Robert Kelly: 'Statement 1968' from 'A Voice Full of Cities'

[The following will appear later this year in A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (Contra Mundum Press), edited by Pierre Joris & Peter Cockelbergh.  Originally published by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press in 1968.]


                         [John Martin asks me of NEW YORK

                                    when I was there & certain ones of us

                                                 began to speak,

                         & what came]

in from everywhere,

                              primitifs from

Rasmussen’s Copper Eskimos & the Trésor

de Poésie universelle no wilder than Neuilly,

                                               from the broken

Andalusia of assassinated Lorca that groped

its way out of the subway gratings, naranjeiros

& olive trees where rank ailanthus

                                                 (David Antin

first told me the name)

                                  stood before & still & ever

after, a short-lived tree, a tree of heaven, tree

in Brooklyn subway cuts & east side back yards:


where the white language of america died in the

sad old men’s bars & the new

                                          vernacular of the

Emperor Frederick Augustus, spade majesty & Cuban

baseball arose in our mouths

                                          (aforesaid by Ezra

into our time)


& what (I must be clear) it was: people)

Schwerner from Belgium, actual foreign

country, big concept man who learned

more painfully to sing, taking pains, than

anybody I ever saw, came thru, tuneful intellect

(New York in late 50s, against the backdrop of Corso bopping in sonnets & lacey forms, a nice guy sans cultura) & Schwerner with the proletcult lycée vienna out of his ears (which when I first overheard were attending Mr. Stevens)

                                                       learned also

easy upper west, never a prole)

the words of this tribe (uptown tho it was,

                                                              to sing

out of his head.

                         From everywhere

(& what, more important than ourselves, was elapsing on the east side: the giant forms of the men who’d been some way to Black Mountain, who seemed mean & hard & over in love with truckdrivers & poolhalls & war books, who were reading Raymond Chandler while Rothenberg read Buber, that tough thing that has so come to say, & stay, & mellow, Oppenheimer & Sorrentino, amis de Creeley, & Blackburn who had never been anywhere but where he was, all over the world, who was the bridge, & the authentic Key to the Cidy)


everywhere, that was the colloid,

no orthodoxy for us, no doxy,

                       nobody pays for tail in the City,

          no teleology

                            what is here is everywhere,

                              what is not here is nowhere),

so that all this is false, being history, & the only thing that would finally be of use would be tapes of certain talks I had with Economou from 57 to 61, certain tabletalk around the Rothenbergs’ pork molé 60 & 61, food is as much history as anything else, who we were or were not sleeping with, what bar on Leroy street shocked Eshleman new from Indiana, why he & I drank a bottle of El Cerrito in a backyard on 7th St & still could not be clear, our, my, one’s constitutional incapacities,

                                                                                                                     & Eshleman’s work, arching over the intervening time, arrests me with his sure bodily awareness of flow, of the poem as flow & hence as continuity, the continuity in the mad agonizing space between body & body, & to talk of anything but his work, our work, wd be personal histories

                           & as the sequel shows, what always happens is personal history

                       when what was intended was a public gesture

        yet in an art where there are no public excellencies, where the private did & does matter, where the public gesture (other than the work) breeds swift tyranny,

         these people were working to come through.

Hasid Rothenberg

                           saintly man fond of artful silences, whose prolonged trances in foreign tongues hold him where he had been, & where Quetzacoatl went to heal his flesh corrupt with false longings, & where the sun

healed over alchemy & politics,

                                             who didn’t trust Kennedy,

who fancied the smell of burnt flesh unseverable

from our consciences,

                                who tried to go back in time’s

womb & be born again,

                                  a savage tending his dong,

song, sang

               out loud & wailed rabbinic

& came to supper with spiny fish in his bleeding hands,

                            ‘my ocean, my ocean’

who did not know Greek,

                                      & la belle Diane,

that same & I made a beeline for, New Years Eve 59/60,

sleek lady with complex rhythms & ostensibly

simple desires, who loved the far-out & declared

herself & sought everyone’s good fortune before

her own,

             (who introduced me to Jackson Mac Low, the man I’d seen for years, face of the young Pound now his face &

more like himself, all over town,

                                               & Jackson taught time, time in & of the poem,

                     whose work goes on & goes

on in massive neglect of our theories, obedient

to the processes, no less verbalized, he incessantly

makes up,

               a huge body of work, a man who writes all day

long, who did the work in a city where – constitutionally –

work is to be shunned)

