Commentaries - June 2012

Reconfiguring Romanticism (54): Jeffrey C. Robinson, "Occupy Romanticism," 27 May 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE. The following was Jeffrey Robinson’s contribution to the recent Poetry & Revolution conference at Birkbeck College of the University of London. As with other of Robinson’s recent writings, it presents an ongoingly radical view of Romanticism in the spirit of Poems for the Millennium, volmue 3, which he and I constructed in the first decade of the current millennium. For my part, the collaboration with Robinson opened me to areas of poetry that had long been hidden from me and honed my own practice in ways that had only been latent until then. If I wrote A Book of Concealments in the process – & I did – the sense of “Romantic Dadas” that appears there was also part of our work in common, for which I remain forever grateful. (J.R.)

[N.B.—This prefatory remark was written just before giving the talk in response to comments about “Romanticism” made in other previous presentations in the conference. The term “Romanticism” has been used almost exclusively by members of the conference in a pejorative way, usually implying some sort of escapist abstraction or transcendence of the real; it was used this way casually but also emphatically by Allen Fisher in reference to the “Romanticism” that led to Fascism. This characterization of Romanticism, coupled with what below I will call “institutional Romanticism,” doubly degrades the radical Romanticism that is the subject of this paper and contributes to the pervasive resistance that poets and literary historians have in noting the vital continuity between a radical Romanticism and modern and contemporary innovative poetry and poetics.

Upon receiving the announcement of this conference, I felt challenged to articulate the pertinence and usefulness of the anthology of 19th-century Romantic poetry Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (hereafter called PM3) to the topic of poetry and revolution. This topic conjoins two terms that pitch value emphatically into the present, and at some point advocates action over what we often associate with Romanticism, contemplation and consolation. The editors of PM3, Jerome Rothenberg and I, believed that a radical re-configuring of what has long been accepted as the body of Romantic poetry and the recovery of the radical dynamic of Romantic poetics, perpetually obscured in traditional accounts of Romanticism, would constitute on the level of culture and language a significant response to the increasing conditions of human and natural destruction on a global scale, as Shelley would say, it would constitute an “awakening,” in the present.

There are not only important parallels but genuine continuities between contemporary and Romantic poets seeking to find ways for poetry to intervene poetically in social crisis. Indeed, crises of democracy, beginning roughly with the French Revolution and occasioning versions of radical Romantic poetry and poetics, could be said to define a form of Romanticism that can spring up at any moment. As the surrealist André Breton said: “Romanticism asserts itself as a continuum.” A radical Romantic poetry proliferated across time (with no regard for the period distinctions insisted upon by scholars) and across geographies. Contrary to repeated and vigorous assertions from the nineteenth century to this morning, the Romanticism we bring forward in PM3 never came to an end, nor did it flourish, as the editor of a leading university textbook of Romanticism says, “just for a brief period,” but has continually reemerged over the past two centuries by poets whose political concerns drive them towards poetic experiment.

Moreover, the full range of Romantic poetry, whether labeled that or not, although honoring regional and geographical specificity, has never been solely an English-language phenomenon, nor, as comparatists would have it, a phenomenon claimed by a cluster of nation-states; this Romanticism spread and found its home literally across many locales, a reverberation, whether stated or not, to Goethe’s call for a Weltliteratur. PM3 presents this proliferation of not so much a movement as an historically grounded vision of poetry’s unpredictable and myriad interventions from the late-eighteenth to the early twentieth century, at which point, by the way, it joins with two previously published volumes of Poems for the Millennium. These insist that the most vital elements of twentieth-century poetry appear in the works of experimental and innovative writers, poetry that PM3 asserts stems from the vitality of Romanticism.

Just as this Romanticism, I am arguing, embraces literary/political occasions from the French Revolution to the present, so my talk crosses and recrosses Romantic poetry and poetics with its reconfiguration, or reclamation, in PM3. “Reclamation” suggests the activity of the Occupy movements; the talk in this regard could be called “Occupy Romanticism.” Thus I will speak first about Romantic poetry as a radical practice recovered by and reconfigured in PM3 from an oppressive institutional Romanticism that has systematically sought to control and destroy Romanticism’s fundamentally interventionist, defamiliarizing, and self-regenerating impulse across time and geographies. Second, I will consider a single instance of poetry as it appears in the medium of prose, foregrounded in our anthology, an example of Romantic genre mixing, as a formal response to the vision of democratic pluralism. Finally I will show how PM3 “occupies” the venerated but reactionary icon of Romanticism, the so-called “Romantic self,” (or as it was called yesterday, the “sovereign I”) in order to transform it into a subjective agent of poetic innovation in the service of social critique.

