverent collaborations of Gelett Burgess and Porter Garnett, publishers of a literary magazine tellingly titled The Lark, whose antics and bohemian esthetic could be said to parallel pataphysician Jarry’s model of undermining the status quo and pricking the overinflated conventions of the late Victorian literary establishment.  The titles published by these rustic intellects include A Gang of Hoodlum Miscreants (obviously a manifestation of a proto-punk aesthetic) in 1895, Le Petit Journal des Refusées (a nod to the Impressionist brouhaha occurring in the French capital of the late 1800’s), and Will Irwin’s Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum published in 1901 with the aid of the above mentioned Gelett Burgess who was undoubtedly the evil genius motivating these tongue-in-cheek literary capers.

“Self-publishing is a key component of creative growth in California: from The Lark to the White Rabbit Press. . .artists have struggled to insert themselves into the discussion usually controlled by more mainstream media,” Johnston states in his Preface to this substantially illustrated assessment of 150 years of independent publishing in the Golden State. As the co-founder, with print artist Frances Butler, of the Berkeley-based Poltroon Press, Johnston brings a considerable and firsthand knowledge of small press publishing to bear on this fugitive aspect of artistic innovation in the print medium.  The details of editions and fonts, the history and circumstance of their production, all are presented with a genealogic enthusiasm in tracing marginal relations and ephemeral idiosyncratic manifestations of the printer’s art.  As the story unfolds, the incursion of technology affects the evolution of book arts and increases the potential for innovation in design.  What once was a means of disseminating a variety of ideologies and avant-garde literary fashions became an end in itself, the artist’s book.

The organizing principle behind Dreaming On The Edge, the edge being specifically California and its coastal regions, is that an artistic literary culture flourished unhampered by the overbearing constraints of the staid Eastern publishing establishment, and in this putative creative paradise anomalies and oddities thrived.  What Johnston presents is the essence of diversity, a treasure map for the antiquarian, certainly, but also for those who are fascinated by edgy originality and innovation  so often marginalized and unsung.   The life span of many of these small press ventures was quite short, a mere blip on the cultural radar, and yet they persisted, spawning related efforts to publish the news that is always news, poetry, and from such radical and  unlikely sources as Rexroth’s anarchists, pacifists of Patchen’s ilk, hippies, diggers, hipsters, beatniks and Buddhists.  The author’s meticulous research into fin de siècle independent publishing sets the stage for the post-war explosion of repurposed letterpress printing combined with readily available modern reproduction methods as an extra-commercial means of disseminating current literature.

“It has not been my aim to catalog the highlights of our famous authors,” Johnston says of the free works, parodies, and inspired concepts from the presses and fly by night publishing ventures he chose to feature.  “In general I have ignored the author’s Collected Poems in favor of lesser known work because of connections it made at the time.  Such work often had a larger impact than their normally limited circulation would imply.”  This decision contributes to the inclusion of a wide variety of printed literature such as magazines, posters, broadsides, pictorial monographs, comic books, newsletters, and assorted guerrilla ephemera as examples of the diverse publishing activity occurring over the span of the historical era under consideration, and in particular the last 50 years or so, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area although certainly not to the exclusion of the equally ingenious Los Angeles based artists, printers and publishers.

The inclusive thoroughness with which Johnston has cataloged the players in this ink stained chronicle might have been daunting were it not for the anecdotal verve of much of its presentation.  So one learns that a wannabe architect became an innovator in type and book design, or an employee at the SF Greyhound appropriated the equipment used to print bus schedules to publish some of the early work of Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Jack Spicer.  A cabal of conscientious objectors, among them William Everson aka Brother Antonius, interned in a camp in Oregon during the war liberated a mimeograph machine to promote and publish their pacifist poems and tracts, said example leading to the further utilization of this down and dirty DIY tech a decade later as the beginning of the mimeograph revolution in circulating works of literature.  Another individual, Bern Porter, publisher of the literary magazine Circle was a nuclear physicist who had once worked on the Manhattan Project.  And who knew that Ed Ruscha was the first artist to create his own textless reproductions of his work in book form?

lifeofcrime-1Johnston’s facts and related trivia provide a context in which to view the development of a book art culture unique to the West Coast.  It helps that he was also a part of the thriving small press scene in the Bay Area, and interned at the West Coast Print Center in Berkeley.  And as the publisher of Poltroon Press he has produced a number of monographs and essays on the art of printing.  Poltroon Press is notable  for having published Philip Whalen’s Diamond Noodle,  and Zephyrus Image, a study of the collaborative efforts of printer Holbrook Teter and artist Michael Myer.  In 2010, Johnston also issued Life Of Crime, a compilation of all the scurrilous 80’s newsletters from the original Black Bart Poetry Society documenting its guerrilla war against Language poetry.

amjIn a section titled A Psychedelic Peyton Place, the author recalls his time working as a typographer at the Print Center and the relationship he forged as a book designer for various publishers and writers. With salient detail as a series of snapshots he depicts the artistic, social, political tenor of the seventies and eighties in the Bay Area literary scene, and as well the shenanigans in the nearby artist’s hideaway of Bolinas, the psychedelic Peyton Place of the section’s title.  There are also chapters referencing the Northwest poets, Snyder and Whalen, the Beats poets (West Coast style), as well as local literary figures, among them Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan, and David Meltzer. However the real  and perhaps most interesting subjects of this narrative are the printers, publishers, and printing art craftsmen and innovators including the likes of Dave Haselwood, Betsy Davids, Graham Mackintosh, Jaime Robles,Holbrook Teter, Frances Butler, Clifford Burke, and Johnston himself.

Nevertheless the most illuminating development in small press printing and book arts is the attraction it has for women.  Johnston highlights works from the Women’s Print Collective in Los Angeles beginning with the Women’s Movement of the 70’s as well as the work of women book artists in the Bay Area.  “The Woman’s Movement flowed over into printing as letterpress” when that technology was deemed obsolete the author says in the closing remarks of the Preface.  “Small presses picked up the tools and began producing their own work, using invention to compensate for technical shortcomings.”  Scrapping the heavy machinery of linotype and letterpress printing for less labor intensive reproduction methods made available and more accessible the abandoned presses and disused type case inventories to a new segment of the creative population who were often self-taught with no previous experience in the mechanics of setting type.   The repurposing of this antique tech for aesthetic aims offered ample opportunity for innovation and collaboration.  The book and its process were viewed as artifact-in-itself as well as medium for a message.

In the concluding chapters of Dreaming On The Edge, Johnston traces the progress of the printing arts through the efforts of a cohort of dedicated women artists in reviving a discarded technology and rescuing it from certain Schumpeterian creative destruction.  Through the effort and example of artists and teachers like Betsy Davids, Jaime Robles, Frances Butler, and Kathy Walkup book arts are now an integral part of the arts curriculum at Mills College, California College of the Arts, and on a number of University of California campuses.  The Pacific Center for Book Arts in San Francisco and the Woman’s Graphic Center in Southern California also encourage and foster the book arts with workshops, lectures, and annual prizes such as the Alastair Johnston Fine Press Award.

Anecdotally, Les Ferriss, teaching the long running hands-on history of the book course at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, reports the majority of the students in his popular class are female. As well, the significant presence of women in the field of book arts is evident in the print coop at Eric Johnson’s Iota Press in Sebastopol , California and its non-profit association, North Bay Letterpress Arts, with cross-discipline work done by poet and book artist judi goldberg and that of sculptor and book artist Brooke Holve to name just two of the many talented woman artists who make up the print arts collaborative.  There is a particular appeal to the finesse of fashioning an object that is both delicate yet substantial, that speaks from its painstakingly arranged text as much as it does from its outward appearance, and in many cases its functionality as being entirely itself.  The means of production for print expression has been ingeniously appropriated by writers and book designers inspired to redefine book aesthetics.

The intricacy and detail of Johnston’s scholarship is such as it is difficult to summarize all of it in the limited space of a review.  Not that there is too much information—there’s just enough to pique the curiosity of any red-blooded book hound, yet that’s still a lot.  Fortunately, with a matter-of-fact familiarity, Johnston has accomplished an intimate personalized history of book as art, art as book.

Dreaming On The Edge is available from the publisher, Oak Knoll Press.  As it is a substantial reference on the books arts, and priced accordingly, this is a volume that would be well to suggest to the local library to add to their collection.

Submitted to the membership by
the Parole Officer

New To The Society’s Shelves

Guillaume Apollinaire, Selected Writings, Roger Shattuck, trans. ( New Directions, 1971)
Charles Upton, What Poets Used To Know  (Angelico Press, 2016)

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In Conversation With Maureen Owen

In Conversation with Maureen Owen


American poet, editor, and publisher Maureen Owen was born in Minnesota in 1943 and grew up on the racetrack circuit in California where her parents were horse trainers.  She was an early participant in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, and Co-Director and Program Coordinator (1976–1980) serving on the Board of the Poetry Project and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines as well—both as a member and as vice-chairperson. She was also the editor and publisher of Telephone Books and Telephone magazine which she began publishing and editing in the late sixties, and includes thirty individual poetry titles and nineteen issues of the magazine.

Maureen has taught courses in creative writing and research at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1999, as well as mentoring workshops at Swarthmore College and St. Joseph’s College in Connecticut. She also taught in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program at Naropa University in Colorado, and was editor-in-chief of Naropa’s on-line zine not enough night.

The author of almost a dozen poetry selections, including Zombie Notes (1985), Imaginary Income (1992), American Rush: Selected Poems (1998), Erosion’s Pull (2006), and the most recent Edges of Water (2013) from Chax Press, Maureen Owen was the recipient of the Before Columbus American Book Award (1985) and the 2011 Fund For Poetry Award among a handful of other honors and recognitions for her poetry.  Maureen was also part of a collaborative group of poets,  including Keith Kumasen Abbott, Michael Sowl, and Pat Nolan, writing hakai no renga (linked poetry) over a period of thirty years and known as the Miner School of Haikai Poets, examples of which were published in 2015 under the Nualláin House, Publishers imprint as Poetry For Sale.

Maureen Owen’s work has always been unique, and unusual in its look; the poem moves across the page mimicking a player piano roll in the way it triggers the synapses. To read her poems is to play her melody. She can be compared to Bonnie Raitt in that she has a strong confident voice with earthy overtones.  In some poems she echoes that pervasive American folk style, the blues, and blends it with classical lament. Paul Hoover has said of her work, “Astonishing things quietly occur” while Andrei Codrescu notes “Her exuberant style and tremendous energy shine in her strongly feminist works.”

Maureen Owen currently makes her home in Denver, Colorado.  This interview was leisurely conducted and composed over a period of 6 months via emailed exchanges with Pat Nolan.