                                & Diane brought us to those

places, the great loft on Chambers street, biopsy of

new music, measuring itself ever, & she glad to

carry the new dances into old places,

                                                     she whose own

work was & is uncontaminated by second

hand theory, is incorrigibly itself in finding

out what & why things happen,

                                             who most used the poem

as a heuristic machine, a sighting glass, a kit

for feeling the fingerprints of the world,


who has never sounded like anyone but herself,


from Whittier, further west even than Economou,

                                                                        a well-

done man from raw Montana, oro y plata,

                                                             who watched

the signs & remembered the gangs sloping off gravel

on the railway, surely not Dorn’s CB&Q? golden

spiked Union Pacific of our no longer primitive


             primitive, natives of our own hungers, needs. (& Levertov, putting some or all of us down, or was it only me, said This is a poetry of desire, not of need. A very subtle thing to say, but the distinction was hers, not there in the world, where hunger is unquenchable & Eros & Vision, & need a philanthropist’s cold way of seeing the statistics of it. Wd she speak ill of Eros? Yet she found something, calling it wrongly, that was wrong there, in the air of that time of work, a voulu insistence on the distant & the Strange, often to the loss of kitchen & subway & bed, the works of dailiness in a city

                         but they were men in a trap, who mistook the sunlight itself for their cage, & the ripeness of flesh around them for archontic evil & (so persuaded) thus needed a magic out of the trap, a language, an alchemy of the Tour St. Jacques or obsidian self-torture of the Aztec priest, so they, or we, were not pastoral

    detected no order,


order when we could,

                                a syntax of objects, an Ernst, a

Spoerri table

                   but talked too much. O how we talked too

much, primitive & deep image & duende, blithering

slogans & all the gimcrack foolishness of the articulate


          (Sd Rothenberg to me: we’ll be sorry if we

give ’em a slogan! & so we were)

                                               but there was a

splendor, light reflected back upon us from those

words we used, tried to stand under & be worthy of,


the words were worth, held us to what we’d promised, bound us to our premises, measured us, indicted us (Rothenberg & me, who’d done most of the talking, at least what got to print; Economou reluctant and thoughtful reserved, Rochelle Owens laughing at the clumsy words we’d prosed around what we & she cd so much better sing, Wakoski slyly at the sidelines, poking fun, Mac Low scoffing openly, alert.)

                  & now may be seen those words float back in the casual dissertations of gents who have not troubled to read further than the slogans

                                                               (Lorca, forgive us your duende. Nightmare of our nights, forgive us the word we thought to hold you at bay with)

                                                                               But now we’ve vanished into our lives of work, & I see them seldom, perhaps they see themselves seldom, we all have new friends too & different places & live elsewhere, & that makes all difference in personal history, in the making of americans

               & the poems alone break out of the isolation, alone (as ever) save us from death,

                                                                                                                                    & it was our thought to get blood-life back in the line

                                                              wch is syntax & history & beast-desire, when since the 20s we have been assailed day & night by noise, false or suspect informations, caressive syntax in all media, & all men have shut down, banked cortical measures against the blast of words

                                                                                                                         & we had to get through, the line, the hypersyntactic, the silence, to disturb the normal deadening flow, the line, life/line, to get thru to your ears rightly stuffed against madness

                                                                                           how to reach you             [Whitman’s you]


were those who trusted the knifepoint of haiku, thus got thru your defenses but had nothing to tell you, who exhausted themselves in the penetration,

(popularity of that form = emissio praecox, as national ill)

(& there were those who sought to chat, posed as friends colleagues & friendly storekeepers, who ‘sought a theme’ & found an easy measure of verse, to reassure, soothe, but in your dark you wanted, more?