As the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine said in 1833, in contrasting the poetry of one Romantic poet of the French Revolution Friedrich Schiller to the poetry of Goethe, Schiller’s Romantic poetry seeks to transform “the word” into “the deed,” This is in one sense a truism about politically progressive poetry but here it is keyed specifically to the post-revolutionary engagement with newly liberated and acknowledged classes of the 1790s. A democratic art, moreover, according to what Jacques Rancière says about Schiller, mixes art, as the inherited and assumed materials and traditions of art, with what he calls “non-art,” or materials newly incorporated into art from recovered, previously invisible members of society, their voices and language, and the objects of their world. Such transformations and expansions express themselves not only in poetic content but as transformations of form and language. Wordsworth’s “Advertisement” to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads addresses the juxtaposition of “art” and “non-art” in that book’s democratic “experiment” to “ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” A Romantic poetics of democracy thus “occupies” the traditional domains of poetry and its sentences.

Just as the Occupy Movement having recently called for the need to “Occupy Language,” demonstrates how quickly its participants are associating the misuse of language by those in power, so earlier generations found the need to question inherited genres, forms, and language in oppressive structures of control. As Theodor Adorno declared in Minima Moralia: “Not without reason was the epoch of free rhythms that of the French Revolution, the solemn entrance of human dignity and equality.” The same interanimation of social revolution in the 1790s and poetic innovation is crystallized in Blake’s contemporary comprehensive formalist aphorism for early Romantic poetics: “Poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race,” a grim chiastic sequence in which poetry and language in chains predicts the same outcome in the space of the living, and which challenges poets to unfetter the forms and language of poetry from their ideologically restrictive inheritance and convention in order to storm, in Heine’s phrase, the “Bastilles of the intellectual and spiritual world.”

But we need first to summarize the old space of what we might call institutional Romanticism, a space that I strongly suspect, most of us here entered as students. My summary comes from Duncan Wu’s and Stephen Pritchett’s textbook anthologies of Romantic poetry. I refer to a textbook, as opposed to the work of Romantic scholars, because here is where and how institutional Romanticism—a system of exclusion and distortion--gets disseminated to the public, to the degree that school and university students constitute “the public.” Wu’s characterization of Romanticism includes nothing about form; it is all about its content which, to be sure, means its “unquenchable aspiration for human betterment, the reclaiming of paradise.” However, Wu deflates that potential when he writes: “today, when the world seems so inexorably drawn to global destruction of various kinds, such hopes may seem ludicrous.” He implies that such hopes are naïve, indicative of a failure of a poet’s reality testing, and thus existed, as I quoted earlier, “just for a brief period. . . .” So, as beautifully compelling as romantic poetry can be, it produces a kind of nostalgia, almost an antiquarian’s pleasure. Not only is there the brevity and idiosyncrasy but also an implied hopelessness in the Romantic enterprise, registered in the Romantic “self” or poet from whom the account of Romanticism gets its character as a tragic or pathetic adventure. Shelley is a paradigm: “doomed and neglected,” as is Keats who from his early death didn’t have time to mature as a poet.

Textbooks like this form the space that PM3 has sought to occupy. You have before you one section of the Table of Contents. With its aid, I will characterize the book, demonstrating that “to occupy” means: to introduce the new or unfamiliar, to defamiliarize by means of contiguity, what sits next to what, the previously known and often canonical, to develop poet by poet a sense of an ongoing radical Romantic poetics, and to define this Romanticism as one that spreads horizontally across geographies and vertically across decades and so-called historical periods. The constant sense of movement between and across, the kaleidoscopic shiftings of perspectives and categories produces exactly the opposite effect from that of the text-books. The reader in PM3 stands before a poem not so much to know and identify it as part of a poet’s career as to occupy a continually changing understanding of poetry itself. Through the commentaries that follow the selections of each poet along with poets’ manifesto statements scattered throughout the volume, the reader develops a growing critical consciousness about the substantive and formal choices that poets have made and will make under the sign of Romanticism; Romantic poetry according to PM3 is a critical poetry.