Do you remember your first book of poems?

 Of course! Adventures in Poetry, Larry Fagin’s press, brought out the first book of my work, Country Rush in 1973. It was mimeo with a stunning cover and original drawings by Yvonne Jacquette.  When I first saw Yvonne’s drawings for the book I felt as though she had magically pulled the images straight out of my head. She had captured images that resonated to an unbelievable degree with the poems. Her drawings were the very objects that I had been looking at that summer in Minnesota on my uncle’s farm.  Starkly focusing on one telephone pole against an infinite sky or one corner of a barn roof pushing into infinite space, it was cosmic!

I remember the poetry magazine, Big Deal 5, was a special issue of your work. I might have even owned a copy or someone I knew had a copy.  One section was titled the No Travel Journals. It was a nice presentation with a big picture of you on the cover. Offset, right?  Not mimeographed. Were most of those poems written during your time in New York City or were some from your experiences on the West Coast and in Japan?

mobigdeal5 Big deal 5: The Poetry of Maureen Owen presents two “books.”  The first is titled: a brass choir approaches the burial ground   or  “From the arms of one man into the arms of another.”   Published in 1977, that says it exactly.  The second half was a reprint of the No Travels Journal. The marvelous Charlie Plymell had published the No Travels Journal at Cherry Valley Editions. His was a gorgeous production. Hugh Kepets created the wrap around cover and inside drawings, architectural and stunning! The 500 copies were gone fairly fast. Barbara Barracks at Big Deal offered to give it more exposure by reprinting the text in Big Deal #5. She didn’t have the funds to include Hugh’s drawings so we added photos of me as a kid on the farm to both “books.”

The edition was produced offset and with a cover photo by Josely Carvalho, an amazing photographer and silk screen artist who had a little studio at St Marks Church below the rectory.

A world of fabulous creative people!

The No Travels Journal was written in New York City and during a summer visiting my Uncle Bud in Minnesota on the farm.  All my New York City pals had been and were traveling to exotic geographies and feeling left stateside, I decided to write a No Travels Journal.

Both No Travels and A brass choir orbited around breaking up with one love and finding another.

 How and when did you conceive of yourself as a writer, a poet?

I was reading an interview with Merce Cunningham where he says it’s difficult for him to talk about dance.  Difficult because of its evanescence. He compares ideas on dance, and dance itself, to water. And how that very fluidity makes dance intangible. He’s not talking about the quality of dance, but about its nature.

I feel the same way about poetry. Poetry saved my life. And so it came to me out of nature. The grain fields of wheat, flax, soybeans, corn, the groves, the animals wild and tame, pigs and chickens, cows, the horses, farm dogs and cats. The smell of granary bins full of just harvested grain, the yellow dried straw of the stubble fields, sweet timothy and alfalfa hay, acres of blue-eyed flax. Running behind my uncle’s plow, my bare feet in the cool just turned damp rich black earth. The prairie gulls swarming around and over us, landing on the tractor and my uncle’s shoulders.  I was awash in all of it and the Irish and the hilarious stories the farmers told as they drank coffee in each other’s kitchens.

Where is this idyllic childhood landscape that you remember so passionately and with such detail?

I didn’t know “poetry” then, I only knew myself in the world, a Minnesota earth of great flat prairie and farmland. One afternoon, I was nine or ten, pulling things from the precarious attic where if you stepped off a beam you would crash through the ceiling of the kitchen and land on the linoleum or the chipped enamel kitchen table or worse the burning stovetop. And where I was told never to enter for that reason. When I found a pamphlet of four pages with an Irish song printed in it. It rhymed, the notes gave it rhythm, the words jigged up from the page, and I knew instantly I’d found it. I didn’t know what it was called yet, or how much of it there was, but I knew this was my wormhole, this was me, this was how I could make sense, be in the world.


I found my intrinsic self that afternoon or it found me. Or we were both drawn together like two separate halves of one whole. One minute I was foraging aimlessly and the next I had a path and a mission. So I melded with the nature of poetry, without really knowing what it was. I melded with the intangible, the truly indefinable, the fleeting train whistle in the dusk. And that was how I came to poetry. Not through lessons, or lectures, or teachers, or children’s books. Not through theory, or form, or organized direction, or academia. Poetry’s very nature took me in.

Not to be too romantic about it, but there is a sound, a song that rises out of the rich black soil there. It’s in the tall oats swishing in the wind. It’s in the flax blossoms blue-eyed as the sky. It’s in the wild ditch grass swaying. And it’s in the joking and stories the farm neighbors share. In my work stories or abstractions of narratives intersect and meander through a similar remote landscape, negotiating a right to be there.

I see a relationship between your childhood pleasures in hearing old tales well told with the actualization of this kind of oral word play as the text to a song. You must have tried to recapture or renew that experience.  How did you go about doing that?

Definitely the connection between the evolving versions in Irish storytelling and the often sung, oral origins of poetry, has given me the meter of my lyric.  My use of spacing phrases, words, bits or snippets, or hanging a single word after a long space as though a lone granary or grove of trees suddenly appearing, isolated and interesting, in a vast endless expanse of flax and corn fields, springing out of that great flat prairie, is in the Minnesota geography of my blood. To me the page is a landscape, my lines are gravel roads or open pasture, and the words pop like silos into that space. In my work I use that space to slow time and focus on the single word as object. Language as head-on as singular objects in a landscape.

As a sophisticated adult you must have crossed many esthetic and formal bridges to end up where you did as a thoroughly modern poet. How does one go from “little house on the prairie” to “little apartment in Manhattan”? 

Though I returned to the farm for a number of summers, my mother had remarried taking my brother and I to California. My grandfather had raised the big, powerful draft horses until the tractor came in and that with the depression and drought caused him and my grandmother to lose their original farm with its beautiful house and barns. My great aunt Annie, his sister, owned a rundown, shabby farmstead which she gave to my mother’s family and that was where my mother and her siblings grew up and where I entered the picture. My grandfather still continued to raise some horses and my mother and her brother Pat grew into amazing horseback riders. My uncle Pat was 14 years old during the depression when he hopped a train to California and its racetracks and with his young boy size became a jockey.

By the time I came along my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother, my mother, her brother, my uncle Bud, and my aunt Monica had turned the place into a very functional small farm. In those days our place was too far from a town to have electricity, phone service, or running water. We had a well and hauled water and our evening lights were oil lamps.

Years later through her brother Pat, my mother met my stepfather who belonged to a racetrack family from South Dakota who also had gone to California. So we left the farm in Minnesota for the west coast. We moved often, following the racetrack fair circuit in the late spring and summers, and usually wintering near Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California.  I always read voraciously, painted, and scribbled my poems. Besides poetry I believe I read every book about horses and dogs in the Duarte Public Library.

So you’re a California transplant and you grew up as an equestrian, some might even say a “cowgirl.”  Your rather nomadic existence must have required that you entertain yourself.  I mean when you weren’t horseback riding.

 My mother’s daughter, I loved horses and grew up with plenty of opportunity to ride with our racetrack life. During one of our many moves all my paintings got left or fell off the top of the car where my stepfather tied things.  After that I gravitated more to language and writing, but I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign.

 You appear to have avoided drinking the English Major kool-aid that so many American poets imbibe.  Was it your intent to study literature at the university or were you an undeclared major? What was your formal and informal education?

 A year with the Jesuits at Seattle University freed my soul. I went to Seattle University to study with the Jesuits in the hopes of resolving a religious crisis that had been consuming me for most of my teenage years. The Jesuits proved to be the most honest and forthcoming teachers and questioners dedicated to a religious practice that I had ever met. I rinsed my soul searching in their discourses, class lectures, private talks, and pragmatic examples and left the church.

Then I returned to San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco State where I avoided writing classes and instead, wandered the city, finding City lights Bookstore and the Beat Poets. I felt strongly that I shouldn’t enter into an English major. I felt extremely protective of my writing and concerned that I protect it from academic influence. I studied languages and anthropology at San Francisco State and searched the bookstores and streets for poetry. I didn’t know anyone. Our family was in dire straits. My stepfather had literally disappeared into alcoholism. I went to school days and worked from midnight to 8 a.m. at Western Union to help support our family.  The exhausting pace took its toll.

James & David Bearden, c. late 50's

James & David Bearden, c. late 50’s

Through a high school friend, Jim Bearden, back in Monrovia, whose brother turned out to be the poet David Bearden, I discovered a host of cool poets and happening writers including, Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charlie Plymell and Lauren Owen.  I really had no idea how fortunate I was then, to be in that time and place, watching rough presentations of early Stan Brakage movies in apartment gatherings; listening to Neal run his fast talking hustler spins to con a few dollars or some grass; hanging and discoursing around that oak table, with all the apt shades drawn in secrecy, as a joint passed from writer to writer.

Your association with the Beat poets in San Francisco, in particular David Bearden and Charlie Plymell, must have made for some pretty heady times.

As I mentioned I met David Bearden through his brother, my good friend from high school, Jim Bearden. Jim was an incredible artist who could draw flawlessly. He was still living in southern California, but he made a trip to San Francisco to visit his brother and to see me. We went over to David and Judy’s and he introduced me to his brother who also wrote poetry. It was also my first introduction to a Bohemian “pad.”  They were the coolest people and we got on immediately. At that point in time I didn’t know who anyone was. I was just elated to be meeting other poets and writers. On another visit Charlie Plymell dropped over to discuss his printing ventures and on another Neal Cassady came in talking non-stop hustling Charlie for some cash and or grass.  Neal reminded me of all the hustlers I’d grown up with on the race track, but his rushing steady stream of words strung together out-languaged any of them.  Subsequently I became acquainted with Lauren Owen, Alan Russo, Roxie Powell, Bob Branaman, Richard White. The building David and Judy lived in, which I think was on Fell St in San Francisco and near to Charley’s, was home to a bunch of these folks. Lauren lived in that same building and there was a tall guy with glasses whose apartment we all met in to smoke grass. I’m not sure, can’t recall his name. Those were paranoid days. He would pull all the shades down before we lit up. Grass was fairly sacred and not abundant.  We would pass a joint around the table and maybe do a second one.  The first reading I ever heard was Richard Brautigan reading in a bookstore, I think City Lights.  I marched in Civil Rights demonstrations, was arrested in a car dealership sit in, spent a short night in jail and a lengthy trial. At the end of it, my interest in Zen Buddhism stirring, I sailed for Japan on the Sakura Maru with Lauren Owen, pregnant with my first child.

I personally found Japan to be totally exotic, a real culture shock. How was your introduction to Japanese culture and was it what you expected?  How long did you live there?

