Go read the poems.
John GallaherWinner of the twelfth annual Boston Review poetry contest
In John Gallaher’s series of “Guidebook” poems, Big Brother (or some other faux Reality Show) is on tape loop in the Cartesian theater. Shards of jaded narrative are locked in a house together, and they hate each other! The poems are full of paratactic leaps, each a desperate attempt at escape, except, we find out, escape is just another schtick, e.g., “Adam turned aside to indulge a passion for turning aside.” But Gallaher gives us to understand that all the digression, all the zigzagging in the world won’t really get us outside the “penopticon.” Our moves are written into the script. This is disturbing, of course, but “Rosie was mostly happy though and knew that all would one day be another day.” These poems may be the boxes we’re always trying to “think outside of.” ‘Lots of luck!’ they tell us. “Now there is relentless war between us, says the senator, as he goes off to dine with Buffy.” With their cast of recurring characters, the poems in Gallaher’s series are as bitter and skeptical —and funny!—as (old) Bob Dylan songs. We may not know the way out, but we’d better not get too comfortable here in the endless preview. Are we being warned? Near the end, “Chicken Little and the Boys have some words.”
—Rae Armantrout, Judge
Thursday, December 17, 2009
By John Ashbery
143 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.
John Ashbery, Toying With Words
By HELEN VENDLERPublished: December 8, 2009
John Ashbery’s new collection, dedicated to his partner, David Kermani, draws its exotic title — “Planisphere” — from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” in which two perfect lovers have been kept apart by the goddess Fate, since their perfection would be her ruin:
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
A three-dimensional globe is flattened to two dimensions, and the distant poles at last can touch. Such an image fits Ashbery’s surreal imagination, with its arresting leaps and resistant incoherence.
Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more. Ashbery’s own mental inventory is a comic one, the contents of a trading ship straight out of the pages of a colonizer’s journal:
It is still being loaded by natives with cone-shaped
hats on their heads. Here come the transistors,
bananas, durian (a fruit said to have a noxious smell),
baby bottles, photocopiers, and souvenirs,
such glorious ones! Nothing useful except key-chains,
lockets to be furnished, a ball to stuff with life.
Like many of Ashbery’s descriptions, this one becomes allegorical in the end, as the composer/artist acquires, besides his ironically exclamatory “glorious” souvenirs, aids to artistry: a chain for keys (music? metrics?), a locket for pictures of beloved people, a mini-globe (Stevens’s “Planet on the Table”) to “stuff with life.” Whitman too, as comic and appetitive as Ashbery, imagined himself as the terrestrial globe, “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” But the accumulation of a lifetime’s printed poems can also cause eventual revulsion: the “River of the Canoefish” is charming when the first canoefish is spotted, followed by another. But today the sight can hardly be borne, the fish have so overpopulated the river of life:
Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.
Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.
Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted. Even after the received idea has been overturned (say, by a war), the agents of cliché immediately try to restore it:
About fourteen passengers working overtime
by the end of the war restored challenged idées reçues,
set things to rights.
The poet persistently undermines that restoration of the status quo in order to render the mind once again “new, tender, quick,” as George Herbert said.
Ashbery also juggles the infinite possibilities of genre, his mind running through many exhausted topics at once, trying for one that still has life in it:
Why what a lovely day/street/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! I think so.
Some of the games “prove out” exhilaratingly for the reader, some are perhaps too private, some too abstruse, some too silly (there are a couple of Steinish collages that don’t earn their keep, one of them made from the titles of movies). But when the Ashberian associative complex works (as in the cases cited above) the mind is delighted by its unexpectedness. Conversation is nearly always the pretext, as in the poet’s shorthand summary of life in old age: “This is how my days, / my nights are spent, in a crowded vacuum / overlooking last year’s sinkhole.” Depending as I do on the poets to tell me — even via comic despair — what each decade of life feels like, I laughed with gratitude at the “crowded vacuum” of one’s 80s as a point of vantage, and grimly took in the melancholy shrug of “last year’s sinkhole.” “Where is Rumpelstiltskin when we need him?” Ashbery asks, and then himself spins the straw of experience into the gold of a page.
Ashbery, the master of sinuous syntax (see his “Three Poems” or “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”) has performed surgery on his poems here, often bringing them into the wry epigrammatic domain of Dickinson:
I made a joke about howBut several poems, notably “Planisphere” and “Pernilla,” belong to Ashbery’s ambitious longer lyric mode. I quote, for readers longing for the lyric Ashbery, the conclusion of the love poem “Alcove,” which opens this volume with a wondering joy at the return of spring and ends with a vista of love, despite its inevitable separateness, surviving the worst days of old age:
it doesn’t dovetail: time,
one minute running out
faster than the one in front
it catches up to.
That way, I said,
there can be no waste.
Waste is virtually eliminated.We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.
In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”
There are self-elegies here: I feel a pang hearing Ashbery say, “Time to shut down colored alphabets’ / flutter in the fresh breeze of autumn.” His “small museum / of tints” has provided ambiguous prophecies, curdled recollections, menacing prospects, emergencies, landscapes and puzzles; it has no less provided memories of youth, intimacies of love, the comedy of the ephemeral, the transhistorical speech of painting, and the literary in its quoted quintessence. The poet’s last look here is a “glimpse of / the books in the carrel, sweet in their stamped bindings”; one of these days, the carrel will hold his “Collected Poems.”Helen Vendler’s Mellon Lectures, “Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill,” will be published next spring.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Holloway Series in Poetry - Ann Lauterbach
Ann Lauterbach is the author of seven books of poems; her most recent book is The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. She is a Professor at Bard College, where she co-directs the writing division of the MFA program.
Recorded February 5, 2009
RecordedWed, October 21
Prompted by last weekend’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the question has been: where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?
C.D. Wright speaks of her output as “a few reams of freedom.” Father was an Arkansas judge and a nearsighted bookworm, like herself. Mother was a court reporter. “Of the choices revealed to me,” she has written in her memoir of life and craft, Cooling Time, “crime and art were the only ones with any real sex appeal.” I love her take on the local and the global in her head and her poetry:
The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.
Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Copper Canyon, 2005. p. 89
“I believe in a hardheaded art,” she has written, “an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms.” Her terms run to the erotic, the choleric, the comic, in her own “luminously strange idiom,” the New Yorker said, “eerie as a tin whistle.” She read for us and talked with us at the Watson Institute here at Brown, where C. D. Wright and her husband Forrest Gander both teach writers.
Q: What talent would you most like that you don’t have, yet?
A: Well, I can’t cook. That’s a big drag, because Forrest [Gander, my husband] can’t cook very much either. It’s a real let down. We both love to eat.
I don’t have another language — I would really like to have a second language. I’ve become very attracted to Spanish. And Spanish is still somewhat doable. I read a lot of Spanish literature in translation.
Q: What kind? New, or old, or … ?
Q: Bolaño speaks to you?
A: Yes, he does. For one thing, he was a poet for twenty-five years. All his protagonists and antagonists are poets — they are completely unruly.
Q: Who does your work in another medium?
In painting, I love Elizabeth Murray and I love Agnes Martin. Agnes Martin said her paintings were for people to look at before daily care strikes. I found that a wonderful phrase. Elizabeth Murray’s work I find very exciting, very alive. Agnes Martin’s makes me feel like I just had a really good cup of tea and I have a fire going and can look at the day ahead.
Q: Report to the ancestors. What’s the state of the art?
A: American poetry is incredibly various. America’s strength is that is so flexible, compared to other countries. America, as a nation is losing that, though.
Q: What is the quality you look for in a poem?
A: I love language, I like filthy language, hieratic language, I like obscure language, archaic language, technical language — so I probably have the least affinity for the real minimalist writers. I like people who are kind of besotted by language.
Q: What’s the keynote of your personality as a poet?
A: Honesty. But I’m not incorruptible. In general, I think that’s the characteristic that I got from my dad, who didn’t believe in any gray areas. I think it’s important to me.
Q: What’s your motto?
A: “Be brave, be without malice, be as original as you were made to be.”
Saturday, October 10, 2009
I'll begin the return with this review of Wallace Stevens from The Nation.
A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens
August 26, 2009
Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens; John N. Serio, ed. Buy this book
In the fall of 1936, after a decade of not doing so, this magazine sponsored a poetry prize. Of the 1,800 poems submitted, said the editors of The Nation, "the overwhelming majority were concerned with contemporary social conflicts either at home or abroad." The winning poem, Wallace Stevens's "The Men That Are Falling," was an elegy for soldiers recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, which reads, in part:Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!
This death was his belief though death is a stone,
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.
These stand among the most uncharacteristic lines that Stevens ever published. Coming upon them in the elegantly compressed compass of the new Selected Poems, it's difficult to imagine that the author of a quietly unnerving pentameter like "The river that flows nowhere, like a sea" could have written the line "Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips."
Yet to read "The Men That Are Falling" beside some of the greatest poems of the twentieth century--"The Snow Man," "A Postcard From the Volcano," "The River of Rivers in Connecticut"--is to be forced to rearticulate the extremely complex terms of Stevens's achievement. Stevens stands simultaneously among the most worldly and the most otherworldly of American poets, and it is paradoxically through his otherworldliness--through poems whose plain-spoken diction feels spooky--that his respect for the actual world is registered. What is uncharacteristic about "The Men That Are Falling" is not the desire to write about a controversial war; Stevens often did that. What distinguishes the poem is the unconvincingly urgent rhetoric in which that desire is registered.
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879. After attending Harvard College and New York Law School, he began working in the insurance industry in 1908. He quickly became one of the country's foremost experts in surety law, and in 1934 he was named vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. "The truth is that we may well be entering an insurance era," he wrote in "Insurance and Social Change," published in 1937, the year in which the first Social Security benefits were paid. Surveying the nationalized insurance schemes of Italy, Germany and Britain, Stevens tried to convince his colleagues that the Social Security Administration posed no threat to their business or their personal lives.
Other great modern American poets had full-time jobs. Marianne Moore was an editor, William Carlos Williams a doctor, T.S. Eliot a banker (and later an editor). What distinguishes Stevens is that he never gave the impression of feeling any tension between the different aspects of his life. Once he quipped that "money is a kind of poetry," but more often he emphasized that his legal work was in no way poetic, just as his poems were not meaningfully involved with the logics of law or economics. In an essay called "Surety and Fidelity Claims," he even admitted that his work would seem tedious to almost anyone: "You sign a lot of drafts. You see surprisingly few people. You do the greater part of your work either in your own office or in lawyers' offices. You don't even see the country; you see law offices and hotel rooms." Unlike Ezra Pound, who was an amateur economist, Stevens had a professional's sense of the limitations of expertise. He resembles in this regard George Oppen, who stopped writing poetry for over twenty years in order to devote himself to personal and social problems that poetry did not have the power to ameliorate, however implicated in such problems poetry might have been.
Stevens also experienced extended periods of silence. At Harvard he was the president of The Advocate, a prestigious literary magazine; he exchanged sonnets with the philosopher George Santayana, for whom he would later write "To an Old Philosopher in Rome." But after leaving Cambridge in 1900, he wrote no poems for almost a decade. And when the magisterial "Sunday Morning" appeared in 1915, in Poetry magazine, it seemed to have come from nowhere; almost no apprentice work preceded it.
Stevens's first book, Harmonium, appeared eight years later, when the poet was 44, and it is still the most astonishing debut in the history of American poetry. In contrast, the poems in Pound's A Lume Spento or Williams's Poems barely let us glimpse the great work to come. But after publishing Harmonium, Stevens gave up poetry for another decade. His daughter, Holly, was born. "My job is not now with poets from Paris," he told Williams, who was a close friend. "It is to keep the fire-place burning and the music-box churning and the wheels of the baby's chariot turning."
Anyone who cared about American poetry presumed that Stevens's career as a poet was finished, but then "The Idea of Order at Key West" suddenly appeared in 1934. Beginning at age 55, Stevens finally assumed the profile of a poet, and the great books of his maturity (Ideas of Order, The Man With the Blue Guitar, Parts of a World, Transport to Summer and The Auroras of Autumn) were published at regular intervals. He continued working at the Hartford until well after the age of mandatory retirement; he declined an invitation to be the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. Shortly before his death in 1955, his Collected Poems received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
One of his last poems was "The River of Rivers in Connecticut":
There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.