[What follows suggests the beginnings of a model for a radical pedagogy spoken of several times in this conference.] So, for example, the reader of PM3 encounters a famous poem by Coleridge called Kubla Khan next to which is a first-person poem of the self, “Dejection: An Ode,” and will presumably feel in more or less familiar Romantic territory. But next to “Dejection” is a third piece, a short notebook entry:

What a beautiful Thing urine is, in a Pot, brown yellow, transpicuous, the
Image, diamond shaped of the Candle in it, especially, as it now appeared,
I having emptied the Snuffers into it, & the Snuff floating about, & paint-
ing all-shaped Shadows on the Bottom.

And the reader might well wonder, what has this to do with poetry? a poetry of the self? And how can it even be called poetry? Romantic poems aren’t in prose and poems don’t talk about urine, particularly poems of the author of “Dejection.” But then one notices that it does what many wonderful poems do: it praises its subject. And then that it uses quite beautiful, quite poetic language (such as “all-shaped Shadows), and that it carries a strong, quite musical rhythm. And slowly the sense of Coleridge as well as of the possibilities for Romantic poetry begins to shift, to expand from “verse” to poetic prose. Cruising around in PM3, the reader realizes that “Urine” only reinforces the growing impression that poetry in the medium of prose has been popping up throughout the book, from the opening Reverie of Rousseau, to a feminist manifesto by Mary Robinson, to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals and Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, to poems with long prose footnotes that seem to leap out of their properly subordinate position to become genuine contenders for primary interest. See Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants or Dionysius Solomos’ The Woman of Zante. Then upon further perusal the reader can discover in the “Manifestos and Poetics” conclusion to the book that the Romantics themselves theorize poetry in the medium of prose, most famously by Friedrich Schlegel: “Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its mission is not merely to reunite all separate genres of poetry and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetorics. It will, and should, now mingle and now amalgamate poetry and prose, genius and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature, render poetry living and social, and life and society poetic . . . .” We then turn to Baudelaire who dreams of a poetic prose responsive to “being in crowded towns, from the criss-cross of their numerous ways."

At this point the reader may then recall that somewhere beyond the bindings of PM3 both William Hazlitt (1778-1830) and his near-contemporary and sometime friend Stendhal thought that a poetic prose suited better than did verse the newly expanded world of democratic pluralism, and that this blurred or mixed genre seemed to find its way into representation of previously repressed parts of society, but also into the unconscious forces of individual life, such as the dream state found in Nerval’s Schlegelian prose Aurelia who, by the way, translated some of Heine’s German poetry into beautiful French prose. To continue the thread, sometimes the poetic prose seems to travel on its own accord, emulating music in Thomas DeQuincey’s Dream Fugue and leading eventually to the so-called automatic writing of the early 20th-century surrealists.

Mentioning automatic writing brings me back again to Schlegel—where liberal democracy shapes the sentence: “Poetry,” he said, “is republican speech, a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.” In this telling, a sentence is not a syntax under the control of and fully ordered by an invisible, abstract power and utilizing a homogeneous language sanctioned by that power, but occupies a syntax full of independent subjectivities. To return further to the beginning of this prose poetry journey, Coleridge’s glimmering, apparently innocent notebook entry on urine contributes silently, through the constantly expanding web of connections in PM3, to the larger political critique of genre and language that these radical Romantic poets set for themselves.

Finally let us ask: who is the agent of the turbulent innovative poetics we describe in PM3? This recovered poetics of Romanticism reconfigures the traditional notions of the Romantic self, so prominent in institutional Romanticism. In 1820 Shelley summarized the standoff: “Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God & Mammon of the world.” As he sees it and anticipating the view of PM3, poetry is incompatible with the principle of self associated with what he and his Cockney poets considered the ego’s hunger after “fame” in bourgeois capitalist society.

In standard readings valorization of “self” seems to occur as a basic inclination and endpoint. Claims Stephen Prickett in his 2010 anthology European Romanticism: A Reader, radical politics only impedes the process of the “creation of ‘self’.” As a “direct consequence of revolutionary activity” or of “sexual and social transgression,” the poets’ creation of a sense of self somewhat mournfully resulted from their having been exiled. Such a figure is beset by failure and by pathos and inactivity, or ineffective activity.

