Commentaries - March 2011
Kenneth Koch, "The Circus"
A completely gorgeous performance of his poem "The Circus," by Kenneth Koch. He'd already written a poem called "The Circus" years earlier, and now this is a poem about thinking about having written that poem - a memory of writing that poem, its circumstances, and then some digressing thoughts about circumstances. New York School epitomized.
Many thanks to Curtis Fox, who featured this poem--and this terrific recording--in a recent episode of the podcast, "Poetry off the Shelf."
Studying the Constitution with Hannah early this morning. Fell in love once more with the words "ratify" and "enumerated." Civics is language and possibly also vice versa. Enumerated = explicit. Think about that--that and the importance of lists there. To list is to count (to matter), to make power. An implied power is anything that is not listed.
Interview and discussion in April 2000:
Now back to Williams, your initial response to Williams—-according to something you said at Camden in December -—was that what mattered to you in reading Williams, particularly The Wedge, was that the work was driven by anger. This is what, at least, Ron Silliman posted to the Buffalo poetics listserv afterwards. And then he went on to comment at how Williams had a huge impact on him as well, but it was a very different Williams. So, if anger is not quite operating as much, what’s your Williams now? How does Williams animate you now?
Back to Ron’s point, that that wasn’t the Williams he read, he reads the later Williams.
The Desert Music.
Yeah. Which is not an unangry poem, so to speak. But it certainly isn’t nearly as angry as the poems he was writing in the thirties or twenties. Spring and All, for example. Or the "Descent of Winter," or "March First." Many of the early poems are really angry, and their emotional base is their revulsion and anger at the world he finds around him.
So, now when you look back at Williams, how does it feel?
Well, it feels very much like my own life. I, when young, felt a dismay, let’s put it, that such things as the Holocaust or the Second World War or the depression or many other factors in one’s real life, that these could be so unremarkable to the body politic, that it seemed not to matter.
Through the agency of my terrific wife, I sent an article, I think it was called “Bush Goes Green” from the New York Times to this listserv that a friend of ours sends us, you know, Barbie dolls and things women have to do to protect themselves in parking lots, lots of actually useful information, but the list has had a certain smugness. So, I zapped out this Bush article—Texas is 50th in education, and so on—and instantly comes back a letter: “Don’t send any more of this to me. I’ll vote for Bush no matter what.”
So, I was disappointed that one would vote for someone who commits to have his state have 25% of its population with no insurance, who would willfully do so, and fight to preserve that situation. I still feel anger in that way.
But again, back to the verse, think of the classic phrases humans make: X wants to make his peace with the world. The resistances of Lawrence’s, the day of my interference is done, the recoil outstrips the advance, et cetera.
I remember one time, terrifically, I had the chance to ask Kenneth Burke at a community meal we were all at up in Orono, there was a moment when I had him to myself, so to speak, and I asked him quickly: what advice would you have for someone as myself who is getting old. And he looked at me and said: Don’t boast. You won’t be able to back it up.
Therefore, it isn’t don’t get angry, don’t use anger as a primary emotion. It’s extraordinarily hard to sustain. It always was incidentally.
We at PennSound have now segmented the entire audio recording made of the Barbara Guest Praise Day Tribute at The Bowery Poetry Club, October 21, 2006. These people performed selections of Guest's poems, offered interpretations of them along with reminiscences: Lewis Warsh, Marcella Durand, Charles Bernstein, Africa Wayne, Charles North and Erica Kaufman. The event was hosted by Kristin Prevallet. Anna Zalokostas has nicely arranged all the readings on our Barbara Guest author page. Lewis Warsh, for instance, remembered Guest in connection with The New American Poetry of 1960. Africa Wayne read "Negative Possibility." Charles North read "Roses." Lytle Shaw read "Sante Fe Trail." And much more.
Above left: Guest in 1968.
I admire and am often mesmerized by the poems of John Wieners because they presuppose a music exhilirated--made absolutely alive--by deprivation and, at times, by self-destructiveness. They are "the score of a man's struggle to stay with what is his own."
The Hotel Wentley Poems, Wieners's first book (1958), are available online--all of them. This is a book that should be read in one sitting, and it offers a powerful reading experience. Not quite Beat (although he was feeling beat--out of it, not beatific--and he was in San Francisco at the time he wrote these poems in successive days) and not quite Black Mountain, the poems can be placed in their time and aesthetic context with some pleasure taken by the placer; but they do really well as more generally "New American" or, frankly, contextless, or in the similar/different context of love poetry across the literary ages. I have two favorite passages. One is the seventh and final section of "A poem for painters" and the other is a passage near the end of "A poem for museum goers." The latter movingly situates the speaker (a writer--the author of these very poems) both in the history of art (the art of lovers leaving lovers) and in the desolate present room at the Hotel Wentley, the room of the poem.
Lover leaves lover,
1896, 62 years
later, the men
sit, paws and
under their heads,
Now the season of
the furnished room. Gone
the Grecian walls & the
plain planks and spider
webs, a bed
only big enough for one,
it looks like a
The speaker didn't want this but he knows how keenly and well the depression has provoked these poems. They're his way out but also his deathbed.
The seventh section of "A poem for painters" needs little explanation. Another magnificent poem about the poem, it puts itself in the tradition of the defense of poesy, by first enumerating what the present poem lacks. Otherwise, the section serves the same purpose as the passage quoted above:
At last. I come to the last defense.
My poems contain no
wilde beestes, no
lady of the lake music
of the spheres, or organ chants,
yet by these lines
I betray what little given me.
One needs no defense.
Only the score of a man's
struggle to stay with
what is his own, what
lies within him to do.
Without which is nothing,
for him or those who hear him
And I come to this,
knowing the waste, leaving
the rest up to love
and its twisted faces
my hands claw out at
only to draw back from the
blood already running there.
Oh come back, whatever heart
you have left. It is my life
you save. The poem is done.
PennSound makes available a recording of Wieners reading of "A poem for painters" (in a pre-published version). The recording of this and other poems was made by Robert Creeley, probably at a Berkeley poetry conference, probably in the summer of 1965.