The day the sixties became the seventies
“The way the land falls away is the first fact.” This sentence, falling off into the deep space of allusion, sounds the depths of the nearly quarter century that separates it from the “FIRST FACT” opening Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael; from the “central fact” of Olson’s opening musings on space, which themselves call to mind such predecessor sentences as “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” Olson writes. “I spell it large because it comes large here,” projecting, as it were, Olson’s aesthetics onto the very ground of the American people; or, more likely, suggesting that our grounding organically produces our poetics. I take my opening sentence from David Bromige’s 1973 volume Birds of the West, published by the Canadian Coach House Press. Bromige’s sentence is the opening to an afterword titled “Proofs,” a title to be taken, I take it, in both the sense of page or photo proofs to be examined for correction and the sort of proofs one learns to produce in a course in logic. There was ample reason for Bromige to sound such a Black Mountainish note by way of self-explanation. Though English by birth, this Canadian citizen poet had veritably come of age with the poetics of the New American Poetry, had, in fact, both encountered Creeley and Duncan as a student at the university of British Columbia (where he also saw Kenneth Patchen read to jazz accompaniment) and been in the audience at the riotous Berkeley poetry conference in the summer of 1965, audible on tape recordings of the event putting questions to Jack Spicer. Over the years, though, Bromige was slowly to pull away from the imperatives of projective verse in the pursuit of further projections, keener demarcations. These moves can be seen in their incipience already in his “Proofs,” in the way that it is no longer space that he takes as first fact, but the manner of the land’s falling away (also an echo of Olson’s Maximus), a phenomenological grasping of first fact, signaled here by the wordplay, by the carefully measured juxtaposition of “way” and “away” — “the way the land falls away.” This increasingly became Bromige’s way, as can be read in the title of his later book Red Hats, a title unpacking itself out of the letters of an earlier title, borne by the book Threads, and heralding what might be seen at the time as a breaking away of a later postmodern from the stances of its earlier instances. I take the way of this falling away towards a poetics differing from itself as central fact in one move from the sixties to the seventies, a mode of tectonic shift scraping the New American Poetry up against a newer still.
And if I might do so without sounding too much like one of the now old New Historicists, I would trace this way of falling away to a hillside in Sonoma County, California:
We hiked the long late Sunday afternoon
the Bloomfield downs of South Sonoma
David said, did you know
Max Douglas is dead, of an overdose
I was just about to ask you about him
anyway I said
The speaker of these lines is poet Kenneth Irby; their “David” is David Bromige; the subject of their hiking converse is Max Douglas, the title figure of Irby’s long poem “To Max Douglas” and, until his death, one of the more promising new lights among later generation Black Mountaineers. These lines from “To Max Douglas” seem to propose as much a periodization of poetries as to announce the elegiac subject of the poem. Douglas had blown in off the plains around Saint Joseph and Lawrence, had studied with Ed Dorn, had attended a poetry workshop one summer in San Diego, and was now dead with the new decade at twenty from an overdose of heroin just months after visiting Bromige in Northern California, just ten months after the death of Charles Olson. Ed Dorn, in his introduction to Irby’s poem, had called Douglas a “child of the crossing” and credited him with having “in his short life” been “able to modify Olson’s procedures to fit his own situation.” Those left behind had only to continue modifying Olson’s procedures to fit their own situation to find themselves passing well beyond the parameters of Olson’s projection, walking into fields where some earlier fellows of Black Mountain were loath to follow, however fallow those fields.
Irby had only met Max Douglas one time, at David Bromige’s house. Since Irby had to depart for Oregon the next morning, the poets were unable to continue their talk “of Dorn, of Ratzel and Sauer,” and yet Douglas seems to have made a lasting impression on the older poet, and not simply because the two of them both faced “out / to reach the Great Plains in the back of the head.” Douglas seemed to have had such an effect on many, the combination of his winning personality and his sheer talent even then evident on first meeting. He had already published two chapbooks, had appeared in significant journals, and was in correspondence with John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, Bromige’s own primary publisher at the time, regarding a possible book publication. In 1969, Douglas had included an encouraging letter from Martin with the portfolio of his work submitted along with his application to the University of Kansas, where he was to major in American Humanities and study creative writing with Dorn. We can judge something of Douglas’s effect on those with whom he worked by Dorn’s own last judgment of him, delivered in his prefatory comments to Irby’s poem. Dorn singled out “his hunger for the power of language.”