How different is this rather static version of self from Blake’s “I must create a System or be enslaved by another mans.” The “I” comes into focus as a self only as it absorbs itself, with difficulty, into an activity outside itself. It is not being but, as Blake says, action that counts: “the most sublime act is to set another before you.” In spite of institutional Romanticism insisting upon the centrality of self as being, which means finally the self as ego-consciousness, the Romantic poets themselves emphatically say otherwise as they look towards the world. To name but a few famous instances, there is Keats’s “chameleon poet” who “has no identity but who is continually informing other bodies and characters”; Shelley’s love, the “great secret of morals,” a “going out of one’s own nature,” a poet being one who “participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one”; Emily Dickinson’s remarking to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person”; Charles Baudelaire’s “I” with its “irresistible appetite for the non-I”; and of course Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre,” I is the other. These ideas become central to modern and contemporary innovative poetics, all the way from a modern version of the “vatic,” to instances of the “diasporic” imagination of persons as exiles, subalterns, women, and laborers, to forms of total immersion into text itself.

In all of these examples, Adorno’s definition of lyric applies: “the subjective expression of a social antagonism.” Self comes into being as a critical consciousness prepared to create by, as Sean Bonney says, “interrupting” a controlled space, or occupying it. Bonney summarizes Rimbaud’s meaning of “I” and following Rimbaud, his own in his excellent book of poems Happiness: “The long systematic derangement of the senses,” the “I is an other,” he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s clear, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is. Obviously you could read this as a simple recipe for personal excess, but only from the perspective of police reality. . . . The systematic derangement of the senses” is the social senses, ok, and the “I” becomes an “other” as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. . . seeing as language is probably the chief of the social senses, we have to derange that.” This account of the poetic seems to follow the form of Romanticism we describe in PM3, in its dissolution of that bourgeois subjectivity, which strives for serenity, autonomy, and control. Rimbaud’s and Bonney’s “I,” on the other hand, acts and occupies outside of itself, in order to “engage with ideas that have been erased from the official account.” Hardly disinterested or serene, it feels the pressure of “police reality” and “the sound of the collective I being pushed back into its individuality.”

The poetic “I” comes into being at moments of intense pressure and conflict in order to act, interrupt, derange and reveal what has been repressed or erased in the official account. This “I” interrupts police reality through derangements of official form and syntax: the “I” a dangerous agent of formal experiment and innovation. With this view of Romantic poetry and poetics, no wonder that institutional Romanticism wants to promote a nostalgic fantasy Romantic poem of transcendent selfhood, a consoling monument to bourgeois subjectivity and identity and to the social status quo. No wonder it wants pastness to be one of Romanticism’s attributes when in fact Romanticism provides a vibrant historical groundwork for poetry’s participation in social change. No wonder it discourages the ideal reader of PM3, as well as contemporary radical poets looking for a usable past, to open themselves to a vibrant global poetry that envisions a genuine plurality of voices speaking in unanticipated forms to, as Thoreau said, wake its neighbors up.

Phyllis Webb at 85

Arriving at Salt Spring Island

A few days ago I did what I do several times a year: visited poet Phyllis Webb on Salt Spring Island. It’s not the easiest trip: I live near a ferry terminal on the mainland, so the first step is easy, but from there it’s one ferry for an hour and a half to Vancouver Island; then a second ferry (45 minutes or so) to Salt Spring; then a bus ride to the other end of the island; and at last a walk through the village of Ganges and up a hill to the assisted living facility where Webb, 85, lives.

I call her “poet Phyllis Webb,” although she has not written poetry or published a book in twenty years now—a fact she explains by saying “words abandoned me.” She did paint and make collages for a number of years, post-writing, but now that too has stopped. She listens to CBC radio. She reads books—everything and anything people send her, and people send her a lot of books—and the TLS and LRB. She is lively, and enjoys nothing better than a good conversation about books, ideas, politics. And especially poetry. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years now, and I haven’t noticed any marked dropping off of her intellectual abilities. When I arrive, there is always a stack of books and articles she wants to discuss, and a bottle of wine to share.

Just a few weeks ago, a friend of Webb’s passed away, and she was asked to read a poem at the celebration of life. She wavered, but she did it—her first “public reading” in twenty years. And she was more than a little surprised that she managed it. She read a poem called “The Days of the Unicorns.”

    I remember when the unicorns
roved in herds through the meadow
behind the cabin, and how they would
lately pause, tilting their jewelled
horns to the falling sun as we shared
the tensions of private property
and the need to be alone.

