RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Louis Zukofsky

Lessons: Selected Poems Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey) White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

Lessons: Selected Poems  Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey)  White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

In Black Mountain Days, the engaging autobiographical account of the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker described his fellow student Joel Oppenheimer as that “fierce-featured poet from the Bronx and refugee from Cornell, whose father owned a luggage shop in mid-Manhatten”. When Oppenheimer wrote a short biographical note for the concluding pages of Donald Allen’s 1960 ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, in which he was represented by five poems, he wrote:

“Born for the Depression, but too young to remember any suffering. Too young for WWII – in school and 4 F during Korean. Consequently, having missed the 3 major social calamities of my time, I am always feeling just a little guilty. Now living in NYC”.

There is a clarity in these phrases of self-accounting as well as a wry touch of humour. This is the man who, in a little anecdote told me some years ago by Jeremy Prynne, caused the Zukofsky family a certain amount of consternation. Prynne and Oppenheimer had paid a visit to the Zukofsky home and Joel, being of some considerable physical size, started to throw his arms about in energetic enthusiasm. According to Prynne, Louis Z. was terrified for the safety of the little ornaments with which the flat was decorated!
Dennis Maloney’s new selection of poems by Oppenheimer brings the extravagant and dedicated figure of Oppenheimer back into focus and David Landrey’s introduction directs us to some very good reasons why the poet who bridged the world of North Carolina and New York should be read again now. Landrey writes about simplicity in Oppenheimer’s work not as being opposite to complexity but as being more connected to what Emerson wrote in his 1836 book-length lecture Nature:

“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of idea is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires – the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise – and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults.”

At Black Mountain College Charles Olson taught the value of limpidity and Rumaker recalled soon after leaving there a letter he wrote to Olson in September 1956:

“Four years ago or so when I first read your work (mostly in Origin) I thought you were straining after an impossible chaos – that it was whimsical, meaningless, sensationally tricky. But what was necessary was a correction of my ear. I didn’t see the form, I didn’t hear the limpidity of your thought and feeling, your rhythm – what you were always after me for, limpidity, telling me that night over the dishrack to go to Williams, as I did, and found, as I find now the same in you, in all I’ve read of you.”

Oppenheimer’s short poem ‘The Gardener’ first appeared in Robert Creeley’s magazine Black Mountain Review 4, Winter 1954:

“on the left branch, a
blossom. on the
top branch, a blossom.
which child is this.
which flowering
of me. which
gold white bloom.
which the force of my life.”

Of course there is Williams in this but there is also a delicately thoughtful contemplation which is entirely Oppenheimer: an awareness of one’s self, a throwing open of one’s arms. Zukofsky might have had justification for his touch of anxiety! In ‘Chaos’ from the 1994 collection New Hampshire Journal there is a further contemplation of the relationship between the poet and his creations:

“CHAOS is where
we come from
FORM we reach
occasionally
then fall back
into chaos
to start again
renewed

INCOHATE
means beginning

comes from the root
TO HARNESS

getting into harness
is just the beginning

how we plow and
what we plant
determines the field

the field
determines
what feeds us
while we wait
to fall back
to grow again”

This is a fine poem which focuses on the link between the present and the future recognising the way in which we can learn from what we have created: this is poetry which has a sense of newness, a sense of the future and yet it contains a limpid grasp of where ideas come from, a humility. It recalls for me that early Olson poem ‘These Days’ which I am so fond of quoting:

“whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from”

In his ‘Poem for the New Year 31 December 1973’ Oppenheimer describes being strangled by Medusa in a nightmare from which he struggles to awake. As he puts it “i am saved / by the old poet, he helps me / break loose”. The old poet is Charles Olson who had died some three years before but whose teaching would continue to have a major effect on American poetry.

Ian Brinton, 12th May 2017

Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014)

The apparatus of capital, sexual intrigue, notoriety and death, and the City of London echo through the taut and visceral musicality of the sonnets that are at the heart of Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix. Written from the perspective of characters in Jacobean plays and set where the play was first performed, they offer a commentary on the chaotic, threatened and threatening world of early modern theatre. A ‘speculatrix’, meaning ‘she that spies or watches’ or female spy, introduces the idea of being watched and watching with the sense of anxiety and tension that accompanies such activity. The poems adequately convey that twitchiness and probe deeper.

