Monday, February 20, 2017


Not to be confused with the Vichy regime being set up in DC and elsewhere. The following are Twitter accounts for the legitimate government of the United States.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Tom Raworth

1938 -- 2017

A link here to the Poetry Foundation's recording of Tom Raworth reading "Gaslight":

a line of faces borders the strangler’s work
heavy european women
mist blows over dusty tropical plants
lit from beneath the leaves by a spotlight
mist in my mind a riffled deck
of cards or eccentrics
was i
a waterton animal my head
is not my own
poetry is neither swan nor owl
but worker, miner
digging each generation deeper
through the shit of its eaters
to the root – then up to the giant tomato
someone else’s song is always behind us
as we wake from a dream trying to remember
step onto a thumbtack
two worlds – we write the skin
the surface tension that holds
what we write is ever the past
curtain pulled back
a portrait behind it
is a room suddenly lit
looking out through the eyes
at a t.v. programme
of a monk sealed into a coffin
we close their eyes and ours
and still here the tune
moves on


Tom Raworth died this week. He was a giant as a poet, and a gentle, sweet fellow. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was a simple phone call from him -- how he got my number I do not know -- telling me that my book Ketjak was "alright." 

I knew him slightly during the years he lived in San Francisco in the 1970s, was in the audience at New Langton Arts when he gave what may be the shortest talk ever, and was fortunate to see him whenever he came through Philadelphia in recent years. 

I was once told (by a poet I respect) that Americans were too quick to declare him the finest living British poet. Just the opposite, I suspect, the far reaches of the Commonwealth have been far too slow to recognize the wonder of his work. After Bunting, Tom was the Alps. He himself could not have cared less for accolades, but the weak tea that is so much of British conventionalism is just so much piss-water alongside this stronger brew. I will miss him and we will all miss his work & wit.

Here are two pieces I wrote on Tom's work some 14 years ago. 


Read Tom Raworth’s poetry aloud & you begin to understand almost instantly why, or more accurately how, he developed his reputation as – at least until Miles Champion showed up – the fastest reader on the scene. Try reading aloud the following stanzas from “Survival,” a poem in Clean & Well-Lit: Selected Poems, 1987-1995:

later she would walk
asleep on his feet
to the brink of inspiration
with lacquered nails
paused in mid-phrase
discounting – discrediting
the epic sweep of stars
devising stratagems
shrunk back in his head
until the day was filled
creating an illusion
radiating orange lightning
sucked into a vacuum
past ponds, down hills

nothing better than to re-claim
duck with its head swinging
knife – a blue pencil
only bad things that affect
the opposite still she came
a tall black vase
fluttering her arms
always displeased
moving every year
around protected by the wind
shook the plate in front
did not scream when he fell
outside down the stairs
poured all her brains

the adaptations
to differences in colour
associated with food
regarded as the simplest forms
stuck together in lumps
are irrelevant to survival
the struggle towards
countless changes
exhausted from hunger
sounded like water
beginning to burn
or an extinguished star
fading with darkness
smiling at the skull

feelings belonged to the past
his stomach churned
the breeze blew
through thick underbrush
following him around
out onto the highway
and grinned
flailing about
not to touch his cold flesh
you could smell it
from deep in the earth
watching the smoke crawl
from his straining lungs
with its icy purity

The line here represents one phrase, almost as though each were a single stroke that, together, accumulate into a large, complex canvas. In general, the lines contain between four & eight syllables – the two shorter exceptions in the fourth stanza above are the first such exceptions in the poem, which is already 16 stanzas long at the start of this quotation.

A different poet who focused on the phrase might vary the segments of language actually used line by line more than Raworth does: a quick tally of the 56 lines above shows 21 starting with verbs – only one is a variant of to be – with another ten starting with prepositions. It’s precisely this combination of line length & syntax that propels Raworth’s text forward so rapidly. A career of reading texts such as “Survival” in public would speed up anyone’s reading style.

“Survival” is the longest poem in Clean & Well Lit, which – with the exception of the sequence Eternal Sections – represents eight years of writing, post-Tottering State, Like the “14-line poems” of Eternal Sections – Raworth pointedly does not call them sonnets – “Survival’s” 14-line stanzas carry that familiar quantity about them. Raworth’s reluctance to employ the S-word makes sense, as the logic of these stanzas is anything but sonnet-esque. Rather, the propulsion of the language carries the reader ever forward, ever faster. If the syntax does contribute to the onward motion of the language, it never really resolves up to the level of a sentence – those little moments of closure are themselves deferred or displaced.