Lauren and I arrived in Japan in the Spring of 1965. We sailed from San Francisco into the port of Yokohama. We had little funds and so traveled third class in the lower decks of the Sakura Maru. A quite wonderful turn of events, as we found all our fellow third class passengers were Japanese. We felt like we were already in Japan. At night we watched Japanese movies in Japanese. Monster movies were popular and I saw Mothra for the first time. We didn’t speak Japanese, but had our little dictionaries of most frequently used phrases and practiced and listened to all this new culture around us. I loved being on a ship out in the middle of the ocean. It was an incredible feeling of freedom, as though by having lost sight of land, the rules and laws of the land no longer applied.  We did spend a couple of wild days and nights as the ship rolled and rocked in the tail of a typhoon.  Impossible to sleep as one had to hold on to something to keep from hurling across the floor.

Our plan was to hitchhike across Japan on our meager funds. When we docked in Yokohoma, we pulled on our backpacks and set out. We spent the first night sleeping in a cemetery overlooking the city. The large, chunky grave structures like little houses felt cozy and protective so unlike cemeteries in America. Setting out the next morning we discovered the Japanese had no idea what hitchhiking was. They would pick us up out of curiousity occasionally, but mostly we walked or took short train rides.  Japanese English teachers would invite us into their homes and to come and speak to their students, many of whom in the more remote towns had never heard an English speaker. They were wonderfully kind and excited. Our purpose was to visit various Zen temples and discuss satori with the Roshis of the temples.  Laughter at our intellectual approach seemed to be the lesson they tried to pass onto us.

And so we traipsed across Japan, sleeping in bamboo forests and in lovely futons on spotless tatami when we were invited for a night. It was amazing to be in a culture where the people thought so differently than we did. Not just that they thought different thoughts, but that their whole process of thought seemed to come from a different source.  The richness of tradition and fabrics and festivals, festive dinners where the diners recited haikus as they passed the sake cup, futons hanging on bamboo clothesline poles, the very air pulsed deepness and surprise.  But there were parallels too. In Japan a kind of Zen of Order prevailed that was familiar to me from my days on the racetrack and it’s meticulous raked and dampened shed rows, tack rooms lush with the aroma of saddle soaped leather  and from my years of Minnesota farmland its fields and crops aligned in perfect symmetry and displayed in perfect patterns of geography.  In the Japanese countryside the people we met were friendly farmers full of country kindness just like those back home.

mojapanWe traveled extensively and lived for a time in the port city of Tokushima and then in the small village of Ikeda, both on Shikoku, staying for two and a half years. Our two sons were born there, Ulysses in the small village of Ikeda and Patrick in Tokyo at the Railway Hospital.  Giving birth to my two boys in a foreign country allowed me to take part in a more intimate side of Japan.  The experience more visceral, more physical, I settled into the culture, my bare feet on the tatami, Ombu, carrying my children on my back, chewing food up for them instead of buying baby food, and experiencing a populous who truly love children. The Japanese delighted in their babies, in all children, their Zenness of letting children be children and truly not being angered at them.  I didn’t realize until I returned to America how much the general mood of my own country didn’t really like children.  Despite plenty of Americans being loving of kids, the larger theme, the presence that one lived in was one that instead of learning from children the great feeling that prevailed was one that found children irritating.  Having gone to Japan before I had children and then having lived in a culture that revered children, I was in fact in culture shock up on returning!

In Japan I gathered. I took notes. I scribbled ideas for works. My babies kept me busy and I was immersing myself in Japan. Only fragments of poems survive in my work from this period, but a wealth of change and process flow from it into every word I write to this day.

The last six months we moved back to Tokyo to raise money to return home as we had extended our two month visas to the absolute limit of times one could. In Tokyo we taught English at a business school run by a Korean fellow. There we met ex-pats and wanderers from countries far and wide, many of whom, though they were teaching English, could hardly speak it.

mo-erosion Is there some kind of eco-conscious relationship or significance to the titles of your two most recent collections of poetry, Erosion’s Pull and Edges of Water?

 My work has always been connected to nature, to the physical world around us. Country Rush, my first book, from Adventures in Poetry Press, developed during a year of living in a remote cabin in Missouri. We picked wild asparagus and dandelion greens, hauled and heated water, no plumbing, a wood burning stove, a bathtub out in the yard by the cistern—it was a year of feeling one with the earth.  I think growing up on a farm imports a lifelong consciousness of the importance of our ecosystem. You see firsthand how survival depends on caring for the soil, the water, the trees, the wildlife.

When I met you in 1979 at the Poetry Project, you had been living in New York City for about ten years then and were the Program Coordinator at the Project.  You were also a single mother with two children.  How did you become involved with the Poetry Project, and how did you manage to keep up your level of participation at the Project and as a writer while raising your two children?

I arrived in New York the summer of 1968 and having the good fortune to be with Lauren Owen who was one of the Tulsa poets, a group that included Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, and Dick Gallup, and mightily involved in the art and poetry community. It was through the good fortune of being with him that I landed in the fabulous New York poetry world.  I immediately met the most insanely wonderful, greatest poets and writers, who have been the most important people in my life ever since. I was at a party at Peter Schjeldahl’s when the brutal attack on the Peaceful demonstrations in Chicago came on the TV.

maureenown_011We lived on 13th St between avenue B and C, just a short walk from the Poetry Project. For the first time in my life I found myself in the heart of an art and poetry community. I had two little boys, but I went to readings at the Project as often as possible, buying the boys lots of comic books to keep them happy during the reading.  I started helping with the set up for the readings and various.  I was producing my mimeo magazine, Telephone, and mimeo Telephone Books. When offered the job as coordinator I felt like I’d come home.

The boys were in school so that gave me daytime hours and for the evening readings and workshops Lauren and friends helped take care of them. On other nights I wrote after putting the children to bed until about 2 a.m. regularly. It was during this period that I began the years where I usually got about 4 or 5 hours sleep a night.

When you met me in 1979, I had completed that dance-like movement of “from the arms of one man into the arms of another” and had moved out of the city. Now I was training in on the Metro North and had a third son, but definitely help from my partner, Ted Mankovich, and local childcare.  I’m sure I was sleep deprived in those years, but the zines and books and the Project overflowed with the most exciting poetry and swept me along.

 In the late 60’s early 70’s the dearth of publishing opportunities for women poets unaffiliated with academic institutions motivated you to start your own publishing concern, Telephone Magazine and Telephone Books.  Was there any single incident or moment that acted as a catalyst to start you on this enterprise?

Not so much a single catalyst as a sudden realization.

Anne [Waldman] was publishing the Project’s mimeo magazine, The World.  I was meeting some terrific unpublished poets, so many of them women, and through The World was publishing great works, there were those not finding a way in.  I wanted to give the women writers I was finding and that outlier community a voice.  At readings I would be knocked off my chair by their stunning poems that were nowhere in print. It’s so incredible to discover poems that take your breath away.  I’ve always craved making things, hands on, making collages and such. So naturally I thought I could create a magazine.  I wanted it to be eclectic and open to all like the telephone book. So I christened it Telephone. Almost immediately I realized I would do books too. I would call the press Telephone Books! Once I put my idea out to myself, it felt the most natural thing of all.

So I asked Anne if I could use the Gestetner mimeo machine at the Project to do a magazine.  In her typical utter generosity, she said “sure!” Of course I had no idea as to the process. Larry Fagin kindly gave me instruction on how to type a stencil:  How to Type A Stencil 101. And Tom Veitch offered to teach me how to run the massive Gestetner, add ink, load the stencils, etc. Often, after I put the boys to bed with Lauren or a neighbor watching over them, I could be found working alone upstairs in the big, dark, spooky and haunted church, the loud clunking of the Gestetner echoing as I rolled out the copies. St Marks is notorious for being haunted by Peter Stuyvesant. It’s said you can hear his wooden leg smacking the floorboards after midnight. There alone, I heard his walking many a night as I cranked the big wheel on the mimeograph machine and turned out page after stunning page of glistening wet black letters that floated on the white paper.

moteleTom ran off the initial issue of Telephone magazine for me. It was a magic moment when the first pages rolled off the drum. It seemed both a miracle and a magic trick that all those typed stencils were working. I had done illustrations with a stylus, holding the stencils up against a window to trace the original. They appeared fully perfect. I was astounded.

I was meeting a number of artists on the Lower East Side as well as writers and so their cover art on various issues was a fabulous addition.  The whole project was a community of creative artists and writers coming together.  Once the magazine was run off, we collated the pages in the Parish Hall at St Marks.  Everyone in the community was so fantastic. Vast numbers of contributors, artists, poets, friends, and family showed up to collate.  We would have pizza, wine, and soda, pages would be gathered, and the sound of the stapler snapping them together would be ringing.  Once in a while a section of pages or a cover would be collated upside down or the stapler would wound a finger and the blood of the poet would smear across a page.

All there would take copies to distribute.

Your experience in New York City at this time places you in an interesting historical context.  Were you aware of the affiliation of poets that were later to be called the New York poets or the New York School?

It was a world filled with poets and artists the likes of which I had never dreamed possible. I didn’t think of the historical context. I lived utterly in the “now” of what was going on, being painted, being written. Hands on doing the work filled every day. I felt continually amazed and inspired and astonished at the magnitude of creative people gathered in one place in time. We were a movement of pure energy, individual extravagance, great courage and a raging belief in the works we were making. All totally committed to a new, bold, fresh, exciting direction.

Did you realize that what you were tapping into were hypnagogic hallucinations, that you were recording quasi dreams on the frontier between sleep and wakefulness when you were writing the poems that were eventually published as Zombie Notes

mozombieThough a great fan of the surrealists and that quasi state between sleep and wakefulness, I didn’t intentionally set out to write in that form. Zombie Notes came about quite pragmatically. I had three children, a job, and all the rest. I tried to be the best mother possible and didn’t write until after I put the boys to bed. I would usually sit down at my typewriter about 10 pm and write until one or two am. Then I would get up at 6 to get the boys off to school or day care and go to work myself. This was my pattern day in and day out and I’m sure I was sleep deprived during those years. I would try to stay awake while writing, but would often drift in some nether state barely awake, not quite fully asleep.

I don’t think it was an official dream state as Bernadette (Mayer) or Loraine Niedecker draw from, but more a tangled exhaustion of thought. The title Zombie Notes perfectly described my state of mind. I seemed a zombie during those hours.  I would often just catch myself up as my face fell toward the typewriter keys, saving my teeth from smashing at the last second, and then a line of poetry would stumble from my fingers.

When you say “I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign,” I sense an esthetic commonality with the collaborative efforts of artists and poets concurrent to your time in New York.  Were you influenced at all by the art literature mix or was it just a happy accident that you shared a similar esthetic? 

