The Worlds of Poetry–Part Two

When I “signed on” for both Facebook and Bill’s Blog, I quickly became aware that other people were posting (on their sites) material I felt belonged elsewhere (in “private life,” not “public”), and I made a pledge never to post photos of food (and recipes), endless Selfies, videos of various animals performing cute tricks, hackneyed slogans, political proselytizing, and news of “medical issues” I might be dealing with myself. I gave in on the latter, when, because I have written about music (mostly jazz) for years, I received invitations to attend local performances I was not able to show up for (because of my own “visual” and “vestibular” medical issues) and I felt an obligation to tell the artists why I had to let them down.

I’m going, now, to break my “pledge” one more time—for another occasion. The day of the election (November 8), I wrote on my Facebook page: “A good feeling in the air. Life may soon (tomorrow) get back to real life”—and I offered a joyous video of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” That evening, as the election results came in, that road ahead failed to assume the shape (or “turn”) I’d hoped for, and the next day, November 9, I found myself quoting Stephen Spender’s “You must live through the time when everything hurts”—and listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (the song coupled, in an inspiring video, with migratory birds: “The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what / has passed away / or what is yet to be. / Ah the wars they will / be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught / again / bought and sold / and bought again / the dove is never free … Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

I remembered a pilgrimage to the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece for a year.). The inscription reads: “I hope for nothing / I fear nothing / I am free.” I vowed to maintain that stoic stance in mind, but also a sense of hope (“That’s how the light gets in.”) for us all. And I vowed to keep on, in the words of Willie’s song, “makin’ music with my friends.” And that’s all I have to say (publicly) just now regarding “politics.”

Here’s the inscription, in Modern Greek, on Kazantzakis grave (Photo credit: theculturetrip.com). You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wRYjtvIYK0&feature=youtu.be

kazantzakis-grave-inscription-2

Returning, now, to where I left off at the close of “The Worlds of Poetry, Part One”: Another curiosity aligned to Po Biz today (and the world of writing in general) is the plethora of MFA degree programs available—a situation similar to that facing aspiring young jazz musicians who complete such programs in music, but whom are not likely to find venues (given the conversion of so many jazz clubs into sports bars) in which they can actually practice their trade, or “play.” Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has posted a perceptive article, “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?”, on what poets (and writers in general) are likely to face once they have completed heavily advertised programs in “creative writing.” His first paragraph concludes: “Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain” (and in the works!), and he goes on to cite a special issue of Poets & Writers titled “MFA Nation” (the cover displays thirty-one people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities). This special issue makes information available to aspiring writers on everything from the “social value of these programs” to ranking systems, and includes “fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country.” Nye, a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing himself (as I am), confesses that he has “begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.”

It’s interesting that, as editor of an esteemed journal, Nye avoids or evades what seems to me the most crucial issue or serious consideration for genuine writers: just where the Hell, once they graduate, is this mob of MFAs going to publish (the equivalent of where are all the jazz hopefuls going to play?!)—but he does focus on the more “practical” issue: “Let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up.” They compose “an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition [not creative writing] … for adjunct pay” (which was pretty much the position I found myself in back in 1963, although since then, the odds of finding such jobs seems to have decreased while the number of poets seeking the same has accelerated).

I showed this, my own essay, to a young poet whose work I much admire, and his response was, “Who is your audience?” He more or less chastised me for saying what contemporary creative writing MFA graduates or candidates all already know. And painfully so (he himself in the position I’ve described). Whereas I do not object to offering an occasional “shock of recognition” (to others, and myself!) regarding the state of poetry today, my intent here is not to offend (anyone), but an attempt to understand, at my age (80) just what is going on or taking place in those “worlds” that surround or have grown out of (or “upon,” like barnacles?) an art form I love—an art form I have studied and “practiced” (that’s all I would claim for my efforts now) for fifty-eight years (fifty-three since I graduated from San Francisco State). When I try to imagine myself attempting to “get a start” in the world (any of those worlds) of poetry today, I feel considerable empathy for those poets doing just that.

