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.


On Gwendolyn Brooks, 'The Bean Eaters'

I’ll begin with vehement restatement: Gwendolyn Brooks is an under-read and under-understood great poet of the twentieth century. [1] This is perhaps a result of the artfulness with which she constructed her poems as rhetorical portals: “Black and female are basic and inherent in her poetry,” Hortense Spillers notes, while (particularly before the mid-sixties) “[w]e cannot always say with grace or ease that there is a direct correspondence between the issues of her poetry and her race and sex.” [2] The Bean Eaters in particular deserves attention and interpretation — its poems are layered, sometimes involuted, and also sometimes deceptively simplistic; a bit macabre; emphatically intellectual but with a practical bent; simultaneously abstract and concrete, like Stevens, but without the whimsy; socially penetrating and outspoken, minus pedagoguery.  And they are courageous, despite slant-stated sentiments to the contrary.  For instance, in “Strong Men, Riding Horses,” Brooks writes an assessment of the white masculinity on display in 1950s Westerns, over against her own chameleon-poet subject position: “what my mouths remark / To word-wall off that broadness of the dark / Is pitiful. / I am not brave at all.” [3]

Met with proverbial “mixed reviews” (from a mixed audience), the book was pivotal in Brooks’ oeuvre.  It was more overtly politicized about race, class and gender than her earlier work; at the same time, it was not yet directed more exclusively towards a black audience, but continued her engagement with literary structures linked with the white canon of the generation before.  Techniques, mainly Modernist, informing the work include: personae: Eliotic “impersonality,” etc.; allusion: here as often to contemporary events as to texts; compression: obliquity or ambiguity especially arising from the pressurizing of syntax; and reprisal of traditional forms: ballads (filtered through Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings), sonnets (filtered through Countee Cullen and Claude McKay), and hymns (filtered through Dickinson; indeed, truly remarkably so, as in “Priscilla Assails the Sepulchre of Love”: “I can’t unlock my eyes because / my body will come through / And cut her every clothing off / And drive herself to you”). [4] The poems are less given to fragmentation and montage than to phrasal paradox, elliptical, gnomic insight, closural decoy — and, of course, they mostly involve irony.  

Brooks’ irony in this book is not detached or bemused — it is often angry and provoking, as in her famous “The Lovers of the Poor,” in which white “Ladies” from “Lake Forest, Glencoe,” very wealthy suburbs of Chicago, arrive in the black ghetto “in the innocence / With which they baffle nature” of “Something called chitterlings” — “God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!”  Similarly scathingly sarcastic is “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” Brooks’ highly self-reflexive poem about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till — “From the first it had been like a / Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood. / A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches” — which ventriloquizes the vexed consciousness of Carolyn Bryant, the white Southern woman over whom he was killed. [5]

At times, Brooks’ irony doesn’t circulate easily between reader and author, but builds complex and even contradictory epistemic economies that refuse clear positioning of the reader vis-à-vis speakers, narrators, and author.  She does first-person voices suiciding in an artifice that their self-ironic lines make plain — and no, I don’t mean “We Real Cool” — but “A Man of the Middle Class”: “I’ve answers such as have / The executives I copied long ago, / The ones who, forfeiting Vicks salve, / Prayer book and Mother, shot themselves last Sunday.”  No utterance of redeeming self-knowledge, nor speech of an urbane smartass: it’s the author performing coming out the character’s neck, expressing an anger at a limited, condescending repertoire that could otherwise with good reason be used against the very persona in question.  “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” presents the thoughts of a reporter for the black weekly who, in the wake of Eisenhower deploying troops to Arkansas to enforce school integration, finds it hard to get his angle: “‘They are like people everywhere.’” And the narrator of “In Emanuel’s Nightmare: Another Coming of Christ” retells a story suspiciously similar to that of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a film in which a human-like alien is repeatedly killed while attempting to warn mankind of its bellicosity.  In Brooks’ poem, the man “born out of the heaven” leaves, forced to accept man’s love of war, while the narrator’s concern to name everything with the right words points to language itself as a fomenter of violence.  

But my favorite poem is “A Lovely Love” — not the Brooks you thought you knew:

Let it be alleys.  Let it be a hall […]
Let it be stairways, and a splintery box
Where you have thrown me, scraped me with your kiss […]
People are coming.  They must not catch us here
Definitionless in this strict atmosphere.