In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,
No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.
It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.
It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction...
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,
Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.
The river of rivers feels mythic, as momentous as the river that separates us from the afterlife. But this decidedly earthly river is not crossed only once; we need no ferryman, no Charon, to carry us over. The river is fateful because every moment of human life is fateful. It flows through the familiar towns of Haddam and Farmington, its water flashes in the sun. It is an emblem of our mortality, an endless flowing, but more important it embodies a sweet acceptance of oblivion: the river carries us nowhere, not like the sea but like a sea--like any sea at all.
Stevens once remarked that while we possess the great poems of heaven and hell, the great poems of the earth remain to be written. Both "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Men That Are Falling" are products of Stevens's lifelong ambition to write such poems--poems that honor mortality without needing to look beyond it. But even as "The Men That Are Falling" disdains the extremities of heaven and hell, it embraces earth in a language of fitful extremity: "This death was his belief though death is a stone,/This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die." In contrast, the consolation of "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" feels enticingly complex because the poem's diction is so eerily generalized, its syntax so quietly declarative. The poem's celebration of human limitation would not feel convincing if its tone did not make small means feel magical.
This tone is Stevens's great achievement, his most enduring response to the world. Some poems seem relevant because of what they say, because of their subject matter. But all poems are truly relevant, whatever they say, because their manner of saying seduces us to inhabit the poem's language as if it were our own--despite the fact that any great poet's language is witheringly idiosyncratic. We feel, reading a great poem, that a small corner of the soul has for a moment become public property. Stevens describes this feeling with uncanny abruptness in "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," a poem that makes the act of reading and the act of writing feel indistinguishable: "The reader became the book."
Stevens first became himself in one of the earliest poems reprinted in the Selected Poems. "The Death of a Soldier" was written in response to the letters of Eugène Lemercier, a French soldier who was killed in World War I, but it feels as if the poem could be about anyone.Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
The cycles of the natural world cannot stop to record Lemercier's death; the clouds go nevertheless in their direction, which can't be specified, because it's theirs, not ours. For Stevens, there is immense consolation in this disregard for an individual human life--an assurance that the natural world will prevail despite the human appetite for destruction. The language of Stevens's most characteristic poetry partakes, in small ways, of this consolation: "The Death of a Soldier" does not mention Lemercier, who has already disappeared.
Stevens did not always write with the incandescent plainness that distinguishes poems from "The Death of a Soldier" to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut." Sometimes he is a poet of extravagant verbal energy, a show-off who indulges in lines like "Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" And sometimes he is more celebrated for such showiness than for the austerity that more truly becomes him. Stevens himself thought that the interplay of plainness and fanciness (or what he called reality and imagination) was central to his work, and he placed a programmatic account of this interplay at the center of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," a long poem that asks to be treated as a masterpiece:
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.
"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" is an enactment of this notion; the poem oscillates between an imperative to perceive the world plainly and a complementary imperative to imagine the world extravagantly. We need continually to create "fictions" that explain our world, and we need, as our world changes, to wipe such fictions away, returning to a plain sense of things that is itself an imaginative achievement. "In the absence of a belief in God," said Stevens in one of his most willed moments of self-confidence, "the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate."
This quasi-philosophical aspect of Stevens seemed very attractive in the later decades of the twentieth century, especially after the death of Eliot, whose Christianity sometimes inflected the academic critical establishment that championed his poems. Today this aspect of Stevens feels threadbare--as if the professional lawyer came to imagine that he was also a professional philosopher. I don't find what Stevens called his "reality-imagination complex" very engaging, and neither does John Serio, who says in his introduction to the Selected Poems that while many of the longer poems "do spur us intellectually," they "may not move us emotionally." Serio sees Stevens primarily as a lyric poet, and while he has excluded some of the longer poems from his selection ("Extracts From Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas," "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War," "The Pure Good of Theory"), I have trouble imagining the house growing quiet enough for even a devoted reader of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" to become the book.
At issue here is not a preference for shorter poems; at issue is the particular kind of language that most authentically constitutes Stevens's gift.
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations--one desires
So much more than that.
This opening stanza of "The Poems of Our Climate" begins in an idiom that mirrors the stillness of the scene described, but when Stevens says that one desires "so much more" than an arrangement of pink and white carnations, the poem takes a peculiar turn. I'm convinced that Stevens thought he should desire more, but I'm not sure he actually did. His deepest inclination was (to quote the one phrase in the poetry that sounds like it was written by an insurance executive) to remain "within what we permit." So when Stevens reaches for sensual exuberance ("Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan") or passionate commitment ("Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips") or philosophical profundity ("Two things of opposite natures seem to depend/On one another"), the language often seems willed, as if the poet were embarrassed by his own taste for deprivation. "Is it bad to have come here/And to have found the bed empty?" asks Stevens in a little poem called "Gallant Château." The answer, undeflected by the wish to be different from oneself, is "It is good."
In the poems that matter most, this question needs neither to be asked nor answered: the language carries its own conviction. Early Stevens--"The Snow Man":
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.
Midcareer Stevens--"The Man With the Blue Guitar":
It is the sea that whitens the roof.The sea drifts through the winter air.
It is the sea that the north wind makes.
The sea is in the falling snow.
Late Stevens--"The Course of a Particular":
Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.
These poems, like any of Stevens's best poems, make deprivation feel seductively like plenitude.
All the best poems are preserved in this collection, a culling that is considerably more severe than that of the selected volume it supersedes, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens and published in 1972. The whole of Stevens is represented here--the plain, the fancy, the philosophical--but the latter two categories have been pruned, affording the best of Stevens more prominence. This winnowing is over time inevitable (nobody reads the whole of Wordsworth or Tennyson), and I would go further: it's hard to imagine a need to reinhabit "Description Without Place" ("It is possible that to seem--it is to be") or "Late Hymn From the Myrrh-Mountain" ("Unsnack your snood, madanna"). Without the distraction of this willed language, the greatest of Stevens's poems, the movingly stark poems written during the last five years of his life, stand out even more vividly as the culmination of his career:
No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,v As they were fifty years ago:
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,v Bending in blue dresses to touch something--
Today the mind is not part of the weather.