Here are some literary journals I was fortunate to have poems in back in the “good ole daze.” Notice the then cost of december (a journal which has been resuscitated and is going strong; check out: http://decembermag.org/) and Hanging Loose ($2.50!)—considerably less than the entry fee for poetry contests today (chalk it up to “inflation,” ho ho). Poetry West was the journal edited by Carolyn Kizer:

cover-december      cover-poetry-northwest

cover-hanging-loose     cover-quilt

Quality print journals seem to be going under at a fearful rate, and even incessant online publication is not likely to allow practicing poets to find themselves on a tenure track.  In 1967, sans Ph.D., I was allowed to become an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, on the basis of selection for inclusion (alongside Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates) in an anthology (published by NYU Press) of Best Little Magazine Fiction—but the days of such blessings may, I fear, be long gone. “What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities,” Nye writes, “that MFA graduates are a dime-a dozen? … what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”

These imperative questions suggest “ethical” issues regarding anticipation on the part of anyone who starts out to engage in the art with serious intentions—“not for glory and least of all for profit” (To quote William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). Right up to the age of thirty, I failed to ask why the world of poetry should be any different from the “worlds” one encounters in any other human activity. I just assumed it would be because I wanted it to be! I wanted poetry, within the world at large, to be a Special Preserve, a Great Good Place, a Pure Land where none of the ugly demeaning laws of “life” (such as “business”) prevailed or could be imposed—a world exempt from all human fads and follies.

I can recommend an interesting and valuable book on writers who’ve graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities offering courses in creative writing: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (by Eric Olsen and GlennSchaeffer, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). The book includes valuable testimony from those who went on to become “superstars” (whatever that means), John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley; those who simply went on to continue writing as much and as best they could (given their “day jobs”), and even those who eventually just gave up writing. And I would also recommend a brilliant (and very funny, very readable) comic version of the same experience: John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press, 2014).

The only “world” of poetry worth pursuing, I’ve come to feel, is that world of our own we experience when we attempt to set what we regard as a “poem” down on paper (or computer or perhaps just simply as the “music” of a poem we hear in our head). Everything else (whatever small “world” the poem might be accepted as part of, or excluded from) is irrelevant. Poetry is not and never will be a “team sport.” The genuine poet is engaged in an act that has ancient roots: in its lyric form extending as far back as 1100 B.C. Egypt—and in its most primitive form, perhaps as far back as “The Singing Neanderthals” (I also highly recommend Stephen Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, in which he argues that we actually sang before we possessed syntactical speech and set vocabulary). Other archeological experts claim the Sumerian hymn, the “Seikilos Epitaph,” as “The Oldest Complete Song in the World” (a complete composed inscription rediscovered in Aiden, Turkey, in 1885)—“an inspiring tune from 100 BC.” Yet how many poets really know their own history? I have a suspicion that what is being taught now is not so much the rich and abiding history of the art form itself, but the best way (if there is one) to commence (or acquire) a “career” as a poet.

Here are We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body:

we-wanted-to-be-writers-book       the-singing-neanderthals

Philosopher/poet/critic George Santayana claimed that the world (and this single word could apply to the many separate “worlds” of poetry) “is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” In his essay “The Poetry of Barbarism” (from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion), Santayana makes a distinction between the “earliest poets” (who are the most “ideal”) of primitive ages (such as that of Homer) which furnish “the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life,” and our own time, in which poets seem “incapable of any high wisdom,” incapable of any imaginative rendering of “human life and its meaning” as a whole. If what he says holds any truth, it’s because the poetry of the era he admires—the “original poetry”—was wrung from necessity, and not as a partial or casual preoccupation. It was an integral and absolutely vital part of the “world” that surrounded it: the whole of existence.

In his view, paradoxically, when existence itself was “barbaric,” full of “insecurity and superstition … singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life,” poets possessed “a sense for civilizations,” and the poetry of that “simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known: the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration … it bathed all things human in the golden light of the morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness.” According to Santayana, “[Poets today] are things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealization.”

I’ll confess I like Santayana’s outrageous contentions, and I can find considerable “truth” or insight in them. In an age of “material elaboration,” our separate and divided (and exclusive) “worlds” of poetry do seem to encourage a “fancy” that is, in his words, “whimsical and flickering; its ideals, when it has any … negative and partial.” Our work may seem to be just a “verbal echo” of the “imaginative disintegration” that characterizes the larger world that surrounds and contains us.

Many contemporary poets do lack a sense of their own history, and the uses of the past in general. Santayana writes, “We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment … To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself … the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavorable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal … [we lack] a common point of reference and a single standard of value … Religion and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to be remembered.”

