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Commentary on Larry Eigner's 'On My Eyes'

A response to Charles Bernstein's 1960 symposium presentation

Eigner’s On My Eyes, which was published in 1960, was “edited” as nearly all Larry’s books were during his lifetime: by other hands. Apparently it was thought — and I’m not clear about exactly why this was deemed to be necessary — that Larry was unable to do it himself, and needed this “help” to do it. It may have been as a result of his modesty, or his sense of mental “confusion” which was an effect of his prose writing — people tended to think he was scattered, or unfocused, or perhaps they thought his disability made him “disorganized.” So what we have, with On My Eyes, is a manuscript cobbled together out of a mass of work selected over the preceding decade, though the kind  and style of writing which Levertov chose and arranged was clearly biased towards a specific preference. The work in On My Eyes is stylistically rather unlike most of the writing previously published in From the Sustaining Air and Look At the Park. And it’s also rather unlike the work which appears in his next major collection, another time in fragments. In other words, it feels atypical. Williams’s decision to pair it with Callahan’s photographs had nothing to do with Larry, except perhaps in Williams’s mind. Though the book itself feels professional and carefully presented, there’s a distinct sense that Larry’s work is being shaped by other hands. This imposition, or interposition, is an important issue in Larry’s writing career; it reinforces our sense that his original texts were too rough to be taken on their own terms. This imposition did not permit his readers to see how clear and specific his approach to the page was; i.e., the setting in equivalent spaced typeface.  People (editors) thought Larry needed to be “translated” into the conventions of “verse” and typography.  This misconception was was a guiding feature in the reading audience’s apprehension of his work all his writing life. This isnt necessarily “wrong” or “right” but something that needs to be acknowledged in any discussion of his writing and publications.   

I also have published three blog posts about editing Eigner:
   
1. http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/editing-eigners-collected-poems.html

2. http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/editing-eigners-collected-poems_12.html

3. http://compassrosebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/editing-eigners-collected-poems_23.html

Rexroth to Kerouac

Bob Perelman’s “hats off to Donald Allen” sent me back to The New American Poetry. [1] Allen’s brief preface sketches out an open field of postwar American poetry, from the modernists to a “strong third generation” which “has at last emerged.” [2] Bob remarked upon the curiosity of Allen’s “second generation”: his motley list surprises us today by presenting a strange — and perhaps welcome — bump in the road from the modernist masters to “our avant-garde.” Bishop and Lowell are understandable in 1960; Denby and Zukofsky, remarkable; and then there’s Rexroth.

Kerouac famously captured this perverse elder statesman of the Beats in his 1958 The Dharma Bums: as Rheinhold Cacoethes, Rexroth was “the father of the Frisco poetry scene,” a “bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud.” [3] On the night of Japhy Ryder’s (Gary Snyder’s) farewell party, we hear Cacoethes holding forth on the state of poetry: “I guess the only real poets in this country, outside the orbit of this little backyard, are Doctor Musial, who’s probably muttering behind his living-room curtains right now, and Dee Sampson, who’s too rich. That leaves us dear old Japhy here who’s going away to Japan, and our wailing friend Goldbook and our Mr. Coughlin, who has a sharp tongue. By God, I’m the only good one here.” [4] Rexroth claims his place between Williams and Ginsberg,  the good doctor behind the curtains and the howling young man in the yard.

To Kerouac’s alter ego Ray Smith, Cacoethes is dismissive: “‘Well I guess he’s a Bodhisattva in its frightful aspect, ‘ts about all I can say.’ (Aside, sneering, ‘He’s too drrronk all the time.’)” [5] The Dharma Bums rewrote On the Road, replacing Sal Paradise’s search for “It” with the dharma, while Ray Smith’s way to nirvana skewed the rarefied derangement of midcentury American Buddhism — led by Snyder and approved by Rexroth — with wild eyed confusion. This frightful Bodhisattva is on display in The New American Poetry: Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues opens the Beat section of Allen’s anthology, twelve choruses which recall the Buddha inflected delirium of his world.

