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).

On Larry Eigner, 'On My Eyes'

I really wish that I could do what Judith Goldman was able to do. [1] I’ve always wanted to give a presentation in which I stop talking and moving my lips but my voice continues on. But whenever I do that, I just get silence … I got very nervous when Chris Funkhouser actually does the full fifteen seconds of silence in Mac Low’s poems.  I would have said three or four seconds made the point. It was excruciating, fifteen seconds. We each have only five minutes and you use up that much time?!

The Mac Low really reminded me, especially in that silence, of what Danny started out with, with Cage, and I thought again of Larry Eigner, who I am going to talk about tonight. Also, with Rachel’s talk: Larry Eigner was the least cosmopolitan of people in the 1950s and Frank O’Hara the most. And yet, “Second Avenue”  is a kind of point of intersection phenomenologically, where you can almost see that there’s a connection.  Also, the book I am going to talk about, has a preface by Denise Levertov …

As I’m listening to this, I keep thinking somebody else is going to listen to this not in terms of what we’re saying about the poets we are talking about, but [in terms of] the nature of the event and what we’re enacting in the affectional preferences that we are showing, and the generational unconscious and, to some degree, conscious. I think, especially for those of us born immediately after the Second World War, the poets that we are talking about are our parents’ generation, and whether positive or negative you have that agonism played out. So, it’s a little bit different when I think of Barbara Guest and when I hear Erica speak about her. And that generational difference is one of the things that I kept thinking about in both respect to me and Larry Eigner: why I chose Eigner, why I have such a strong affectional connection to him, and some of the other [poets of his generation]. The other is the ongoing frame that Filreis provides especially with Counter-Revolution of the Word. I always say, and so those of you who have spent more than a couple of hours with me will know, that I’m stuck in the ’50s, so this event is the perfect thing: we’re all together, we’re all going to be stuck in the ’50s now because while the books come out in 1960, we’re really talking about work done in ’50s, that comes out of the ’50s and the deep Cold War. And very different perspectives on it. I think beginning with Stanley Kunitz was wild on Al’s part, and nobody really has picked up on that, but for me, of course, I think of maybe Larry Eigner and Stanley Kunitz are two possible uncles, one more like my father, Stanley Kunitz, in terms of his views, so I kept thinking about that, too. And then there's Stanley Kunitz in Worcester, early on dealing with Sacco and Vanzetti. There’s Charles Olson [born] one hundred years ago in Worcester. And Robert Creeley in Acton, Massachusetts, and Larry Eigner in Swampscott. So, you have a kind of New England matrix.

So, this book, I have only about a minute left actually, I’m at four minutes, and I think I just want to conclude my remarks now.

This book was published in 1960 [by Jargon Press, Highlands, NC, in an edition of 500]. It’s Eigner’s first large collection and I think that it’s notable for the way it really brings him into the world. And, again, to [add to] the tributes to people, Jonathan Williams having the foresight to publish a substantial collection of Larry Eigner in 1960 is extraordinary. And with beautiful Harry Callahan photos, so the book itself is beautiful. There was just one earlier book, very small, [from] 1953, that Creeley published, From the Sustaining Air, which echoes again something that Al said in the beginning about what kind of air, the sustaining air. So, Eigner, just to remind you … [was] born in 1927. If you compare this book, which is a great opportunity we now have, to the first volume of the [Robert Grenier / Curtis Faville] collected [four volumes from Stanford University Press, 2010], you really get a very different sense of what was going on. The work [covered in On My Eyes] goes back to ’53, so it’s really a lot of earlier stuff than one might imagine for a book [published in] ’60. When you read the whole set of what Larry was doing, it’s much different [than the sense you get from the book]. Not that these [poems in the book] are necessarily literary in any conventional sense, but in some ways there are more literary picks of the poems than Source: Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. Exclusive one-time use in Jacket2, used with permission of Anne Tardos.when you read the whole [body of work from the period]. [In the Collected] you see work starting out from when Larry was in junior high school. You really get a sense of the impact in his own mind, first of all, very importantly, of the typewriter he got for a Bar Mitzvah present when he was thirteen, and the fact that because he suffered from palsy when he was born, because of the way in which he was delivered, he could only really type with the one finger.  Once he learned to type for himself — his mother had earlier typed for him — he could express himself, and spent all of his time working on that typewriter page. I mean, it’s one of the really monumental achievements of American art in my view, what Eigner achieved that way, and actually in an entirely [familial but otherwise largely] unsocial space of the ’50s. So, you see work that seems so cosmopolitan, so cosmically vivid, done by somebody who really hadn't had that much contact with anybody else outside his family. In ’49, he hears Cid Corman on the radio. He writes him a letter saying, “Your reading of Yeats is not emphatic enough. What’s wrong with it?” And after that, he meets Creeley, very importantly, and others, and he starts to move into the opening of the field that Ron refers to, and writes these extraordinary poems. He ends the wonderful From the Sustaining Air, which could be my motto as a writer of verse, “I am finally an incompetent after all.”  1953. “I am finally an incompetent after all.” A stunning comment at the end of a very beautiful poem.