Following Douglas’s death, there were a few tentative motions towards a posthumous publication of his work. In his introduction to the 1978 Collected Poems of Max Douglas, Chris Wienert, whose White Dot Press eventually did bring out the volume with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, summarizes those earlier efforts:
A book was first considered by John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, who had corresponded with Max and was in the process of gathering papers Max sent to him. Clayton Eshelman, who earlier published Douglas in Caterpillar magazine, was asked to edit a selection of poems from this material, which he did faithfully, completing a manuscript in October 1973. This Selected Poems was never published despite Eshelman’s endeavors outside Black Sparrow to see it happen. Lack of funds seems to have played a large part in this …
The difficulties of raising funds for the publication of an almost entirely unknown poet are not hard to imagine. The book finally came about as a result of the Eastward migration of Andrea Wyatt, who, in addition to her own poetry, had edited the Larry Eigner Selected Poems. Wyatt, in the course of a reading at Washington, DC’s Folio Books, where she also worked at the time, turned from her own poetry to read a selection by Douglas. Chris Wienert, in the audience that evening, was sufficiently taken by the work that he borrowed Douglas’s papers from Wyatt, and subsequently used his NEA grant to publish the book. The volume appeared to little notice and has been seldom cited since. (Though I note that Doug Lang, associated with Andrea Wyatt during the Folio Bookshop years, has placed an overview of Douglas and his book on his blog, and somehow this book nobody has much read is now listed at prices of $166 on Internet sales sites.) White Dot Press itself seems to have vanished after publishing this volume, one book by Andrea Wyatt, Wienert’s own collection and a chapbook by Warren Wigatow, a poet and former student of Robert Kelly who worked at the Second Story Books store that followed Folio into the same Dupont Circle space.
The Douglas Collected strongly resembles its projectivist brethren in both structure and thematics; there is a great deal of geography and history in lines that start out strongly reminiscent of Creeley and then, after several experiments with lineation, seem to strike a more characteristic individual mode. A late poem such as “The Word” really does wear its genealogy on its surface:
There is no one follows the news
like I do. It is,
the small town, etc.
& that is your availability.
Something obscure, you would say.
But if this reads a bit too much like its progenitors, it also reads remarkably well for a poet who had not yet reached the age of twenty when he wrote it. In his sequence on the James Gang and Charlie Ford, in his lyric explorations of a plains consciousness, even in a premonitory poem arising from the news coverage of Thomas Eagleton in the years prior to his dalliance with George McGovern, Douglas showed an avidity for the news that stays news and, as Dorn remarked, a positive hunger for the power of language. He was, at twenty, wedded to the philosophical assumptions of projective verse, as witnessed by his emphasis on “self-possession” on self-location, on “the umbilicus– / as Center of Universe,” as attested by his copying into his notes the following passage from Charles Olson: “I am more and more persuaded that the revolution I am responsible for is this one, of the identity of a person and his expression (that these are not separable).”
Irby spotted something of continental significance in the younger poet and in his journey. The elder artist knew that for someone like Douglas:
to reach from that, your
St. Joe to present Lawrence
is a cut as far
and continental as the reach
He saw Douglas as someone “in the whirlpool of the continent,” recollecting the Midwest’s proclivity for tornadic disruptions while recognizing the younger man’s placement in the eye of the swirling forces of change that were even then shaking the nation, a generational difference signaled in Douglas’s signing of one late letter to John Martin, “Workingman’s Dead, Max.” Those continental traversals, too, in Irby’s view, were what linked his own art to Douglas’s and to that of other post-Olson poets. Irby likened his own Oregon trip to Douglas’s imminent return across the vast reaches to Kansas:
the line of that journey
and the poem of that line
are eternal, are what this still is getting at
the line of continent
Kelly’s Common Shore, Grenier’s
icebox door shots out the windshield.
At the same time, there is that generational apartness. Irby keeps putting apostrophic questions to the now-gone younger man; wonders “Which way did you come West / Missouri Max” and “O Maxie / what did you do // to be so sad?” Bromige, too, seems to have picked up on that core sadness. Irby’s poem remembers Bromige reporting that he had cried on Douglas’s return West, thinking of the drive without a soul to talk to “all the way back to St. Joe.” Then, too, I have always wondered if we are not, given these constant references in the poem to “Max,” to read the poem as a sort of elegy to the poetics of Maximus, following the death by excess of this younger Max, a figure of an incipient farther out, son of the figure of outward.
That reading arises as well from the fact that the poem itself sees Max as a coming difference, placed precisely at the trembling crossroads of an earlier aesthetic:
The Berkeley climate of exotica
these almost 50 years. Kroeber’s
their houses just across the street from one another
Grenier at one end
Bromige at the other
Max in between …
In California, Irby feels deeply the central fact “That this edge of the continent is / a hinge,” as he also feels Douglas to be a flitting sign of a changed circumstance. While few at the time would have described the place to look for the new poetics as lodged somewhere between Grenier and Bromige, Irby at least does see, in looking at this trio of poets in converse, that there’s something happening here and that it may no longer be the sixties.
