Thursday, June 7, 2012



The series I'm currently working on isnt a sequential narrative; that is, the poems arent episodes of a continuing story. It is a sequence though, and contains narrative. Thinking aloud : what kind of a step between 'series' & 'serial' and, by the same token, between 'sequence', 'series' & 'serial'?

In this series, each poem stands alone but gains value from the overall gathering. The opening gambit ("More Midsummer Night's Dream than Dante") is a constant. It registers the sound of the poem & marks its place, both tonal & topographical. It's the crucial refrain. Resonances obtain, but apart from the major references, Midsummer Night's Dream & Dante's Inferno (principally the 1st canto's famous beginning), it isnt a meta-poem (that is, a poem about poetry or the writing of poetry).

Autobiographical material occurs spontaneously, memories arising as riffs off the Shakespeare & the Dante. Astonishing to me when the characters or situations seemingly echo Shakespeare & Dante; as though, for example, the women in the poems are mediating Beatrice! And then it occurs to me that the Shakespeare & Dante, important as they were in their time as literature & language, a kind of mnemonic for the entire tradition, are archetypal by nature and stand now amongst our very own ur-texts.

As writer I'm interested in what poem & series will deliver, and being the writer doesnt preclude any such revelation. I look forward to what each poem will make of itself even as I write it. This species of authority is rather like W.S. Graham (from the third of his series The Dark Dialogues) : "I speak as well as I can / Trying to teach my ears / To learn to use their eyes / Even only maybe / In the end to observe / The behaviour of silence." Not it exactly but Graham is always a propos, even in broad daylight.


Still early in the education (firstly via Allen & Creeley's The New Writing in the USA, which I bought in Melbourne in the winter of 1967, when it was published, & secondly, a little later, via Allen's The New American Poetry, published seven years before, but at long last in my hands) one encountered Jack Spicer, though not yet his imprimatur for serialism. Actually, serial composition back then was well & truly in contemporary music's domain, and not even from the Schoenbergian source initially but reading John Cage & hearing Keith Humble lecture! (Isnt it always the case : 'knowing' more than one's yet experienced, that is thinking one knows!) With ginormous benefit of hindsight, Spicer's nine part Love Poems, in The New Writing in the USA volume, does resemble a certain type of serial music's recombinatory technique, as he recalls a line or phrase from another part (for example, "for you I would build a whole new universe") without compromising the integrity of its various renditions. And though one read Billy the Kid (the New Writers' Press edition) in Dublin at the turn of '69/'70 (which Michael Smith published at the urging of their man in San Francisco, Pearse Hutchinson) and around a year later, After Lorca (another pirate, this time from Allen Fisher's Aloes Books in London, except that copyright wasnt an issue then given Spicer's largess), I didnt have the poet's own word on practice until I read the wonderful Spicer issue of Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar magazine (#12, July, 1970, bought of course from Nick Kimberley's indispensable poetry section of Compendium Bookshop in London). Yet the transcription there of Spicer's contributions to the Vancouver Conference of '65 doesnt actually include Spicer's spelling it out as appears in the statement for the anthology, The Poetics of the New American Poetry (ed Don Allen & Warren Tallman, Grove, 1973) :

"A serial poem, in the first place, has the book as its unit as an individual poem has the poem as its unit, the actual poem that you write at the actual time, the single poem. And there is a dictation of form as well as a dictation of the individual form of the individual poem. And you have to go into a serial poem not knowing what the hell you're doing. (....) What I'm saying is you have a unit, one unit the poem, which is taken by dictation, and another unit, the book, which is a more structured thing. But it should be structured by dictation and not by the poet. (....)" (p233)


I'm tweaked like a deja-vu as I reread the first pages of Earth Ship (the magazine I published in England, 1970-72), # 4/5 (September, '71). It was intended to be an Olson issue, committed as I was to reviewing The Archaeologist of Morning (good to be reminded that this labour of love was coedited by George Butterick, Albert Glover & Peter Riley), sent to me by Tom Maschler at Cape Golliard, to whom I'd written on Nathaniel Tarn's recommendation. I was particularly pleased to publish there a letter from John Thorpe to Ken Irby (tho unsure now whether Thorpe or Irby sent it to me, or perhaps even Riley or Andrew Crozier), for it included part of a J H Prynne missive to Olson (containing the epochal line, "Singleness is emphatically not to line up as showing the individual at the helm...").

Apart from anything else that letter illustrates the disparity between my enthusiasm & their learning --how much of a school-kid in the heavy-duty classroom I must have seemed! Olson's Projective Verse essay was one thing, The Human Universe & other essays something else but that English Olson-language entirely otherwise! At least I could open my mouth in the Olson discussion with such colleagues as John Hall, David Chaloner, Allen Fisher, Paul Buck, Tim Longville & John Riley. True to say, though, the English discourse was always more cerebral than what I'd known around the Melbourne/La Mama (cafe theatre) poets, ca 67-69, particularly that fraction one had in mind as 'Cambridge' (Prynne, Crozier, Peter Riley & others, John James, Doug Oliver & John Temple), exemplars of a perspective one had only begun to nibble at (convolutions of the 'land & language' equation Hall had offered me). Even now, forty years on, reading Peter Riley's latest collection, The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011), encountering the line (almost a quip?), "I am entitled to make elisions / between geological and moral structures.", the authenticity of that particular perspective with its special vocabulary is clear.

