Duncan and Sagetrieb

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(by way of The Poetry Foundation)

In keeping with our celebration of the work of Sagetrieb, and with the recent release of Lisa Jarnot’s biography Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus and the publication of The Collected Early Poems & Plays, it seemed apt to look back at the special issue of Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (Fall/Winter 1985) which was dedicated to the life and work of Duncan. Contributing authors included Robert Creeley, Ronald Johnson, George Butterick, and many others.

In addition to remembrances of, essays on the work, and what were then unpublished documents by Duncan, this issue included an interview conducted by Michael André Bernstein and Burton Hatlen. We find in this interview Duncan, near the end of his life, speaking openly of the many strifes and trials undergone by him and his fellow Black Mountain poets in the name of poetry. He also speaks at length about his writing process, and in the selection below he speaks directly about the collage method learned from his lifelong partner Jess Collins:

RD: Certainly the collage method is how I saw Pound. Well, when I say “certainly,” I think Pound didn’t see himself using the collage method. There is a good deal of the reincarnation method in The Cantos. Collage is not reincarnation: it is the fact that everything is in the universe so you know that way out beyond your understanding of it everything has a harmony and I don’t think that is something Pound ever . . . nor do I, either, surely none of us do, have a full picture at the present moment. [. . .] Let’s say we’ve got a photographic level which is always very important but I think that photographic level leads to other levels of the spirit.

Later Duncan talks too of the strong influence (or counter-influence) of Pound on his own line and syntax:

RD: When I sent Heavenly City, Earthly City to Pound, he wrote back and said, “Why do you still have to go through that? I thought I went through all that, and you would never have to do it.” And yet in my talks with Pound, the one thing I wanted test him on . . . I knew that he had rejected Finnegans Wake with disgust, absolute disgust, and I knew why but I wanted to ferret it out. Because where Pound has an uncompromised line, I have a constantly compromised line and finally break syntax so that there’s not even a commitment to syntax, and that means every phrase can be compromised by the coexistence of other phrases.

James Wright (image by way of 9 Poetic Fingers)

James Wright (image by way of 9 Poetic Fingers)

One does not turn to James Wright for laughter, so it came as something of a surprise to find him writing a tribute to the Italian satirist Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. The tribute appears in Wright’s last collection, the posthumous This Journey (1982), and was fashioned in Belli’s own favored form, the sonnet, making it the second to last of Wright’s half-dozen and the first after many years, indeed the first after “Saint Judas” (1959), the celebrated title poem of Wright’s last book in which traditional form was the rule.[1]

Half a dozen is not a large number, but Wright made his mark in the sonnet before abandoning the form: his “Saint Judas” is one of 92 poems from the previous century chosen by Daniel Bromwich for American Sonnets (2005), a slender anthology from the Library of America.[2] Inspired by Belli or not, Wright’s return to the sonnet in This Journey, a book composed at the end of his life — he was dying of cancer at the time — must have functioned for the longtime reader of his work as a kind of rhyme, both well-prepared for and unexpected, yielding to a need, or at least desire, for formal closure, while offering up the pleasure of surprise.

The rhyme, it should be said, is not a couplet, but an envelope, coming after two decades of free verse, drawing a link between one kind of last book and another. The subject too creates a kind of envelope rhyme, drawing a link between two temporally disjunct figures: Wright wrote his doctoral thesis on Charles Dickens (and so, presumably, had an appreciation for humor, if not the gift or inclination to produce it), while Belli, a contemporary of the novelist, had Dickens’s ear for dialect and a comparable sympathy for the poor. Call it an off-rhyme, as Belli’s sympathy was not displayed with tenderness but outrage. His humor was decidedly populist: Belli brought a low comedy to bear on high subjects, most notably the popes (drawing the admiration of James Joyce), and expressed himself in the vulgar tongue of his native Trastevere — the language of Rome, Romanesco. Wright had his own love of the vulgar but his method was very nearly the opposite: he brought a high sense of tragedy to bear on the low — it was the darkness in Dickens to which he was drawn; and he expressed himself, even in free verse, in “a conspicuously mannered style” (quoting here from a review of This Journey) “derived neither from speech nor from traditionally fluent writing.”[3]

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Piazza Giuseppe Giacchino Belli in Rome (photo by Dr Martinus)

Given all this, it is not surprising that Wright should discover a tragic comedy in Belli. The one poet disdained, the other pursued, a project of dignification, but the two shared a deep appreciation of indignity’s power, though that power was mobilized in very different ways. Wright reflected on it, Belli conferred it. Wright’s tribute to Belli closes the circle, reflecting on the indignity conferred on Belli himself. This topic of reflection might, in other hands, at other times, produce something other than a tribute, but Wright had good reason to identify with Belli beyond the bare fact that both were poets. As his title indicates, Wright’s sonnet concerns the poet’s embrace by posterity, and Wright was aware, of course, in composing it that this embrace would soon be his own. Contemplating Rome’s monument to Belli, Wright saw that such tributes are a mixed blessing, and so decided to add his own prayer to the mix — his own inscription, as it were, on the monument to poetry that the sonnet itself represents:

Reading a 1979 Inscription
on Belli’s Monument

It is not only the Romans who are gone.
Belli, unhappy a century ago,
Won from the world his fashionable stone.
Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know.
Across the Tiber, near Trastevere,
His top hat teetered on his head with care,
Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see
The latest Romans who succeed him there.

