Commentaries - August 2007

After a while, Allen Ginsberg enjoyed doing just about everything else but cigarette smoking. And he had the politics to support this one eventual self-prohibition, best expressed in his song called "Don't Smoke (Put Down Your Cigarette Rag)." Here is a RealAudio version of the recording, and here is an MP3 version. It's a 9 billion dollar capitalist joke.

"Doctor," Ginsberg said to his very first psychiatrist in San Francisco, "I don't think you're going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working forever — never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I'm doing now — and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I'd like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence."

For me the most enjoyable aspect of understanding Ginsberg's writing is to deal straight on, feeling no need to reconcile them, with the two tendencies: stern (however hilarious otherwise) warnings against unethical or politically unconscious acts and ecstatic exploration of life-living resisting custom and normative behavior. In a sense this is the one biggest issue for experimental poetry from the dawn of modernism in the first 20th-century decade — the everyday politics of avant-gardism, how we can be liberated from ugly unbeautiful constraint while living with a new whole notion of communal and even personal rightness.

Many poets who lived to old age have registered in verse what it must be like to see or sense an "I" so old, so long ago, so outmoded, that such a version of the self is unrecognizable, other. Stevens' "Long and Sluggish Lines" is just one of several poems he wrote in his seventies in this vein. But Stevens died at a merely 76. Carl Rakosi died at 100. To celebrate his 99th birthday, we at the Writers House invited him to read. He wasn't able to make the trip from San Francisco so we set up a live audiocast. It was great fun and Carl was in wonderful form. The event was noted by a web page and recordings of the whole conversation as well as the individual poems Carl read are available. Carl that night read "In What Sense I Am I," which to me captures more precisely and interestingly than any other poem I know what it's like to outlive oneself, "a minor observer / as in a dream." The text of the poem is here and the recording of Carl reading that one poem is here. That night in 2002 Tom Devaney gave a good introduction to the occasion and to his friend Carl.

"Carl Rakosi's determined honesty and reductive rhetoric with its ungainsayable plainsong," Bob Creeley wrote, "have made a measure for all conduct of words in the attempt to find an active poetry in the fact of lives without power."

In her 1986 book Parts of a Wedding, Alice Notley published a poem I especially admire, called "I the People." (It was republished in Grave of Light: New & Selected Poems, 1970-2005.) The text of the poem is here. When Notley came to the Writers House to read in the fall of '06, she read this poem and we have a recording of it (mp3). In its sense of political-is-personal, it is very much like John Ashbery's poem, "The One Thing That Can Save America": a lyrical digressive response, in its very meandering and promotion of urban specificity, to the fundamental democratic idea of the people. Somewhat predictably the poem turns the phrase "we, the people" every which way so that the republic seems to depend on modest and shifting as opposed to hyper-confident presumptuous first-person statements. Notley's "I" is one that becomes "we" by way of (actual) love experience, an actual sense of place. There are broad but only momentarily hints of satire here, e.g. at/against Frost's "The Gift Outright," with its notion of what America "was" and "would become." Notley: "I the people / to the things that are were & come to be. / We were once what we know when we / make love...."

I am the host of a new podcast series called "PoemTalk." At least we think it'll be a new series. On August 2, we recorded a pilot show and now friends and colleagues are having a listen. Once we've heard their responses, we'll decide whether we will go ahead. The plan is to produce a new show every two weeks, beginning in September. In each show I introduce and play a PENNsound recording of one poem, and then I, with three guest poet-critics, discuss it, its influences and manifestations, for about 30 minutes. For the pilot show I chose William Carlos Williams' 1930s poem "Between Walls" and here is a link to the podcast. Have a listen and let me know what you think.