W. B. Yeats wrote a poem, “Three Movements,” in which he traced the “progression” of poetry from the time of Shakespeare down to Yeats’ own day, and, had he witnessed it, I feel he would have included our own era:

“Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from the land /  Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand; / What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

Here are two major figures from the world of poetry: George Santayana and W. B. Yeats (Photo credits: http://www.thefamouspeople.com; http://www.biography.com):

george-santaya         w-b-yeats

I am fortunate to live in a place (the Monterey Bay Area) that can take pride in a history of encouraging artistic activity on a high level (John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams, et cetera) and the local scene, while not really worthy of the name “community,” does inspire work of quality and interest—even poetry! I have read, and admired, the work of local poets, and attended praiseworthy readings by them: folks that are not just fine poets but with whom it is possible to be friends (and that’s a rare thing among our tribe!).

Aside from this fortunate context, I will confess that too much of the work I read and hear now that passes itself off as poetry strikes me as something other than or not quite poetry—as work afflicted with piscatorial “gasping” on some strand rather than what I regard as the true music of the art. So much of what I am exposed to sounds like cute or clever verse; outright therapy; jottings from a diary or journal, maudlin memoriam (so many indulgent death bed scenes!), unfortunate habits acquired in (and encouraged by) group “workshops”; inept imitation (bad ears!); political propaganda, a pathetic attempt to establish a “persona” (but not a genuine alter ego so much as just wishful thinking on the poet’s part). I find too much plain out carelessness when it comes to language (bad ears again!);  I hear raw “matter” as distinct from form (in the Aristotelean sense)—potential that lacks the patience to reach a state of entelechy (actual achievement). Robert Frost said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” but so much of what I read and hear today sounds as if the poet had never encountered any other poem aside from the most recent poem she or he has written or is in the process of writing. And the reason I can rattle off these faults or shortcomings in such a glib arrogant critical manner is (should I find them in the work of others), I also frequently find them in the poetry I write myself.

In his excellent book, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, exceptional poet Anthony Hecht writes, “To begin with, one is able to write a poem because one knows what a poem is—not from dictionary definitions, but from experience.”

On the matter of “form,” Hecht writes, “Conventionally, when we speak of ‘form’ in poetry, we fall too easily into discussion of received forms, traditional stanzas, like sonnets, villanelles … and quatrains of various kinds. Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon these received forms,” finding imagination limited thereby, language forced into “set molds.” Yet Hecht ably points out that what “our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Champion, Herrick, and Hardy”—really did was to “conspicuously and brilliantly … invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for,” even if, in the past, the original music and pattern of subsequent stanzas was acknowledged and held to (creating its own imaginative potential). Another “formalist,” Michael Drayton, thought of his poetry, “excellent yet conventional although it be, as ‘wild, madding, jocund, and irregular’”—and that might be an admirable quality to aim for.

Hecht states that “modes of feeling themselves go in and out of fashion … but not the eternal verity of mesura [italics mine]: Maurice Valency’s definition: “measure, that inner restraint which governs the appetites and keeps the subject to the intellect”; Greek moderation or prudence, or in the 12th century, employing a word I like: “courtesy”–to oneself and to the “reader” or audience. Hecht reminds us that “measure” is a musical term, and a metrical one, saying, “the music of forms requires some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” I have my own mantra: Variety and surprise! Active imagination—the mental and verbal risk of life itself!

Some last words from Anthony Hecht: “Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical form and formulations) and speech, as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people … A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium, will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work … Great works of poetry continue to yield a new sense of themselves, and prove, to our delight and astonishment, utterly inexhaustible.” In another context, Hecht states, “I believe we may gauge the success of a poem by the fact that it reads as effectively the second time as the first, and the third time as the second; and with any real merit it will outlast a lifetime.” And he quotes W.H. Auden: “A poem is a rite … the form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of.”

So how does a genuine poet create such poetry? I have devised (he says modestly, and with much more than just a trace of humor, I hope, with regard to a subject, poetry, to which in many ways I have devoted my life) a playful exercise: my own MFA program–one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative: a program that can be carried out “at home,” alone—tuition free, although there will be some self-determined (as to the extent of it) expenditure for books. Don’t take this too seriously (and certainly not personally, should you fall short; I had fun imagining and setting this up, and, believe me, I fall way short on enacting the full curriculum myself.).

(1)   Teach yourself (or with able assistance, if necessary) to read poetry in at least four languages other than you own (at best: one such being Ancient Greek, or Latin, or both).

(2)   Acquire a working knowledge of the complete history of poetry (from 1100 B.C . Egyptian “lyrical” down to the present day): assimilating learning that can be carried over comfortably into your own poems.