What had been the common shore of projective verse was no longer simply a place of adaptation; whole plates were breaking away beneath our feet and new paths were, in the words of one later Bromige parody, a matter of following in uneven steps. Looking to the title of such a book as The Harbormaster of Hong Kong we might rightly be put in mind of Olsonian obsessions with geography, obsessions shared by Irby and Douglas, but such mindfulness is shaken by the discovery that there never was such a harbormaster. And what are we to make of Bromige’s insistence that the title had as much to do with a punning reading of Habermas as with any fanciful relation to Hong Kong, which is, as a character in a recent commercial reminds us, “in China”?
Olson, too, had his playful side, but he remained committed to that revolution that identified the inseparability of person and expression. Irby to some extent and Bromige for sure were no longer so sure of that. Bromige published a book titled My Poetry constructed largely of sentences appropriated from previous reviews of his books. Gary Sullivan has written of My Poetry that it “seems in retrospect to be the book that finally shook North American Poetry from the burnt-out hull of ’70s self-absorption into the radical deconstruction of the ’80s (assuming, of course that you buy into that particular art-historical narrative).” Sullivan’s closing qualification is odd on many counts, seemingly asserting a truth that is only true if you already believe it, and it’s hard to credit that a book read by so few was able to shake all of North American poetry. But, while his chronology may be off by a decade, Sullivan is right that Bromige’s work was radically deconstructing something in the assumptions of the self at the heart of projective verse, something still clung to in many quarters on both the left and the right of American verse culture. In Birds of the West Bromige’s meditations on pronouns find “we is more fitting somehow / than the I, of course it’s the one alone who writes / except the words are talking.” Further, for Bromige the Olsonian insistence, shared with Ginsberg, on the measure of a man’s breath, gave way upon reflection to a differing duration, one that sees the subject as inseparable from syntax:
Much like a sentence I proceed. I term this duration. Thus measure, metric, stem from the periodicity these various processes instruct one in.
If, as Creeley exclaimed, he could not truly know the poem until it was there, under his hand in the process of its own making, Bromige and others who had come of age with the radical New American Poetries were increasingly making the same exclamation with regard to the self:
The subject of that sentence
That opens with a shout
Is difficult to find but anyone
Might find oneself the object
And while there was never any lack of interest in the structures and strictures of linguistics among the Black Mountain poets, many were, like Bromige (though perhaps with less of his characteristic irony) following the linguistic turn in philosophy with its consequent implications for thinking, not so much of the mirror stage, but of thinking, that most intimate colloquy of the self:
A sentence shows the words the way to go
Although a sentence needs the help of words
It holds their sense within its keeping
The first sentences we learn we learn as whole
Most likely when we’re in our parents’ keeping
Then as we grow they’re built up out of parts
But a sentence is imperfect
In what sense is a sentence so
In the sense that language is
That these lines occur in a poem titled “Protestant Poem” give them the air of theses nailed to a church door. That many of their words are appropriated openly from Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge is a typically Bromige twist, underscoring that maturation process of sentential acquisition as it raises questions about just how personal anything termed personal knowledge may be. This additionally points to just how radical the newer directions of Bromige’s poetry of the early seventies would be, though any number of past poets had made a virtue of creative appropriation (again, that deep space of allusion increasingly known at the time as intertextuality). Following Bob Grenier’s recent example in Sentences (though Grenier’s collected box would not appear for some time yet), Bromige had wanted the “corners” that make up the title sequences of his book Tight Corners & What’s around Them to be published as unbound pieces that could be reshuffled. (That John Martin would not agree to this relatively expensive procedure caused some strain in his relationship with Bromige in the coming years.) What made the attempted gesture radical was not its newness — after all, the British novelist B. S. Johnson had just published his fiction The Unfortunates as loose signatures gathered together in a box in 1969 — it was what happened in those Tight Corners: “A sentence, as the expression of a complete thought, is not natural & does not exist in nature. Is not natural & does not exist in nature.”
It is impossible to know if Max Douglas, following the death of Olson, might have pursued the paths that brought Kenneth Irby and David Bromige to ever more characteristically seventies explorations of the power of language and the nature of the subject, paths Dorn, and more vehemently Tom Clark, were to refuse. It is hard to say that a later, relatively little-read book such as Bromige’s My Poetry veritably “shook North American Poetry from the burnt-out hull of … self-absorption into … radical deconstruction.” Bromige and Irby, standing in the fields of Sonoma, were part of a continental drift, one that would not have been possible without the radical poetics of mid-century America, but one that was falling away on the hinge work of new sentences.
18. Gary Sullivan, “My David Bromige,” Jacket (May 2003).