Peter Lamborn Wilson: A PennSound archive

P. L. Wilson, “Pang Yang & the Publick Universal Friend” (2010).

                               Who knows

 what future poets suffered here, precocious

 existential crises moved

 by an apprehension of mourning

 sorrows precious & redeemable.

                         — P. L. Wilson, “Wallkill” (358)[1]

I met Peter Lamborn Wilson in the late ’80s at Naropa Institute, and after acquiring his pamphlet Chaos, written under the takhallus Hakim Bey, became a devotee to his work. His support of DIY efforts was encouraging and validating, and We Press took up the invitation to “pirate” Chaos by way of corporate resources we had at our disposal at the time.

After falling in and out of touch over the years, on a visit to Woodstock in 2013 I learned he now resides there. Less than a year later — two days after my family moved to the Hudson Valley in August 2014 — I found my way to a poetry reading featuring Wilson, Sparrow, and Michael Brownstein at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock (which can be heard on Funk’s SoundBox: version archival). Knowing him primarily as a cultural critic and writer of prose, to hear Wilson’s verse was something new, and a delight. He read from an “unpublished six hundred page-long collected poems”; these works are animated, elegant, erudite, conclusory, sometimes humorous exhortations (e.g., “Bumpersticker”: “If you’d ‘rather be fishing’ / then fish for fuckssake” [424]).

I first learned of (and acquired) his book riverpeople (Autonomedia, 2013) that night. Being a “co-realization” with the local waterscape (and more), it was the perfect book to have fall into my hands, providing a poeticized orientation to things I was eager to know about regionally through a series of extraordinary written and visual mappings involving poetry, field trips, and various types of invocation. The book is so potent, communal, and beautiful, I almost can’t believe it exists!

In March 2015, seeking a collaborative project, I discussed doing a recording session with him. He brought up the six hundred pages of unpublished poems, suggesting we could document them. Having high regard for his writing, knowing his work as a poet is essentially unknown beyond the circle of people who are part of his community, this was a grand idea, and something different than any other previous audio project I’d done before: focusing on the work of a single poet over a course of many weeks. For one thing, the duration, scale, and informal approach enabled a series of routines to develop. Some were minor, some technical and pragmatic, and others symbolic. I decided, for example, to bring a different piece of small visual art along to each of our nine sessions, to “keep us company” and temporarily transform decor in his studio apartment during the many hours we spent at work on our endeavor. Chuck Stein joined us on two occasions, further adding to our ambiance and milieu.

Before offering Wilson’s own statement about the poems, here are a few comments of my own. One of the most striking aspects of this Wilson’s poetry or writing is his use of several well-known poetic forms (or “pseudo-versions” of these forms): the ghazal, sonnet, and haiku. While such forms may seem antiquated to some, they are not so when left to the devices of a writer as gifted — and yet loose — with craft as is Wilson. Along these lines, I also found it intriguing that he decided to begin our very first session by reading a madrigal poem written in 1600 by Thomas Weelkes — followed by his contemporary response to it. While not wishing to suggest Wilson is a madrigal-ist, I do believe it is plausible that anyone interested in setting these poems to music could do so. One sonnet proclaims his sense of the power of organized poetic projection:

Don’t slack off the Stakhanovite pace

 of sonnet production now in this vital

 transitional era between something

 & something else probably equally

 squalid — nor flaunt the Flaubertian

 bathos of today’s irresistible win/win

 situation — comrade. (64)


Further, the choice of a quote from Gérard de Nerval’s Aurélia ou le Rêve et la Vie as an epigraph to the manuscript would seem to indicate we are somehow witness to Wilson’s own rediscovery of, “the lost letter or the vanished sign.” where he recomposes “the dissonant scale,” and gains “strength in the world of the spirits” (4). In addition to those attributes or expressive dimensions, healthy doses of philosophy and blatant cultural criticism are clearly present. His poems are informative on multiple levels; some even became instructive. For instance, after hearing the poem “Stencils” (68), one line especially made an impression, inspiring me to produce a stencil featuring one of its lines (“Not A Landscape”). Wilson also continues exploring his interest in local waterways in several poems in this audio collection, including a series titled Hydrographicon (as part of the 5/7/15 session).