Each sonnet is prefaced by a short introduction on the character, which speaks, when and where, with the implied undercurrent coming initially from the play’s sub-text. Thus the Duke of Brachiano from John Webster’s The White Devil at the Red Bull, Clerkenwell, in 1612 ‘who visits the home of Camillo’s wife, Vittoria Corombona’ where Camillo is killed by Brachiano’s secretary in what is staged to be a vaulting accident. Vittoria is put on trial for Camillo’s death and sentenced to a ‘house of convertities’. Whereas criticism mostly views Vittoria as the White Devil, and the Duke her seducer, the narrative spins off into the world of the audience and actor where ‘all / that is left behind is to make our bodies act out the desires / they now have words for.’ The speaker gives rise to doubt as to whom is the white devil, who is in charge of whom, and where purity may be found. McCabe echoes Webster’s concerns with sexual intrigue, the configuring of the double negatives of the flesh, and financial power within a chaotic and disturbed world.

Vindice, whose wife is murdered on their wedding day, from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy says:

I’ve seen skulls with better teeth than this excessive
in death as an eunuch’s archived Playboys
after the extraction the black sock in the ditch of the
mouth a debit of bones cindered in corsets as
Southwark’s abscess drains green in the
Thames

The sonnets mostly eschew the vernacular of Jacobean drama for a taut and spiky contemporary language use, with claws, worms, zombies and maggots to indicate decay, which probes the role of gender and the City in both the early modern and our own period. When the Duchess from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi speaks she says: ‘you imagine me wanting / you watching this who’s watching who? / Speculatrix’ and the narrative immediately quotes from the play, ‘Now there’s a rough-cast phrase to / your plastique’ bringing the matter of how language is used to frame gender relations and definitions into play. Beneath the narratives are the cloak of disguise and subterfuge, and the constant threat of discovery, labelling, imprisonment and death.

McCabe tackles the theme of contemporary social unrest in London, with a poem about the August 2011 London riots, ‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’, commissioned for a Sonic Youth tribute and inspired by the music of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”, which ends ‘In these acts there are no skies, there are only bricks’. Other poems in the collection concern the artist, Francis Bacon, poets Rimbaud, Barry MacSweeney, and Tim Allen and the Plymouth Language Club. This collection is one of the poetic highlights of 2014. McCabe gave an intense and exhilarating reading from Speculatrix at the Tears in the Fence Festival in October and at the book’s launch at St John’s Priory crypt, Clerkenwell. It is well worth reading.

David Caddy 19th December 2014

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

When I first came across the poetry of Frank Samperi, friend of Louis Zukofsky, I was struck with an overwhelming impression of whiteness on the page; space as if words were like bird-tracks in snow; words so laid out that they seemed as if they were yearning upwards to get to a rarefied world beyond the page. I remember being struck by Will Petersen’s short collection of Samperi’s poems, Of Light, published in Kyoto in 1965

going out
to
the backyard
to shovel snow

away from
the
cellar door
an old man

looked up
at
a shadeless
window

blinding
in
the sun
setting

behind the
homes
beyond
the freight yard

Patricia Debney’s new Shearsman Chapbook, Gestation, reminds me of those Samperi spaces. The nine sections explore fragmentation, delusion, and parental ageing and they form part of what will be her next collection, Baby. I think that what I was most struck by in these spare pages, these gaps for reflection, these spaces within which one is asked to pause and contemplate, is the bodying forth of a sense of identity: ‘Somewhere…….begins……the point when…….you know me…….a lifetime after…….I dig in……..hermit crab……..to your shell’. I have avoided quoting this poem as it appears on the page for fear of losing that enormous sense of margin which we are given and I urge you to go and buy a copy of this book to see the context for yourself. The opening of section five gives us a movement of growth which echoes the return of Persephone in the Spring. In Debney’s poem ‘the body grows / what the body grows / I am root vegetable / in rich soil / rain falls / a kind of sun shines / and I push past / the first feeble skin: / shed like dust brushed / away, blown glass’ . If I were still teaching I should want to place this exquisite passage alongside the description David Almond gives of the return of Persephone in his novel, Skellig:

She took wrong turnings, banged her head against the rocks. Sometimes she gave up in despair and just lay weeping in the pitch darkness. But she struggled on. She waded through icy underground streams. She fought through bedrock and clay and iron ore and coal, through fossils of ancient creatures, the skeletons of dinosaurs, the buried remains of ancient cities. She burrowed past the tangled roots of great trees. She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward. She told herself that soon she’d see the light of the sun again and feel the warmth of the world again.