Some readers might prefer the fanciful or the philosophical; others might argue that austerity cannot fully exist without its complements. But when we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets, it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear. Mark Strand: "From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,/A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room." Louise Glück: "I can't hear your voice/for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground." Donald Justice: "In a hotel room by the sea, the Master/Sits brooding." Carl Phillips: "The wind's pattern was its own, and the water's also." To say that these lines are indebted to Stevens is like saying that fish are indebted to water: the sound of Stevens has entered the sound of poetry in the language.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
We’ve just launched the Tricycle Community Poetry Club, co-sponsored by Rattle magazine, a biannual poetry journal based in Los Angeles.
We’re kicking off with Peter Harris’s “Will Buddhism Survive.” Peter is a poet and “moonlights” as a professor of English at Colby College, where he teaches American Literature and poetry workshops. Here’s what Peter has to say about the poem:
I am currently a student at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland, Maine. Three years ago, as part of Tokudo study, I was reading the Diamond Sutra chapter by chapter, explaining my understanding, then writing a poem. The Diamond Sutra stresses discriminating between thoughts about Buddhism and the experience of it.
In Chapter 6, the question arises whether Buddhism will survive. The early Buddhists lived in fraught times, too. I had the unoriginal thought that humans would have a better chance of surviving a while longer if we realized our original or Buddha-nature…
Saturday, August 15, 2009
August 2nd, 2009
For the second autumn in a row, Beth Adams and I will be stepping out from behind the curtain to edit an issue of qarrtsiluni ourselves. The deadline for submissions is August 31, and publication will begin around September 15. We’re pretty excited by the theme.
This time we’re looking for words of power: curses, spells, charms, prayers, incantations, mantras, sacred scriptures, explicit performative utterances, oaths, or legal instruments. Submissions may consist entirely of such super-charged language, or may riff upon or explore such language. Submissions of visual art may of course take a more figurative approach to the topic; images of amulets and other power-objects, for example, would be welcome. But otherwise we urge contributors not to interpret the theme too broadly. Please don’t just send us a piece of writing that you think is powerful according to some subjective evaluation. We’re looking quite specifically for language freighted with mana and/or executive force, or writing about that kind of language. If you’re not sure whether something qualifies, feel free to query.
Please limit written material to no more than five items per submission, with individual pieces not exceeding 3,000 words. Please refer to the general guidelines before submitting, and note especially the recommendation to query us if we don’t acknowledge receipt within two days — occasional server hiccups and email glitches are a fact of life on the internet.
We look forward to reading your words of power with an unusual admixture of excitement and trepidation. This issue could be a real test of our editorial juju!
We’re also really pleased with the results of our first annual poetry chapbook contest. Here’s the announcement about that.
Read more: http://www.vianegativa.us/2009/08/new-qarrtsiluni-call-for-submissions-words-of-power/#ixzz0OJ3Sz9b2
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Share Alike
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Reviews by STEPHEN BURTPublished: July 29, 2009
THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS
By W. S. Merwin.
Copper Canyon, $22.
Nostalgia, grief, fear for our planet and a subdued resolve in the face of advancing years arrive together in the Hawaii-based Merwin’s 22nd collection of new poems, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. As in all of his verse since the late 1960s, Merwin does away with punctuation, letting line breaks and sense determine syntax and pace. The results suggest whispers, laments, accounts of long-ago memories, even voices from an underworld: “the dead are not separate from the living,” he says; “each has one foot in the unknown.” Looking back at old photographs and childhood houses, at horse pastures and “splintery unlit” schoolrooms, Merwin represents faint consolations, autumn and nightfall, and a parent’s dying words: “All day the stars watch from long ago / my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right.” Lines move forward almost ceremonially, confident in the simplicity of their diction, like “clear water revealing / no color but that of the gray / stone around it.” As he has before, Merwin writes gravely of species in peril, among them our own: endangered bats and departed songbirds “were singing of youth / not knowing that they were singing for us.” Yet most of the work in this capacious book considers not the earth’s mortality but Merwin’s own: poems shift from his first years to his most recent (he will turn 82 this September), from the helplessness of a young child to the profound resignations of old age.
By G. C. Waldrep.
Tupelo, paper, $16.95.
Waldrep’s title denotes an antique keyboard instrument with 24, or many more, keys per octave. Notoriously hard to play, such instruments made subtle and challenging music, with notes a conventional score could not include. Waldrep’s sometimes bewildering, often exciting prose poems make their own unconventional music, replete with slippages, repetitions, suggestions: “Every sound is tropical, every sound is perishable,” he writes. “My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string.” Most poems take quizzical titles from musical terms (“What Is a Threnody,” “What Is a Motet”), and most take rhetorical gifts from Gertrude Stein; yet Waldrep’s poems, far more than Stein’s, revel in the variety of their subjects. Some include clear scenes and characters, as when the poet helps a boy cross a cold road: “we walked slowly, because he was not yet done with being five.” The poet also leavens his intricate compositions with self-consciously playful asides: “Nothing is what it appears to be, I say. To which you reply, yes it is.” Waldrep (who studied the labor movement for his Ph.D. in American history) attends to the meaning of work, to the hardships of lives unlike his own: “Who Was Scheherazade” begins “My job was to pick rocks.” Yet his great triumphs combine such outward sympathies with self-conscious attention to inward oddities, to fleeting thoughts, to the vectors of energy in abstract words: “If I subtract sacrifice from appetite from what fierce attention do I then compromise a strict union, have I faltered, have I made an argument for grace.”
By Angie Estes.
Oberlin College, paper, $15.95.