I’ve sometimes wondered if it is a function of Raworth’s phrase-focus that makes his work so eminently accessible to U.S. audiences & note, just to use these four stanzas as an index, that only the spelling of colour marks his text in any way I think might be recognizable to a Yank as British. Do the British really use phrases differently? I’m not enough of a comparative linguist to know, although I’m aware of the stereotype propagated by so many BBC dramas on U.S. PBS television stations suggesting that fully formed sentences with many dependent clauses are “British” in a way that the more telegraphic, interruptive mode of Yankee discourse is not. Of course nobody in those dramas sounds like Linton Kweski Johnson either, or even appears to have come from the north. Still, the complaint I once got from a young poet with partly British heritage that “there’s waaaay too many ‘experimental’ poets who like to think Tom Raworth is the only poet in England” reflects, among other things, the enormous respect & passion Americans do have toward his work.

Raworth’s Collected Poems is about to be issued from Carcanet in the U.K. & is already available for sale over its web site. Every single blurb for the book is from a Yank.


It’s big. It’s yellow. It’s beautiful. It, in this instance, is the Tom Raworth Collected Poems, just out from Carcanet, making an early bid for the “best book of 2003” sweepstakes. The volume has 557 pages of text, plus some 18 of “front matter” & another 20 given to various indices. At one pound, 13 ounces, it’s a brick. A brick with a cover illustration by the late Franco Beltrametti.*

Not long ago, I had a discussion with poet of my own generation whose work I’ve praised on this blog, whom I informed that I longed to see a collected works of his poetry. He argued, with surprising vigor, against the idea. His primary points were two – first, that as a young poet he had not always known when works should be held back & not published. There was a lot of writing in his first books that, in his opinion, were “not ready for prime time.”** But even more problematic from his perspective was the way in which “collecteds” eliminate shape.

Shape is a question, I agree, with any such gathering, as is detail. Perhaps the most notorious example of how placement can alter & undermine the implications of a text in such terms are the poems from William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All as they were included in his own Collected Earlier Poems. Thus did “red wheel / barrow” become something it never could have been in context, coming as it originally did 78 pages into a dense argument, leading directly to a discussion of knowledge, categories, democracy, education & confusion. There also is a distinction between collected & complete with which all such volumes must contend. Thus there are rumors afoot at the Collected Books of Jack Spicer will some day be supplanted by a much fuller edition. & we have just seen how radically different the new Collected Works of Lorine Niedecker are from her two earlier “collected” poems, T&G and My Life by Water.

There also are discrepancies in this vast edition of Raworth’s – moments that will stop a fond, familiar reader short. For example, the stanza-per-page structure of “Defective Definitions” in Clean & Well Lit runs 4-2-1, though all are quatrains. In the Collected, the stanzas are run together. Raworth himself credits the Clean & Well Lit formatting to “happenstance,” insisting that ultimately there is no such thing as “correct.” Thus Ace is a long thin poem*** in a single column in the Edge Press edition I currently own, yet appeared in double columns in the editions of Tottering State published by The Figures & by Paladin. It doesn’t appear at all in the O Book edition of Tottering State & is again in double columns in the Collected. Indeed, the three editions of Tottering State all differ substantially. The provisional nature of it all is enough to make one suspicious of a project that calls itself Collected.

Which might well be the point. As impressively well-written as these works are – & I’m one who could be persuaded that we live the Age of Raworth – Raworth’s poetry itself argues for a definition of verse as “what a poet does,” a condition that offers quite a bit of latitude. But I don’t think it’s latitude that Raworth is after, nor does his stance have anything to do with an approach to the poem as “art language” the way that David Antin’s performances do. Rather, the books like the poems themselves, are arguments for a perpetual restlessness that amounts to constant attentiveness to the conditions of the real. It’s in this sense that the Collected Poems represents an achievement of major proportion. These works are not “the alps,” as Basil Bunting once characterized Pound’s Cantos, not because the accumulation is not massive, but because there is not a sedentary moment in this book.

* Far more beautiful & colorful than the washed-out thumbnail of it on the Carcanet web site suggests.

** I don’t agree.

*** I originally typed “long thing poem” – it’s that too.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Labels: , , ,

Saturday, December 31, 2016

David Meltzer
1937 - 2016

Here is a note I wrote on David's work here in 2005.