Poems in this sound archive were composed between 1999 and 2012 while Wilson lived in New Paltz, NY. After relocating to Woodstock he edited the material, resulting in this manuscript. Describing the body of work heard here, Wilson comments,

Moving to the country coincided with a terminus to a twenty-year project to figure out what the fuck was going on in the world. By that time, I figured out what was going on, so that was the end of that project. I decided I would take up art and poetry again, which I had put aside for a twenty-year period, more or less, and worked on prose. That period really started with T.A.Z., and the new period begins with Black Fez Manifesto (Autonomedia, 2008). The poems in Black Fez and Ec(o)logues (Station Hill, 2011) came out of that body of material, so they actually belong in with this stuff, but those poems are ones that I took out from the body of work, edited and finished during that period. The rest of it I just stacked up on my desk until I got around to doing something with it here in Woodstock. It took me a few months to go through the whole stack, and throw out stuff I didn’t like, cut lines I didn’t like, amalgamate and edit and rearrange it. (Conversation, 6/26/15)

Listeners engaging with this work may wish to reference a digital file of the printed manuscript Wilson read from (although he eschews a conventional, front-to-back approach), prepared by Nathan Smith and kindly provided to us by George Quasha; page numbers are bracketed [ ] in the index. As readers of this text will see, the author intends for the manuscript to incorporate illustrations, which are not yet in place; Raymond Foye generously supplied representative scans, which bracket this introduction.

Discussing the collection with Wilson, he emphasized the notion that the collection was not complete, and that it wouldn’t be so until printed in a book. His sense is that it is along the way to being finished — not raw, but not necessarily the final version either. In all we recorded for PennSoundmore than five hundred poems between April and June 2015. In them, Wilson offers an impressive degree of fluidity and wide range of topicality. These are lucid reflections and ruminations of someone who “WAS THERE THEN” (533), who keeps traversing expansive pathways, whose worldly experience is consequential and delivered to us via these poems now.

P.L. Wilson, “Esopus Island #3: Father Divine & Crowley” (2010).

 — Chris Funkhouser
Rhinebeck, July 2015


1. Note: all parenthetical citations refer to this 2014 collection of Wilson’s unpublished poems.

On Różewicz and contemporary Polish poetry

The way the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014) is used by the school system in Poland shows how we disfigure some poets to make them palatable. The educational package has it that his was an attempt to rebuild the basic powers of language after the catastrophe of human slaughter in this part of the world during WWII. What high school students cannot be told, and what a handful of them will discover years later, is that this is a peculiar “rebuilding.” Words come back, are displayed on the page, but the naming is rather odd: it is a relocation within the very apparatus of speech. 

Polish postwar poetry delivered disdainful moral opposition to Nazi and Soviet Communist totalitarianisms. In Miłosz and Herbert, the opposition took the form of denying the poetic. Miłosz denied poetry in an attempt to bring speech back to its premodern directness, a mode that partakes of the Biblical language of prophesy. Herbert quenched the poetic in the name of moral austerity, which lent weight to his uncompromising condemnation of all forms of oppression: by politics or by evolution. So Miłosz and Herbert pretend they cede poetry and claim to reach further down to levels allegedly more legitimate in their non-narcissistic self-denials. And yet, the Biblically hierophant and the morally austere are also forms of the aesthetic.

Herbert’s and Miłosz’s moral lesson through poetry needs to be brought to a test, Nietzschean in essence, found in a creed by Wallace Stevens. Stevens rejects the solace resulting from denials of poetry when he reaches, late in his career, the insight of “the plain sense of things.” To see that “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined” is to annul all writing of poetry by claiming not to write poetry. What Stevens challenges human speakers to admit is that the moment they open their mouths to utter any sort of report about reality — “poetic” or “ordinary” — they put in motion an inescapable figurative apparatus that belies the idea of a “reality” accessible without this apparatus. Stevens’s lesson — in response to the Eastern European poets of history — is that one can’t speak, let alone write poems, without taking up one’s share of every-speaker’s position: one that is inescapably limited and inescapably “aesthetic.” No historical circumstance changes this law. So Stevens’s reinstallment of the poetic stands as a challenge to Miłosz and Herbert.

If there is any Polish poet who puts pressure back on Stevens’s claim, it is Różewicz. Among all our poets, he comes closest to overpowering Stevens’s test by questioning its premises. By measures that have not been sufficiently diagnosed by criticism, Różewicz’s verse manages to seriously and dangerously question the indelibility of the figurative that Stevens saw as inherent to the speech function. Różewicz’s poems are clumsy, ill-formed. They are a language beneath the rudiment of the most ordinary language. They are clownish without clownish spite or clownish melancholy. Utterly nonconstructive of stance-like speech acts, they do not claim, do not theorize. They renounce all action of taking shape. They do not “deconstruct,” since that assumes an action. They smack of tired, retarded talk, faulty construal, or miscarried poem, but they don’t mourn the miscarriage. The only catch is your own sick, misshapen urge to read the next ill-begotten poem.