Or as we walked along the beach
a solitary delicate beast
might follow on his soft paws
until we turned and spoke the words
to console him.

It seemed they were always near
ready to show their eyes and stare
us down, standing in their creamy
skins, pink tongues out
for our benevolence.

As if they knew that always beyond
and beyond the ladies were weaving them
into their spider looms.

I knew where they slept
and how the grass was bent
by their own wilderness
and I pitied them.

It was only yesterday, or seems
like only yesterday when we could
touch and turn and they came
perfectly real into our fictions.
But they moved on with the courtly sun
grazing peacefully beyond the story
horns lowering and lifting and
lowering.

I know this is scarcely credible now
as we cabin ourselves in the cold
and the motions of panic
and our cells destroy each other
performing music and extinction
and the great dreams pass on
to the common good.

 Aside from wishing I had been there to hear her read, I’m excited that she read this particular poem—always one of my favorites. The unicorns, of course, didn’t buy into the Big Story, and fell under the flood of monotheism, symbolic of those mythical realms left behind by the new Judeo-Christian dispensations. It’s a story I think Webb herself revels in—being outside, being forgotten, left behind—revels in both its heroic elements and in its pathos.

 I have in the past enjoyed the tension in the poem between “private property” (and its “tensions”) and “the common good”—the rejection of one, modern, world system for another, apparently now outmoded world view. And of course this links to the poem’s lament for the passing of that animal world of “wilderness” now being forced into the performance of “extinction” by the human mechanisms of “private property” and capital accumulation. Now there’s some tension.

 But today I find myself drawn to another aspect of the poem I’ve not thought much about before—its fairly obvious echoes of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” The poem was written at the end of the 1970s, at a time when Webb’s self-proclaimed anarchism was being tempered by feminism and a new commitment to animal rights, and thus offers us an overdetermined complex of literary, economic, ecological and gendered frames.

 Perhaps the connection to Tennyson is more subtle than “obvious,” but it’s there nonetheless—in the “ladies” “weaving” on their “spider looms”—the spider leading us to Tennyson’s “web” woven by the cursed Lady, and of course this other Webb, always aware of her self-reflection in images of spiders and weaving. Webb would rather the fate of the unicorns than the role of the Lady in her tower—although it’s a false dichotomy, the one where the female artist was typically offered the “choice” of silence or destruction.

 I’m not sure how much gender has had to do with Webb’s silence or her isolation on Salt Spring Island for over forty years now. Certainly she was deeply affected by a series of negative appraisals by male critics in the early 1970s—critics who, in my estimation, completely missed the significance of her work. She made a “choice”—to not take a certain voyage, to not board a certain, exclusive ship. But what factors placed pressure on that “choice”?

What can’t be over-emphasized now is the important place Webb has held in Canadian poetry. She has been in many ways our most modern modernist, and one of our first and most influential postmodernists. Her Naked Poems (1965) is nothing less than a “landmark”—both for its explorations of lesbian sexuality and for the example it has set for the long serial form in this country. She has been a public intellectual (founding the still-running CBC radio series, “Ideas,” in the 1960s), and she has shown incredible resolve and dedication in living an uncompromising and unapologetically “private” life of the mind in isolation, “cabined in the cold.”

 Take this commentary as an unabashed celebration by a poet’s fan. Take it, too, as a prelude to my next post—on the new web project CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), which also responds to the “choices” that affect the place and role of the poet-who-happens-to-be-female. I’ve noted before that I’m part of a generation of poets-and-critics-who-happen-to-be-male, and who happen to have been influenced and taught by a generation of feminist poets and critics in the 1970s and 80s. But has this really made the difference we sometimes think it has?

When the author is dead: Posthumous collections of poetry from Hawai`i

(With love & rage in equal measure)

Painting by Reuban Tam (1916-1991)

Just over a week ago, I put this request up on the Tinfish Press facebook page: “I’m looking for good models of books published posthumously, especially by poets who are not well known already. In what ways are these books same/different from books by living authors? How, in the end, does one work up interest in such poetry after the very literal death of the author?” Some 35 substantive comments later, I realized that there was probably a book to be researched and written in response to those questions.  Instead of writing one, I’ll be looking at two recent posthumous volumes from Hawai`i in this commentary, namely, Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984) (University of Hawai`i Press, 2009), edited by Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki, and Language Matters: Tony Quagliano, Selected Poetry (New York Quarterly Books, 2012), put together by Quagliano’s widow, Laura Ruby, although no one is credited as editor on the title page. There’s a lot to remark upon: the way the poetry is presented, contextualized, edited, but also the odd, unremarked upon affinities between the two poets.  They both revered Kerouac, knew their Pound and his Imagism, adopted William Carlos Williams’s obsession with the local language, place. Their tone was often acidic, provocative. Both were idealistic and profoundly angry poets.

