Commentaries - September 2007
This is Edwin Morgan's "Archives." It's my favorite of the "simple" typewritten concrete poems in the anthology of concretism edited by Eugene Wildman, published by Swallow Press in 1969. My paperback of this is nothing special, but I cherish it. I could talk about this poem for a long time and not nearly be done saying what I want to say about it: generation as proliferation of meaning and also the same thing over and over, the archive as something that forestalls decay, enjambment and its relation to generation, the irony of progress, the future of the machine, and more more. Form here adds a great deal of the meaning (as in all good concrete poetry, of course). This has so much more to offer than properly lineated syntactical descriptive language pseudo-transparently running left to right in lines telling us what we should think and feel about the generations' decline. But this, it seems to me, is art — so much more of an art. At least it's what excites me about art (form doing the hard work with seeming ease).
– Crawford, Robert, and Hamish Whyte, eds. About Edwin Morgan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.
– "Edwin Morgan: A Celebration." Chapman 64 (1991): 1–45.
Born in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan was expected to join the family shipping business, but began writing love poems instead. He served in the second world war, taught himself Russian and drew inspiration from the Beats. Acknowledged as Scotland's foremost living writer, he was in 2004 named the country's first poet laureate.
For Morgan early on a powerful force from the US was William Carlos Williams: the poet with an instinct to explore his own locality. Morgan understood, as he himself put it, that "Williams was doing something with the place where he lived that I could apply to the place where I lived. He influenced me in being able to write about very ordinary things in Glasgow. I had never thought of that kind of approach before. At school, poetry was mostly Romantic poetry, it was exalted, it was about love and nature and great subjects - not about the slums of Glasgow." There's more here.
We underestimate what a big breakthrough it was when Jerome Rothenberg in 1972 (one could say this was the height of the American Indian Movement — just to take that cut on the tiWe underestimate what a big breakthrough it was when Jerome Rothenberg in 1972 (one could say this was the height of the American Indian Movement — just to take that cut on the times) decided to say outright that we can "cross [...] the boundaries that separate people of different races & cultures" and indeed set about not only understand but translate American Indian poetic expressions. This is not mild stuff, given the context of that moment: In the face of whatever objections he would meet, he declared that unfortunately "it has become fashionable today to deny the possibility of crossing the boundaries..." etc. But he did just that.
In putting together Shaking the Pumpkin (above I'm quoting from the preface), Rothenberg knew that as an editor, translator and indeed promoter of ethnopoetics, he was "attempt[ing] to restore what has been torn apart." Presumptuous. He could do the mending.
"Come not thus with your gunnes & swords," he quotes Powhatan (speaking to John Smith) in his epigraph, "to invade as foes... What will availe you to take that perforce you may quietly have with love." (Powhatan serves Rothenberg as a Christ figure here.)
Rothenberg was a peacemaker not just in the whites-Native American colloquy. He was making peace (or maybe it's killing with kindness) also with those who would angrily deny the boundary-crossers. Ethnopoetics in this form might seem moderate and even truistic now, but it mapped out (and then made pacific) a real battleground then.
Robert Grenier (in Phantom Anthems, 1986) wrote what I think is an absolutely brilliant response to and satire of William Carlos Williams. Here it is:
for William Carlos Williams
the young plum tree
like a martini
with new green
leaves how metrical
likely & con-
versant it would
have been today to
write a true imagist poem
I just love the loaded skeptical sense of "conversant." How conversant it would be of us today, of a poet today, to write one of those spare, seemingly descriptive or "objective" poems in Williams's manner. How metrical, how likely, how conversant. Its title "But" hangs up there like a large and general turner-around of the rhetoric and logic. I find all this hilarious. But — there I go myself — I don't have the sense of this as a rejection of Williams especially. There's a hint of lament that ... you can't say it that way any more (to borrow a line from John Ashbery). The use of the word "today" points toward this tone.
On the last morning of one of this summer's camping sessions, the Tacoma staff woke up the girls very very early (4 am?) and took them on a sunrise hike up Giant Ledge. Anna Armstrong, one of Tacoma's counselors, took this shot at the sunrise moment.
I think they cooked and ate pancakes up there. Could it get any better than that?