However, I’m also really interested in this poem, which I’m going to read and then quote one of the lines, “So what if mankind dies,” he writes in On My Eyes, which is the name of the book I’m talking about: on my eyes, what I’m seeing

so what if mankind dies?

           the birds

    the croak and whistle
    has no future

so what?
so what?

the future arrives

the end of stick
in my crotch

toward the speed of light

(Collected I:160, 1955 # k ’)

So, I mean it’s an extraordinary poem about the nature of the phallus, a hard-on, being just about as far as where the future is gonna go for Eigner.  Again, a 1955 comment on progress from Swampscott.  And I want to end with a quote from a poem of his, the name of this piece is called

                        Eigner’s Fierce Calculus

… but please, in the transcription, keep the title right there because this is a talking essay.

“The Dead dog” poem that he writes in 1957 (Collected. I:266, December 57 # 2 b), I think he answers for, in a way, generationally, for me what I like so much about these poets of the 1950s, and he answers Corman, too, at the end of “The Dead dog,” he says, “but someday the grandmothers may grow wise / and speak the calculus” — and “calculus” is a term for him which really pervades, and it’s an alternative to “another time in fragments” and Benjamin’s constellation, it’s the idea that these individual, discrete, burning particulars together make a calculus that’s a three or four-dimensional calculus — and ends “making a fierce language.”



[1] Charles Bernstein presented this improvised talk following the glitchy video projection of Judith Goldman’s presentation on The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks at the Poetry in 1960 Symposium, December 6, 2010.

On Bill Berkson and Frank O'Hara, 'Hymns of St. Bridget'

Deep Fun

Hymns Of St. Bridget begins simply enough in October 1960 as the first collaboration between Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara — from there it multiplies energetically into an ongoing exchange between Berkson and O’Hara that includes the FYI poems, The Letters of Angelicus and Fidelio, and Marcia: An Unfinished Novel. The synergistic impact of this poetic alliance extends beyond the literal collaborations and can be seen, for example, in the many poems by O’Hara referencing Berkson between 19601962: For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson,” “Bill's Burnoose,” “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson),” and others.  Beyond “Biotherm” — a long poem that begins as a sort of pseudo-meditation on a skin cream — O’Hara further engages the chatty style explored in Hymns through a series of dialogues with television shows and films. “The Jade Madonna” (1964) has, for instance, the ambiance of the poet in collaboration with an old western movie:

I’ll give him two more days
                                                        and if he don’t think of
a way to get Wyatt Earp out of here by then
                                                                               I’m going to
plant some corpses.

And then:

I got $820. $820?  Yeah dollars. I kind of like having property.

Possession is better than
                                             a ranch.  That’s why I collect
all these things that have nothing to do
                                                                       with cows
with dollars or with the great open range.
                                                                           Smell that?
that’s my cows thinking about my money. [1]

“Fantasy” — dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg and wrapped around scenes from the 1943 World War II film Northern Pursuit — is also O’Hara in high filmic/conversational mode:

The main thing is to tell a story.
                                                          It is almost
very important. Imagine
                                             throwing away the avalanche
so early in the movie.  I am the only spy left
in Canada,
          but just because I’m alone in the snow
doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a Nazi.
                                                                  Let’s see,
two aspirins a vitamin C tablet and some baking soda
should do the trick, that’s practically an
Seltzer.  Allen come out of the bathroom
                                                                         and take it [ ...