These choruses embody the capacious vision of the anthology: the Buddha talk embraces everything and nothing, leaping “Across Arabies of hot/ meaning.” [6] Oriental sagacity is shot through with the blues in Mexico City: these poems assume the meeting of east and west, north and south. For many of the poets in Allen’s anthology, the open space of poetry was part and parcel of a spiritual conversion. To read Kerouac’s entry is to recall how astonishingly open this practice was — and to remember a longing for self-transformation inseparable from social transformation. Bob’s appreciation of The New American Poetry crucially noted that the anthology was not capacious in terms of gender or race; instead, Kerouac and his ilk layered modernism’s formal modes of inclusion with the Whitmanian fantasy of incantatory social inclusion.

Cacoethes’s censure of Ray Smith demonstrates the baton passing from an arbiter of poetry to an imbiber of it. Donald Allen’s 1998 afterword to The New American Poetry discusses its reception, concluding with a vitriolic review: “as for the majority of Mr. Allen’s poets they are kids who took up poetry the way one takes up marijuana, Buddhism, switchblade knives, wife swapping, or riding in boxcars, neither more nor less seriously than other ‘kicks.’ Happily, however, they are no threat to poetry.” [7] A remarkably accurate depiction of Kerouac, down to the end: Kerouac gave up Buddhism the way he abandoned everything else. But, as he writes in his 179th Chorus, “I was the most beautiful / Boy of my generation” — a child “waiting for philosophy’s / dreadful murderer / BUDDHA.” [8] In the late 1950s, Rexroth was holding on to “real poets,” but he could only look on while Kerouac demonstrated that it was all for kicks.

Allen’s afterword recalls his initial plan to lead off with the first two generations of American poets, which was nixed by Olson, who said, “If the thing we are now in is it is just in its own character.” [9] In The New American Poetry, the strange profusion of “it” in Olson’s insistence on excluding “grandpas” opens into Kerouac’s “It” of transcendence: of course, they couldn’t help but install themselves within a poetic lineage, but Allen’s anthology freed them from their predecessors. These new American poets were drrronk with a new beauty that awaited — and invited — dreadful murder.



[1] Bob Perelman, “The New American Poetry.” Lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010.
[2] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960), xi.
[3] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: The Viking Press, 1958; New York: Penguin, 1976), 14, 11.  Citations refer to the Penguin edition.
[4] Ibid., 193–94.
[5] Ibid., 194.
[6] Jack Kerouac, “113th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 168.
[7] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 450.
[8] Jack Kerouac, “179th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 170.
[9] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 448.

On Ed Dorn, 'The Newly Fallen'

I’d like to insert Dorn’s first book, The Newly Fallen (Totem Press, 1961), into the Symposium to address an element I felt missing in the original presentation of texts. Senses of space and seemed crucial to the new news about poetry I encountered at age twenty-one, living in Vancouver and having grown up in the Kootenay mountains in the southeast of British Columbia. The New American Poetry anthology tapped into a need to identify the “local” as an aesthetic that was just blossoming in the northwest, and was of great interest to us Canadian postcolonials. Olson’s poetic mapping of Gloucester was as overwhelming as our concurrent discovery of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. But younger, and more western poets like Dorn, Whalen, and Snyder suggested a geographically closer-to-home and local flavour. Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” in the Allen anthology was, for me, a gem of affirmation, a poem about the kind of work I had done in the kind of place I came from. The “home of my mind” seemed eligible for the world of the poem.

The Newly Fallen was published by Leroi Jones’s Totem Press in January 1961, just before Dorn turned thirty-two. It represents the initial staging of Dorn’s work and, it seems, (from the correspondence between Jones and Dorn) that Jones had the manuscript in hand by December 30, 1960. [1] Black Mountain cohort Fielding Dawson did the cover for the book and his drawing plays off of the book’s title (in turn, the last line in the book): it is of an aerial contraption used for transporting manure on a farm (can’t recall why I know this). In any case, Dorn’s first book is central to any assessment of American poetry from 1960.