Having the fabulous mix of artists and writers working together in collaboration expanded all possibilities. And again, just to be in the midst of that powerful making of works, in that “now” happening all around you, conjured up an incredible release of experiment and support for that experiment. What an invite to freedom!  Certainly this was not the first time art and text have mingled together on the page or canvas, but it was a push further out into that discovery of entanglement.  It was a leap into a new mind chemistry of the elements of text and paint.

In love with both, I felt fully engaged in this common ground. I collaborated in individual works, in drawings and covers for my books, in Telephone magazine and books. But text set the stage for my poems. My painterly art was in the language now. I created the “picture” with description. I focused on the words creating more explosively the image than it could be set down in brush or pencil. Language had become my oils and acrylics. I was rowing toward my own sea.

 moedgesYour most recent selection of poems, Edges of Water, was published by Chax Press in 2013. What projects, books, literary events are you currently engaged in? Are there plans for a selected or collected poems of Maureen Owen?

The poems I’ve selected to accompany our interview are from a manuscript in progress with the working title, Everything Turns on a Delicate Measure.  I’m still in the thick of writing it. Possibly it could be a new and selected, but right now I see it more as a separate title. A selected or collected would be something to think about.

Maureen Owen Recent Work

Maureen Owen Reads for the Bad Shadow Affair 

Maureen Owen Home Page

New To The Society’s Shelves

Norman Schaefer, Lower Putah Song, The Alcuin Press, 2016
Alastair Johnston, Dreaming On The Edge, Oak Knoll Press, 2016
Daniel J. Demers, Old Wine And Food Stories, 2016

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A Precursor to Haiku

A Precursor to Haiku

Excerpts from the introduction to Poetry For Sale, Haikai no Renga (Linked Verse) with poets Keith Kumasen Abbott, Sandy Berrigan, Gloria Frym, Steven Lavoie, Joen Moore, Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen, Michael Sowl, and John Veglia (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2015).

By Pat Nolan

bashopondredbdrHaikai no Renga is collaborative poetry of Japanese origin normally written by two or more poets linking stanzas of 17 syllables and 14 syllables according to specific rules governing the relationship between stanzas.  Haikai collaboration can be as complex as chess, as multi-dimensional as go, and as fast-paced and entertaining as dominoes.  It is as much about the interaction of the poets as it is about what gets written.  The forward progress of its improvisation is akin to that of a tight jazz combo. Haikai composition has also been compared to montage in experimental film where the discontinuity of images and vectors achieves an integral non-narrative expression.

Haikai no renga is known variously as renga, haikai, renku, and linked poetry.  Generally the term renga is applied to an older, more traditional style of linking poetry practiced by the aristocracy and the upper echelon of medieval Japanese society.  Haikai no renga means “non-standard renga” though it has often been translated as “mongrel” or “dog renga” which places it in the literary hierarchy as common entertainment.

In the introduction to her seminal study of Matsuo Basho’s haikai no renga, Monkey’s Raincoat (Grossinger/Mushinsha, 1973), Dr. Maeda Cana offers a further explication of the word haikai.  “The main characteristics of the haikai are partly discernible in the kanji or Chinese characters which make up the words haikai and renku: hai denotes fun, play, humor, and also actor or actress, and kai friendly exchange of words; ren represents a number of carriages passing along a road one after another and has the meaning of continuing to completion while ku is expressive of the rhythmic changes in speech and denotes end or stop.”

Renku is a literary game of high seriousness valuing cooperation and rewarding intelligence as well as intuition.  A poet’s erudition and sense of language are called upon to clear paths and build bridges that will meander through the landscape of a literary garden.  Its cooperative result, a balance of unpredictable language gestures as insubstantial as smoke but possessed of a palpable humanity, is what is important.  The echo of the response, its relationship to the previous stanza, and how it extends its meaning, poignantly or allusively, is the esthetic ground for this kind of poetry.  The linking process, in renga, and in haikai, allows a sequence whose subtle oscillation of playfulness and gravity walk the tightrope of language’s built-in ambiguities.

Seasonal themes dominate in haikai no renga. Japanese culture and esthetics prize expressive response to the natural world as its lyric mode.  “The classification in linked poetry is simpler,” Earl Miner states in his ground breaking study, Japanese Linked Poetry (Princeton, 1979), “there is the sense that a given stanza has but one of two kinds of main topic, season and miscellaneous. . .with subtopics of love, travel, grievance, Buddhism and so on.”  Haikai no renga allows for humor, common idioms, and the more mundane, sometimes scatological aspects of existence as opposed to traditional renga, viewed as exclusive, rigid, esoteric, and ritualized.

As an example of haikai no renga styles, and the poets’ eye for humor and fashion, their ear for wry social commentary, Miner translated the following stanzas from Poetry Is What I Sell [The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat,  p 380 ] as written by the renowned Basho with his partner Kikaku who Miner characterized as “in some ways . . . the most dazzling haikai poet.”

 Winter drizzle at Yamazaki
he joins in the umbrella dance
a bamboo grass design
figures his lounging kimono
dyed a classy blue

— Basho

A bamboo grass design
figures his lounging kimono
dyed a classy blue
under clouds at the hunting grounds
he yearns in vain for the young lord

— Kikaku

Under clouds at the hunting grounds
he yearns in vain for the young lord
the house’s first daughter
has now grown up in the household
of the village headman

— Basho

The house’s first daughter
has now grown up in the household
of the village headman
“The Gossip Is She Snores Like Thunder”
was ordered as the poetic topic

— Kikaku


At the height of its popularity in late 17th Century Japan, renku were composed by groups of poets over the course of an evening that included blossom and/or moon viewing, food, and liberal portions of rice wine. The assembled poets belonged to a haikai group, a kaRenga sequences are primarily group efforts although there are examples of dokugin, solo renga composition, most notably by the poet Sogi (1421–1502), of one hundred stanzas or more—thousand stanza renga were not unheard of either. The thirty-six stanza sequence known as a kasen was one favored by Basho and his disciples, the number thirty-six having a special cultural reference, the Thirty Six Immortal Poets.

rengasessionjPoems were spoken and copied down by a scribe. The renku master, known as the renkushi, might adjust a line or word, comment on the linking, even reject links too similar to previous stanzas. Socially these haikai groups were comparable to a loose aggregation of musicians coming together on special occasions to put into practice what they know of the form and to test their virtuosity in cooperative composition.  “Generally speaking, haikai is steeped in the wit and banter” as Dr. Cana explains, and “it has a brilliance that shocks.  Such brilliance is continual and amazes. . .at every turn.”  Poets are under pressure to produce the unpredictable so that the possibilities of cleverness are continually exploited at a tempo that is swift and witty.  The haikai poets of old delighted in word play, literary allusions, double entendres as well as displays of authentic sensibility. The completed renku is as much a certificate of cooperation as it is a multi-page poem and a sequence of short poems.  Its literary value is in its effervescent spontaneity and transitory nature, a quality much appreciated by the Japanese.

haikaiI was encouraged in my curiosity about haikai no renga by the poet and calligrapher Keith Kumasen Abbott, a long time friend and associate, who steered me to the publication of Earl Miner’s Japanese Linked Poetry in the late seventies.  Professor Earl Miner’s explanation of linked poetry, its history, its prosody, in this study, and in the subsequent The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat (Princeton, 1981), formed a solid grounding for my understanding of haikai no renga and the composition of haikai.

p4sale15tjMost of the innovations and adaptations of method in Poetry For Sale can be credited to Keith Kumasen Abbott and his deep understanding of the form. It was his suggestion that the opening verse of the haikai, generally designated the ‘guest’ hokku, be taken from haiku literature, both traditional and modern, and explains why the renku can open with a stanza by Buson as well as by Jack Kerouac.  Abbott created the order of participation, known as the ‘batting order,’ as well as introducing what are designated as ‘specials,’ the flower and moon stanzas in their predetermined position in the sequence.  He also determined that the length of the haikai sequence would consist of thirty-six linking stanzas known as a kasen.

The idea of doubling the stanzas to place emphasis on the linking process rather than the individual stanzas was Keith’s as well. This was done to emphasize, as Professor Miner noted, that the linking of stanzas produced a unique 31syllable poem resembling a tanka and was to be appreciated outside of the sequential flow of the renga.  In essence, each linked stanza creates its own poem as well as contributing to the integrity of the sequence.  The repetition of the stanzas serves as a speed bump for Western readers who are used to reading a column of verse in narrative succession and who might miss the subtlety of the unique linking. Professor Miner’s method in his careful exposition of haikai was to repeat the verse to draw attention to the linking process.  The doubling of stanzas became a feature of our own renku even though that aspect does not exist in the original compositions of Japanese linked poetry.

The renku were written at a remove rather than in a group setting since the poets involved lived at a distance from each other, and that meant the links were sent through the mail (before the ubiquity of computers and email).  Accompanying the linked stanzas were often rationalizations as to why a particular link was chosen or that a previous link was particularly effective, and so on.  In reading these conjectures and motivations, the idea occurred to me to include comments by the authors on their particular links and those of their collaborators.  Miner had shadowed his representations of haikai no renga with a commentary on each of the links in his texts, and that method was borrowed for our own purposes.  Dr. Maeda Cana had done something very similar in Monkey’s Raincoat by way of highlighting process in Basho’s haikai no renga.

Professor Earl Roy Miner (1927–2004), our haikai guide through the agency of his writings on Japanese linked poetry, taught at Princeton and was a noted scholar of Japanese literature.  Earl Miner’s The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature (1958) underscored my attitudes about the importance of Asian literature in the formulation of a personal poetry esthetic. His thorough exposition on Japanese court poetry, Introduction To Japanese Court Poetry (1968), gave relevance to the evolution of renga and haikai no renga, as did the tradition of the poetic diary, Japanese Poetic Diaries (2004), and was essential to my understanding of haikai no renga.  At one point I contacted Professor Miner and revealed myself and Keith as adherents to his views and methods of Japanese linked poetry.

Professor Miner’s response was cautiously appreciative—we were not the first to knock at his door looking for validation—yet his sincerity in assessing our renku was encouraging. In a letter dated February 16th, 1987, Professor Miner acknowledged a sample of linked poetry entitled Bird Feeder Renku by thanking me for my letter and the enclosed “English haikai or renku.”  He went on to write, “I have seen a number of attempts to do versions of linked poetry in English, and I think yours the truest to the spirit of the Japanese. . .I did enjoy your work and would like to see what you finally come up with.  You are on to something interesting, and there are Japanese friends who would be interested in what you are doing.”  If nothing else, Professor Miner’s reply reinforced my determination in continuing with collaborative efforts in linking poetry.