Gleeful and gorgeous, delighted by puns and other wordplay (including words from French, Latin and Italian), Estes’s fast-paced free verse, rich with internal rhyme, takes rightful pride in the beauties it flaunts and explains. Her fourth collection finds, for recurrent motifs, saints’ lives, medieval manuscripts, gold leaf and the alphabet: “hearts bloom / out of Ds like lamb chop sleeves / in the script of the fifteenth-century / scribe”; in a gilded Book of Hours, “the letters / have fallen out of the words and lie / scattered on the ground.” Each deft poem weaves together multiple topics — some art-historical, others autobiographical — through chains of homonyms and knotty analogies: “Take Cover” skates from the French “couvre feu, cover the fire” (the origin for our word “curfew”) to disheveled bedcovers and 1950s-style duck-and-cover drills. Though Estes revels in European reference (Dante, Trieste, Greta Garbo), her matchless hunger for experience makes her indelibly American: “how the tongue / keeps lapping the world’s / loot,” she exclaims, “even in the 499th lap / of the Indy 500.” The arts — from Cimabue’s painting to haute cuisine — are for Estes never mere luxuries; rather, the arts, and our pride in them, give us the only effective countermeasures to loneliness, helplessness and serious pain. And pain — remembered or feared — is always somewhere: “So Near Yet So Far” connects a lunar eclipse, a film starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, a concept from high-energy plasma physics and “the necklace / of pearls my father bought my mother / for their forty-fifth wedding / anniversary, which she made him / take back.”
By Eilean Ni Chuilleanain.
Edited by Peter Fallon.
Wake Forest University, paper, $12.95.
Admired in Ireland since the 1970s, Ni Chuilleanain (pronounced knee QUILL-an-awn) deserves American attention too. Raised in the port city of Cork, drawn to visionary experience, yet alert to domestic and urban detail, she looks at once inward to things of the spirit and outward to coastlines, Continental Europe and an omnipresent sea. “Hurried exiles” disembark in Cork, “reach out for a door and find a banister, / Reach for a light and find their hands in water, / Their rooms all swamped by dreams”; the poet sees, in the grain of wooden furniture, “the long currents of a pale ocean / Softly turning itself inside out.” Poetry is for her an attitude, a kind of summoning, but also “another skill, as fine / As judging the set of milk for cheese, / A belief in the wisdom of a long view from one window.” Her visionary sentences favor soft consonants and muffled stops, without rhyme: their tones vary from celebratory to bitter, from the openly prayerful to the curtly appalled. Ni Chuilleanain’s Italy can get pious or touristy, but her Irish sites stay mysterious and credible. Poems on religious subjects pay homage to hermits, saints and nuns, sometimes with feminist undertones; poems of family life handle memories well. A mother’s sacred spot is “the place where the child / Felt sick in the car and they pulled over / And waited”; a young woman, coming home late on a bus, thinks “Nobody who knows me knows where I am now.”
~ Stephen Burt’s most recent book is “Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry.”
Sunday, August 2, 2009
An Urgent Request
Hello and goodbye,
flour, vegetables, coffee
and orange juice.
A body, a soul, thoughts,
a moment of freedom.
Words. I am so jealous of your words.
I would like to buy some Polish grammar.
All of it.
I would like to buy a reusable bag
for the case endings.
Please segregate the genitive
from the dative well.
If war were to break out tomorrow
which of the neighbors would kill us?
How do they all know what to do?
How do my friends walk around
with all they know and feel?
Why won't they talk to each other?
It's just a question of words—
the wrong ones got delivered.
They don't fit.
We fear our words say
something about us
instead of using those damned words to speak.
We gravitate irresistibly
towards the passive.
I am furious.
Deliver those words please,
I cannot wait any longer.
I need not only the perfect
and imperfect verbs
and each separate verb-concept
but a precise dividing line
I know that will be more expensive.
I am prepared to pay postage.
Yes, the country I live in
It is called where-I-am-now
or, for short, my name.
It's even in Europe.
So, you see, it won't cost so much.
This document will most certainly
even be translated.
I know exactly where I am.
First you have to give me the words!
I’m leaning over the desk now
and my hair is falling over the forms
and I'm sweating.
Yes, I need prepositions too.
And the cases to which they attach.
I need those little joining wires.
Several thousand of them.
They'll be cheaper if I buy them
all at once.
I don't need poetry.
I already have a body.
Just give me the words.
my life is brilliant
No one I love
has died so far today.
Every single war in this world
has passed me by.
I am not starving and I haven’t stumbled
onto any terrorist’s map
or into anyone’s axis of evil
Nobody tortured me today.
No policeman shot me by accident or on purpose
No tidal wave swept my house away
I was not sentenced to death for infidelity,
or not having put enough salt in the soup.
It’s autumn, season of mooching poets, mellow
fruitfulness and death, of blazing lanterns
standing in the trees, of crunching dry gold
standing, of black skeletons poking through,
of apples, I want to straighten my spine,
eat gold leaves, rocket down
to earth scuttle across someone’s face, someone
lying naked in a field, sun bleeding through eyelids
thinking last time, defiant joy, I want to be it
and the wind that breaks up the block of blue
that fits over us today, the wind that makes
it’s sea sound in my hair the wind that rushes
over the flat stones at the door, the stones
from the riverbed, the wind that grasps
the leaves and flings them high and brightness
~ "An Urgent Request" originally appeared in The Pedestal; "my life is brilliant" and "Blaze" originally appeared in Other Voices. I am grateful to these fine magazine for the right to reprint the poems here.
Sarah is a psychotherapist. You can find her at her personal site, or at her online therapy site.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Excellent article by one of my favorite Buddhist poets.
Read the rest of the article.By Gary Snyder
IN THIS WORLD of onrushing events the act of meditation—even just a "one-breath" meditation—straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment—is a refreshing island in the stream. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has practiced sitting knows, the quieted mind has many paths, most of them tedious and ordinary. Then, right in the midst of meditation, totally unexpected images or feelings may sometimes erupt, and there is a way into a vivid transparency. But whatever comes up, sitting is always instructive. There is ample testimony that a practice of meditation pursued over months and years brings some degree of self-understanding, serenity, focus, and self-confidence to the person who stays with it. There is also a deep gratitude that one comes to feel for this world of beings, teachers, and teachings.
No one—guru or roshi or priest—can program for long what a person might think or feel in private reflection. We learn that we cannot in any literal sense control our mind. Meditation cannot serve an ideology. A meditation teacher can only help a student understand the phenomena that rise from his or her own inner world—after the fact—and give tips on directions to go. A meditation teacher can be a check or guide for the wayfarer to measure herself against, and like any experienced guide can give good warning of brushy paths and dead-end canyons from personal experience. The teacher provides questions, not answers. Within a traditional Buddhist framework of ethical values and psychological insight, the mind essentially reveals itself.
Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.
TRADITIONS OF DELIBERATE ATTENTION to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.
People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional. The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine. It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help. This is mostly a description of the Buddhist meditation tradition, which has hewed consistently to a nontheistic practice over the centuries.
Poetry has also been part of Buddhism from early on. From the 2,500-year-old songs of forest-dwelling monks and nuns of India to the vivid colloquial poems of Kenji Miyazawa in 1930s Japan, there is a continuous thread. Poetry has had a primary place of respect in Chinese literary culture, and many of the best-known poems of the Chinese canon are touched with Ch'an and Taoist insight. Some of the finest poets of China were even acknowledged Ch'an adepts—Bai Juyi and Su Dungpo, to name just two.
Although the Chinese Ch'an masters liked to say "The lowest class of monk is the one who indulges in literature," we have to remember that blame is often praise in the Ch'an world. The Ch'an training halls, with their unconventional dharma discourses and vivid mimed exchanges, and the tradition of the Chinese lyric poems, shih, with their lucid and allusive brevity, were clearly shaping each other by the early Tang dynasty.
Ch'an teachers and students have always written their own sort of in-house poems as well. In formal gung-an (koan) study, a student is often called upon to present a few lines of poetry from the Chinese canon as a proof of the completeness of his or her understanding—an exercise called zho-yu, "capping verses" (jakugo in Japanese). Such exchanges have been described in the book A Zen Forest by Soiku Shigematsu, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest. Shigematsu Osho has handily translated hundreds of the couplets as borrowed from Chinese poetry and proverb. They are intense:
Words, words, words—fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence—a roaring thunderbolt.
Bring back the dead!
Kill the living!
This tune, another tune—no one understands.
Rain has passed, leaving the pond brimming in the autumn light.
The fire of catastrophe has burned out all
Millions of miles no mist, not a grain of dust!
One phrase after another
Each moment refreshing.
These bits of poems are not simply bandied about between Zen students as some kind of in-group wisdom or slangy shorthand for larger meanings. They are used sparingly, in interviews with the teacher, as a mode of reaching even deeper than a "personal" answer to a problem, as a way of confirming that one has touched base with a larger Mind. They are valued not for the literary metaphor but for the challenge presented by the exercise of physically actualizing the metaphor in the present. They help the student bring symbols and abstractions back to earth, into the body. Zen exquisitely develops this possibility—yet it's not far from the natural work of poems and proverbs anyway.
The Buddhist world has produced numerous poets and singers of the dharma whose works are still admired and loved. Milarepa, whose songs are known by heart among Tibetans, and Basho, whose haiku are read worldwide, are perhaps the most famous.
I STARTED WRITING POETRY in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote "directly as I felt." Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you're born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)
I ran into a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins with the lines,
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep
This helped me realize that literal mountains were not the only place to climb. I was recovering at the time from a little frostbite suffered on a winter ascent of Mt. Hood. (It should be said that mountaineering is not simply some sort of challenging quest. It has that aspect, but for dedicated climbers the strategy, the companionship, and the cooperation is what makes climbing the game it is.) Climbing also opened me up to the impermanence, the total scariness, the literal voidness under my feet, the exposure, as we say, of consciousness itself. What deep and soulful thoughts that witnessing the gulf below can give you.
Friday, July 17, 2009
What did we learn from Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg?
by Aram Saroyan
Original artwork by Paul Killebrew
It's been more than a decade since the death of Allen Ginsberg, but in the interim I've found that he's stayed with me as an informing, tempering, guardian-like presence of a stature equaled only by my late father. Allen and I were never really friends, but having said that I feel an urgency to qualify and emend it. He meant as much as or more than any friend I can think of, and in the years since his death it's come to me that he was one of the two or three great teachers of my life. He looked me up and down, and looked me in the face, taking my measure for good or ill, and then informed me, on several critical occasions, where I had gotten it right or wrong. I bridled at the negative assessments but then quickly or slowly realized the generosity implicit in them and, more to the point, their correctness.
I also realize that with his passing there is simply no one to fill his shoes. He had the energy and curiosity and hunger for the crowd to be seemingly everywhere, and that is something we could do with more of in our poets. Our great ghosts of the outer limits, from Emily Dickinson to Robinson Jeffers, are all well and good, but we need more of the shambling, love-besotted Whitman, Allen's great exemplar, of whom he was the finest avatar we've yet had. That he was Jewish is also, to me, half-Jewish and much in colloquy with that side of myself, a wonder and a blessing. He was a Jew who rejected and defied the worst, and at the same time typified the best, of our tribe. He left the inbred zealots and the mammon-obsessed equally behind and demonstrated, into the bargain, the native practicality of my grandmother's putting a bowl of chicken soup down on the table and commanding one to eat. He paid the rent and the utility bill and only then sat down to write poesy. He was a mensch.
The Jews, like the Armenians wronged by history on the scale of genocide, are obsessed by morality, and this can swiftly segue into self-righteousness. Allen, the brilliant pied piper of the hippies during the '60s, had the insight to see in Kerouac's disgruntled redneck—"Blow me, Ginsberg," he reports being commanded more than once when Kerouac had grown fat and old—to see in this drunken misanthrope a golden teaching. When all of us were caught up in being right, so to speak, Kerouac bedeviled everyone by being heartbreakingly wrong. He kept the other side in human perspective, perhaps in a way similar to Allen's later teacher Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist with whom Allen and Anne Waldman collaborated to create Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.
Trungpa came from the Crazy Wisdom lineage in Buddhism. Before his early death, he scandalized the American spiritual community with his drunkenness, his promiscuity, and, most notably, a confrontation with W.S. Merwin in which his devotees at a retreat violently terrorized the poet and his girlfriend. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is perhaps the most famous of Trungpa's books, and the title summarizes his approach. The story goes that when Allen first met him, he was surprised and put off by Trungpa's drinking.
"You should stop drinking," Allen told him. "You can't be a drunk when you're a spiritual leader."