Around that time, Nick Kimberley related to me John James' comment (refering, I think, to a poem I'd published in Nick's little mag, high on Ed Dorn as it happens and not at all a send-up), that "he knows not the ground whereon he stands." If he meant the English scene I'd recently joined he was right --I was happily enrolled in the second English education I'd promised myself when I set sail from Australia for the UK in late '69. However, I never thought I required excuse or permission for my own interaction with the New American Poetry, which was surely the basis for all of our expeditions. The new poetry as, for example, demonstrated in the pages of The English Intelligencer (a great bundle of which John Hall had presented me), was more readily approachable than that very particular Cambridge poetry, and in its diversity not unlike the new poetry movement Down Under...

I'd hoped for more Olson related materials than the handful I presented in the 35 Roneod full-scap pages of Earth Ship, #4/5, but there were adjacent pieces. Rereading it the mag feels like a typical late '60s, early '70s log of the Trans-Atlantic correspondence, which will always lead a reader to the "Anglo-American" sobriquet, correcting the cliche of mutually exclusive (British, American) domains : Gael Turnbull on Cid Corman, my brother Bernard on Larry Eigner, the Snyderesque topographies of Jeremy Hilton, the (possibly Ginsbergean) diaristic passions of Nathaniel Tarn & David Tipton...

I'd retrieved the mag from the trunk because I remembered Tim Longville's poem there, SNOW MAN : A Poem Begun The Day Charles Olson Died, for him and for Jack Spicer, but until it was in my hand again didnt recall the lines I'd quoted from Spicer's A Poem to the reader of the poem at the head of my Olson review. It's a misquotation actually since "The eagle was / God or Charles Olson" doesnt follow the opening salvo, "I threw a naked eagle in your throat / I dreamed last night / That I was wrestling with you on the mountainside". Truer to the tone & sense had I continued the proposition, "The eagle was men wrestling naked / without the hope of men wrestling naked. / The eagle was a wet dream." --after all, Spicer's poem is a many-sided quandary and the quote, reflecting my callow mind-set, supposed the categorical.

Crucially Peter Riley's 'essays' on Olson, Duncan, & Spicer had slipped my mind. I quote the last :

Jack Spicer. An Essay.

1. No, not a voice in the night.
Which leads to the supposition, there is nothing
to be done.
Which leads to masochism and chauvinistic moans.

2. Indians, Esquimos and the dead East in general,
help keep alive the Aristotelian flame in various
outposts, San Francisco, e.g.

3. Fortunately, such men do not often rationalize.
Only in teaching situations.
Some of which got called "poems".

4. Well, it's a difficult place to live in, Vertigo.

Reading Spicer's Textbook of Poetry in that issue of Caterpillar, I'm tempted by the resemblance of Riley's 'essays' to Spicer's enigmatic sections despite the poets' different intentions. It's that final line of Riley's essay which pings the keenest right now, especially as W.S. Graham reenters my thinking. A Spicer/Graham connection has been tickling me throughout just as a few years ago I was want to proffer John Berryman as proximate to Graham in dexterity & idiosyncrasy despite the different stages for their soliloquies. And no vertigo without Paul Celan, --and for Celan eternal indebtedness to Walter Billeter --his translation of The Meridian (I think the first in English; Paul Celan : Prose Writings & Selected Poems, published by Paper Castle, Melbourne, 1977 ) --thus Buchner's Lenz. Says Paul Celan in his Buchner Prize speech, "Who walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, ---who walks on his head, has the sky as precipice beneath him."

Celan, or Beckett, or any writing, sick of the replete-sentence assumptions of author, the spectrum of omniscience which cant help but relegate the language/the words as both carriage & frame --as per Spicer's conjunction, "Language is a complex system which involves word, gesture and all of that sort of thing and it's a higher abstraction than words. (....) Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else's head, just like memories are (....) Now, language is a more complicated thing, but at the same time it's a structure..." (Vancouver Lecture, June 13,1965, published in Caterpiller #12, p204).

And I say this despite simultaneous queasiness at the opposite end of practice, that accumulation of sophistication, against which my Inner Peasant rises up, suing for a rough & ready transparency --"lost land", "last hand" --also vertiginous, --the forever thinking through of such natural contradiction.

[April/June 7, 2012]



vdcsv said...

Thanks for posting this, Kris. I'm very much enjoying reading about the development of your series of poems. And the piece drew me back to W.S. Graham's "What is the language using us for?" - itself a series - which has long been a favourite poem of mine. Cheers, Vera

Glenn said...

A great read, Kris!