The more recent of these volumes, Language Matters, offers a collection of Tony Quagliano’s poetry. Tony, whose life spanned the years 1941 through 2007, was someone I knew; he was a complicated character, full of love for jazz (he used to send typed poems to Tinfish in envelopes with Charles Mingus stamps on them), enthusiasm for his and his partner Laura’s work, promotional energies for Kaimana, the organ of the Hawaii Literary Arts Council, HLAC, which he edited for many years. He made infrequent, friendly, phone calls. But he was also angry, as poems in this collection make acidly clear. Because the book is not organized chronologically and has no back notes, comes with neither an introduction nor an afterword, the reader gets no real sense of a trajectory in his writing.  Instead, the organization is thematic, making sections out of “Hawaii"; poems with science in them; poems about poetry and the po-biz; jazz poems; poems based on listening to voices, and others. What we have seems to be an entirely new book, one composed of previous chapbooks and other miscellaneous poems. When I asked her, Laura Ruby said as much; the book was not organized chronologically, but in ways that placed poems in conversation with one another in the present. It's a loving memorial more than it is a scholarly tome. I can't imagine Tony wanting it any other way. It's provocatively anti-historical, another act of resistance.

As an editor who published some of his work in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the chapbook Snail Mail Poems, and read his earlier work published by Petronium Press in Honolulu, my hunch is that he wrote Imagist lyrics early, satirical screeds later on.  The Imagist lyrics in this book are more compelling to me as poetry than are the bitter attacks on creative writing workshops, individual poets, and writing communities in Hawai`i, but those last poems fascinate (and horrify) me.  For they’re poems written by a white male poet who knows he’s one, who knows he’s inevitably thought of as one, and who is angry at the local community (Asian/Hawaiian) that he perceives as blocking his entry.  Unlike the late Steve Shrader, who wrote without publishing for decades, Tony tried hard to participate in the local writing community; the sounds of hurt echo throughout this book, and many of them are not pretty. Take this “primal scene” poem on the subject, “The Teeth of the Mask,” which transcribes a conversation Quagliano had with a poet from Papua New Guinea who asked why American poets wear primitive masks at readings, and then, how many kinds of cars there are in America.

I stood there in the Pali wind
American, and local guide
despairing of cross-cultural understanding —
I had just recently learned
that I’m a haole

The line “American, and local guide,” which might carry little weight in many other locations, is heavy with contextual baggage here in Hawai`i. Quagliano is discovering within himself the oddly-angled white “double consciousness” of a white poet called upon to explain the strange ways of “his people.” That he drives a 1965 Dodge Dart sedan lets us know that he’s not really one of them. But he is, and that’s that. The “cross-cultural understanding,” like the cross-cultural rift he’s just experienced, happens within him, not just between him and the other poet, Jack Lahui.  Lahui was at Iowa in 1977, says that link, so this poem likely comes from that decade, Tony’s first in Hawai`i. That decade culminated with 1978's Talk Story conference, the ascendency of Bamboo Ridge and local literature. To be "local" was, for the most part, to have roots on the plantation, to be related to workers brought from Asia to work the sugar cane and pineapple fields. To be "local" was not to be a Brooklyn guy with a degree from the University of Chicago and a friendship with Charles Bukowski under his belt. Ironic that he became something of a local poet anyway, using the energy of his anger at being excluded by Bamboo Ridge, which published his work only once in the mid-1980s in Malama: Land and Water.