I recall asking Charles Tomlinson if he liked Samperi’s work and in an unpublished letter from February 2006 he wrote

You say you love the white spaces, but my world is so full of spaces of one kind or another, I love a bit of syntax. There’s something unsatisfying, I find, about poetry which welcomes what to me seems like a sort of arbitrariness in the way Samperi lays out things. Where is the anchor? With respect for syntax one knows where one is. Maybe I’m just too old to adjust to those spaces that refuse to notice that syntax exists.

Nearly thirty years earlier Donald Davie had written to Michael Grant about a similar topic concerning some of Grant’s poems which had been sent to the Grandfather of Grammarians:

Well! As you warned me, and as I suppose both of us knew in advance, your poems do indeed live at the opposite side of an impassable gulf from mine and from me. After all, what have I been from the first if not Doctor Syntax?—whereas your writing depends upon suppressing syntax, or leaving it carefully indefinite.

Both Davie and Tomlinson belong in a world which is rooted in a different approach to poetry from that presented by both Frank Samperi and Patricia Debney. Without wishing to present myself as sitting on a fence….I have a high regard for the work in both camps!

Ian Brinton, August 30th 2014

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

The Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945 edited by Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge University Press 2013) offers a useful guide to post-war and late twentieth century American poetry. It covers a broad range of poetries, although says little about non-institutional poets, with each essay providing a valuable list of further reading.

 

The editor, Jennifer Ashton, opens with an essay ‘Periodizing Poetic Practice since 1945’, which eschews socio-historical grounding in the materiality of poetic endeavour in favour of an approach based on poetry movements linked to aesthetic and philosophical questions. It thus omits the impact of War and violence on the one hand and developments in publishing on the other and does not show how the movements worked and gained dominance in cultural terms.  The approach, whilst attempting to link to questions of the poem’s relationship to meaning, intentionality, materiality, response, value, experience and ordinary language, cuts off a set of deeper questions and divides, such as between print and voice, who bestows critical ascendancy, how the judgement process operates and thus hides alternatives. The Chronology of Publications and Events is highly selective and omits a number of national poetry award winners.

 

Mark Scroggins’ essay ‘From Late Modernism of the Objectivists to the Proto-postmodernism of Projective Verse’ shows the roots of Projective Verse in Objectivism and delineates the far-reaching impact of Olson on Ginsberg and the Beats, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance, Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts movement, and some of the Language poets.  There is another way of looking at this that might see open-field poetics as more of a development that stemmed from William Carlos Williams and the connections around Black Mountain staff and the Black Mountain Review. Certainly the Olson-Creeley correspondence, the work of Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan’s attempts to bring mythology into the poetic field are pivotal. The essay, whilst brilliant on Zukofsky’s relevance, ignores Ed Dorn and Olson’s impact on English poetry. Nevertheless it is a very useful and important essay.

 

I found Deborah Nelson’s ‘Confessional School’ essay curiously limited.  It provides a social-political background stemming from the Cold War and the Supreme Court battles for privacy but fails to fully reference the historical moment with more local and wider connections between the select few poets that it highlights. In contrast, Charles Altieri’s ‘Surrealism as a Living Modernism’, illuminates the relationship between three New York School poets and two schools of painting, figurative and surrealistic, and shows how their concerns fused, has a stronger sense of the social-historical specifics and brings its connections more alive.

 

Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Ronna Johnson on Three Generations of Beat Poetics, Margo Natalie Crawford on The Black Arts Movement, Steve McCaffrey on the political background to Language Writing, Nick Selby on Ecopoetries in America and Lisa Sewell on Feminist Poetries are all strong on radical thought and offer well-written introductions. I found Oren Izenberg’s essay on the plight of the scholar poet to be particularly perceptive. Hank Lazar provides a sociological reading of American poetry and its institutions, with plenty of useful statistics, and a sense that there is debate around the institutionalisation of poetry and differing interpretations of what a poet is. I missed an essay on non-academic poets, such as, Charles Bukowski, Edward Field, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc, who are completely ignored. The essay on Rap, Hip Hop and Spoken Word, whilst referencing slam competitions as non-academic, is insufficient in terms of grasping the wider non-academic field. Similarly an essay on the geography of American poetry would have also offered more balance and width as well as producing a more sociological insights. Jennifer Ashton’s essay on the poetry of the first decade of the twenty first century concludes that the poem’s forms and the world’s formal structures are what matters most.

 

‘The force of the work is to remind us that neither it nor the world it inhabits can be altered by our responses to it or by its effects on us – by, say, our feeling “complete”; they can only be altered by a change to their form. In this respect, we may well have arrived at a crucial dialectical shift in the social and aesthetic history of poetry: a new modernism: post-postmodernism.’

 

 

David Caddy

 

 

%d bloggers like this: