Showing posts with label Projectivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Projectivism. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Many Allen Ginsbergs - only the middle row is real
In 2008, the late Carolyn Cassady, one-time wife of Neal – Jack Kerouac’s trickster muse – revealed some lingering bitterness in an interview when she remarked that as “far as I'm concerned, the Beat Generation was something made up by the media and Allen Ginsberg." That’s an unfair dig at Ginsberg. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Shig Murao were prosecuted for the sale of Howl, Ginsberg – who became a household name from the resulting media coverage – stayed as far away from the trial as he could. It would have been a far better – even obvious – career move for him to have been sat in the front row of the courtroom in support of Ferlinghetti & Murao. Instead, he stayed as far away as he could &, when the chance presented itself, didn’t take a victory lap after the City Lights publisher & his book seller were vindicated, but instead hightailed it to India.
This was well before Ginsberg got to watch fame, alcohol & the media celebrity machine tear Jack Kerouac limb from limb, a painful public process that led to the novelist’s demise first as a writer & then as a person. Indeed, it might not have been until Ginsberg’s stint as Kraj Mahales, the King of the May, in 1965 Czechoslovakia – to which Ginsberg had been deported from Cuba of all places after protesting Castro’s persecution of gays – that the author of Howl seemed fully to appreciate his own potential as a symbolic public figure. But even then other poets rolled their eyes & looked askance. Jack Spicer’s very last poem, written just weeks after Ginsberg expulsion from Czechoslovakia, accuses Ginsberg of not understanding that “people are starving.”
That was 48 years ago &, if anything, the mythos of Ginsberg & radical beat culture as a forerunner of all things liberational has intensified over the past half century. In a five-day span late last fall, I saw three separate motion pictures, either current or very recent, that each included Ginsberg:

  • John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the future author of Howl, Jack Huston as Kerouac & Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs, which may still be in some theaters

  • Walter Salles’ On the Road, an attempt to contain Kerouac’s sprawling autobiographical novel as an intelligible film narrative starring Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), Tom Sturridge (like Radcliffe, a British actor) as Carlo Marx (Ginsberg) & Viggo Mortensen as (as Bull Lee, Burroughs), relatively new to the Netflix & DVD round after a modest theater run

  • Robert McTavish’s documentary, The Line Has Shattered, recounting the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, during which 48 “students” took seminars & participated in readings over three weeks from Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov & Margaret Avison – this film is still rolling out via the art film / festival circuit
Ginsberg’s stature on the curious fulcrum between public intellectual & public anti-intellectual is worth noting. In addition to Radcliffe & Sturridge, Ginsberg has also been portrayed by Roger Massih, Wade Williams, James Franco, Charley Rossman, Hank Azaria, Yehuda Duenyas, David Cross, Tim Hickey, Jon Schwartz, Ron Livingston, Bill Willens, John Turturro, Richard Cotovsky, David Markey, Ron Rifkin, & George Netesky. David Cross, who played Ginsberg in in the Dylan anti-biopic I’m Not There, plays Allen’s father Louis in Kill Your Darlings.¹

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Although I knew his work slightly from his own A Controversy of Poets, I hadn’t focused on Robert Kelly’s poetry until I got to know some of his former Bard students: David Perry*, John Gorham and Harvey Bialy, and through them Tom Meyer. All spoke glowingly of Kelly as a teacher. But it wasn’t until I got hold of a copy of Finding the Measure (Black Sparrow, 1968) that Kelly’s poetry forced me to pay attention. The volume’s preface – or as Kelly titles it, complete with open-ended parenthesis, “(prefix:” – is one of the knockdown finest statements of a poetics I’ve ever read. Even today, 35 years after it was written, it stands up:

Finding the measure is finding the mantram,
is finding the moon, as index of measure,
is finding the moon’s source;

                                                     if that source
is Sun, finding the measure is finding
the natural articulation of ideas.

                                                            The organism
of the macrocosm, the organism of language,
the organism of I combine in ceaseless naturing
to propagate a fourth,
                                        the poem,
                                                            from their trinity.

Style is death. Find the measure is finding
a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement

                Finding the measure is finding the
specific music of the hour,
                                                the synchronous
consequences of the motion of the whole world.

Style is death. Derrida would have a field day with that, coming as it does in the work of someone for whom measure – the line & phrase heard as units at once both of music & of meaning – is the compelling issue. What does Kelly mean to make so bald a claim?

The answer of course is to be found first in Kelly’s assertion that there is such a thing as a “natural articulation of ideas,” followed by his trinity of organisms. The idea of “natural articulation,” may follow out of the old Imagist maxim that “a new cadence means a new idea,” but Kelly weds it very much to an organic vision not only of the poem but of all existence.