I’ve written on numerous occasions that the so-called San Francisco Renaissance was largely a fiction, perpetrated in part by Donald Allen in order to give The New American Poetry a section that acknowledged just how much of this phenomenon rose up out of the San Francisco Bay Area – a literary backwater prior to WW2, but now suddenly a primary locale for much that was new. The other part – and it’s not clear to me who, if anyone, could be said to have perpetrated this – was an allusion back to the earlier Berkeley Renaissance, which had been a decisive, thriving literary tendency in the late 1940s, early 1950s. If you look at Allen’s S.F. Renaissance grouping, you call still make out the vestiges of that earlier moment in the presence of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer & Robin Blaser, the trio that had given rise to the Berkeley Renaissance while studying at the University of California, along with, I suppose, Helen Adam, who at the time of the anthology was something of a Duncan protégé. Yet there are also poets representing an older San Francisco scene, such as Madeline Gleason & James Broughton & even – tho it’s a stretch, given what a loner he was, at least when he wasn’t actively channeling Robinson Jeffers – Brother Antoninus (William Everson). Then there are a group of younger poets – Richard Duerden, Kirby Doyle, Ebbe Borregaard & Bruce Boyd – whom it’s harder to place aesthetically, a fact that is still true some 45 years after the book’s initial publication, as they’ve become its least published participants. That Allen placed Lawrence Ferlinghetti into this grouping, rather than with the Beats, suggests just how arbitrary these distinctions were.
Given that he was improvising & fabricating in search of clustering principles in general, it’s curious that Allen completely missed one of the most interesting & useful formations among the New Americans, a western poetics that may have first revealed itself at Reed College in Portland, and which didn’t fully take flight until the mid- to late-1950s in San Francisco. Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Phil Whalen in fact were just the first of a number of poets who came out of this aesthetic – one could probably put Duerden & Borregaard there as well, plus three other contributors to the Allen anthology, all of whom joined Snyder & Whalen in Allen’s curiously amorphous unaffiliated fifth grouping: Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer. Beyond the Allen anthology itself, one might add Richard Brautigan, James Koller, Joanne Kyger, David Schaff, Bill Deemer, Drummond Hadley, Clifford Burke, David Gitin, John Oliver Simon, Lowell Levant, John Brandi, Gail Dusenberry & a host of others. In general, these poets were straight where the Duncan-Spicer axis was gay. Perhaps most importantly, this cluster really had no leaders as such. It was not as though some, such as Snyder or Whalen, might not have led by example, but that their personalities were not given to the constant marshalling of opinion that one could identify in such others as Olson, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, O’Hara or even Creeley. This mode – lets call it New Western – perhaps reached its pinnacle of influence during the heyday of Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal during the mid-1960s. But without anything like a leader or a program, poised midway aesthetically between the Beats & Olson’s vision of Projectivist Verse, the phenomenon never gelled, never became A Thing & by the 1970s already was entering into an entropic period from which it has yet to re-emerge.
Just 23 when The New American Poetry hit the streets, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer were the babies of that project (indeed, they’re just one year older than David Bromige & David Melnick & eight years younger than Hannah Weiner, all of whom would be associated more closely with language writing come the 1970s). Loewinsohn went on to become a literature professor & novelist, but Meltzer has hung in as a poet, with a few side forays into music, jazz writing & erotic fiction, all these decades. Now, with David’s Copy just out from Penguin, Meltzer seemed poised to get the attention his work is due.
Actually, considering just how many of the Beat poets were treated like rock stars while Meltzer, fronting Serpent Power with his late wife Tina (and drums by Clark Coolidge), actually had a rock band long before Jim Carroll or Patti Smith, it’s odd that Meltzer hasn’t become much more widely known, celebrated before this. David’s Copy is at least the fourth selected poems he’s published, the others being Tens, Arrows & The Name, and many of his earlier books were published by Black Sparrow, one of the rare small presses to have had some volumes – mostly those by Charles Bukowski – widely distributed through the big book chains.
There are, I suspect, multiple reasons for this. One is that New Western aesthetic never really broke through, even if a few of its practitioners – Whalen, Snyder, McClure – did. A second, more important aspect is that old bugaboo of so many poets – Meltzer’s not a compulsive self-promoter. As the youngest of the New Americans, his timing was just a little behind from a marketing perspective. Indeed, as Ginsberg et al became folk icons in the 1960s, Meltzer’s first books that decade were from small Bay Area fine presses like Auerhahn & Oyez – his one big trade publication prior to David’s Copy being an anthology he edited in 1971, The San Francisco Poets, a collection notably missing the Duncan/Spicer axis, including just Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Welch, McClure, Brautigan & Everson. Meltzer’s first sizeable collection doesn’t appear until 1969, when he brings out Yesod with the British press, Trigram. It didn’t receive much distribution stateside. Black Sparrow releases his first large collection in the states, Luna, in 1970.