Subsequent correspondence with Professor Miner confirmed that I was doing something right.  In a letter dated January of 1995, Professor Miner thanked me for sending him a copy of Cloud Scatter (Tangram, 1994), a selection of what I called tanka but technically tan-renga (single links), adding that he had been asked by Michael Cooper to review Edwin Cranston’s large book of waka translations, A Waka Anthology (Stanford, 1993) for Monumenta Nipponica.  “My response,” the letter continued, “was an omnibus of waka studies of many kinds and forms, and I included some samples of your work that I particularly admired.”  Unfortunately, Miner’s wide ranging opinions were beyond the scope of the presentation, and he was “reluctantly” made to abide by the original brief.  “You will find with this [letter] the few remarks about you that I squeezed into my frustrated effort.”  The outtake Professor Miner provided quoted a few of my tanka with the comment, “If waka is to take seed in our soil, its leaves must also be those of English words.  Many people have essayed haiku in English, and some have done tanka that I find superior.” And “With these Dickinsonian sudden rays is a sound as of poetic linking, and it is not surprising to read in the accompanying letter, ‘Some friends and I have been linking verse (by mail) and calling it renga for almost ten years now.’”  In honor of Earl Miner’s overwhelming influence on the way I collaborated on linked poetry, I nominated the core cohort of haikai poets “The Miner School of Haikai Poets,” relishing as well the homophonic pun.


Basho by Keith Kumasen Abbott

Keith Kumasen Abbott outlined his understanding of how to proceed in an afterword to Bird Feeder Renku, the one I had sent to Professor Miner.  He begins by citing a linguistics professor of his who stated “that unless one were born into them, the Japanese language and baseball were equally difficult to learn.”  Writing renku, Keith explains, can be added to that list with the caveat that “the poetry has more irrational rules than baseball and is largely confined to the Japanese language.”  As with all the linked poetry we wrote over the years, no claims were made that any of them followed all the myriad rules of haikai no renga.  However, certain notions and intuitive understandings gleaned from Miner’s texts were observed.

Among the guidelines we adhered to was the idea that, as Keith put it, “two linked stanzas may be read together as a unit, but no three stanzas may be read together without some disruption of either time, place, tone, character, or speaker.  All stanzas “[e]xcept for the opening and closing stanzas has to therefore be read twice.  Once, as an end to the preceding stanza.  And again as a start to the following stanza.”  This understanding of the doubling of the stanza emphasizes a key element of the linking process.  As Professor  Miner explained it, “The essential fact to understand is the inviolable principle that no stanza has a continuing semantic connection, as a discrete poetic unit, with anything other than its predecessor or its successor, linked in continuity at each point of juncture but otherwise discontinuous” has the effect of undermining any sense of plot or conventional narrative.

This aspect of subverting the narrative thrust, insisting on a discontinuity in linking poetry, is also what makes haikai so appealing.  Keith explained it this way: “Since lyrics have a way of ending conclusively, in renku the lyric feeling of any stanza threatens the narrative feeling.  Too strong, and the sequence doesn’t seem to proceed, but ends prematurely.  Conversely, a strong narrative link obviously endangers a lyrical link, grounding it in action rather than feeling.  Since with renku a continuous plot is impossible, the narration rests on the conflicts and resolution of image and style, not character or fate. This is one reason why there are so many stylistic rules for writing linked verse in Japanese, where certain stanzas have to contain a moon or flowers, certain types of words have to be employed in specific places, etc. These rules help guide the writers into finding continuity without a plot.”

One of the most obvious strictures in the writing of renku as well as that of haiku is the syllable count.  However, adherence to the rule in a non-Japanese language can render the stanzas somewhat prosaic, lacking the perceived concision that it seems to have in the language of its origination.  Many non-Japanese writers of haiku and renga have eschewed the syllable count in their compositions for something that tries to simulate the deceptive simplicity of the Japanese language.  There is no easy linguistic comparison of either language.  For instance, in Japanese, ono is counted as three syllables.  On the other hand, in English, unceremoniously consists of seven syllables.  Some rules, as Keith proposes, can be stretched. “Traditionally the three line stanzas contain 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern, and the couplet contains 14 syllables in a 7-7 pattern.  While many of our stanzas contain the proper syllabic count, rarely do they fall in the proper syllabic line counts.  This irregularity occurs because we both are cadence-oriented poets and Pat and I prefer to let the language fall in its appropriate measure of spoken speech, keeping its American tone.”

six-poetsjThe Japanese scholar Haruo Shirane in his excellent study, Traces Of Dream: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho (Stanford, 1998), talks about what he calls haikai mind, the ability to anticipate relationships between stanzas and how they might fit together like molecules in a chemical chain or juxtaposed as disparate images in experimental cinema.  Abbott is talking about something very similar when he points out that among Japanese critical terms “there is something called the haikai change, referring to the quickness and adroitness of the shift from a scene into another time and place.  Sometimes this involves a change in the sex of the character, apparently much easier to do in Japanese than in English, and often the effect has a peculiar flavor of comedy.  A serious stanza can become suddenly ironic, teasing or very funny with the addition of another.  Naturally this appealed to Pat and I.  Not only are we both writers in the tradition of the California Zen poets, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, we were also raised on American film comedy and its rapid manipulations of point of view.”

As an example, in one of our early renku, I presented Keith with a stanza:

 long into the wee hours
“I already answered that question!”
—heat lightning

And he returned with:

—unfaithful—bored—she tried
lying even to her housemaid

Abbott explained our adaptations and improvisations thusly: “Since the verse does occur in links, we wrote them trying to explore these possibilities, attracted to the challenge of discontinuous scenes forming an aesthetic whole.  In some ways our renku resembles an experimental film shot on a minimum budget in each of our backyards, work places and home towns.  Jumpcuts, fast fades, slow dissolves, pull backs and tracking shots are all familiar techniques easily employed in writing renku, with the most common technique being the match cut where an object or person in one scene is abruptly shown in another milieu altogether in the next.  Speaking stylistically, it is possible that a link can be couched in the most common language of a setup in a film script, and sometimes this resonates with suggestive brevity.  Often, changing sex of the characters, the links wind backwards (in chronological time) from old age through domestic discord to a love affrair fading out in a possible soap opera TV commercial.”

Haikai composition has obvious similarities to film making (or editing) in that the stanzas are spliced together in a relationship or juxtaposition that appears discontinuous but when viewed on completion reveals an intuitive or visceral unity.  Each stanza is an image, or multiple images, in relation to each other, viewed close up or distantly, symbolic as well as representational (scene setting, environment) and presented as a complexity of responses, neutral, active, or passive.  The composition of haikai is loaded with unpredictability resulting in random, dream-like, metamorphoses.

The end result, the text of a completed renku session, can be viewed as the recording of an ensemble’s nuanced and spontaneous intellection.  Dr. Maeda Cana, in her introduction to The Monkey’s Raincoat, summarizes the effect of successful composition: “As the mind of the reader passes from one short scene to another, there is created an illusion of movement in time and space, relentlessly onward through the vicissitudes of life.  Probably because of the associative undercurrent ‘linking’ the verses in each sequence, a haikai does appear as an integrated symbolic picture of human existence with its figurative joys and sorrows, its critically decisive moments, tragic inevitabilities and flitting humor.  The transitory incidents of life are somehow made to appear as ubiquitous realities in the cosmic continuum.”  For the haikai poet, being moved to spontaneous expression defines poetic activity and illustrates an esthetic whose basic tenet is that the consistency of human character lies in appropriate awareness, not in dramatic overreaction.

Parole Officer’s Note: The opening stanza of haikai no renga, the hokku, eventually morphed into its own independent verse form, the haiku, in late 19th Century Japan.

Poetry For Sale, Haikai No Renga is available through Nualláin House, Publishers, for $16 US plus shipping and handling.  Go to the Nualláin House, Publishers site here to access a description of the book and ordering information from the How To Order menu option.

New To The Society’s Shelves:

Norman Schaefer, Lower Puthah Song (The Alcuin Press, Portland, 2016)
Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire, Poet Among Painters (Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1963)
Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (Duke University Press, Durham, 1987)
Robert Hébert, Derniers Tabous (Note bene, Montreal, 2015)
The Poetry Project Newsletter, #248, October/ November, 2016

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Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch

Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch 

A Talk by Philip Whalen

I don’t know what was happening at the time Lew wrote this poem, Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen; I presume it must have been around the time that he was down here at Greeley. They asked him to do a summer poetry thing at Colorado State; he seems to have manufactured this poem around that time. I don’t know how it got into its present position [page 123, 1973 edition] in Ring of Bone, I’ll have to ask Donald Allen that. “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings” comes first, then there’s the “Olema Satori” poem, then there’s the “Sausalito Trash Prayer” …

Mt. Tam photo summitTamalpais is the mountain that’s just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco as you’re going north. The old road went through Sausalito and then on up to Mill Valley and Santa Rosa and so on, going north toward Oregon. But now a big freeway just continues as you come off the Golden Gate Bridge, you zoom on this big freeway and across overpasses and you don’t go through Mill Valley or a hundred other small places. After you go through the tunnel that goes through the little mountains directly above Sausalito, you come out the other side of the Waldo tunnel at the top of the Waldo Grade and you can start seeing Mt. Tamalpais, which dominates the center of Marin County. It’s only about 2300 feet high, it’s not a high mountain, but since it’s coming up right off the coastal plain it looks quite imposing. The Indians thought that it looked like a sleeping lady; I think that’s what Tamalpais means.

It’s been of interest to us to construct it very slowly into a magic mountain or to restore its magic by very traditional means—not black magic, but magic magic. We started this process around 1959 by performing circumambulation of it and reciting sutras at various points around it. Actually Locke McCorkle started and then the rest of us continued from time to time. There was one time when Ginsberg and Snyder and I actually set up specific altar spots around the mountain. It’s funny, that sort of formal trip was done first in maybe 1964 and we all wrote poems on that occasion, at each of those places. It wasn’t until much later that the Zen Center was given, at a greatly reduced price, the Green Gulch Farm, which is right at the bottom of Mt. Tamalpais and more or less includes Muir Beach where the wobbly rock is that Lew writes a long poem about in here [Ring Of Bone]. It was a place where we had gone in the early ’50s to collect mussels and roast them on the seashore, drink wine, and laugh a lot, before Gary went to Japan the first time in 1956.

Marin County is very interesting, you’ve probably read a lot of nonsense about it in the press; it’s even been satirized by the comic strip called Farley – and it’s very funny. It is, to a large extent, ridiculous what happens there. But physically it’s quite beautiful, it’s extremely varied landscape. In places where there are little valleys, little gulches, or little canyons, there will usually be water and redwood trees. Then you come out of the little gulch or canyon and up onto a ridge or a meadow and there’s a sudden change of vegetation, there are California Live Oaks and brush, grass, more typical California hot and dry quasi desert. If you get over right on the ocean side, again there is a mixture of Live Oaks and Cypresses and meadows; and then in among the rocks you’ll find kinds of succulent plants growing, kinds of sedum and what are popularly called “hen and chicks”, things people usually see in someone’s cactus collection. So you have all these kinds of things going on within a very short distance from each other, a strange feeling. There’s one open hillside in the village of Tiburon which is now protected by the State, it has more kinds of California wildflowers than almost any place else in the State, and nobody knows why. If you visit there in the spring season, you can see kinds of plants that you can’t see anyplace else; it’s a very strange botanical phenomenon.

ringofbonejpgIf you live outdoors enough and stay alone enough and walk around enough, you tune in on landscape and it becomes important to you; and you like places, you like the way things go together. When Lewie wasn’t too distracted with dope and alcohol and problems of all kinds about money, he always enjoyed himself out of doors and spent a lot of time out of doors. He was always making wonderful commonplace discoveries that made it possible for him to write poems like this one. But the time between the discovery and the manufacture of the poem, I don’t know how long that would be. He tended to work things over mentally for a long time before he ever actually wrote anything down. He would have it in his head, and be adjusting it and thinking about it and then getting new ideas about it and rearranging it in his head some more and adding to it maybe, before he ever set down even a fragmentary version on paper. Then that in turn would be altered considerably before he finally would have a typewritten version, that he would tell you was no good. Then somebody would ask him for a poem and he would finally recopy that typewritten version with maybe another change or so and send it out. That’s what would appear in print.

I first saw this poem in the shape of a printed broadside. I can’t remember who printed it, whether Clifford Burke [of Cranium Press] did it or a guy in Berkeley with Straight Arrow. Anyway, it’s quite a handsome broadside. What we’ve got now is “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen:”

All the years I overlooked them in the
racket of the rest, this
symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding
on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air–
tiny acid-factories, dissolving
salt from living rocks and
eating them.

Here they are blooming!
Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it:
rust, ivory, brilliant yellow-green, and
cliffs like murals!
Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly
with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.

Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!
Clumps of mushrooms and where do the
plants begin? Why are they doing this?
In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?

These are the stamps on the final envelope.

How can the poisons reach them?
In such thin air, how can they care for the
loss of a million breaths?
What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?

Let it all die.

The hushed globe will wait and wait for
what is now so small and slow to
open it again.

As now, indeed, it opens it again, this
scentless velvet,

this Lichen!

In this poem he’s got a whole complicated set of notions going on. Does everybody know what lichen looks like, what lichen is? It’s flat, you look at it and you just see flat, sometimes it looks like a splash of paint, and you don’t think about it, you see color and you say oh, that’s lichen. Actually they’re quite primitive plants and they grow in the most untoward appearing places. They grow in the Arctic and in the desert; all sorts of places where you wouldn’t expect to find anything, there are lichen happening. They go through phases of dormancy when they turn all kind of black and dusty and look like they’re totally dead. Then if the seasons change and a certain amount of moisture comes around they start lighting up again and opening up and functioning. They’re able to survive quite severe changes in climate and seasonal changes without perishing. They really are very successful creatures. They are successful perhaps, we’re told in biology class, because of the fact that they are a symbiotic arrangement; they are two things that live together to make one apparent organism. In this case it is a fungus and a kind of algae; an algae and a fungus mixed up together make a lichen. Goodness knows how that got started. If you have any interest in the start of such phenomena, incidentally, there’s a marvelous book written by a very smart woman at Yale University, called The Evolution of the Nucleated Cell [Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, by Lynn Margulis Yale University Press, 1970]. It’s all about how at first there was undifferentiated protoplasm rolling around in the ocean, organizing itself out of the chemicals in the water. Nobody knows why yet, but for some reason protoplasm started building up out of amino acids rolling around in the water, perhaps because of an electrical discharge. After a while they learned to clump together and make what we think of as protein molecules; of course protein molecules are what living material is made out of. Presently I think, according to this lady’s theory, there became different kinds of protein molecules; some of them were more complicated than others and at some point these two different kinds of viable protoplasm got together to make a symbiote. The first known symbiote was a nuclear cell. The animal or creature, whatever you want to call it, that became the nucleus joined up with this hitherto unnucleated but growing undifferentiated protoplasm; so you began having a cell that was distinguishable, it acquired a wall and the nucleus had the function of conveying the genes and so on, so that the thing reproduced itself as such, as an amoeba for example. And everything continued on from there. Among the kinds of amino acids and whatnot in various protoplasms, supposedly the materials we now know as RNA and DNA started going at some point; maybe they were responsible for the symbiosis of the first primitive nucleated cells. Anyway, it’s an interesting book to look at.

(A curious literary manifestation of this rather complicated book is a play by Michael McClure called The Feather which has been produced in Berkeley. I saw a performance late in 1971. It’s one of the more entertaining of his Gargoyle Cartoons, you’ll find it in the book called Gargoyle Cartoons.)

crustose_lichens_lgSo, lichen go back a long time in the history of the development of plants; they are quite ancient ones that are still around. Usually things develop and then fade away; but we have other curious hangovers, like cockroaches, for example, which have been the same for a good many million of years. They seem to be perfectly adapted to doing anything and everything. I think in the mammalian order things like rats have succeeded where many others have failed.

So Lew Welch says, “all these years I overlooked them in the racket of the rest, this symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding on rock on sun, a little moisture, air, tiny acid-factories, dissolving salt from living rocks and eating them.” I think that there might be a mistake there, he might have written “salts.” That’s one of the things that happens if you have a lichen sitting on something. In the process of its taking in moisture and carbon dioxide it excretes acid, which attacks the rock it’s sitting on; the acid in turn breaks down the goody and makes it into something else. So he sees them as tiny acid factories dissolving salts from living rocks and eating them. It isn’t usually fashionable to think of rocks as being alive. We like to think of the planet, we like to think of nature as being controllable and as being dead—it’s just matter, you can treat it any way you want to; rocks are simply stuff you can throw around. He says they’re alive and they’re being devoured by these little plants. He doesn’t say what the rocks think about it, he just says this is happening. I do remember “living rock” as a phrase, something I carved from the living rock; somebody was talking about the city of Petra in Arabia, or maybe they were talking about the caves at Ajanta, carved from the living rock in India. It’s a literary phrase, in so far as the rocks at Ajanta were all carved into relief statues, so they looked alive. But Lew is talking about the rocks being alive, being devoured just like animals eat each other. So it’s a life process, it’s not simply a chemical process, it’s life going on.

“Here they are blooming! Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it.” What is the difference between talus and scree? I don’t know where we get that word, talus means something like field, I think, in Latin; and scree, I don’t know where we get that either. It might be a funny English word, maybe borrowed from Welsh, like many mountain climbing terms are. If you read books about mountain climbing, you find people talking about cwms for example, [pronounced “cooms”], meaning a little valley. Because many English people who became celebrated mountain climbers practiced or learned some of their basic techniques on the mountains in Wales where they do rock climbing—which is quite as dangerous and difficult as any in the world, partly because of the nature of the rock and partly because of the foggy climate, which makes it impossible for you to see where you’re going a lot of the time and makes the rocks wet. Then of course they would go on to climb in the Alps and end up in the Himalaya.

So he says these colors are there, “cliffs like murals.” I can’t remember seeing an entire cliff painted by lichen quite that elaborately, but Lewie says he did, and there it is. “Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.” The shooting-star is the flower that I was taught to call “bird bill” up in Oregon. Actually it’s a kind of native cyclamen which grows in Europe and the United States. Lupine is a kind of a thatch plant that has very handsome spikes of blue and white flowers, yellow sometimes.

“Closer, with the glass, a city of cups.” If you look at lichen under a magnifying glass quite often you’ll see they have a kind of cup shape where they grow quite closely together; you might see that if you have a small pocket glass. You see a whole raft of them, he says you see a city. “City of cups” is quite a lovely phrase. It brings to my mind the tarot deck, one of the suits of the tarot is cups. I don’t know whether he had that in the back of his mind or not, he was never terribly interested in all that kind of stuff.

“Clumps of mushrooms and where do the plants begin? Why are they doing this? In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” This is something that’s quite unusual in contemporary American English, to have an object be given a pet name; people used to do it in more sentimental poetry in the Nineteenth Century. I don’t think there’s a sentimentality here, but there certainly is an affection.

What do you think are the answers to these questions? Do you think that Lewie knew what the answers were? Where do the plants begin? That is to say, you can’t see when you’re looking down with your hand glass at it, where they start and leave off and if there are other mosses and mushrooms and things mixed in with them, you can’t tell where things begin and end. And, as I was saying, the beginning of anything is floating around in some ocean a long time ago. We all begin together, actually, although we never remember that. “Where do the plants begin, why are they doing this?” Well, they’re doing this for the same reason that everybody else does everything, they’re all full of those curious chemicals, that double helix unwinding itself to make what we think of as life and death and history.

whalen welch

Snyder, Whalen, Welch

“In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” Human and otherwise, we like to look at things. This of course is part of our training when we’re quite small; we’re told, look at that, isn’t that pretty. I can remember distinctly seeing a number of things that were pointed out to me as pretty which I could not for the life of me connect with that word or with the emotion of the person who was explaining to me that it was “pretty,” meaning that it was of value and that it was nice and they liked it a whole lot and that I ought to, etc. Well, if you say so. We’d be driving someplace and people would point out the window and say, look at that view over there, it’s just gorgeous. I would look out the window—you look out a window and what do you see out of it? Traveling in the window, when you’re in a car, you see the fence posts speeding past, the telegraph posts, or you might suddenly see a cow standing in a field. The way of looking out a window and seeing it composed as a landscape was a faculty which I had to develop much later, I certainly didn’t possess it when I was small. It wasn’t until much later that my eyes began failing, so I don’t think it could have been nearsightedness at that age. It was a simple disconnection between language and experience, between what was real and what wasn’t, some lapse in communication on my part or on the part of my parents. In any case it was very difficult to indoctrinate me with proper feelings. Many proper feelings I have never been able to acquire, I’m sorry to say. So in many ways I’m a failure. The habit of going to pieces at Christmas time, for example, I have a great deal of trouble with that; I cannot be terribly interested in the joy that you’re supposed to have. Various other things of that kind, especially the public examples that everyone is supposed to participate in, have always been difficult. Things like, let’s all sing now; I’m just sitting there, fuck. Sing, schming. I love to sing, I’ll sing in the bathtub or if I’m by myself or with two or three other people, sometimes I include some song in a poem; but not if somebody says, all right now we’re all going to, because we’re glad or because it’s fun, aren’t we having fun? This of course was usually accompanied, when I was with my family, when I was small, with threats and accusations of ingratitude, which were very hard to live down.