(3)   Undertake a full study of Quantum Physics (I highly recommend a book, Quantum Physics for Poets, written by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill–and another: Roger S. Jones’ exceptional Physics as Metaphor) for an understanding of the “cosmic code” that rules all forms—this supplemented by reading Aristotle on both hyle (matter) and morphe (form), enhanced by a solid understanding of Thomist theory of the same (“material prima” and “forma”).

Here are the covers of : Quantum Physics for Poets and Physics as Metaphor:

 quantom-physics-for-poets        physics-as-metaphor

(4)   If you don’t already know how, learn to play at least one musical instrument (and please do not offend its individual nature the way a particular poet does by mistuning a bouzouki); acquire elementary knowledge of music theory and extensive knowledge of all poetry set to music (where poetry began) down to the present age.

(5)   Memorize a poem a day—and not just favorites but any poem that possesses qualities you admire. Take poems into your mind and body and keep them there.

(6)   Study and “copy” set forms of poetry (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, etc.) before you attempt to free yourself from them, not after (or “practice” all forms simultaneously, if you can do so without getting too confused)—and slowly but surely acquire what jazz musicians call a “vocabulary” of effects (in poetry: slant rime, enjambment, assonance, etc.).

(7)   Undertake four or five months of gigs “on the road” as a stand-up comic. This will acquaint you with a full range of tones, moods, and inflections you can apply to your work as a poet (having learned to truly listen to what you sound like out loud)—and also prepare you to withstand and assimilate hostile audiences you more than likely will, in the future, encounter as a poet; or evenings when no one shows up to hear you read (Thanks to good friend and excellent poet Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts for bringing those gigs to my attention).

I’ll confess that (although I’ve had more than a little help from my friends, and teachers I treasured along the way), I do fall way short with regard to such a self-imposed “program,” but I was fortunate in being a somewhat messed up kid who couldn’t fix on just one “career.” I was an English Literature major alongside majoring in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and I did receive assistance from truly splendid teachers (already cited) when I got a Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State in 1963—this quite some time before the present MFA degree “explosion” took place.

But trust me: you shall truly know you’ve earned your diploma if you carry out this modest “program” on your own!

Here are two of my favorite poets: Anthony Hecht and Mary Ruefle (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; poets.org):

anthony-hecht      maryrufle

I’ll close with (what I feel may be) some excellent advice on how poems best get made: hard won insight from a book that is filled with it, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, a most remarkable poet herself. She quotes another remarkable poet, Paul Valery, who said, “The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall”; and Mary Ruefle then goes on to suggest just how this act may be made possible (“potential” converted to entelechy or fulfillment): “Between the first and last lines there exists—a poem—and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other … the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you …   The poem is the consequence of its origins.”

Enough! It’s time to go in search of that individual seed (unrelated to any “worlds” of poetry!) we plant in order to turn our opening lines (and by an act of Greek poiesis: the kind of making poets do) into our very own tree.

Next post on Bill’s Blog: back to jazz!

 

 

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The Worlds of Poetry–Part One

I was going to take a break from “heavy” blogs. Most recently I’ve posted on science (“Imagination and Hard Science”) and literary criticism and philosophy (“Mikail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”), but I was going to switch back to having some plain ole “fun” and write about what may be my favorite subject: music—a single post on some fine music I heard on a recent trip to Connecticut, and this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, which took place in September.

However, I am going to hold off on “music” for one more post: this one on poetry, because I took a look at a draft for a personal essay I wrote some time ago, and I felt a strong urge (in light of much that I see and feel going on around me just now) to bring the piece up to date. When I originally wrote “The Worlds of Poetry,” I was quite self-conscious about the possibility of offending whomever might read it, but those days seem bygone, for at my current age (80), I find myself increasingly willing to state what’s really on my mind (and heart and soul). This inclination may only be a sign of the times in general (not my own actual age), for lots of folks (of whatever age) seem to feel that way just now—there seems to be a lot of my new stance “goin’ around.”

Whatever the current trend, here are my own thoughts and feelings—so many I amassed twenty-three pages of text, so I will have mercy on you, Good Readers, and present this material in two parts, two posts rather than one—thoughts and feelings on “The Worlds of Poetry.” I also just discovered I’ve had a very good day for Bill’s Blog (November 2): 32 views, 25 visitors in the United States, Mexico, France, Argentina, Italy, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Kuwait, Germany, and Singapore. Wow! Thanks all! You have truly “made my day.” I have waited until now to post “The Worlds of Poetry,” but as Charlie Parker “played” in one of his own tunes: “Now’s the Time.”

