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:
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):
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):
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:
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 …
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):
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):
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:
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.