                                                                            ... ] Allen,
are you feeling any better? Yes, I’m crazy about
Helmut Dantine
                              but I’m glad that Canada will remain
free. Just free, that’s all, never argue with the movies. [2]

Lytle Shaw, in his essay “Gesture in 1960,” provides yet another portrait of O’Hara composing through the ludic play of conversation in his discussion of O’Hara’s collaboration with the painter Norman Bluhm, Poem-Paintings. Bluhm emphasizes the “spontaneous and intersocial aspects of working on all the tacked up Poem-Paintings at once” while hanging out in the studio and listening to music. [3] As with the Berkson/O’Hara collaborations, Bluhm characterizes his collaboration with O’Hara as “instantaneous, like a conversation between friends.” [4] In an interview Bluhm notes that all the pieces in the collaboration “came out of some hilarious relationship with people we knew, out of a particular situation.” [5] Does the analogy of gesture — as used in painting — work when applied to writing? Can it apply to the role of conversation in the work? Berkson, in a recent interview, explains the intersection of conversation, gesture, and writing when he describes gesture as linking the space of a poem and the breath, perhaps like Olson or Kyger or Ginsberg. And he points to the physical presence of the line as a poem is composed, “the line moving through space-time.” [6]

“What is the role of humor?” I asked Bill Berkson over the phone. The way he paused, it sounded like maybe he thought it was a bad question. “The role ... of humor ...,” he said slowly, “is ... to have ... fun.” He repeated it with no hesitation. “The role of humor is to have fun. To keep things rolling. It’s the only way to do collaboration. To roll it. Most of it is having fun — fun between friends.” Berkson notes that “in the collaborations there is a sense of having fun, of humor — that is the way to do it [...] Allen Ginsberg talked about deep gossip — so why not deep humor? I’m sure there are deep, lyric moments in the collaboration. But one can also have deep humor.”

The story of how the collaboration Hymns Of St. Bridget got rolling can be found in the notes of the Owl Press publication of the book. [7] Berkson and O’Hara were walking along First Avenue and noticed the crooked steeple on a church — which I imagine was likened to a limp phallus — and they laughed about it. Berkson went home, still thinking about the limp steeple of St. Bridget’s church, and wrote “Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple” in what Berkson calls “a sort of poor imitation of O’Hara.” [8] “It is to you, bending limp and ridiculous, on Ninth / Street, that I turn” begins the first poem of Hymns Of St. Bridget, a conversational-rhetorical direct address Berkson considers his imitation of the high O’Hara or Ginsberg mode. “I showed it to Frank and he said, ‘Why don’t we do a series of these?’”

When Berkson came to Frank O’Hara with the poem he had just written, “Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple,” it had not occurred to him to make the work into a collaboration. The young Berkson had done just one collaboration, with Kenward Elmslie, which was later published in the Summer 1961 collaboration issue of Locus Solus edited by Kenneth Koch. Hymns proceeded, at O’Hara’s urging, with the next poem in the series, “St. Bridget’s Neighborhood”:

St. Bridget I wish you would wake up and tend my bumper
It’s cracked it is like the thought

I had of you when I cut myself shaving “O steeple
why don’t you help me as you helped the Missouri islanders?” [9]

The two poets — O’Hara in his mid-thirties and Berkson in his twenties — wrote Hymns my-turn-your-turn style at a single typewriter:

afternoon is leaning toward drinks   I am getting

myself one now though I shouldn’t     Would
you like one, heaviness of the compost thresh-

hold?  No, I want the plants to have it, for
they have died [10]

At this point in the story I should offer an explanation about the subject of Hymns Of St. Bridget in the context of a symposium of books published in 1960 — for Hymns was not published until 1974 by Adventures in Poetry. In fact, only two of the poems from the collaboration were ever published during O’Hara’s lifetime, in the May/June 1962 issue of Evergreen Review (“Hymn To St. Bridget’s Steeple” and “Us Looking Up To St. Bridget"). 1960 was, however, the beginning of this significant poetic dialog between Berkson and O’Hara. Hymns Of St. Bridget launched a flurry of collaboration, beginning aptly with the two poets walking along First Avenue and laughing.

By 1960 O’Hara had well established his “I Do This and I Do That” style and so came to the collaboration with these gestures in hand — and Berkson notes that he was heavily influenced by O’Hara’s work at that time. Berkson himself was increasingly working with open field pieces, as evidenced by poems dating from 1959 to 1961 and published in All You Want (1966):

my hat
your. . . the crumplings of an evening
put forward as ice was               

ah trolley!

the except

our still-life yearings allow tunes
    to the far suburbs [11]

If ludic play is significant throughout the collaborations between O’Hara and Berkson, then it is perhaps also an important contributor to the so-called “third voice” of collaboration as well. O’Hara’s work increasingly moves from painterly to filmic and the collaborations become increasingly untamed and open as they accumulate. “I think Frank was very excited by this,” says Berkson, “and on his own he began to write things that were wilder and wilder, leading up to “‘Biotherm.’”

troika        And back at the organ the angel was able to play a great
singe        green tree for the opening of the new bank
Caracallo                            it was
the loin        the last opening of a bank anywhere because the angel’s wings
sloth        got clipped in the swimming pool

it     ate     well     and     had     glorious     nightmares     days

        she                    hated            it

        “Satan, hélas? c’est vous?”  April had rushed into May while
                    she was reading Hollywood Babylon

and now the trees wore evil fringes where buzzards roosted
                    covered with old prayer beads

        An awning flapped. [12]



[1] Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Don Allen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 48485.
[2] Ibid., 488.
[3] Lytle Shaw, “Gesture in 1960: Toward Literal Solutions,” in Frank O’Hara Now, ed. Robert Hampton and Will Montgomery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 40.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 38.
[6] Bill Berkson, interview by Mel Nichols, November 27, 2010.
[7] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings (Woodacre, CA: Owl Press, 2001), 83.
[8] Bill Berkson, interview by Mel Nichols, November 27, 2010.
[9] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, Hymns of St. Bridget (New York: Adventures in Poetry, 1974), 15.
[10] Ibid., 14.
[11] Bill Berkson, Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2009), 47.
[12] Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” in Hymns of St. Bridget, (New York: Adventures in Poetry, 1974), 2930.


On Frank O'Hara, 'Second Avenue'

Dated 1953. Published 1960. Picked up by moi in 1964 and purchased, not for ninety-five cents as priced on back (Totem Press), but for five francs twenty-five centimes, in Paris at Shakespeare and Company, which was almost the same as one dollar considering it had to fly the Atlantic, which it probably did on sheer exuberant sexual and lexical energy and gay will to power, which was clearly not masculinist will to power but impressive and powerful in a different “we are sissies” way, thereupon to be confronted by an immediate me who immediately couldn’t understand one word, but got the energy and the comedy and the insouciance and the verve and the nerve — and stored it up. [1] These emerged in a much transfigured form in the ode and the serial, and desire, and the long poem, and scale. But not so much in a cocky sense of combinatoire, a-referentiality or the transformed real, but rather in the pleasure of a visceral happening based on erotic pulse and on the sheer charm of the world.

The door opened. It really was something outrageous and helpful. Not to speak of utterly unlike the flaccid stuff, with no particular force or dimension, but dutifully bowling straight down the middle, those overworked samplers from the Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, treat of my recent college days. This was not overworked — it was overwrought!  And thus a talismanic power bundle wrapping a suspect magic.  It was a traveling poem — why else was it called by the name of a street, non-static and in motion? Why else did it have motion lines on the cover? How else to explain how it got from word to word and phrase to phrase where the not-expected was happening —consistently! It was propelled by the strange energies of combination. “I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.” [2] In contrast, the well-made poem was all about “aboutness.” Well, let’s just say our heroine wasn’t exactly in Kansas any more, and it was “less comfortable but more decorative,” but it wasn’t totally clear where she was yet. Probably “my head [was] covered by a green cloth.”

This copy of Second Avenue is not the black and white cover with tipped in label blah blah — $145 at AbeBooks in 2010 — but the first printing, second state, in semigloss wrap, offset printed in red ($45), cover art by Larry Rivers, foxed foxily and light pencil markings. Carried here, carried there. Pink and speedy. A liberation and very uncomfortable. Nothing to solidify, something to do, to have happen, to engage with, to be confused by. It was — like the Sixties were about to be — all happening all at once.   

This poem manifested the erotics of writing as an erotics of living; it put words like effeminate in play — the line, “Are you effeminate, like an eyelid, or are you feminine, / like a painting by Picasso?” condensed five layers of cultural education. In your face! Such fairy stories about one’s friends, each one “acting” in another junky movie — and any word that happened along was a good enough word, from marshmallows to motherfuckers. Not too many of those had been in poems I’d ever read, but now they were. The poem was a zippy discourse circus, with the poet as a juggler, keeping five bowling pins, four striped hoops, and two balls in the air at the same time. Being inside this eleven-part poem was like living in an alternative mind, inventing elaborated, baroque-ish narrative skits in which to enfold friends with a show-offy zeal that took place as language urgency. Such dramatic, campy love for John, and Joe, and Grace, and Kenneth was expressed as sheer grifting snarkiness, narcissism and pleasure. It was a real nice party going on next door. It wasn’t quite my house then, nor was it to be, but the door was open and the music came out.   

A list of what is on any single page of this poem would look like a list of what is in any of Joe Brainard’s assemblages: “jewels and sparkles and doilies and dollars and rubber stamps and plastic eggs and hard rolls and glasses and ‘Peace’ buttons and cameras and satin slippers and elephants and screws and price tags and words and squares …” [3] Or one of Jackson Pollock’s pictures: “Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc.” [4]

It’s excited, it’s giddy and solid at once: the pleasurable poesis of a really intent plethora that won’t give up.  Accumulative, funny, and scandalous, “unreadable” and totally syntactic.  Amuse-toi! “Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?” was the instruction — O’Hara said this to Kenneth Koch, but of course it was a message to the self. [5] This poem occurred between at least two people. Maybe six. Later on, John Ashbery did note the “obfuscation” of this work and the fact that it was an “experiment” that “eventually turned out to be unsatisfactory” — he sees it as a deck-clearing move. [6] That’s probably why I liked it. It swept everything away, despite being a pileup of stuff and allusions set in relation. The impacted impact of it exploded the literary into a totally other zone.

That is, the literary became externalized energy and desire, which it always is at root. Dionysiac with an Apollonian cockiness — so one feels “the physical insistence of the mind to keep on making decisions,” as Larry Rivers said on art, interviewed by O’Hara. [7] Same general ethos in O’Hara, as Bill Berkson pointed out: “Reading his poems, you find yourself engaged in a number of intricate calculations made at break-neck speed […] You are getting the language firsthand, from where it gets put together in the mind.” [8] Sheer continuance, propulsion, and energy get that ribbon or pulse of words to work. And if they don’t, one simply moves along. No crises of judgment in relation to decisions. No angst! Just an insistence on scale that here seemed out of proportion to the casual intensity. [9] Precisely. That impressed me. More and more, longer and longer, fun to do, and stop when it’s not.   

Ashbery again, with a general law: “The poem is the chronicle of the creative act that produces it.” [10]

The desire, patent in this poem, is to pile up transformation. This desire had a distinct political shadow. In 1959, six years after he had written the poem, O’Hara pointed to Jackson Pollock’s use of Surrealism not as a surface effect, but as “spiritual clarity” — “the accumulation of decisions” made towards “action.” [11]  That is, O’Hara said, “you do not find in his work a typewriter becoming a stomach, a sponge becoming a brain” — a surface surrealism of images in combinatoire. [12] Rather there are “qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited” that O’Hara traces to a atomic-bomb-post-war world “faced with universal destruction.” [13] He called the necessary, critical response to this “the urgency of joy.” [14]

And “She went bloated into the azure/ like a shot.”

