Saturday, November 20, 2010

Paul Blackburn

I have The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn, which I believe I scored thru some remaindered book catalogue, years ago. I was psyched to get it. Blackburn fits sturdily in the Lesser Known and Under-Appreciated Poets category. So life goes, but I am thankful for the book.

I know the controversy attendant on this collection. Edith Jarolim chose to glom all the poems together in chronological order. Which is to say she eradicated how PB prepared his books. She did so for practical reasons, to avoid repeating poems. Alice Notley and the Berrigan brothers decided to repeat what Ted repeated, in Ted’s Collected. You have to make a decision, and Jarolim chose the probably less good choice.  Oh well, I as reader will manage.

I had, previous to this collection, several of PB’s books, his late journals, and early stuff, I think. They were both published by Black Sparrow. For logistical reasons, I got rid of those books when I got the collected. Room exists for only so much.

The cover photo really resonates for me. It was taken by Robert Schiller. It shows PB sitting on a stool. It looks like he should be working for NASA, circa 1968. He wears a white shortsleeve shirt and plain dark tie (picture is b&w, so I am making some guesses). His hair is trimmed neatly short. The tie is loosened. He has a (de rigueur) cigarette in his hand. His feet are on the rung of the stool. He looks seriously at the camera.

He looks sort of forgettable, but also rather drilling of perception into what is before him. Oh, that’s all trumped up diddy-wah, thank you very much. I’m just angling at an approach, and pictures are a possible means.

The late journals, which have the knowledge of spreading cancer as fulcrum, have that sad end flowing thru, try as you might to stay ‘with the words’. Ah, this is my sainted mother’s birthday (11/20), and I think of the cancer and emphysema. That narrative in PB’s life is part of the poetry. You cannot excise it, just as that skid of time when my mother’s life failed her doesn’t go away. I do not mean to pop sentiment into the forum, it comes on its own beck. Which, I mean to say, is how one meets PB’s poems, especially the later ones.

PB slogged in a sexist quagmire similar to Creeley’s. I hate to use words like sexism, they seem prepared for those who spurn full involvement. A word like sexism, or racism, lands with an imperative thud, with cessation of conversation in mind. Such words are used as short hand, and we need as much long hand as we can get.

But still. PB is acculturated (let us say) in an eager vision of White Goddess denial. Sorry, but it’s a little old skool. Not gone, just mustered to a post-era entitlement. Which never held much currency.

This is to say PB scouted and forlorn. It wears. Just as Creeley’s muddle does, here and there. It is not the completed tempo for PB, but one notices.

I hadn’t meant to review here, this is an old book, probably unavailable. The poetry is lovely. You should find it, and see if you have need for this brightening.

We have a sad person here, which is NOT a recommendation for pleasure. But the sad person pressed forward in the language available to him. This is interesting. He is not a prophet, he chronicles his stumbles well. The language in which we live is a central constant, delivering us to the forces of our lives. Poetry is not a game, tho many players fill the stage.

I have felt pissy about Kent Johnson’s recent book, a divagation as to whether Kenneth Koch wrote a poem attributed to Frank O’Hara. I bear little emotion about the results of such study, could even muster interest were it not that I do not trust him in his pronouncements. I just think Kent Johnson is a promotional gadfly. He himself discredits his work by the smarmy grope into the miasmic protocols of promotion. He should give his insights away, rather than make a cottage industry of them. I say this because a scholar like PB flustered in the blocked impulse of cross culture. People do not respect poetry. Johnson’s expert sophistry spoils in the sun.

Kent Johnson will not read, let alone consider, such criticism as I offer (or is it just accuse?). He has to prove that he is not just a scamp, that is what I need, at least. I bring this up because Paul Blackburn forcefully proclaimed that he was not a scamp. His translations were intense involvements, not tricks. The poetry, as an indigenous force or implement, carried thru and on. That’s the thing of interest, not gambits for the public ideologue machine.

I realize that I have inserted extraneous material, and a fractured argument. I just mean to press Paul Blackburn forward, as relevant and inspiring, even tho he’s a poet.