So the reason we look at things is we’re told that things are pretty or ugly or certain things are to be looked at and certain things are not to be looked at; we’re programmed to respond to things in a certain way. Why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny? Ideally, I suppose, as far as I’m concerned, because Lewie was a friend of mine, I think that he was looking because he was interested, and because he was attracted by the color and, ultimately, because he was always, like all of us, looking for himself. We never look for ourselves in the middle, we always look outside for everything, because outside is where reality is, we think, and that’s what we’re told we ought to have and we ought to go for it: it’s outside there, it’s better, it’s wonderful, it’s expensive, it’s hard to get, and everybody ought to have it. I think that in this case—Lewie being a poet and being excited by seeing this cluster, this city of cups that doesn’t start or stop anywhere—what’s happening is all of a sudden he’s really turned on, really excited, and so he’s looking, looking to see out there and always, because he doesn’t understand himself too well, looking for himself.

Then he says, “These are the stamps on the final envelope.” That’s a great piece of news and I think at that point the poem should have stopped (just between you and me; you’re not supposed to listen, Lewie, in heaven). But I think that he has delivered his whole message right there. He could have moved that line, maybe, to where it says “Let it all die,” and moved that line down at the bottom. In any case, that’s the poem almost, in that one line. Like the title, “These are the stamps on the final envelope” is a splendid poem. But he’s telling you why—it’s interesting. And suggesting of course that it would be a good idea if you went out and looked at some lichen once in a while, and found out that it was possible to be turned on by looking at these otherwise ignoble or who cares kind of creatures. The thing is, if you do, you’ll find out more than you bargained for. These are the stamps on the final envelope.

Of course he explains about the final envelope, “How can the poisons reach them? In such thin air, how can they care for the loss of a million breaths? What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?” which is quite beautiful, an interesting way of arranging sounds. And of course it’s talking about the air that’s killing us all; the lichens are likely to survive is what he’s saying, I suppose. How can the poisons reach them? they’ll just turn them into more lichens, likely, something we’re not able to do to ourselves. “How can they care for the loss of a million breaths?” That is to say, if a whole lot of animals and people died, they would just continue to operate anyway. “What possibly could make their ground more bare?” That is to say, their ground being bare rock, which he suddenly forgets is living; what possibly could make their ground more bare is the disappearance of themselves, I suppose. What could make it more bare? Well, of course, being burnt and disintegrated by the forces of a fusion bomb would make it barer for a while, certainly if it turned into glass. “The hushed globe will wait,” that is, hushed because there’s no more breathing going on, “the hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Although if the places where the rocks are all fused into glass in spots, as quite often happens where there’s that intense kind of heat that is produced by a hydrogen bomb or a nuclear explosion, it’s unlikely that a lichen is going to attach itself to a piece of glass – it hasn’t happened yet and the possibilities of its happening are slim, unless there’s some mutation in which a lichen decides that it would like to go into the business of dissolving silicon salts out of glass and living on that. “The hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Lichens grow at a very low rate. They’re small, as he says, and it takes years for them to get into a patch big enough for you to notice. The globe of the world will break down again, crack open, by this stuff as “indeed, it opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks, this Lichen.”

As you know, when the lichens break down the rocks, part of the salts they eat and then the silicon parts and other bits that are indigestible simply become what we call sand. Then eventually the body of the lichen plant itself dissolves away into humus, eventually that’s the basis of where other things can grow. Even while the lichen is still alive quite often fern spores and other seeds get involved with it and start growing because there’s that moisture there and there’s a hole, a spot for them to grab onto in the actual body of the lichen. So a lot of other plants get started from that patch of lichen on otherwise bare stone. “It opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks.” If you touch some kinds of lichen it feels quite soft. The thing that’s interesting is, it comes up about how the rocks are breaking up and even with the phrase, “this lichen”—there’s a poem that is doing very much the same thing, written by a dear friend of Lewie. Not me and not Allen Ginsberg, somebody older. There’s a trip that William Carlos Williams goes into about saxifrage, about the stone crop, the one that breaks the rocks. Maybe Lew was remembering Williams’ poem, but I kind of doubt it. He knew the poem of course, but this one is a kind of grand-child of that saxifrage poem, which is rather short.

So on the one hand he foresees some eventual catastrophe that is going to take away a million breaths and then he says, “Let it all die,” because it’ll all start over supposedly, in some way. The idea of the destruction and renewal of the universe is an ancient religious notion we still are stuck with to a certain degree. It means more or less to anybody. Just at this point, please remember all the roaring I was doing recently about how things are alive and people ought to realize it and take care of them, and not think of ourselves as masters of all we survey or as controllers of this dead matter we can push around any way we want to. The rocks are alive; everything is alive. The final envelope, the last message, is please turn around and don’t drop those things. Although something will survive, it ain’t going to be you. It might be these lichen, which are very nice things and are going to make a new start, probably, after you’re gone. But what is it that lichen are doing? They’re sitting there very quietly growing, very slowly, and not bothering anybody. They don’t even get involved in the whole bee and flower business. They’re just sitting there, spreading out and being pretty. Maybe as far as Lew was concerned—like he says, they make these murals—maybe I’m straining at a gnat to swallow the camel again about how the whole poem is metaphorical, being about art, being about people who are creative like they say nowadays, people who paint and write poems, by being quiet and working slowly and turning purple, will last, will endure, will do something when everything else is gone. That may be an extrapolation, which Lewie wouldn’t allow, he might at that point say, oh come on. But when somebody leaves a cryptic note—“I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it, never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor, use mss. at Gary’s and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America, use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye.”— and walks off into the wilderness and leaves you all his poetry to handle, it’s his own tough luck if people extrapolate.

                                                                        —Naropa University, July 28, 1980




Philip Zenshin Whalen (1923-2003)
American poet, Zen Buddhist



New To The Society’s Shelves

Bill Berkson/Joanne Kyger, Amsterdam Souvenirs, Blue Press, 2016
Lee Perron, Fourteen Poems of Transparence, Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2016
Joanne Kyger, 2012, Blue Press, 2013
Gary Snyder, The Life Of Creative Translation, Bancroft Library, 2013
John Brandi, Cloud Pavilion, a Kyoto Suite, Bancroft Library Press, 2013

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Don’t Mess With Bill

Don’t Mess With Bill; An Appreciation

berksonhatPoet and art critic Bill Berkson achieved personal entropy in San Francisco on Thursday, June 16th, 2016 at the young age of 76.  June 16th also happens to be Bloomsday celebrated around the world by aficionados of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Writers’ lives are bracketed by the simulacrum of literature, an exoskeleton of sorts, no matter what their personal life or relationships are like, and Berkson’s was (in more ways than one) a perfect example.  If you’re going to make an exit, this date is certainly loaded with literary resonance.

As someone born of money and social standing Bill Berkson can be said to have come into the world with a silver spoon in his mouth. Berkson was also fortunate to have a silver nib on his tongue.  Talent alone, however, is no guarantee of notice, and it helps to be well situated.  As his obituary in the New York Times points out: “In the artistic Manhattan of the 1960s, when the small worlds of experimental poetry, film, theater, visual art and dance bled into one another, an animated figure seemed to appear everywhere at once. Bill Berkson was the ever-present third man from the left in the group photographs that chronicle the era.” 

Berkson’s apparent Zelig-like ubiquity in the New York art scene is misleading.  As a native son, stylish Manhattanite , epithetic New Yorker with a solid Fifth Avenue café society pedigree not to mention classic photogenic good looks, it was the  less comely among the artists and writers who flocked to crowd into the photographs.  Berkson’s appeal, aside from his eye/arm candy attributes, was his sophisticated earnestness and a sense of aristocratic noblesse oblige.  As the son of Seymour Berkson, the publisher of The New York Journal-American, and Eleanor Lambert, a celebrated fashion publicist known as the “Fashion Queen of New York,” he benefited from a privileged upbringing in intellect and sophisticated tastes.  Educated at the prestigious Trinity School whose alumni include Aram Saroyan, Jim Carroll, Oliver Stone, and Humphrey Bogart, he also attended the equally elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey where he began his studies in poetry in earnest, encouraged to study Dickinson, Eliot, Pound and Gertrude Stein and winning prizes with his essay on Eliot and original poetry.  Matriculating to Brown University in 1957, he soon became aware of contemporary poetry represented by the Beats and the New York poets including Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and eventually moved on to study poetry at The New School under the direction of poet Kenneth Koch who introduced him to the rudiments of modern poetry.

In his biographical note in An Anthology of New York Poets (Random House, 1970) he lists the development of his influences under Koch’s tutelage: “through his teaching, by Williams, Reverdy, Auden, Stevens, Michaux—then of course, O’Hara and Ashbery, and Koch’s own work, or more exactly, his way of seeing funny details.  Translation of Cendrars and Aretino.”  Berkson’s enrollment at The New School coincided with the renewed interest by certain of the literate intelligentsia in non-Anglo literature, particularly the early 20th century French writers, but also the Russians and Spanish—actually anything, even ethnopoetics, to get out from under the stultifying atmosphere of Anglo hegemony.  It was also a time when the art scene was driven by a post-war prosperity and worldliness: Abstract Expressionism achieved its legendary status, galleries became the social centers for the cultured elite, and enthusiasm for modern dance was intense and passionate.

Berkson was in his element at the crux of art and poetry for which he would sustain a passion for the next 50 plus years of life. The New York Times obit recalled that “Mr. Berkson moved easily in this heady milieu, his striking good looks and insatiable appetite for the new affording him instant entree. His friends were legion, an endless roll call of the geniuses, provocateurs and poseurs who gave the decade its distinctive cultural tang.”  In a soon to be published memoir, Berkson placed himself squarely on the cusp of transitions in generational attitudes and esthetics, “I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.”