[1] Frank O’Hara, Second Avenue (New York: Totem Press, 1960); Frank O’Hara, “Sissies,” in The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 39.
[2] Frank O’Hara, “Notes on Second Avenue,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 497.
[3] Ron Padgett, Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004) 69. The list is over twenty-two lines long — I have cited just under four lines.
[4] Pollock’s painting “Full Fathom Five” (1947) was discussed by O’Hara in his essay on Pollock in Art Chronicles.
[5] Kenneth Koch.  “A Note on Frank O’Hara in the Early Fifties,” in Audit–Poetry IV: Frank O’Hara Issue (1964): 32–33.
Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, begun before “Second Avenue,” is 2,400 lines. “Frank said to me, on seeing the first 72 lines — which I regarded as a poem by itself — ‘Why don’t you go on with it as long as you can?’ Frank at this time decided to write a long poem too…” Koch is pretty amused/bemused by O’Hara’s mix of competitiveness and generosity. “Sometimes he gave other people his own best ideas, but he was quick and resourceful enough to use them himself as well.”
[6] John Ashbery, “Introduction,” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) xi.
[7] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 109.
[8] Bill Berkson.  “Frank O’Hara and His Poems,” in Homage to Frank O’Hara, ed. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur (Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1980) 162.
[9] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 1954–1966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975), 34–5. What was Pollock’s transformative intervention in American art, besides the all-over surface of great scintillation? It was, O’Hara says, “SCALE.” This concern begins with the WPA projects like the Federal Arts Project. Murals in post offices, for instance, were linked intellectually, aesthetically and politically to the Mexican muralists, and their desire to have progressive public art. According to O’Hara, scale is interpreted by Pollock as a shift from the normal sense of a represented reality (scaled to a person’s body as in Renaissance proportions) and of the intended setting — the place for which the painting was conceived. Because Pollock had no recognizable images in the drip paintings, the normal sense of scale (the “image of a body” imagined by the work) was not in play; instead he chose the painter’s actual body, and the setting was no more or less than the surface of the canvas.  What then O’Hara calls “scale and no scale” is “the physical reality of the artist and his activity of expressing it, united to the spiritual reality of the artist” in a state of “oneness” without any need for “the mediation of metaphor or symbol.” This is suggestive, but would demand more gloss than I will give.
[10] John Ashbery, intro., The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), viii–ix.
[11] Frank O’Hara, Art Chronicles, 19541966 (New York: George Braziller, 1975) 25–6.
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] Ibid., 26.
[14] Ibid., 27.


On Don Allen, 'The New American Poetry'

Fifty years should be easily perceptible, but open The New American Poetry and the shock is how ordinary it seems and thus how hard it is to sense the passage of what, after all, have been fifty very real years. When I read Donald Allen's list of great modernists at the beginning of his introduction, for a few seconds, it's as if I'm reading the present. I'll temporarily omit the opening phrase to further this temporal mirage:  “American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period, [one which] has seen published William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, The Desert Music and Other Poems, and Journey to Love; Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos, Section: Rock-Drill, and Thrones; H.D.'s later work culminating in her long poem Helen in Egypt; and the recent verse of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens.” [1] Such a list seems, in 2010, obvious: only one name, Cummings, would likely be omitted today. "The late Wallace Stevens" provides a glimmer of temporal shock, reminding us that, in 1960, Stevens would just have died and that Williams, Pound, H.D., Cummings, and Moore would still be alive. Allen's tone is so matter of fact that I have to remind myself of the implicit ruckus he is kicking up in the 1960 world – especially the 1960 academic world: starting with Williams; omitting Eliot; naming H.D. a modernist master. In 1960, to the average literate mind in the U.S., H.D., far from being a modernist master, was a subject best not lingered on, like some maiden aunt's ouija board. In 1960, to name Pound in such an unmarked way was polemical. It had only been two years, after all, since he'd gotten out of St. Elizabeth’s and given the fascist salute as he boarded the boat for Italy. In 1960 (to now quote the opening phrase I omitted above), "In the years since the war" would have meant “since 1945,” when it had only been with strenuous backstage maneuvering that the case of Ezra Pound was dissociated from those of Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose.