It is only by my own construal that I surmise that they modify the moral lesson. We saw a world-devastating catastrophe in this land at a specific moment of history? But what about the catastrophe of the present everydayness? The monstrosities of history? But what about the monstrosity of the human now? The butcheries? What of the phenomena in you and me that at this very moment make us accomplices to all such butcheries: the grotesquery of the human.

Stevens’s formula applies to speech functions that are fueled by desire: the desire to open one’s mouth at all and thus act. It is civilization generative: we build, it says, even as we dismantle, because to dismantle is to take a stance, to perform an act. Różewicz’s nonformula remains outside this Stevensian purview. It is beyond speech action and it can hardly be read at all. The only other thing is your own urge to move on to the next “poem.” What do you learn from this.

Since the mid-1980s, Polish poetry has been undergoing an intense revision of themes and forms. This transformation, which continues until the present day, has unfolded in two major aspects of the poetic utterance: the themes and personal stances projected by poetry and the poetic forms. The emergence of the “Brulion” group in the 1980s in Kraków has had a lasting impact on the themes and existential stances of the Polish poets. From guardians of the national ethos, they have become existential rebels who question ideological pieties, going beyond the criticism of the final phases of communism in Poland. Poets like Świetlicki, Podsiadło, Baran brought the Polish poem to be more attentive to the gritty existential layer of the ordinary detail, slightly outside the traditional themes of the political opposition. They reformulated the political opposition so that it could be directed against the clichés of the new realities after the political and economic transformations the nation was subject to in the 1990s. The hectic pace of the transformation, its vastly simplified crude ideological packaging, became an object of scrutiny by these poets as they grappled with the excesses of Polish Catholicism and its pell-mell alliances with the liberal market ideology. Here, the work of poets like Adam Wiedemann and Marcin Sendecki should be especially noted. 

The other aspect of the poetic transformation in Polish poetry of recent decades has been formally related to the rejuvenation of the linguistic awareness of the Polish poem. Here, due to the groundbreaking translation work of the editors of the magazine Literatura na Świecie, most notably its editor in chief Piotr Sommer, Polish poetry entered an immensely fruitful and long-lasting formal dialogue with the postmodern, or late modernist, American poetic styles, mainly the styles of the New York poets.

Bohdan Zadura, a major poet who was artistically formed in the early 1970s, was able to reconfigure his early days’ classicism, in which he was seen as a continuator of Zbigniew Herbert, through a poetic dialogue with the styles typical of John Ashbery’s volumes of the ’70s and ’80s. Zadura never gave up the deeply critical and personally ironic styles with which his poems differ decisively from Ashbery’s more indeterminate styles, but he intensified the linguistic playfulness of his usual realistic critique of Polish realities. Another poet, Andrzej Sosnowski, one of the editors of Literatura na Świecie, pushed the Polish poem onto a path in which it started drawing on the sources more common to international modernism, a movement which might be said to find its continuations in the twenty-first century. Sosnowski is the poet whose feels of Roussel, the legacy of the Oulipo mixed with his apparent dabbling with postmodern theory, and the Polish Romantic tradition have made him into our most influential writer of the formal poetic expansion in the twenty-first century. On the whole, Zadura and Sosnowski represent a huge increase in the formal, artistic, and linguistic awareness of the poetic form, and in this they have been accompanied by Jerzy Jarniewicz, whose careful use of irony and masterful handling of the cultural reference allowed him to develop a distinctive style in which intense language playfulness becomes a tool of stringent cultural criticism.

Historically, the shaping impulse of Literatura na Świecie occurred slightly before the emergence of the “Brulion” group, and some Brulion styles were related by critics to the introduction of Frank O’Hara into Polish by Sommer’s translations. It is important, however, to understand that the combined influences of Literatura na Świecie and Brulion continued to exert their shaping impact long beyond the 1980s, into the ’90s and 2000s, inspiring and poetically forming a vast group of younger poets. Among them, perhaps the most noteworthy names are Darek Foks, Tadeusz Pióro, Krzysztof Siwczyk, Marta Podgórnik, Maciej Melecki, Mariusz Grzebalski, Dariusz Sośnicki, Julia Fiedorczuk, Justyna Bargielska, Przemysław Owczarek, and Kacper Bartczak. These names do not exhaust the scene. Talented younger poets keep appearing in the most active Polish poetic centers of Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań, Lublin, Gdańsk, Łódź, and Warszawa. Most recently, the younger poets have used the thematic-formal transformation I have tried to outline to modulate their poems toward a more politically active critique of the social costs of the system transformation, costs that have become an inescapable topic in the days of the crisis.