Opulence by Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis has published numerous books, albeit mostly in various diy formats. Opulence itself first appeared as a fresh-from-the-library-printer edition, back in 2002 (it has since been much revised). I have nothing but praise for the samizdat initiative, believing as I do that stupidhead cultural gatekeeping occurs relentlessly—take that, MLA programs!—but there's something to be said for making work available widely. Not that a small press like Theenk Books represents wide release, but at least it adds another outlet for the book. Opulence deserves notice.

One notices, first of all, a beautiful presentation. The cover and (bonus!) inside cover both display stark, realist paintings by Michael Merrill, one of some chairs and a folding table, the other of stairways in what looks like a modern art museum. These paintings fit the sense and sensibility of Stephen and his work. The book's format is 8x10¾, large but not outsized. To finish the stats, the book consists of 52 14-line poems, one per page. Quotes, dedications, dates, and locations flesh out, if that's the right term, each page. More on that later.

Stephen calls these poems sonnets, but he's not counting iambs pentametrically. It's not to tweak Milton and the other affirmed bards of yore that he names the poems thus. I see him working within that tradition, for one thing. Besides, to recognize a form, however dispersed, asserts a practice and deliverance. As my wife says, art is creative problem-solving. To fit whatever into whatever form propels the imagination. The imagination is our working tool.

I see the influence of Charles Olson in Stephen's work. I am sure Stephen will accept the fact of that influence, tho he might cite other writers as well. I myself am much taken by Olson, and am heartened to see some use made of the crazy man from Gloucester's ideas. Can we say that Olson had a paleolithic politics? I mean the polis he wrote of derived from a history of darkness from which our genetics sprung. Stephen writes within that political unity. It is a writing of febrile impact, however coolly he states the positions.
Here is an entire poem from Opulence:

Lay Me Down in the Doorway

There are no symbols that aren't clothed to become thus guiding
qualities of identification between celestial and and earthly worlds whose
signification takes place as white Goddess adolescent ritual drum-drums
of attraction to the first and always Girl Next Door who tracks the meta-
physical status of spiritual continuum that flows through the timeless
correlation between the dense Qabbalistic crown of flowers erupting from
the canopy of the catalpa grown out of the clavicular Eye in the (backyard) Heart
and the Milky Way that forms the rabbit-run into the glade out of which
emerges the Lightning Rod Man Doctor Faustus tried to trope out of he
hands of the selfsame human mind that perceived the first flash of
god life after circumcision completed the sympathetic Kundalini body
under image to Draco, where Christ rose on growth rings of perfect Dodonese
oak in order to maintain in the hollow core of the Argo the electrified
jawbone and kneecap of Agamemnon wrapped in the cape of his Real Wife

I intended to quote just a bit but can you find a stopping point in that self-propelling mass? I have referred to Stephen's style as run-on sentence, but I do not mean that pejoratively. Amy Clampitt has earned for herself the honour of being my bĂȘte noire, for her run-on sentences and proliferating commas, em dashes, colons, and, heaven forfend, semi colons. I find her ability to add pointless independent clauses to pointless dependent clauses an affirmation of sluggish poor writing. She just hangs listless 'poetic' images together in galled gallimaufry. If it looks like a poem, it must be a poem. Not!

With Stephen's work, thought persistently discharges provocation, language angles, and something new finds a way out. Creative problem solving! This is energy transfer, and a good thing. Clampitt seems to be stuck in mere simulation. I call that stones in the passway.

You will duly note the dash of references and allusions in Stephen's poem. These are wonderful intersections. Stephen's reading list is wide and pointed, much like Olson's was. He works within the world's necessities, not the garden of academic polish.

Stephen often adds nacreous quotes to his poems (albeit not to the one quoted above). I think this provides a rational context for his work. Poets, philosophers, critics, historians, and friends all appear above the poem in nuggets of input. After the poem, Stephen always addends where and when the poem was written. Living as peripatetically as he does, this practice seems to pin him down. Again, it situates the poem as an act and discovery.
The lesson I got from Olson, most of all, concerns the matter of poetry. That poetry arises out of science, and history, and politics: the human condition. It is not a rarefied adjunct to better ways of spending your time but a philosophic possibility and implement. Stephen, I think, in his registered political complex, would agree. At any rate, a ferocious political calculation propels his writing.

I will serve a nod towards Steve Tills, whose Theenk Books produced this book. He's on his toes. I recommend this book as a positive program. It kicks out the jams. Those jams need kicking out.