When I first started to write poetry seriously, I was extremely naïve and idealistic. I didn’t have a clue there were distinct or different worlds of poetry—many, each as separate, tidy, exclusive and sometimes cruel as all other social phenomenon (cliques, clubs, fraternities, institutions) I had been exposed to up until that time.

I don’t know how I escaped with my aesthetic or artistic idealism intact for so long, but I did. I was twenty-seven years of age, married, the father of two small children, and a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then called San Francisco State College. The year I received my M.A., 1963, I was also awarded S.F. State’s Poetry Prize (with its attendant $25) and poems of mine were published in the college journal, Transfer. The following is one of them:

PERSIAN MINIATURES

Pure form is like a nun who never works: /You will respect her chastity, but wish /That she would pray for you, or teach a child, /Or do some menial job among the sick. /By her work her grace is best exposed, /As in this world of rhythm and of shape /Where line is both itself and loving Persia.

Whose face and gilded horse peer over hills? /A man of valor and a thing of line. /This green umbrella titlts to make a shape /But also tilts to shade a Sultan’s head. /The light blue horse on which the monarch sits, /Surrounded by a galaxy of flowers, /Is music of the painter’s craft alone,

And more; for there the Sultan really sits. /Upon a horse whose midget feet reside / In fields of white and dark vermilion flowers. /This quiet work, in which each part is placed /To tell and yet transform the Sultan’s day, /Outshines the brightest flame, and makes one think /More secrets lie in fabric than in fire.

Pure form is like a nun without a church, /A Sultan who has lost his canopy.

Here are two examples of Persian miniatures: not, unfortunately, the one I based the poem on—but fair examples (depicting horses) of what attracted me to this visual art form (Photo credits: melcominternational.org; iranreview.com):

persian-miniature      persian-miniatures-3

My own poem strikes me now as a bit stiff and stilted (O hindsight!), but it was written, deliberately, in iambic pentameter (At the time, I was a fan of Shakespeare, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens). I had also been trained originally as a visual artist, and by way of Pratt Institute’s very comprehensive Bauhaus-based program, which encompassed everything from anatomy lessons and day long life drawing labs to revolutionary concepts in color and design (Philip Guston, one of our instructors, taught us how to render pump handles in charcoal by day, and directed us to his Abstract Expressionist exhibits at night). No revolutionary, I was most enamored of conscious craft and form, and I carried those preferences with me into literature at San Francisco State—preferences not exactly the rage in college poetry circles at the time.

The legacy of the Beat Generation was still strong, its heirs apparent everywhere. They preferred their poetry dished up “uncooked,” open, naked, organic, “raw.” Their approach was still regarded as pioneering, “revolutionary,” experimental, somewhat “fugitive,” “underground,” improvisational, spontaneous, forward-looking, “free.” It favored large-canvassed “instantism,” and distained anything “academic” or formalistic. With its combined tribal or communal spirit and fierce “American” individualism, this approach also came complete with theories that would grow increasingly dogmatic, and a host of idealogues with definite programs they espoused or imposed: Charles Olson with Projective Verse, Robert Creeley with “form is never more than the extension of content,” Robert Duncan’s belief that a poem (like the physical universe) “has only this immediate event in which to be realized,” and Jack Kerouac with his (mistakenly: there is very little un-mindful activity when it comes to a fine improvised solo) jazz-based automatic writing.

I had excellent, exciting advisors and teachers at San Francisco State—Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Wright Morris, Mark Linenthal, Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, James Schevill—and they exposed me to a range of writing styles, but I was pretty much a loner at the time, and I went my own small way, following my own bent or beat, whatever it was. Kenneth Rexroth, the paterfamilias of the Beats, had lived just up the street from our first apartment in San Francisco, on Scott and Hayes, and I was encouraged to drop in on his Sunday salons; but I was also quite shy and never attended. Jack Spicer was a poet whose work I much admired: especially Billy the Kid, which my wife Betty actually typed out for me in its entirety (from a library copy) and presented as a gift on my birthday because, finding the original (just 750 copies published in the Stinson Beach Enkidu Surrogate version) in City Lights Books, I could not at the time (it probably sold for about two dollars) afford to buy it. Spicer, awaiting the arrival of the next pretty boy poet from New York, held court at The Place when we first came to the city in 1958, but I was married, heterosexual, and totally naïve about terms of acceptance, so even though I noodled on the piano there occasionally, I didn’t profit from his tutelage, or even get to know him.