Trungpa told Ginsberg fine, he would stop drinking if Allen would cut off his long hair and shave his beard. Allen, always up for a cosmic joust, went off and did that, then returned clean and shorn to Trungpa, presumably still at the bar.
"Okay," Allen said. "Now it's your turn."
Trungpa reportedly told Allen that he liked drinking too much to give it up—which sounds a lot like that Catholic Buddhist, Allen's other guru, Kerouac.
As a teenager in Manhattan, I turned to poetry because I couldn't understand what life was about and thought I might uncover some clues in such writing, which, according to Louis Zukofsky, finds an order "that can speak to all men." Howl, which I found during high school, was like an encyclopedia of the emotional and psychic life that had been driven under in me, with the result that I felt restless and bored a lot of the time. It was like finding a deep neural and psychic autobiography in the middle of the snow job of late-1950s/early-1960s America. Life is big, it said. It has a lot of colors. It's serious. It's funny. It's full of suffering that is also like bread, nurture, on a journey of the soul. I could say that reading it broke me open, so that I could discover myself in the deeper history of our time and kind.
Which was quite a favor to render a screwed-up adolescent.
Allen called me from Naropa one year, trying to track down a photograph of Kerouac that I'd used in Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. It was a head shot of Jack wearing a crucifix, which had appeared originally in Mademoiselle. The crucifix had been airbrushed out of most of the reprints of the photograph, which may have been why Allen was looking to find the photographer, a man named William Eichel, whom I never located. After going over these details, we got on to other things. My father had died recently, and Allen told me a story about his father, the late poet Louis Ginsberg, who had been a high school teacher in New Jersey. When he'd visited his father in the hospital during his last illness, Allen said Louis told him that as a little boy he'd lived near a magnificent building, a great tower with chimneys from which, at certain hours of the day, huge plumes of smoke billowed. Louis had dreamed of this building and wondered what went on inside it. He promised himself that when he grew up he would go there and find out. Years later, as an older man, Louis made his pilgrimage.
"Do you know what it was, Allen? That great tower that set me dreaming?"
"It was a glue factory."
During the same call Allen lightened my spirits by telling me how much he liked Genesis Angels, which had received mixed reviews. We talked a while longer and then he said he was getting worried about the phone bill, and I let him go. The part about the phone bill is pure Allen Ginsberg to me, the great poet of his time with one eye on the utility company.
During the '60s, in my minimalist phase as a poet, I ran into Allen one afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. I'd just purchased some bell-bottoms and a hippie shirt, thinking I'd take the plunge into my generation's attire, and Allen looked me over seriously.
"What's going on?" he said.
"Well, I think the clothes are beautiful, so why not wear them?" I said, trying to keep my inflections relaxed, though I felt caught out by him in an experimental exercise.
He nodded and made no further comment about it, and we got to discussing my one-word poems.
"Are you lazy, or what?" It was the sort of comment that could have come only from Allen or from my father.
"No," I said.
Ten years later, when I'd abandoned postmodernism and become a writer in an older tradition, Allen attended a reading I gave with Bill Knott at St. Mark's Church. Afterward, he commented to me that a poem I'd read took an "us-and-them" stance that he considered incorrect. This was priceless information, not about the quality of the poem so much as about how it is one continues to write. It was, as I see it today, part of the higher literary physics that he and Kerouac reinstated, so to speak. The reason you didn't take an us-and-them stance I heard explicitly echoed later in my reading of William Hazlitt and Henry James, among others. The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy, which is why Shakespeare is our greatest exemplar. Allen was telling me, in his way, that I had turned down a cul-de-sac.
* * *
The Paris Review interview with Jack Kerouac was the brainchild of Ted Berrigan at a time when, hard as it is to believe, Kerouac was an almost forgotten man. Thank God Ted didn't forget him. It was a few months before the fabled Summer of Love, 1967, and Ted stopped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time. He brought along fellow poets Ron Padgett and Tom Clark, as well as Larry Bensky, who went on to become a mainstay of Pacifica Public Radio's political reporting. For everyone but Ted, the Cambridge trip was a spur-of-the-moment lark. For several lovely spring days, people variously drifted in and out of, snacked and rapped in, napped and slept at the Central Square two-story house I was renting with a couple of roommates—everyone enjoying the atmosphere of the town at the height of the '60s—and then all of the impromptu visitors but Ted drove back to New York. Ted invited me to accompany him up to Lowell to interview Kerouac, and the poet Duncan McNaughton showed up with a big late-model car to drive us all there. I accepted the invitation on impulse—at that moment of the '60s I'd very nearly forgotten Kerouac myself.
Ted's impromptu choreography: Jack had loved my dad's work, Ted knew, and he also knew I'd be reluctant to come as the Ambassador of William Saroyan, as it were, and made his invitation spontaneously casual—and off we went.
Kerouac, a bull-like ruin in his dark Lowell ranch-house living room, was the last of the Beat triumvirate I met (Allen was first, then Burroughs), and I saw him only that single afternoon and evening, but it proved to be a strange rite of passage, a goofy but enduring literary baptism.
Ted, a red-haired Irishman in his early 30s who liked to pop pills, gave Jack a handful of Obitrols almost as soon as we stepped into the living room, and Jack gulped them and never looked back. Ted knew Jack's work comprehensively, minutely, and with intimate biographical details in the bargain. He was a great interviewer because he was also ready, willing, and able to run the full gamut of Jack's demotic vocabulary, which like Shakespeare's was a great repository, from the idiomatic to the high literary.
"God, man, I rode around this country free as a bee." Kerouac told us about his time with Neal Cassady. "We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station attendants can have." I sat in the dark living room—the afternoon had turned to evening, but no one had bothered to turn on the lights—thinking this doesn't sound like the Paris Review interview I read with Truman Capote.
I had a signal Edward R. Murrow moment, but it came up a little too late for me to deliver a non-Murrow-like smart-ass punch line I had in mind. I asked Jack what the difference was between Buddha and Jesus. He looked up at me quickly, nodded seriously, and said, "That's a very good question. There is none."
This response, not unexpected, nevertheless kept me quiet, for which I thank both deities. My planned answer: "Buddha knew karate."