         (& there were those who, lacking all cool & all cunning, but with some force, shouted out loud, sometimes at you, relevancies of green leaf & thigh, thorns & chaotic desperate promises that your bodies had a lease on life no social contract could abrogate,

                                                                                     & some of them chanted primitive to you, muttering the words & handling the bones, casting spells wet & dry,

                                                                                                        & this was their need, to reach you before the world was empty & the grasslands grew up again over all that we wanted.

                                                                                                                                  The poets I’ve been about & at shared an intention to speak without the construction of an order or neo-classic structure. This was freeing. This was danger. This was the possibility of getting trapped in your own habits of utterance for lack of a conscious ear. But the freedom was uppermost in mind, no barriers, no imposed decorum. Music was what happened, or was supposed to happen, when you talked, wasnt a special attention.

Anti-style. Anti-rhetoric. To strip to the least

(that most durable of poetic resolutions)

& the least was: image

                                subverbal, translatable, i.e., (hence in Floating world & in Rothenberg’s, Antin’s, Economou’s worlds the importance of translation: Neruda, Breton, Celan, Lorca, the Primitives (seen qua Levy-Bruhl, not Levi-Strauss))

                           ((whereas to be able to translate, say, Zukofsky into German wd be equivalent to remaking that language))

                                    the least (& hence, by that bittersweet wisdom of Athens & Crimea, the most) was image

                         & here these nomadic foragers fringed the territory of the haiku-chippers)

                                                                                                      Rothenberg’s own Sightings are the clearest documentations, as well as the beginning of a push I think sought to discover the image within logos/verbal/syntactic

                                                        ((as Ken Irby observed of Pushkin’s I loved you once, a poem without an image,

                         or as Spicer’s researches nailed up on the door in clear view, the word is primal))

                                                                                                                                           in Rothenberg’s Sightings the poem happens between the lines of static, lines that are of words, lines sloughing off words, the serpent renewed, everything coming out of the sciences, the whirling legs of Magnum Chaos, & the whistling demons surface

                                                                         to punish us – & so many of the poems of his & them & us & of that time had as their intention (cd that be part of Levertov’s meanings?           too much intention, too little attention?)

                                           had as their intention the forced encounter of the reader with the abominable, to rub our faces in the rotting flesh that falls before our economy. Horror never far; accurate as that is to our time, it made a bluster in the verse at times,

a pre/occupation

                           rather than the verbal ground seized & fully occupied.

Now all this was happening from the late 50s onward, & my own part in it maybe from 60 thru 62. It was the city, & it was the fertilities. Personal fertilities far more than I knew (I who always too easily believed in theories & public intentions). And now that we’ve variously entered our several works, & can share only as we share with the world, as it finally must be, what matters is that we did bear our divergencies forward without contamination, offered or suffered the encouragements of a business that is never easy.

                           Where we were wrong was to speak of deep image when the word we wanted was depth/thing, tehôm. We could have spoken better of the opening door, or the wellhead, or the well to which the hawk swoops to drink, joining air & earth & water with his own fiery nature. The word image botched it, when generations of critics have debased that word into an easy theory that denies intellect & denies music. It was the deep thing we meant, that the poem was itself the battle with Kur, or with the dragon of the deep waters who locks up the fertilities of earth.

                                                                                                                       The poem is that, but the poem is subject to its own laws, its own depths & heights & battlefields. And the battle with the underlords of diminution & cruelty is always personal,

                                                                            & there are no orthodoxies below the skin.

                                                                                                                                        Our several adventures thereafter would have to do with word, only earth of the poem. From which everything comes, from everywhere. Past the limits of our intentions. The hard work of attention begins. Trobar stops meaning to find & begins to mean: make.

                                                                                          Last of the materialists, the poet salutes the morning alone.


(Black Sparrow pamphlet, 1968)