Part of this neglect may also be due to the fact that Meltzer is Jewish. It’s not that there were no Jews among the New Americans – Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Eigner all come instantly to mind. But the intersection between the New American poetry & the New Age approach to religious experience in the 1960s (Serpent Power?) tended to mute its presence in all but Ginsberg’s writing. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all shocked to discover that many readers of Eigner were late to discover the heritage of the bard of Swampscott. In the 1960s, the Objectivists were only gradually coming back into print. And Jerome Rothenberg didn’t really begin making the space for an active presence for a Jewish space within American poetics until late in that decade, during that interregnum betwixt the New Americans & language poetry.
Finally, Meltzer – and this I think is a sign of his youth relative, say, to Whalen or Snyder or Ginsberg or Olson or Duncan or O’Hara et al – lacked the kind of visible trademark of a differentiated literary style that one associates with all of the above, and even with someone closer to Meltzer’s age, like Michael McClure. Meltzer’s work has always been in the vicinity of New American poetics without ever being its own recognizable brand – as such, it would be difficult if not impossible for a younger poet to mimic. It’s not that Meltzer lacked the chops & more as though he never saw the need per se. In this sense, Meltzer’s situation is not unlike that, say, of a Jack Collom, another terrific poet of roughly the same generation who has never really gotten the recognition he deserves. In a sense, those who were a little further outside the New American circle – like poets in New York who were visibly not NY School, such as Rothenberg, Antin, Ed Sanders or Joel Oppenheimer – had an advantage because their circumstance forced them to define themselves in opposition even to poets whose work they cherished.
Indeed, if there is a defining element or signature device in Meltzer’s work, it’s that he alone among the New Westerns has an eye for the hard edges of pop culture, something one expects from the NY School. Often, as in this passage from “Hollywood Poems,” it’s accompanied by a tremendously agile ear:
                De Chirico without Cheracol
saw space where its dead echo opened up
a plain unbroken by the dancers.
a relic supermarket nobody shops at.
Plaster-of-Paris bust of Augustus
Claude Rains Caesar face-down beneath
a Keinholz table
whose top is blue with Shirley Temple’s saucers,
pitchers. Mickey Mouse
wind-up dolls in rows like
All tilt out of the running without electricity.
Veils of history,
garments worn in movies, hung on
steel racks at Costume R.K.O.
R. Karo would’ve used the tower’s light.
He’d wear it as a cap to re-route lost energy.
So dense with details that it rides like a list (& sounds like a Clark Coolidge poem), this passage is actually a better depiction of a De Chirico landscape than those one finds in John Ashbery’s poetry. David’s Copy is filled with such moments, which makes it a terrific read.
One might squabble with the fact that the book is not strictly chronological, or that the first 25 years of his writing gets more weight (over 150 pages) than does the last 25 (roughly 100), tho I suspect that’s because more of the recent work is still in print. On the whole, such squabbles are few. Editor Michael Rothenberg had done a first-rate job here, smartly including bibliography & a decent two-page bio note from Meltzer & an excellent introduction from Jerry Rothenberg. Toward the end of the introduction, Rothenberg notes:
Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything. It was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young poets – the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.” Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to critic-masters who were themselves, most often, nonpractitioners & nonseekers.
From my perspective, it’s a shame that project never took hold, but then I don’t think there’s any contradiction between such scale & the desire to “think small” (or, as I might put it, to write in the present) – that’s one lesson one takes from Zukofsky’s “A.” Throughout, there are works that evidence an impulse to “go long,” almost in the sense of a football quarterback, but most often they come back to the compilation of shorter works that one might expect to see from the likes of Whalen, Welch or Snyder. The whole of David’s Copy offers us a deeper link into that New Western poetics, even as it connects that world outward, toward the New York School & the poetics that would emerge in the 1970s & ‘80s in a journal like Sulfur. The key, as it is in New Western poetry in general, is precisely that desire to “think small” as Rothenberg puts it, to write in the complete present. Meltzer is less openly Zen-like than, say, Whalen or Joanne Kyger, but the pleasure can be every bit as deep.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?