Dorn had been living in the Pacific Northwest since the midfifties, the setting for his autobiographical novel By The Sound, and was in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1959–60, in the midst of a poetic community that included Robert Creeley, Max Finstein, and Judson Crews; Gil Sorrentino and Allen Ginsberg were visitors. He had been published in Paul Carrol’s Big Table, courtesy of a push from Creeley, The Evergreen Review, John Wieners’ Measure, Migrant, Ark II, Moby I, and had work solicited by Jones for Yugen. A twenty-two-year-old Tom Raworth, in Britain, had just started publishing Outburst and solicited poems from Dorn in late 1960.

1960 was very much in the era of a lot of nuclear bravado (French nuclear test, US Polaris missile underwater test, Atlas and Titan missiles, and so forth). That year Leroi Jones travelled to Cuba, met with Castro, and published “Cuba Libre” in Evergreen Review. By 1960, living in Sante Fe, New Mexico, the middle of the continent, in the middle of what Olson called “SPACE […] the central fact to man born in America,” Dorn depends on the shared poetic interest of an expansive community of writers from New York to San Francisco. [2] He accepted a teaching job at Idaho State in Pocatello in 1961 where he wrote his stunning journey poem, “Idaho Out,” which I first heard in February 1962 when Creeley, who taught at The University of British Columbia that year, brought Dorn to Vancouver for a reading. I was enthralled by a poetry that foregrounded place and class and fleshed out a range of attention to the local, the sensuous, the political, and the national that I could feel somewhat at home with. Soon after, I managed to pick up a copy of The Newly Fallen.

Dorn tells Jones that his selection for the manuscript will be earlier works, “None of the things there were in Don Allens’s antho,” but scattered magazine pieces. And, he tells Jones, “the chore of selecting from my own work will be a headache”. [3] The selection seems a little tentative, considering the more specifically “western” poems in the next book (Hands Up!). A few of the poems incline to an easy kind of lyricism, but more generally they move through what he calls “the great geography of my lunacy” (“Geranium”), a range of love song, the domesticity and furnishings of what he saw as Williams’ “grand / commonplace” (“The Open Road”), some biotextual references to growing up in midwest Americanism, farm stuff, Illinois, Sousa, etc. [4] The collection contains no grand address to the geographical but a number of inclinations that a little later, in something like “Idaho Out,” shape Dorn’s ambivalent tension between the freedom implicit in Olson’s capitalized (and open) SPACE and the west as a site of poverty and estrangement, “mad elements to be scrutinized” (“The Open Road”). [5] And an uncollected poem, “The Mountains,” likely written in 1960 in Sante Fe, ends with the lines “there is no coming back from the space / you make,” a rather sardonic ambiguity so characteristic of Dorn’s view of space. [6] The poems in The Newly Fallen intuit his impending observation that the outsider, the stranger in town is the one to pay attention to, “He’s the man who knows where he’s come from” (The Poet, The People, The Spirit, Berkeley, 1965). Or maybe not:

I go on my way frowning at novelty, wishing I were closer to home
than I am. And this is the last stop before Burlington,
that pea-center, which is my home, but not the home of my mind.
That asylum I carry in my insane squint … [7]

Along with the poems in the Allen anthology, The Newly Fallen signals Dorn’s presence in the 1960 roll call of New American Poetry.



[1] Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative 1, no. 1 (Winter 2009).
[2] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Grove Press, 1941), 14.
[3] “Correspondence, 12-1-60,” Baraka and Dorn, in Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960.
[4] Edward Dorn, “Geranium” and “The Open Road,” in The Newly Fallen (New York: Totem Press, 1961), 4, 10.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Originally published in the “New Poetry 1963” issue of The Yale Literary Magazine; also reproduced on Isola di Rifiuti; “New Poetry 1963,” blog entry by John Latta, July 13, 2010.
[7] Dorn, “Geranium,” in The Newly Fallen, 4.