It’s interesting to map Kelly’s trinity over, say, Jakobson’s six functions of language. As I’ve written here before, I always think of Jakobson’s model as three axes, or as pairs of opposites: addresser, address; contact, code; signifier, signified. Kelly’s trinity does fall neatly into those three pairs, especially if one goes back to Jakobson’s own discussions of the signified as ultimately contextual, much broader than the notion of an object for every noun – Kelly calls it the “organism / of the macrocosm.”

What Kelly describes as three axes “ceaselessly naturing” to pop out a poem rather the way a hen does eggs is the grounds for any articulation, not just verse. Is Kelly arguing after a fashion that it is this particular configuration of these possibilities that lead to the poem? Perhaps, but more important is the way in which this text privileges the “I” with italics only to deny its force one stanza later with “Style is death.” But of course that kind of equation can work both ways: Death is style might be even more accurate. Phrased thus, we can see that Kelly is trying very hard to separate out the “I” of consciousness from a second “I,” the superego really, that would impose its understanding of tradition & history encoded through a process that keeps the word from somehow coming through directly. 

That distinction takes me back to the seemingly self-canceling phrase, “natural articulation.” Such a concept implies a universe in which articulation would be unmediated & inevitable. Not simply that the flower of my sermon should be its own message, but that nature itself is just such an ultimate discourse. But Kelly’s phrase continues: “natural articulation of ideas.” Thus ideas themselves must exist both prior to & outside of any embodiment in words.

If the lion could speak we would have to write it down.** Kelly is aligning the poem here with a discourse that is, literally, inhuman – though not necessarily anti-human. Rather it exists prior to & outside of our merely secular discursive behaviors. The mantram of the first line is, if we follow this logic, a subliminal hum within the universe. The role for poet is not to alter or direct that energy so much as to enable it to come through revealed.

All of which, I would argue, takes us back to the question in this poem of the moon. It is not only that “Finding the measure is finding the mantram,” but that it is also “finding the moon, as index of measure, / is finding the moon’s source.” The question of the moon, its relation to Sun (the absence of article here marking as more than a little like an Egyptian god) & that mysterious idea of “source” traces the other thematic thread that weaves through this text. Read strictly, the entire line of reasoning about the trinity of organisms should apply only if Sun is understood as “source” for the moon. Moon of course being a loaded term for a poet who has already published a volume of short poems called Lunes.

On the one hand, the attributes of the tides & their impact on any number of worldly phenomena is certainly present, but at a level of obviousness that makes it a So What. Ditto the question of gravity from earth to moon or vice versa & of sun to either. At a more significant level, though, I don’t think this image is decidable except insofar as it pins the question of articulation up into a cosmology of effects. The poem resonates exactly as something that cannot be reduced to an argument, a good test of any poem.

* Not the same David Perry who is now active in poetry around New York, whom I think of as the “Adventures in Poetry” David Perry in order to keep them straight in my head.

** As indeed Michael McClure already has.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

If Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides chaplet series represents the epitome of pristine design and text presentation in micropublishing, Kenneth Warren’s House Organ is its polar opposite. Even though the two publications have occasionally printed the same people, they’re as far apart in some ways as two magazines could get. Typeset in a san-serif font that is hard-going on the page – it works far better on a PC screen – House Organ is copied onto 8.5- by 11-inch sheets of white paper and then stapled in a saddle-stitch format down the center longwise to create a journal in which the pages are 11 inches tall but only 4.25 inches wide. Sent through the mail sans envelope, my copies arrive bent, nicked, torn. Inside, Warren appears to have a horror of white space – each page is as crowded with text as is humanly possible. In the summer 2002 issue, the last inch & one-half of the very last page is given to Cid Corman’s contribution, wedged in as though an afterthought. House Organ is so ugly that it can’t possibly be an accident – Warren is insisting that these works have to be taken on their merits alone.

Yet in spite of all this, House Organ always has something of interest & is often a very lively publication. It is literally the only Projectivist publication extant in the United States. In addition to Corman, the summer issue, number 39, includes work by Tom Meyer, Albert Glover, Vincent Ferrini, Olson biographer Tom Clark, and the fourth installment of Warren’s own tour through Charles Olson’s Selected Letters, plus another ten contributors that include Paul Pines & Joseph Massey, whose first book, Minima St. I reviewed on the blog, September 19.* In fact, short works, such as those favored by Corman & Massey, work best in this format. Here is Corman’s, entitled “1/”:

This is getting you
nowhere – exactly

where you were heading
once your mother fed you.