Here’s a photo of Jack Spicer at work (thinking!)—and City Lights Books, home of the Beats and my new “home” away from home in 1958–a place where I was discovering a brave new world in North Beach—along with Vesuvio Café, The Place, and The Cellar (where Rexroth read, accompanied by jazz musicians—neither party really paying all that much attention to the other at this early stage of the game; unlike Bob Dorough’s fine fully “in sync” rendering of Ferlinghetti’s “The Dog Trots Freely in the Street”). (Photo credits: jacketmagazine.com; founds.org):

jack-spicer   city-lights-bookstore-1950s

I could sense the intoxication and vitality of “Beat” poetry, but that wasn’t my way (even though I seemed to be able to hold my own in the collateral cause of alcohol consumption), so I continued to write poems that contained, I felt, their own formal music (another “craft” I was enamored of, having played jazz piano since the age of fifteen, and later, professionally, as both a drummer and pianist with several combos or groups). When I received the $25 Transfer prize for “Persian Miniatures” and another poem, I was pleased, but terrified when informed that I would have to read the work that had occasioned the prize at the S.F. State Poetry Center. I did so before a sizeable crowd, and took shelter in my natural shyness by (probably) mumbling my way through the poems. I did not even bother to look up from the podium—thereby missing my own boycott! A group of “Neo-Beat” poets had assembled in the rear of the room, with banners protesting the fact that a poet (me) who still employed iambic pentameter and rhyme and other insidious “formalistic” devices (one of my poems, called “The Barmaid,” was modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” to which I’d even had the audacity to add rhyme) had received the prize, rather than one of their own kind.

This boycott was my first run-in with the Politics of Art, with The World of Poetry, and, because of my—at the time—self-effacing, or timid nature, I missed witnessing it.

In 1966, after the disastrous experience of my first teaching job, at the University of Hawaii ($5,500 a year for basically remedial work that made me feel whatever “poetry” I may have once possessed was being snuffed out of me), I took a year off and just wrote, then took another job teaching English at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater. I’d had my first poem published in a national journal: “The Weekend,” work Carolyn Kizer accepted at Poetry Northwest, saying first, “It could be a major poem”; then, “Congratulations on a noble effort” when it was published. At age thirty, and still naïve and idealistic as hell when it came to the “world” of poetry, I was asked to serve as director/coordinator of the university’s segment of a Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit, a tour made up of nationally renowned poets who gave readings.

The first poet to arrive was W.D. Snodgrass, who’d caused quite a stir with his 1966 book Heart’s Needle. I had practically memorized every line in a book that had an immense emotional impact on me. Snodgrass employed meter, rhyme and set stanza patterns to disclose the pain of divorce and “visitations” with his daughter (“The world moves like a diseased heart /packed with ice and snow. /Three months now we have been apart /less than a mile. I cannot fight /or let you go.”). At the time I—having never met a real poet (aside from professors who fit the art into their busy schedules as best they could)—I honestly believed that poets must be like their work, resemble it in every way; that is, in their private lives. If their poems were sensitive, sincere, responsive, strong, or sweet—well then, so were they. The Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit would quickly and cruelly cure me of that illusion.

With all due respect for W.D. Snodgrass, my impression of him in the late 60s was of a somewhat neurotic, highly insular man unwilling to make eye contact, a man who spent most of his time talking to distant friends (his real “support” group?) on the telephone, a man who—after we’d arranged a reception for him well-stocked with food and booze—was not at all interested in either, or his hosts. I do recall his reading vividly, but not because of his own work. I recall him reading Randall Jarrell’s powerful short poem, “Protocols” (about Jewish children on their way to showers that “drank” them: “And that is how you die”). I’ve never forgotten that poem, nor the brutal realization (how had my idealism and naivete managed to hang in there until I was thirty?) that poets were not necessarily at all like their poetry. Later, I would realize, and accept (somewhat), the fact that they were just themselves–fully vulnerable, fully human, beings–and that their poetry was … well, just their poetry. Something they’d happened to write. However, at the time, the impact of the initial discovery was substantial.