During the interview Jack, perhaps intrigued that the son of one of his first literary influences was now looking to him, asked me to repeat after him, line by line, the words of a poem of his from Mexico City Blues:
KEROUAC: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps. Say that, Saroyan.
SAROYAN: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.
KEROUAC: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
SAROYAN: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
KEROUAC: The softness of our reward
SAROYAN: The softness of our reward
I stumbled once or twice—there were some complicated lines—but a thick-skinned, hardheaded 23-year-old writer was getting some basic training, not in literature per se, but in repeating the words of a master. That is the correct existential posture in the lineage of mystery—surrendering to it—that the Beats revived. So, my young friend, it was as if Kerouac was saying, Let's appreciate it together; even though I wrote it, it's both of ours now. When I'd completed this exercise, Jack rewarded me with a modest encomium that has traveled with me down the years and that I've tried my best to be worthy of. "You'll do, Saroyan," he said.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Too Close to Touch
By DAVID ORR
All poets, if they are any good,” Charles Simic has said, “tend to stand apart from their literary age.” The key phrase here, of course, is “if they are any good”; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like?
Possibly something like the work of Thom Gunn, whose new Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $14) is edited by August Kleinzahler. Gunn, who died in 2004, began his career as a hot young poet in England (he published his first book, “Fighting Terms,” when he was only 25) and was generally associated with the taut, plainspoken aesthetic favored by writers like Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. In 1954, he left England for San Francisco, where he eventually settled after studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford. Gunn embraced the city’s bohemian lifestyle — Edmund White called him “the last of the commune dwellers . . . serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night” — and he grew increasingly interested in syllabics and free verse even as he continued to hone the metrical forms that distinguished his early career. He’s possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he’s certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch . . . well, Allen Ginsberg). This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd background.
It’s also the kind of background that leads to misleading career narratives. Like most people, poets rarely undergo multiple metamorphoses in their lives and art over a short period. In time, they might shift their style; they might take up different subject matter; they might buy a duplex in Miami. But generally speaking, their existence is reasonably consistent, and they stick fairly close to what they know. Gunn, however, not only moved from England to America, he exchanged the rarefied air of Cambridge for the hothouse of 1960s-era San Francisco, became openly gay, started dabbling in drugs, began writing about the urban underbelly and set about tinkering with the verse techniques that had made him (relatively) famous — all in the space of about 10 years. Critics often attribute changes in a poet’s style to changes in his life; this much change in both arenas threw some readers into what could be described as a tizzy of questionable causation. British reviewers who opposed Gunn’s technical shifts blamed California, just as American critics would, later on, connect his adventurous lifestyle with his more “relaxed” versification. (You can still see this dynamic at work today, whenever critics contrast Gunn’s libido with his tight metrics — as if no one had ever written quatrains about having sex before.) In any case, all of the talk about Gunn’s life and style, and style and life, almost makes one wish the poet had stayed in England; at least then no one could say he wrote seven-syllable lines because of Jefferson Airplane.
Kleinzahler believes that Gunn’s development was steadier and, in some ways, more conventional. He’s right. Gunn began to come into his own with the publication of “My Sad Captains” in 1961, when he was 32, and his work steadily strengthened for the next four decades. In his best, most characteristic writing, Gunn is what you might call a poet of friction: he’s interested in the ways in which surfaces push off, against or into each other. Consider his description of surfing in “From the Wave”:
The mindless heave of which they rode
A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
The suck of shingle.
There are many ways to write about surfing — one could focus on the danger, the grace, the speed and so forth. But it’s typical of Gunn that while he gives us a sense of all these elements, he’s drawn to instances of contact: the point at which “the bare foot feels / The suck of shingle”; the moment in which “marbling bodies have become / Half wave, half men, / Grafted it seems by feet of foam.” Feel and touch and pressure are constants throughout this selection, whether it’s the longing of a hawk for “the feel . . . / Of catcher and of caught / Upon your wrist”; the swimmer who remembers “the pull and risk / Of the Pacific’s touch . . . Its cold live sinews tugging at each limb”; or simply the “secure firm dry embrace” of longtime domestic affection.
Even in the AIDS-related elegies that dominate his most famous book, “The Man With Night Sweats,” Gunn is drawn to comparisons involving substance brought to bear on substance. “Still Life,” a poem about a terminal patient, concludes with the image of “the tube his mouth enclosed / In an astonished O.” “The Missing” imagines the vast web of friendships, now vanishing, as a “supple entwinement through the living mass / Which for all that I knew might have no end, / Image of an unlimited embrace.” But the poem that gives “The Man With Night Sweats” its title is perhaps Gunn’s most arresting use of this sort of metaphor. The poem begins with a man waking at night (“I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat”) and recognizing the rising weakness in his once-powerful body. It concludes:
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
The delicate suggestion of alienation, or at least separation, between self and body (“Hugging my body to me”) presages the even greater disruption that occurs in the final couplet. We think of the earth as being our foundation: we’re “on solid ground.” The image of an avalanche is especially disturbing, then, because it suggests that what had supported our bodies is now bent on destroying them. The touch has become a blow; the heat of friction has become a conflagration. Here, Gunn is (consciously or not) rewriting the great American poem of unity between body and earth, Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.” That poem ends: “When stiff and sore and scarred / I take away my hand / From leaning on it hard / In grass and sand, / The hurt is not enough: / I long for weight and strength / To feel the earth as rough / To all my length.” Oh no, says Gunn, you don’t.
One can quibble with some of the choices in this volume. Kleinzahler’s version of Gunn is a little more austere than some might like, even when the poems themselves are bent on advertising their countercultural bona fides. It’s puzzling, for instance, that space was made for a druggy yet prim couplet about, yes, Jefferson Airplane (“The music comes and goes on the wind, / Comes and goes on the brain”), but not for any of Gunn’s epigrams; for instance, the superb “Barren Leaves,” which reads in its entirety: “Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling: / Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.” Gunn was a very funny poet, and it would have been good to see more of that. But of course, his total output ran well over 500 pages, almost all of which are well worth reading, and any selection was bound to have holes critics would cry over. It’s to the credit of this remarkable writer that those absences seem unimportant beside what is so rousingly present.