Permit me a brief digression on dating the poems, which I want to do in spite of the book’s refusals.  Chronology is not everything, for sure, but histories matter in poetry, as in the daily life of the poet. One poem, “Feed the Hungry, or Do Something Better: (On H.L. Hix in H.R. Six)” accuses Hix of “neo-beatific / sermons.”  I assumed Quagliano referred to Hawaii Review (my own localism is showing), but when I emailed Harvey Hix about it, he responded that the reference was to Harvard Review #6, likely published in 1995 or so.  (Hix can’t remember what he wrote, but suspects it might well have been “stupid,” as he was young). The anti-Hix poem begins from the truism about giving a man a fish or teaching a man how to fish, and notes that “the actual / starving wander the actual / world out // of earshot / of neo-beatific / sermons” (161). As a poet in Hawai`i, these fish — Tony knew — could be fried in many ways, sometimes as food, often as literary politics. The group of writers in the Bamboo Ridge study group whose journal goes into its 100th issue this year, took their name from the place where fishermen station themselves on east O`ahu.  Quagliano is not the only poet to write an anti-Bamboo Ridge fishing poem (see Barry Masuda’s here), but he writes as a haole speaking Pidgin  (a “local” language, hence one that excludes him):

A Haole Writes One Local Poem

My granmoddah wen fish
catch one trout
trout?
haole fish, dat
she trow back

catch one snappa den
hapa fish
bitta
she trow back

granmoddah den
catch one ***
a local fish
pure you know
good fo eat
good fo da soul
granny keep em  (27)

The moral of this story is clear; whites and hapa (mixed race) writers are not welcome; only “local fish” will do.  While this poem, angry as it is, presents itself obliquely to the akamai reader, Quagliano wrote other, more overtly hostile poems about Bamboo Ridge, like “Last Chance Poem for Wing Tek Lum.” In this bitter poem he begs Lum to leave Bamboo Ridge, the “puerile whining  / of small keed timers Eril and Darrek,” Eric Chock and Darrell Lum (162).  Quagliano then oddly positions himself as “colonial Tony, luna on horseback / herding all the sad slaves” (163), perhaps because he knows his advice will not be wanted. He understands anger as a muse: “hate me, if necessary, /ask, demand, who the hell am I / to tell you what to write[?]” (162). Not to restrict himself to the local poetry community’s problems, Quagliano also penned attacks on UH creative writers, and on anyone who taught creative writing. He's got one about a Language poet at a baseball game (no, the game makes no sense). Most successful among these attack poems is one on W.S. Merwin, because Quagliano, with some wit, takes on the form of Merwin’s poems rather than the author himself (“What To Do With Scenery”). What he does is write a recipe to a Merwin poem, rather than point out Merwin’s personal idiosyncracies.

Wayne Westlake, on whom I’ve written elsewhere, died before Bamboo Ridge became the dominant force in Hawai`i’s 1980s and 1990s literary world.  But he, too, had a bone to pick with Merwin.

after the poetry reading
                                                (for W.S. Merwin)

Shaking hands
     with “The Poet”
I held my tongue . . . (236)

The argument that Westlake (the book) makes is for an indigenous poetry that comes out of Modernism (Pound, Williams) and Chinese poetry. Hamasaki further argues that Hawaiian language orature is crucial to an understanding of Hawai`i. Westlake uses Hawaiian most effectively in his concrete poems; he didn’t speak Hawaiian, coming from a generation that did not remember, or learn, the language, which had been banned for much of the last century. The book is marked by an eponymous title, suggesting that the man himself is what matters, even more than the poems; I wonder if Westlake’s status as a representative Hawaiian artist doesn’t suffer a bit from this attention to him. Editor Richard Hamasaki, himself a poet, frames the Westlake volume with an introduction that chronicles Westlake’s life, and an afterword on the poems themselves.  There are detailed notes at the back that draw the poems out into the world of Westlake’s reading and history.  For example, note 8 on page 260 lists authors Westlake was reading in the 1960s and 1970s.  That all 40 of them are men, from Catullus through Albert Wendt, is symptomatic of another issue in Hawai`i’s literature at the time (even, to a large extent, now).  But the notes are thorough, as is the Bibliography and Publications at the very back, which provides a timeline of Westlake’s publications. It's a beautifully executed editorial work. Let me grind my axe for a moment. This is the kind of book that comes from a University Press.  This is the kind of book that we will not see published if university presses like the one at the University of Missouri get cut. The University of Hawai`i Press is suffering its own severe bout of economic asthma, as well. 

