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Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

Revolutionary Letters by Diana Di Prima (Silver Press)

This new U.K. edition of Revolutionary Letters gathers up fifty years of Di Prima’s anarchic and insightful series of poems which she started writing back in 1968. Moving to New York City in the 1950s she embedded herself in the alternative culture of the Beatniks in Greenwich Village before embracing the Black Panther movement, drugs, feminism, counterculture politics, direct action, and what we now call small press publishing.

The book contains freeform rants, comments upon topical events, advice to friends and/or would-be revolutionaries, lists, cynicism, utopian ideologues and utopian dreams. Somewhat surprisingly, alongside the down-to-earth survival techniques she shares there is also the presence of the spiritual weaving through her work alongside questioning insight:

   You cannot write a single line w/ out a cosmology

   a cosmogony

   laid out, before all eyes

   […]

   There is no way out of the spiritual battle

   the war is the war against the imagination

   you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector.          (‘Revolutionary Letter #75’)

   As soon as we submit

   to a system based on causality, linear time

   we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again

   into slavery.                                                              (‘Revolutionary Letter #51’)

At other times, however, she is jubilantly optimistic and proclaimative:

   I will not rest

   till we walk free & fearless on the earth

   each doing in the manner of his blood

   & tribe, peaceful in the free air             (‘Revolutionary Letter #20’)

Other poems offer dialogue with other poets – be they famous or unknown, or immediate responses to local (the NYC police clearing Tompkins Park of the homeless, her neighbours’ need for money or food) and international events such as 9/11, The Gulf War, or The Occupy movement:

   Occupy the planet

   the Oceans

   as well

               as the Land

   Mind is unlimited

   Can go anywhere

   Occupy the Night Sky,

   Mother Nuit

   Occupy your breath

   Your Body & remember

   We are one Body

   Occupy with Love                   (‘Revolutionary Letter #108’)

I like the fact Di Prima is often angry, sometimes anti-technology (‘did you ever try to email chicken soup?’) informative and instructive, and that her work includes both elation and despair. She cuts through the crap of political rhetoric, points out what is important in society – be that local or international, and reminds us that we can change the world as individuals, starting with where we live, how we live and who we live with or next to. It’s easy to be cynical about poems as a container of comment or narrative, let alone as a catalyst for revolution, but it’s also good to be reminded that words do affect us and can inspire, effect and facilitate change.

Di Prima’s work, like that of Adrian Mitchell, Kenneth Patchen and Julian Beck, can often be labelled simplistic and obvious, naive and unnuanced, but as I numbly watch the bombs fall on Ukraine and wonder what on earth I can do, it’s good to be reminded as a writer that poetry can matter:

   What matters:

                            the memory

   of the poem

                            taking root in

   thousands

                            of minds…           (‘Revolutionary Letter #110’)

Rupert Loydell 9th March 2022

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

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