Thursday, December 12, 2002

Turning to George Stanley’s “Vancouver, Book One” in The Poker this morning, I realize several things:


§         The Poker’s table of contents is alphabetical by first name – good fortune for Chris Stroffolino, not so good for Tom Devaney & it takes me awhile to find the page number again for George.


§         The section published here is not all of Vancouver, Book One, but rather just section 8.


§         The work partakes of not one, but two distinct (though related) genres: the poem as journal & the poem written on transit.


An epic in the form of a journal? It’s an interesting concept, problematic from the outset (which I suspect is deliberate). Kevin Davies – one of the editors of Stanley’s forthcoming selected, A Tall, Serious Girl – recently sent me a note that mutual friend Ben Friedlander had posted to another list on the subject of journals. It read in part:


[Paul] Blackburn is incredible; he and [Joanne] Kyger are to my mind the most underrated poets of their generation. Both of them take the journal as their basic form, and both are geniuses at naturalizing peculiar verbal gestures by fixing them in narrative structures. I suspect that similarity has something to do with the lack of respect they get: the journal form looks dated, I guess, and the naturalizing leads people to take them as simple. Otherwise, they’re very different. Kyger uses the journal as a way of investigating the nature of space and time. Blackburn is a social historian.


This recalled what I’d written about Blackburn’s Journals in the blog: “even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.”


But Blackburn clearly distinguished between journals & poems – you have to go 474 pages into The Collected Poems before you find the first piece identified as a journal entry, dating from 1967, when Blackburn was already 40 and a significant figure in American poetry. Kyger likewise makes the distinction. Many of her poems may seem occasional &, as with Blackburn, they’re often dated, either at the foot of the poem or in its title. But these works are radically different from The Japan and India Journals 1960-1964. In this way, Blackburn & Kyger are both like Larry Eigner or Ted Berrigan, two other great poets who used the form of the occasional poem, literally the poem as the register of an occasion. It’s not, I would argue with Ben, quite the same. The occasional poem – a genre far too neglected critically – utilizes its originating or motivating event as both instigator & determinant of boundary for the poem, but that boundedness, that sense of a defined edge, is precisely what journals lack. Journals have a tendency to be formless in their outer exoskeletal concerns & often proceed merely chronologically. So while I agree with Friedlander’s assessment of Blackburn & especially of Kyger, for my money the most significant woman writing from the late 1950s until the 1970s & always a wonderful poet, I don’t see either as taking “the journal as their basic form.”


So the idea of a longpoem in the mode of a journal – it was Kevin Davies who first used the term “epic” to characterize Vancouver – strikes me as a consciously challenging project. Its secret underbelly, of course, is the reality that every epic is at some level a journal. It is not an accident, I think, that the most studied & revered portion of Pound’s Cantos are The Pisan Cantos, very much Pound’s journal of imprisonment in the cages at Pisa. All the fog & pretense of writing about Van Buren’s administration, for example, is revealed by contrast to have been just that: fog & pretense. Rather, the great epic quest of bringing together these disparate historic particulars simply gave Pound something to write “about” while writing, just as a translation is itself a way for a person to write without having anything of their own to say. In both senses, the process of writing is almost entirely apart from any question of content. We write because we write is the secret motto of every poet. Having “something to say” is nice, but hardly necessary. Are you really interested in the history of a fishing village northeast of Boston? Can anyone tell even remotely what the “subject” of “A” might be? Far from damning, the answers to these questions tell us something very important about poetry, its relation to the self-valuable signifier & the importance of process. Thus I think that the great challenge of any & every longpoem has always been how not to be “just a journal.” Stanley, it would appear, has decided to turn that question on its head & tackle it straight on.


The poem of public transit, as you might imagine, is another genre very close to my heart, having written books both explicitly (BART) and implicitly (Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps or, say, What) entirely while riding around on buses & trains. There is even a section of The Alphabet, in Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect, in which I take the process of BART, riding around the entire course of an urban transit system, & apply it to the comparable system in a city that I barely know at all, Atlanta.


For me the great poets of transit have always been Robert Duncan & Phil Whalen & while Whalen’s poetry also edges up against that concept of the journal that Friedlander is trying to get at, Duncan is certainly the furthest poet imaginable from that mode. Yet Duncan once told me that he could not have written “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom” – the very poem that Stanley takes direct aim at in his own early great work “Pompeii” – without having been on the San Francisco Muni & that that poem carried within it the rhythms of Muni’s tracks.*


Stanley himself has used transit in his poems, even if not as a process for the poems, before. In fact, when going through the manuscript for A Tall, Serious Girl, I’d misremembered one of his early San Francisco works, “Flesh Eating Poem,” as being about the N Judah because there is a reference to that streetcar, as well as to the 22 Fillmore line. Since in reality that’s a serious misreading (or rather misremembering, the mind revising as it does, constantly), I was surprised not to find what I recalled as the “N Judah” poem in the manuscript. In fact, “Flesh Eating Poem” – that title gives you just a taste – is included.


Now, in Vancouver, we are very much getting on the bus or off the bus – the SeaBus included – “Writing in the dark – outside the college – in the sodium glare through the bus window.” Perhaps the poem of transit is a genre within a genre here – & I know that I’m more deeply attracted to it as a model for writing than almost anyone I’ve ever met – but it makes me especially pleased, gleeful even, to see it rise up again at the start of a new longpoem.







* Some of my very best discussions with Duncan came on the “F” bus between the original location of Serendipity Books on Shattuck & San Francisco. Duncan went to Serendipity almost every Wednesday afternoon & then would walk over to the Shattuck Co-op to shop for groceries before catching the bus & an attentive person who also lived in the City could sometimes make this same journey – I still think of those trips as my Symposium of the Bus. I rue the day, moving back to the East Bay in 1987, when I realized that politicians had devastated the AC Transit system since I’d headed to San Francisco in 1972 (I’d also lived in SF in 1966-67). It meant that I had no choice at that point but to learn to drive.

            I want to note also that Duncan shopped at the Co-op not because he liked carting groceries 10 miles in his lap & then via the Muni to his home in the Mission, but because the Co-op’s attendant credit union, Twin Pines Federal Savings, had “not blinked an eye” (Duncan’s phrase) at the idea of issuing a mortgage loan to two men in the early & deeply homophobic 1950s. One more vote for a socialist bank.