1960 A First Remembrance

On the New Year’s Eve between 1959 and 1960 I met Diane Wakoski — a night spent between Armand Schwerner’s place, whom we knew, and LeRoi Jones’s, who was still remote from us.  I had begun to move beyond my familiar New York quarters the year before — a trip by bus and car to dazzling San Francisco — and found a poetry world there (a world, in short) that beckoned us to enter. My first real book — translations, to start things off — had been published in 1959 by City Lights, and traveling home from San Francisco, I looked through the rear window of the bus and saw what seemed like a white sun, flat and cold, overhead. That was enough to serve as a title for White Sun Black Sun, a first book of my own that I would publish in the new year — 1960 — through Hawk’s Well Press, cofounded with David Antin a couple of years before. It was also the year in which I published Jess’s O!, having met him and Robert Duncan the year before in Stinson Beach, California, followed shortly thereafter by Robert’s visit and monthlong sojourn at our apartment in New York.

A year of expansions, as I remember it, when expansiveness was possible, even while holding one’s own ground, or trying to. There was an inner circle for sure but its boundaries were increasingly permeable. The ones I worked with most closely were Antin, Robert Kelly, Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski, all of whose first books I published. Kelly and George Economou (another key figure) were then publishing Trobar, and my own magazine of that time was Poems from the Floating World, which I subtitled “an ongoing anthology of the deep image.” And in 1960 we were joined, significantly, by Clayton Eshleman fresh in from Indiana, Paul Blackburn, connecting us to the poets of Black Mountain, and Jackson Mac Low, then operating near the heart of Fluxus. Their part in the discourse — each in his own way but ultimately connected — led us into enough new directions to last a lifetime.

“Deep image” was a rallying cry for several of us, more questionable for several others. It was a term of my own devising, a cover-up perhaps for the continuity of a way of writing and thinking characteristic of French and international Surrealism. Thinking back to it now — a half century later — what seems most meaningful was how it led us into ethnopoetics, the search for a new/old poetics related to or imbedded in the deepest and most distant of human cultures and languages. In the third issue of Poems from the Floating World, I made that search explicit (as Kelly and I had both done in Trobar), and started on the road to Technicians of the Sacred at the end of the decade — not as a way of writing, Tristan Tzara had once taught us, but as a state of mind (esprit).

What was truly remarkable here — at least for me — was how our different pathways, our different means as poets, converged once origins were summoned, and how much depth of human experience those pathways shared. David Antin catches that later in an account of how our ethnopoetics, rather than a yearning for the past, “provided a lens through which it became possible to see some of the possibilities of a truly Postmodern American poetry.” If we hadn’t gotten there yet by 1960, if there was still a way to go toward anything like fullness/wholeness, the participants were already in place, and the battle, as Picasso said of his own collaged beginnings, was now engaged.

On Bob Kaufman, 'Does the Secret Mind Whisper?'

Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (City Lights, 1960) a folding, five-panel broadside by Bob Kaufman, appeared on the heels of his much better-known Abomunist Manifesto (City Lights, 1959), which was later collected in Kaufman’s first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965).  Secret Mind remained uncollected and out of print until Coffee House Press reissued, under the title Cranial Guitar (1995), Kaufman’s second book, Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967), along with a sampling of poems from Solitudes and his third and final book, The Ancient Rain: Poems 19561978 (New Directions, 1981), as well as previously uncollected work. Comprising a single unpunctuated sentence, Secret Mind rushes headlong through a murky and harrowing inner landscape that New World surrealists of African descent (Aimé Césaire, Kaufman himself, Will Alexander, Wilson Harris et al.) have made us somewhat cognizant of, if not familiar or comfortable with; but it also critically engages an external world of sterile information factories and sexualized commercial spectacle that nonetheless derives from an indigenous if not hybrid and murderous creative wellspring:

parker who begat morpheus who begat farnsworth who begat starkweather who begat geronimo who begat whitman who begat hymened women with moist tongues following chinese funerals […] hard breasted adding machine girls in store bought curls wallowing in sipped coffee talking of last night’s copulations with certified public computers and itinerant umbrella peddlers lost in rainless fogs heel and toe and breast and buttock and crooked neck ballet dancers seducing male nymphs under cover of secret blankets of brilliant dust blindly flying through terrified streets of ruined limping vehicles filled with shaggy mouth youthful gangers hunting the human dog with stilettos of fear and dreams of money sex money cars money suits money shoes money muscles money houses money hair money pearly teeth month pointed shoes money hats money brains money hate money love twisted into pimp patterns of money success … [1]