Snodgrass was an absolute delight compared to our next visitor, John Berryman, who would commit suicide by jumping from a bridge in winter a few years later. In Wisconsin, Berryman had consumed a fifth of whiskey by noon and thrown up in Bink Noll’s car when the latter brought him over from Beloit, where he’d read the night before. That afternoon, in Whitewater, he continued to drink, could barely read that night (slurring his words, then sitting down with his back to the audience, saying he was contemplating a Zen koan)–and he preceded to stay up all night, talking, drinking, talking, drinking, talking, while devoted disciples, students, sat at his feet. Devastated by reality once more, I later wrote a poem about that evening:

CHOICES

I

After the famous poet read– /the party. I squat between /Berryman, slumped /and Jan (my friend), his new girl, Cathy

so finely rumped within /the carpet, all /our fingers laced too firmly (unopposed) /on many whiskies and words …

II

That’s over now, an evening, /remorseless braille remembered, like Cathy /–that poet’s poem–her body /bedded like rhyme, dead now

in someone’s world (unknown) /who’s not my friend, and Berryman /(I hardly knew: a poem, pick any one) /and Jan? We stay, alive. Yes, pal.

Here’s my first editor, Carolyn Kizer, of Poetry Northwest; and John Berryman, who was on the Minnesota/Wisconsin poetry circuit. (Photo credits: poetrynw.org; poets.org):

carolyn-kizer   john-berryman

Next to arrive was a poet who has since acquired a substantial reputation (and fully devoted following; so out of consideration for his disciples, I shall not name him. A friend once stopped speaking to me because I labeled this gentleman “The P. T. Barnum of Poetry”). In those days, before he wrote about and took on archetypal or mythical significance, he wore a serape, and sashayed about like Louis XIV. A gentle white-haired couple called the Millers owned a bar in Whitewater called The Brass Rail. Their gift of culture to what was, despite the university’s presence, still a farm town, was a large reproduction of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” which stood proudly behind the bar. At the Brass Rail, our visiting poet climbed atop that bar and, pretending to unzip his fly, threatened to piss on the Miller’s prize painting, before he was sufficiently restrained.

Gary Snyder, who came next, was something of a relief after this episode, but the then revered guru reprimanded me with a severe lecture when I couldn’t remember the name of the Native American tribe that once inhabited our region (Was it the Win-ne-ba-go tribe, or the Pota-wa-to-mis?) and he then proceeded to order the most expensive fish dinner on the menu at the restaurant my wife Betty and I took him to before his reading, and wash it down with “fire water” (soda and rye).

Diane Wakoski’s book The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems came out the year I left Whitewater (1971), prefaced by the statement “This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes that they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.” I’d seen her photo in another book. She posed with a gun pointed directly at the reader, a sullen grimace beneath her glasses. At Whitewater, she wore a mini skirt (no gun) and I was invited to give a reading with her (in a gymnasium embellished with aluminum foil on which strobe lights fluttered and danced), which was enjoyable, but after, at a reception, she slunk into a heavily cushioned chair and glared–as perhaps she had a right to–at all us local yokels, Midwestern hicks, and hardly said a word to anyone.

What was going on? I would continue to read contemporary poets, but felt I did not want to meet a single one of them in person ever again, even though I was obliged to remain in charge of the cycle of university-sponsored public readings.

Salvation came in the form of X.J. Kennedy and William Stafford, two genuine gentlemen: the first of whom brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers for my wife; the second of whom was an absolutely delightful person in every way. I still cherish a photo I have of William Stafford and me standing side by side the night of his wonderful reading (only about forty people showed up, but he read as if reading for four hundred), and I recall his scarcely concealed trepidation when we took him to the airport and he first saw—it looked like one of the balsa wood models I’d assembled as a kid—the small flimsy airplane he must board to be flown to his next “stop” on the Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit. Years later, I would get to know “Bill” Stafford fairly well, and he remained the jewel of a man he was when my wife Betty and I first met him. These two poets were like their poetry; but I emerged from those years—1966 to 1971—totally disillusioned by much of what was going on around me: the “Revolution,” which included having the most sacred building on campus, prized Old Main, burnt to the ground (five simultaneously fires set); the National Guard on campus; daily bomb scares and the school’s President confined to his home under armed guard; but mostly I was dismayed by the discrepancy I’d discovered between the work of poets—what they wrote—and the poets themselves, how they conducted their lives. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered, because I would eventually also realize—slow to learn, as always!—that the same thing was more than likely true of myself.