And this is Massey’s untitled poem:


stuck in peripheral


a moon

There is a way in which a short work creates its own white space, cognitively if not physically. The self containment that is possible in a work of this scale serves these pieces, which stand out in the context of House Organ more clearly than do longer pieces, even when those works are as thoroughly composed & finished as these, as in Tom Meyer’s excerpts from “Book Two”** or Tom Clark’s poems on the September 11 attacks.

Projectivism of course was always more interested in the poem as document of thinking more than of the finished text & House Organ’s summer issue shows just how far such work might go. Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini provides an annotated list of the “Authors in My Life,” interesting mostly because they aren’t who you might think. Albert Glover’s “Sketching Greg” comes straight out of a creative writing class project, literally, of having students write in the presence of a “life model” – the nude male of the title – while listening to the music of John Coltrane.*** To call Glover’s poetry slack misses the point completely. There is simply no attempt to work toward a polished surface, it is literature as pure process:

so let us occupy a safe space
   made by some invisible wall
          arms like little legs
winged up behind Greg’s back

            (Michele must be looking
right up his butt)

That Glover organizes the “g”s and the terminal “k” in that first stanza is fortuitous, perhaps the one singular moment in the three pages of the piece. But, as Michele can see, it’s not necessarily the point of this project. What makes this kind of poetry “difficult” or off-putting to non-fans of Projectivism is how much it depends on the inherent value of traced thought regardless of the quality of thinking. It’s one thing when one is reading a brilliant if undisciplined polymath like Charles Olson. As Paul Blackburn’s Journals show, even a fine poet does not necessarily make for great reading when writing becomes all but dissociated from intention.

Invariably, one comes across work in a publication like House Organ by people whose names are unfamiliar. Robert Podgurski in the summer issue has a poem, “Insistence,” that feels quite uneven. Its third stanza shines and the final one is technically competent, but I don’t get anything from the first two beyond a couple of unusual adjectives – anguine, batrachian that would compel me to reread them enough times to really get what he’s trying to say. I wish there were some contributors’ notes that would direct me me to other publications. I’m curious, but there’s no guarantee I’ll remember the name the next time I happen across it in print.

So I get House Organ & am always interested, but I seem to fight with a lot of what is going on – not, I suppose, too unlike my relationship to certain aspects of Projectivism. House Organ is available from Kenneth Warren at 1250 Belle Avenue, Lakewood, Ohio 44107.

*Which just happened to be his 24th birthday.

** Suggesting of course the presence of “Book One” & the possibility of others. Is there a new Tom Meyer long poem in the works?

*** I didn’t know that there were creative writing classes that still did this. This wasn’t so uncommon in the 1960s.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

One of the most interesting inclusions in the ridiculously named The Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner), guest edited by Robert Creeley, is a series of twenty-six fragments written by the late George Oppen, “scrawled on envelopes and other small pieces of paper – posted to the walls of George Oppen’s study and gathered after his death.” One in fact was written in pencil directly on the wall itself.

One that I find most haunting is the second:

I find I am forgetting
all the spoken     of
and the numbers          (i.e.
how to form them


also the numbers

George Oppen died of Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitating degenerative condition against which he struggled for many years. This fragment appears to directly address that condition and, in doing so, recalls the furor that met the exhibition of Willem de Kooning’s last paintings, also created by an artist well into the irreversible dementia of the disease. Were the sweeping and majestic spaces of his last canvases – more akin to a Diebenkorn (albeit one with no straight lines) than to the intense and misogynistic paintings of de Kooning’s signature work – the sign of an artist who had arrive at a new (and theoretically more peaceful) stage in his evolution or an index of the degeneration of one of the great minds in painting? Because poetry depends precisely on language and is so intimately entangled with consciousness itself, Oppen’s last fragments inevitably raise the same issues. I’ve heard at least one person wonder aloud as to the wisdom of printing these last unfinished pieces.

I’m persuaded by the text themselves. Although not all are anywhere near Oppen’s best poetry, some – like the above – are quite fine. While George Oppen is rightly included among the Objectivists in literary history, the bulk of his writing occurred after 1960, a point beyond which it was impossible not to be aware of the New Americans.* The projectivists in particular were clear about using poetry to represent the movement of thought, although others as diverse as Phil Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara could be said to have also written what Whalen once characterized as a “continuous nerve movie.”

Oppen seems quite clear, if not about words & numbers as such, about the importance of tracking his own consciousness against this greatest of challenges, its own ineluctable decomposition. These fragments, many of which repeat themselves, stalking the same terrain over & over, articulate a mind working through some of the most elemental facts of poetry and life with an absolute sense of just how little time remains.

* Oppen was an attentive reader. I had the fortune of being present when Mark Linenthal first introduced Oppen to Robert Duncan. Oppen’s first words were, “I want to talk with you about your use of open vowels.”