Recognizable are the echoes, both s(ard)onically and thematically, of Ginsberg’s Moloch. But while this litany of desirable status commodities is a typical Beat rant against materialism, Kaufman’s critique is doubled in that the fetish objects shrugged off by counterculturals were also for the most part inaccessible to Black people (houses, success, cars) except in the form of minor accessories (hair, shoes, hats).

Like Kaufman himself, an apocryphally Jewish and Martiniquan African American Catholic from New Orleans, the “secret mind” represents the convergence of multiple cultural trajectories. It is the political unconscious of the US, which registers all the “secret, terrible hurts” (Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz”) visited upon people who belong to an “America not on any map” (Will Alexander), the disenfranchised who may ruminate silently on these social, spiritual and bodily injuries but who may speak of them openly only at their peril. [2] The “secret mind” is also a psychoanalytic concept; the Freudian unconscious, and its putative liberation through uninhibited narrative or Beat logorrhea, were objects of the US counterculture’s infatuation, popularized, along with a street version of French existentialism, by European war refugees of the intellectual classes.

However, Kaufman has also indicated an apprehension of an intuited but ultimately unreachable

silent beat in between the drums.
Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween its sound is
        Bob Kaufman, poet [3]

This silent prima causa is another candidate for the secret mind, the mind behind the mind, between the worded spaces that crowd the mind as lonelinesses crowd solitudes. In yet another riff around secrets/silence, Kaufman writes of “a place called loneliness,”

I know of a place in between between, behind behind, in front of front, below below, above above, inside inside, outside outside, close to close, far from far, much farther than far, much closer than close, another side of an other side … [4]

Kaufman spatializes the uninhabitable, ineffable “real.” Is this an expression of the “yearning” that O’Hara derides in “Personism, A Manifesto” — the structure of addiction spiritualized? Or does it simply point to its own existence as precondition for all else, as a horizon of permission? The secret mind whispers a song like the dead Lady Day along the keyboard while O’Hara (and everybody) stops breathing as he leans against the door of the john.

What does whispering mean in 1960? For O’Hara, it is a skillful and flirtatious way of managing the illegality and mandated social invisibility of his desires. In McCarthy’s Cold War, whispering meant snitching but also attempting to keep one’s leftist activities or queer affections underground, in a nuclear containment unit behind the door of the john. War and rumors of war, countervailing but inarticulable intuitions of something better, and a need to withdraw inward in a depoliticized reaction to a menacing social climate: secret, etymologically, is separate and set apart on one’s own, related through its roots to the word “idiom” — speech particular to a people or a place.  But any containment eventually secretes its holdings, and in Secret Mind the floodgates open. Here is where jazz comes in, a specialized language that nonetheless has a popular and populist urgency. Does the Secret Mind Whisper?, more Coltrane than Parker in its relentlessly tumbling concatenations of words and phrases, broadsides us with its public and private language. Indeed, it seems to scream rather than whisper; but Kaufman, given his racialized subject position in 1960, could scream as loud as he wanted to — he could scream, in Danny Snelson’s resonant words about Cage’s cartridge music, his “objecthood” — with no guarantee of being heard. [5]



[1] Bob Kaufman, Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (San Francisco: City Lights, 1960).
[2] Bob Kaufman, “Bagel Shop Jazz,” in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions, 1965), 14-15; Will Alexander, remarks made during “Modern Poets: The Political Line” (Q&A session following reading, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 2, 2011).
[3] Bob Kaufman, “October 5, 1963, Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle,” in Golden Sardine (San Francisco: City Lights, 1967), 80–81.
[4] Bob Kaufman, “All Hallows, Jack O’Lantern Weather, North of Time,” in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New York: New Directions, 1981), 48.
[5] Danny Snelson, “Cartridge Music by John Cage,” (lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010).