[1] See, for instance, Danielle Chapman’s claims in “Sweet Bombs,” Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks,  ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010), 91-102.
[2] Hortense Spillers, “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems,” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) 224.
[3] Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 63.
[4] For some discussion of Brooks’ relation to Dickinson, see A. Yemisi Jimoh, “Double Consciousness, Modernism, and Womanist Themes in Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Anniad’,” in Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. Mildred R. Mickle (Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010) 118.
[5] For an excellent reading of this poem, see Vivian M. May’s “Maids Mild and Dark Villains, Sweet Magnolias and Seeping Blood: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Response to the Lynching of Emmett Till,” in Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, ed. Harriet Pollack and Christopher Metress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008) 98-111.

On Robert Duncan, 'The Opening of the Field'

Re Opening

The poems in Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field were written between 1956 and the beginning of 1959, the final two referring to events of 1958: the publication of Louis Zukofsky’s Barely & Widely and, on October 13, the US release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Duncan appears to have known since his teens that he was going to write a major work, a mature writing that would propose a poetry on the scale of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus, and Zukofsky’s interrupted project “A”. [1] The Opening of the Field and the four books that follow are that work.

Duncan took care to set the stage for the best possible reception of this project. He gathered his early writings, those composed up to 1950, into a Selected Poems as part of City Light’s Pocket Poet Series in 1959. Works written between 1950 and 1956, the poems ultimately gathered in the Fulcrum Press edition of Derivations, were issued for the most part as a series of chapbooks, some published by Duncan himself through his press Enkidu Surrogate. But, as he acknowledged in a list of “Books by Robert Duncan” in the Selected Poems, The Field (Poems 195659), was unpublished, and for much of 1959 had no good prospects for finding a publisher. Duncan had had an agreement with Macmillan that had come apart over his insistence that the book’s cover use the artwork created for it by his lover Jess, a homey sketch with a collaged photograph of children playing a circle game.

That Duncan had even thought to turn to a New York trade publisher is telling. He was notoriously fussy with his publishing, not permitting Ferlinghetti to reprint Selected Poems, insisting that the first volume of Ground Work be set in Courier to capture the “true copy” of his typed originals. [2] After contemplating publishing The Field himself, Duncan finally let Donald Allen — with whom he was in constant correspondence over the subject — take the project on as a Grove Press Evergreen Original. It came out in October of 1960 with Jess’ artwork used as the frontispiece, and a clever Roy Kuhlman cover design that used the photo of the kids under an abstract “falling leaf” pattern. Both the title and author’s name are in what I believe to be Robert’s own handwriting.

Although the Duncan I first met in Jack Gilbert’s class in 1966 argued adamantly against all forms of revision, the title of this volume changed between 1959 and 1960. There were also changes in the poems and in their order. “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the book’s first poem, had originally been titled “Having Been Enraged by John Davenport.” [3] But this was to be the start of a great project, and Duncan wanted very much to get it right.

He was very conscious that he was proposing a writing that could be as continuous as The Cantos. But like Zukofsky and Olson before him, Duncan also found the need to break down parts within. Each of the five books that make up this unnamed project can be read as collections of discrete poems. In addition, two very different ongoing sequences — The Structure of Rime and the Canto-like series Passages — are woven in throughout. In 1974, when I wrote in an essay on The Opening of the Field for John Taggart’s issue of Maps devoted to Duncan, that Duncan might issue these two sequences as separate volumes, Duncan replied — in an annotated copy of my essay he gave to the Australian poet Robert Adamson — that Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear as is! They have never been issued separately, though in fact both would make great little books on the scale of Spring & All, say, or Tender Buttons. The Structure of Rime as an individual book would have made Duncan’s role in the formal elaboration of the American prose poem apparent, something for which he has never received sufficient credit. [4]

1960 was also the year of The New American Poetry, which also was why Duncan was in constant contact with Allen. To hear Duncan tell it years later, Allen had been little more than Duncan’s apprentice in the creation of that anthology — and some of the women not included there have concluded that its sexual politics do indeed reflect Duncan’s influence. But what interests me today is just how much Opening of the Field was itself no less of a power play than the anthology. One thing is clear: Duncan worked hard to reconfigure our understanding of the American poetry landscape at the exact moment he was trying to launch his defining project,

a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.


[1] It had stalled in 1950 after number twelve. Zukofsky would not pick it up again until 1960.
[2] When the paper the original typesetting by David Melnick proved unable to produce a clean enough image for offset printing, the entire volume was typeset a second time.
[3] The British literary critic of the 1950s, not the Puritan founder of New Haven, CT, though Duncan possibly had that echo in mind.
[4] Duncan had written published prose poems as far back as 1940’s “Toward the Shaman,” and pioneered the letter-as-prose-poem mode that Jack Spicer would make famous in After Lorca. In some important ways, Duncan is the bridge between the high modernist experiments on the part of Stein & Williams and John Ashbery's Three Poems in the early 1970s.