It is, however, unclear to what extent the main actors of the changes sketched above have drawn on Różewicz. The changes in question are characterized by an opposition to the former dominance of the Polish tradition of moral ethos and high stylistic grounds, variously occupied by Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, or Adam Zagajewski. The new Polish poetry has done a lot to find its distance from those poets, seeking its own, more aesthetically poised independence from the national and the ethical layers of poetry. However, this map of generational tensions changes again when we test the relation of the new poets to Różewicz: the younger poets do not grapple with giants of moral stature, but witness a powerful clash of poetry against what Nietzsche called “normal nihilism” — that is, the paradox of any creation in the absence of all “total interpretations.”

Two main channels of poetic transmission between Różewicz and the younger poets come to mind. The first has been outlined by Jacek Gutorow, an influential critic and subtle poet, who in his study entitled Urwany Slad (which could be roughly translated as “a broken trail”) puts Różewicz in the company of Andrzej Sosnowski, among others, discussing them as poets who take up the challenge of enhanced awareness of language. With this move, Gutorow makes Różewicz into an unexpected predecessor of Sosnowski’s overwhelming linguistic experiment. The second channel of communication might be found with the Nietzschean trope of “normal nihilism” that I mention above. On this ground, Różewicz precedes many younger Polish poets who are attracted or related to Różewicz in more subtle ways that go beyond imitation or formal and conceptual influence. Certainly, the austere confrontation of the poetic form with the barrenness, or disposability, of human life conceived of as brittle fact deprived of all metaphysical justification — the confrontation which Różewicz’s forms unearth for Polish poetry with unprecedented poignancy — might be just what seeped into and helped to form the original styles of such poets as Siwczyk, Melecki, Marta Podgórnik, or Darek Foks.

On Różewicz and Wojciech Bonowicz

Like many a poet of his generation, Bonowicz has read Tadeusz Różewicz as both an apprentice and an interlocutor. After all it was the old master who, having cleansed his verse of what he deemed superfluous ornamentation, demonstrated that it was possible to write poetry after Auschwitz. In doing so, Różewicz aimed to make sense of our postapocalyptic existence by questioning the basic principles of human nature and language’s role as our would-be ally in the process of acquiring meaning. Having reached the end of the road — words have been used up, he reminded us time and again — he pulled no punches, becoming, especially towards the end of his life, one of the most vocal commentators of current events in Poland and abroad.

For his part, Bonowicz, who was born and raised in the shadow of the death camp, seems to have internalized that aspect of Różewicz’s work in particular, for while his poems embody an individual lyric experience, their formal asceticism belies their extensive thematic and rhetorical reach. The fact that Bonowicz’s poems, like the best poems by Różewicz, are not discursive but rather employ a mixture of suggestiveness and lapidary gestures, doesn’t mean they lack a narrative or purpose. As a spiritual poet, who also questions poetry’s utility in the age of mass culture, Bonowicz resurrects the idea of conscience as the heartbeat of a poem. Whether interrogating his beliefs or illuminating the shortcomings and joys shared by all of us, Bonowicz writes the type of a poem that carries within it a salutary aim. His poems may be spare, enigmatic even, but somehow they speak loud and clear.

Różewicz, close to reality

Różewicz is one of the “primary care” poets in Poland. I got to know him years back, in primary school. When I started writing at the age of eighteen, I shamelessly imitated his poems, because he seemed easy to imitate. Numerous budding Polish poets still fall victim to his poetry’s illusory simplicity. I soon became aware that I was not able to imitate Różewicz well. Luckily, I did not get offended and I kept reading him. I still do. He remains among the most important poets in our literature, and one of those who stay closest to our reality. You just believe him.

Translated by Kacper Bartczak

Rozewicz and the organic

Among many other things, poetry is a drama of the poet’s hand. The writing hand, the hand of the writer, may be treated as both metaphor and metonymy, and it is in-between these two figures of speech that a distinct narrative of Różewicz’s work unravels. In several of his poems, the hand is a metaphor of writing, and it is very often accompanied with images of exhaustion and emptying. At the same time, it is a metonymy of the poet’s body, which is revolting and not at all committed to what the mind intends to say. Sometimes the poet writes against himself, unable to stop the flow of language, giving in to the repeated mechanical gestures that mean (simulate, represent, and reproduce) death and writing. I remember Różewicz complaining in one of his texts: “my poems don’t breathe […] they are inorganic things.” He desperately wanted them to live. He wanted life for his poetry, and poetry in general. Yet he always lacked words that would express his longing and his dream. What was left was the writing hand, the automatic hand, the inhuman hand. His final medium. And his fate.