The most powerful sequence in this book of mostly short lyrics is “Poems from Down on the Sidewalk in Waikiki (1972 to 1973).” Throughout, Westlake employs a method of turn-about familiar to readers of Quagliano in poems like “The Condo Marxist” : a woman lectures about land and water in Hawai`i, while standing on duck swamps that were drained to make Waikiki a concrete jungle. Gotcha poetry, in other words. In that poem, Quagliano’s anger is local, not that of an outsider’s; to the local community he was a haole poet, while to the outsider he was a local. Westlake was writing as a well educated man working as a janitor in Waīkīki, bearing a working class rage whose weaponry included classical Chinese and High Modernist allusiveness. In the title poem of this sequence, Westlake writes:

No need feel sorry
     for the crippled man
     down on the sidewalk
         — in Waikiki

There are a lot more crippled
     minds
        limping around,
feel sorry for them!  (139)

Many of these are hate or insult poems, as Ron Padgett would define them, in which the speaker (a janitor in Waikiki, like Westlake) enacts mostly verbal violence on tourists. There are lots of references to “PIGS” (not to be confused with kamapu`a`a), and to eating shit and dying. One tourist is imagined silenced by a breadfruit stuck in her mouth; that poem prefigures Haunani-Kay Trask’s “racist white woman poem.” As Richard Hamasaki notes in the afterword: “Westlake was no social equivocator” (248).  Like Quagliano, who excoriates Major League Baseball for putting Enos Slaughter in the Hall of Fame — Slaughter who tried to cut Jackie Robinson’s Achilles tendon with his spikes — while banning Pete Rose for gambling, Westlake cuts through layers of hypocrisy. The violence of his anger sometimes overwhelms his poems as they lurch from small to upper case letters, from ellipses and dashes to exclamations. In that way, too, Westlake and Quagliano seem well matched.

Hamasaki puts Westlake’s rage poems in the context of the 1970s movement to stop the bombing on Kaho`olawe, reclaim Hawaiian lands, and give voice to the poor on Waikiki’s streets.  For Hamasaki, Westlake is a native Hawaiian writer.  But Westlake knew his own complications: his poem “Realizing I’m a German,” gets at the complexity of mixed race identity. Quagliano used to tell me that he was Irish and Italian; like many white people in Hawai`i, he discovered his own ethnic roots more after he moved here.  But of course “haole” trumped these "nationalities" for Quagliano as a writer in Hawai`i.  That we might read Westlake’s anger as righteous and Quagliano’s as pitiable is as inevitable in the Hawai`i context as it is, to some extent, unfair. Anger is an equal opportunity employer, I’m afraid. Quagliano’s laments were personal, but they were not his alone. There is no community of white writers that dare speak its name (for historical, arguably worn-out reasons). The lack of coalitions between writers — as between members of interest groups more generally — is lamentable. Quagliano could not express native Hawaiian or Asian immigrant anger; that was not his to feel. The sadness comes in for me when he directs local anger against himself, as in the Wing Tek Lum poem.

I most appreciate the poems of Westlake and Quagliano when they find their enterprise in walking naked, as Yeats (who was not without his anger!) put it. Here’s a riff by Quagliano off William Carlos Williams:

the way the wagon runs
down the rain
here
if you use the word
color
it ruins the word blue   (17)

To which I hear Westlake respond, in his own moment of unguardedness:

the rains are warm
                 here in Kalalau
     green everywhere  (50)

 

Notes

Reuben Tam was an artist from the island of Kaua`i and a friend of Tony Quagliano's.

You can find details on Hawai`i’s demography here.

Wikipedia (which includes the Hawaiian word "wiki"--fast, quick--in it) defines "haole."

Here's a cartoon about haole, based on the insult "f-ing haole."

After writing this commentary, I found an essay by Tony Quagliano in the December 22, 1976 Hawaii Observer entitled, "Some Haole Notes on Ethnicity" (page 27). A playful piece, it gets at his own difficulties in finding his place, either physically or racially, and also intervenes obliquely in a controversy over the founding of the Ethnic Studies department at UHM at the time.  The Hawaii Observer, which was published from 1973(?) until 1978, contained amazing writing on local politics and the arts.  Its managing editor for its last few years was Steve Shrader, poet.

Márcio-André live

Drawing by Laura Erber, 2011
Drawing by Laura Erber, 2011

Right now, an opportunity to catch the live stream reading-performance of Márcio-André, poet-performer from Rio, living in Lisbon. On now (following Ulrike Draesner) at the 43rd Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam.

http://www.poetryinternational.nl/stream/live.html

Other poets at the festival include Dolores Dorantes, Chus Pato, and Ron Silliman.