In 1968 Berkson, by then also an instructor at The New School, published Best & Company, a collection of poetry and art representative of unaffiliated younger poets and artists in his milieu as well poetry by the implied figureheads of the previous generation that included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, William Burroughs, and James Schuyler.  Best & Company also featured the work of Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman and many of the poets who would be featured two years later in the New York poets’ anthology.  In Best & Company, Berkson’s eye and ear for the modern categorized an esthetic that was uniquely quotidian and anti-establishment. By rejecting the conventions of the conservative Anglo-American academy, Berkson defined a “School of New York Poets” with his inclusive gesture, one that would unfortunately soon be reviled as the work of self-indulgent poseurs and self-aggrandizers by those whose entrenched literary establishment applecart they had upset.  The poets in this collection are flip, audacious, impudent with a hip self-possessed edginess derived in part from their association with the New York art scene, both pop and avant-garde, and whose horizons went beyond the dominant glot and outdated strictures of Anglo literocracy.

berksonrecentIn 1970 Berkson moved to the then little known community of Bolinas on the California coast just north of San Francisco.  There he established Big Sky, an art and poetry magazine, the name, according to Kevin Opstedal’s monograph on the Bolinas scene (Big Bridge Vol.3 #4), suggested by lyrics in a Kinks song: Big sky looks down on all the people.” By maintaining his hand in the art and literature mix Bill played an important role in keeping the New York school esthetic alive, an avant-garde modernism tied to a contemporary global art culture.  Opstedal also reports that “Berkson’s original editorial stance was to accept ‘whatever arrived from those invited to contribute.’ After the first two issues he found this method too ‘chaotic’ and devoted the third issue entirely to work by Clark Coolidge. Thereafter he became a more selective editor.”  Berkson edited and published 12 issues of Big Sky from 1971 to 1978 featuring a cast of local poets such as Joanne Kyger Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Bobbie Louise Hawkins as well as many of his former associates from the New York scene including Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Andrei Codrescu, Lewis Warsh, Steve Carey, Tom Clark, Anne Waldman, Maureen Owen, Bernadette Mayer, Anselm Hollo, and Allen Ginsberg.  In addition to the magazine, Berkson also published a series of Big Sky Books featuring the work of individual authors, among them Joe Brainard, Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, and John Thorpe.

berksonpg1Encouraged after teaching a graduate seminar in art criticism at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Berkson joined the staff of the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute in 1984, organizing public lectures and teaching art history and literature. He was the Institute’s director of letters and science until his retirement in 2008.  Throughout his career as a poet and art critic, Bill Berkson emphasized the close relationship between the visual arts and poetry through his numerous collaborations with artists such as Joe Brainard, Philip Guston, Norman Bluhm, Red Grooms George Schneeman and Alex Katz.  His most important collaborations, however, were not with artists but with another poet, Frank O’Hara.

Berkson accorded the role of mentor to Frank O’Hara. “General cultural education with Frank O’Hara: the Stravinsky-Balanchine Agon (and Edwin Denby’s essay on it), Satie (we created four hand ‘annoyances’ at various apartments. Once played for Henze in Rome), Feldman, Turandot, a certain Prokofiev toccata, Virgil Thomson (I had heard a recording of Four Saints at Harry Smith’s, Providence, 1957). Movies. . .we read Wyatt together, recited Racine, skipped through galleries, collaborated on The Hymns of St. Bridget 1961-1964. . .” as he states in the 1970 biographical note to the New York poets anthology.  But Berkson also exerted his own unique influence on the older poet.

Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, highlights the importance of O’Hara’s friendship with the younger poet in a chapter entitled “Bill’s School of New York” taken from a poem of that title. Berkson’s introduction to Frank O’Hara, the biography indicates, came at a time when, harried by the demands placed on him as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara’s poetic energies were flagging, and that the young, bill-berkson-and-frank (1)handsome poet was instrumental in reviving the older poet’s interest in poetry.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that as a young poet in his twenties, Bill Berkson served as a muse to the older poet evidenced by almost a dozen poems directly mentioning Berkson in the title or dedicated to him, in particular, the tour de force, Biotherm.  As well, there were the numerous F.Y.I. poems which functioned as private communications between O’Hara and Berkson, mimicking interoffice memos in which O’Hara appropriated the abbreviation of For Your Information and improvised his own variations such as F.M.I, F.O.I, etc.  Their collaborative poem, The Hymns of Saint Bridget, is a testament to the compatibility of their artist sensibilities. It might even be argued that O’Hara’s controversial off the cuff “Lana Turner has collapsed” written on the Staten Island Ferry enroute to his reading with Robert Lowell was dashed off in a fit of virtuosity to dazzle his young protégé.  The personally intimate jouissance of O’Hara’s style is on full display in Bill’s School of New York.

He allows how some have copped out
but others are always terrific, hmmmmmm?
Then he goes out to buy a pair of jeans,
moccasins and some holeless socks. It

is very hot. He thinks with pleasure that
his first name is the same as de Kooning’s.
People even call him “Bill” too, and
they often smile. He feels rather severe

actually, about people smiling without a
reason. He is naturally suspicious, but
easily reassured, say by a pledge unto death.
He likes to think of windows being part

of life, you look at them, they look at
you, why not? Passing the huge white Adam
sculpture in the Musee d’art modern he
was heard to fart. He likes walls to be

white, sculptures to be colored. He provides
his own noise. He is kissy and admires
Miró. Though his head is feathery, his
chronologies are very serious. He has a

longer neck than you might think. About
Courbet he seldom thinks, but he thinks a lot
about Fantin-Latour. He looks like one,
Corner of a Table. At the Frick Museum he

seems rather apache. He likes tunafish
and vodka, collages and cologne, and
seeing French movies more than once.
He is most at home at the Sidney Janis Gallery.

In Frank O’Hara’s poetry Berkson found a witty vernacular spontaneity that gleefully transgressed poetic conventions in ways similar to their artist contemporaries who rewrote the book on painting.  Collaboration with artists was also a distinctive feature of the New York poets, their affiliation with visual arts paralleling that of the Surrealist’s to painting, experimental cinema, and photography. Berkson’s grounding can be found in the shared congruency of visual art and text, a trend that had its modern beginnings with Baudelaire, and one characteristic of the New York School. In a certain sense, Berkson could be considered the Andre Breton to O’Hara’s Apollinaire, a modern day counterpart to the pontiff of Surrealism, but true to his place on the zodiac, working quietly, behind the scenes, championing an interdisciplinary compatibility that resists the predictable presumptions of English majors.  He contributed frequently to Art News and Arts as well as Artforum, Modern Painters, and Aperture among other publications. He was also a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His monographs and critical essays on artists such as Guston, Theibaud, Warhol, and Franz Kline are currently collected in two volumes, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & other art writing 1985-2003, with cover painting by Alex Katz (Qua Books, 2004), and Sudden Address selected lectures 1981-2006, with cover drawing by Philip Guston (Cuneiform Press, 2007).

The Modernist painting connection is clearly reflected in Berkson’s approach to poetry, something he referred to in a 2015 interview on PBS as his “sense of scatter.” In the same interview he stated “I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry, and at some point the worry ceased. I gave myself permission to do what I’ve been doing all along without worrying about it.”

For over 50 years and in almost two dozen volumes of poetry, Bill Berkson developed what has been described as “a freewheeling, idiosyncratic style” based on an affection for found phrases and their resident poetic qualities, an acute sense of droll constructions which Kenneth Koch had taught him to appreciate, and that can, at times, be “conversational, epigrammatic, elliptical, whimsical and surreal.”  Nonetheless, his poetry has edges, the obdurate discernment of a Virgo, the no-nonsense succinctness of his early influences, fellow Virgos Cendrars and Reverdy, and a clarity of expression that can seem aloof, confident, formidable, even forbidding, originating in an artistic vision that has affected a serious transformation in American poetry.

Expect-DelaysBerkson continued his preoccupation with art and literature, contemporary and historical, from Dante to Bernini, jazz to The Wire, and Rothko to Russian poetry in his 2014 selection of poems from Coffee House Press, Expect Delays. He also hinted at an emerging breakthrough in his approach to writing poetry.  In a note to the selection, he speaks of his awareness of how technology changes the way one does business and how his use of the computer shaped his more recent compositions. “Eventually after three or four years, looking over my accumulated desktop notebook materials, I saw that these more or less impulsive jottings had gathered a sort of intrinsic order that needed only minimal nudging from me to fall into place.  I went for a format that could hold together the range of things—occasional lines, poem fragments, prose musings, scraps taken from reading, dream records, memory shots; stray uncategorized notions, quiddities, and so on—that happen ordinarily in hand written notebooks, but that occurred here with the more formal edge of being already ‘typeset’.”  What Berkson had come across in the use of the word processor and its cut and paste potential is a method familiar to film editors, of taking disparate elements and splicing them into a seemingly narrative whole while remaining open ended.  It is a method eerily similar to the way the poet Philip Whalen worked, but long before the advent of the personal computer.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Philip Whalen’s poetry was also a subject of great interest to Berkson.  They had been neighbors in Bolinas for a time. He had published the Zen poet in issues of Big Sky, and was more than passing familiar with Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation editions of Whalen’s work.  He was, as well, instrumental in arranging Whalen’s 73rd birthday celebration at the SF Art Institute in the 1996.  Berkson understood that in the modern American canon Whalen’s importance loomed as large as that of his original mentor, Frank O’Hara.  In an email exchange discussing Whalen’s epic length Scenes from Life at the Capital, he states, “That book was my guidebook in Kyoto 2006. I had a running conversation with Philip throughout my Kyoto stay, and it’s all there in facsimile edition of Japan 2006/2010 notebooks. . . .”

Consistently a presence on the avant-garde’s leading edge, Bill Berkson developed and maintained a sophisticated and unique sensibility. He kept an ear to the ground for the latest in the literary arts with an intelligent attention and curiosity that was as untiring as it was focused, constantly on the lookout for innovation and the new. Although Ted Berrigan’s oft quoted, “If Bill Berkson is New York school, the rest of us are reform school” speaks of a social divide, it was Berkson’s distinctive vision of the developments in art and literature among his contemporaries on his home turf that bridged that gap. His contribution to American poetry was to bring together under a loosely defined rubric, the School of New York Poets, a generation of independent writers and artists in tune with contemporary counter culture, from pop music and art to the ever shifting postmodern ground that characterized the global influences of the late century era.  In retrospect and given the passage of time, Bill Berkson’s importance as a poet and a definitive authority on modern American arts and literature on the cusp of the millennium will be more fully appreciated.

Submitted to the Membership by the Grand Poobah, 7/31/2016

New To The Society’s Shelves:
Jim Wilson et al, A Second Book of Renga, (Sebastopol, 2016)
Alice Notley, Benediction, (Machine Letter Press, 2015)
David Hinton, Hunger Mountain, (Shambala, 2012)
Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, (University of Texas, 1986)
Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Rothenberg, Symposium of the Whole,
(University of California Press 1983)
Joel Dailey, ed., Fell Swoop #143, (New Orleans, 2016)
Joel Dailey, ed., The Southern Testicle Review, (New Orleans, 2016)
Tom Weigel, Mambo, (Fell Swoop #144)

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