But over fifty years, Allen's vision has become common sense. This is reinforced by the plethora of greatest hits scattered throughout the anthology – "Projective Verse," "Howl," "The Day Lady Died" – and names without which American poetry is hard to imagine: Creeley, Ashbery, Whalen, Schuyler. The inclusion of statements on poetics now seems normative, but back then it was not. Robert Frost's introduction to the 1958 Hall, Pack, Simpson anthology, New Poets of England and America – the anthology Allen must have been answering – explicitly bans "critical instruction." [2] In this alternate universe, the passage of time couldn't be more blatantly legible. Here's the first stanza of the opening poem, "Masters," by Kingsley Amis:


That horse whose rider fears to jump will fall,
Riflemen miss if orders sound unsure;
They only are secure who seem secure;
          Who lose their voice, lose all. [3]

That could have been written in the nineteenth century – possibly the eighteenth.

But lest we think that Allen's anthology was a juggernaut of inevitability, consider the list he picks to represent the second generation, after the great modernists and leading to his third generation (i.e., to the poets he's anthologizing). It's a list never to be seen anywhere else, not these particular five names together: Elizabeth Bishop, Edwin Denby, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky. Bishop and Lowell would be obvious in 1960, but not Rexroth; Zukofsky and Denby would be outré names indeed. And those happy few who knew Zukofsky would not expect to see him linked with Denby and vice versa. Extrapolate the eccentricity of that list to the anthology as a whole, and its uniqueness becomes more apparent. It was a multiplicious and highly unlikely breakthrough. I say this even though its tremendous deficits of representation have long been glaringly obvious: only four women and one African American out of forty-four poets. If you want to sense the passage of fifty years, those absences are a first place to look. However, while The New American Poetry is nothing but backward in terms of gender and race, it still demonstrates a powerful dimension of poetic capaciousness that retains an enlivening force.

Our present tense common sense can too easily tell us, in its received wisdom, that Olson presides over the anthology, having the most pages of poetry and critical statement, and leading off each section. But Allen's laconic watchwords, that what all this new poetry has in common is "a total rejection [...] of academic verse" and that it is a continuation of "modern jazz and abstract expressionism," hardly apply to Olson himself. [4] Luckily for us, there really isn't much case for a unified reading of the poems and poetics of the anthology.

Yes, there is some anti-academicism, but really, there's not that much that is directly aimed at the academy. Olson writes in his biographical statement: "'Uneducated' at Wesleyan, Yale, and Harvard"; and Edward Dorn: "I was Educated at the University of Illinois, and somewhat corrected at Black Mountain College." [5] The one specimen of iambic pentameter is Kenneth Koch's "Mending Sump," e.g., "Something there is that doesn't hump a sump." At such a moment, The New American Poetry can be read as a polemic against what Frost and his coziness with the university represented.

But the far more striking facts are the varieties of approach to what poetry can do. Allen's capacious, nonstringent vision needs to be brought forward and given credit: breadth of class position; emotional, social, and aesthetic sophistication; the barbaric yawps that fill the book, discontinuously. Here's a small nosegay of this disparateness: "YIPPEE! I'm glad I'm alive! / 'I'm glad you're alive / too, baby, because I want to fuck you"; "Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher / Than this mid-air in which we tremble"; "Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!"; "But now my the main task of the day – wash my underwear – two months abused – what would the ants say about that?" [6]

Hats off to Donald Allen, without whom our present doesn't exist.


[1] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960) xi.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, editors, introduction by Robert Frost. (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) 13.
[4] Donald M. Allen, ed., New American Poetry 442.
[5] Ibid., 431.
[6] Ibid., 259.; Ibid., 216.;Ibid., 186.; Ibid., 214.