Here are X. J. Kennedy—and William Stafford and myself in 1968. (Photo credit: poemsoutloud.net):

x-j-kennedy  stafford-and-me

I have watched, over the past forty-nine years, lots of poetry “worlds” come and go. The Beats. Black Mountain poets. New York poets. The Confessionals. Folk-Rock Troubadours. Academic or Scholar poets. Black poets. Feminist poets. Poets who “take nourishment from a variety of camps.” Poets who’ve served time at the University of Iowa at one time or another. Roethke-oriented poets of the Northwest. Neo-New York poets. A host of “Young” or “New Voices in American Poetry” poets. Sophisticated or Virtuoso poets or what I call the Neo-Edwardians (whom I won’t name—I’ve come close enough to being libelous already). Neo-surrealists. Science Fiction poets. Prison poets. Gay poets. Children poets (a la Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies and Dreams). Geriatric poets. Language poets. Spoken Word and Slam poets. Asian-American and Latino poets. Poets who practiced Found Poetry.

If we continue on through the many “worlds of poetry” in vogue today, we find: Trash Poetry, Nerdy Poetry, Environmental Poetry, Health Care and Medical Relevance Poetry, Underrepresented Poetry, Tanka and Haiku (in English), Inspirational Poetry, Gay Christian Poetry, Atheist Poetry, Occult Poetry, Gothic Poetry, Politically Engaging Poetry, Adirondack Poetry, Limericks (or a Revival of), Evasive Poetry, Collaborative Poetry, Grief/Loss Poetry, Coming of Age Poetry, Transgender Poetry, LGBTQ Poetry, Queer Paganism Poetry, Minimalist Poetry, Old People Poetry, Poetry of 140 Characters or Fewer, Paranormal Poetry, Animal Rights Poetry, Fibonacci Poetry, Eating Disorders Poetry, Disability Poetry, Ekphrastic Poetry, and Erasure Poetry.

I will not attempt, now, to establish my own “relationship” to or within any of these “worlds” or groups (for the most part, there’s been little or none aside from what I’ve already described), but I should add to this astonishing list of “options” for aspiring poets, a phenomenon that’s not a “genre” exactly (if that’s what these various approaches to the art are), but a current practice that, when it first became prevalent, struck me as something just short of criminal activity or extortion: and that is requiring any poet who desires to enter contests (almost as numerous now as the various ”worlds of poetry” just listed) to pay anywhere from a $20 to $30 fee for submission of a manuscript (even a chapbook manuscript—at one buck per page?): contests which themselves cater to a wide range of specialized interest groups based on age restrictions (“midcareer U.S. poets, etc.”), statehood or geographical location; race, class, sexual orientation or a mandatory obsession with physical disability or social injustice.

The original justification for this practice was the (once legitimate) desire to preserve and sustain publication of high quality literary journals, but that noble end appears to have succumbed to the same avarice that characterizes our current era or age in general, and at the expense–literally–of those least fortunate or favorably (financially) endowed (writers!). The inundation of such contests may have one redeeming value: it keeps the “world” of poets who judge them occupied or “employed” with the privilege of rejecting thousands of other (fellow) poets.

On a similar note, not long ago I was contacted by a writer whose work I respect very much. I was invited to participate in an online venture that would allow me to call attention to my own work and books, in alliance with other poets whom I also admired and respected. The “house” providing this opportunity was one with a solid reputation—or so I thought until I had posted information on some of my own “stuff” and then learned that the company sponsoring this worthy enterprise had suddenly “gone under,” was bankrupt. I was “out” the $250 I’d just paid to insure a brighter future (wider recognition) for my poetry. The operation wasn’t a “scam”: just another sign of the times (financial failure seems to have taken on the status of a fad, a popular, prevalent endeavor) and I would have been better off had I kept my distance (as I’d been keeping it for some time) from anything that smacked of Po Biz. There is a relatively extensive “small business” side to the world of poetry just now—a “world” that vacillates between attempting to provide legitimate opportunities or benefits for poets alongside “going out of business” or bankruptcy.

Here are two covers from a “once upon a time” practice: anthologists would “comb” literary journals (no matter how obscure) for new writers. I got lucky. Chicago editor Curt Johnson found not a poem, but a story (“The Anniversary”) I’d written and had published in the Colorado Quarterly. Curt selected it to be included in his Best Little Magazine Fiction 1970, published by New Yok University Press:

cover-colorado-quarterly       best-little-magazine-fiction-1970

This seems a good spot to end Part One of “The Worlds of Poetry.” In Part Two, which I will post soon, I’ll take a look at the plethora of MFA programs in creative writing that abound today, literary journals, and thoughts on poetry in general provided by George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Anthony Hecht, and Mary Ruefle—ending with what I feel might make an ideal creative writing program in poetry: one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative.

And after that final post on poetry: it’s back to jazz—the other art form I love.