One of them bravely climbed his pedestal
And sprayed a scarlet ᴍᴇʀᴅᴀ on his shawl.
This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave
Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain
Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain.
Rain might erase when marble cannot save.[4]

Not quite a prayer for oblivion, the poem extols the hidden and nameless, preferring the valet-like service of the rain (which fusses and frets over the dirtied gentleman) to the magisterial efforts of the stone. The stain here is not sin, but insult, yet that final word “save” does suggest a contrast between the humility of Christ and the majesty of the Church, a contrast with no small significance in Belli’s own poetry. The ironies are clear, so clear one might not take care to notice that this Christ-like rain is not tendering its care to Belli, who lies elsewhere, but to the Church — if I might put it that way — erected in his name. A river divides Belli from his posterity, and Wright, standing on this side, has already passed over in his care to the other.

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Ray Johnson cover for The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppi Gioachino Belli (Jargon Press, 1960) (image by way of With Hidden Noise)

Wright is not a poet with any presence in the NPF’s publications, and I find only one session in which his work was discussed at any of our conferences, but a few months ago, visiting Jamestown Community College, I found myself in a lunchtime conversation with the brother-in-law of Wright’s widow, and since then I’ve done some modest dipping in and out of Wright’s work. (The brother-in-law, I should say, was the president of the college, which made this the most interesting conversation I’ve ever had with an administrator.) Wright, in turn, led me to Belli, whose link to the NPF is, paradoxically, much stronger: Harold Norse’s lively translations were published by Jonathan Williams with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. That introduction is primarily concerned with language: Belli’s Roman dialect and the American idiom with which Norse created his translations. Williams is charmed by the use of such language by “the sonnet, of all forms, so used to being employed for delicate nuances of sound and sense.” I suspect he would not have had much use for Wright’s poem, though his summary of Belli’s accomplishment captures well the complex relation of high and low that Wright shares with Belli, and that Wright captured in his own way in his tribute:

The times were crude, especially so for the underdogs with whom these sonnets deal, but not so crude that they could not see themselves, in their imaginations, in high office. Belli saw it also and he knew how, politely, to bring them down — and up ! — to their betters by a knowledge of the language.[5]

A fair summary of Wright’s accomplishment too.

Notes

1 [Back to text] I take the figure six from Above the River: The Complete Poems, ed. Anne Wright (1990). Three appear in Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (1957): “To a Troubled Friend,” “To a Fugitive,” and “My Grandmother’s Ghost.” After these comes “Saint Judas,” and then, after long pause, two last sonnets appear in This Journey: Wright’s tribute to Belli and “May Morning,” the latter an experiment in which a rhymed and metered sonnet is run together as prose (as noted by Kevin Stein in James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, 138-39 and 198 n. 21, crediting Michael Hefernan with the discovery). Conceivably, Wright also thought of “Listening to the Mourners” as a sonnet. Its fourteen irregular, unrhymed lines appear in Shall We Gather at the River (1968).

2 [Back to text] I mean the century leading up the anthology itself.

3 [Back to text] The reviewer is Alan Williamson, writing for The New Republic. See James Wright: The Heart of the Light, ed. Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, 411.

4 [Back to text] Wright, Above the River, 325.

5 [Back to text] William Carlos Williams, “Preface,” The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppi Gioachino Belli, n.p.

Footnote to an Obituary

I guess this is our week for citing the New York Times. Yesterday I was going through the half-read papers, filling the recycling bin, and I noticed the following obituary:

Published on December 14, 2012. Click on the image for a legible text — or go to the online version (link).

Published on December 14, 2012. Click on the image for a legible text — or go to the online version (link).

The name rang a bell, but I am not an opera buff, so I guessed a Frank O’Hara reference. Which was close: Gloria Davy sang the libretto that James Schuyler wrote for Paul Bowles, about which my colleague Paul Bauschatz wrote a fine essay, “James Schuyler’s ‘A Picnic Cantata’: The Art of the Ordinary.” It appeared in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, edited by Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller, a book brought out by the NPF in 2001 (link).

The picture of Davy in the Times was taken four years after the premier of the Schuyler-Bowles collaboration, which occurred on March 24, 1954. Four singers performed: Davy and Martha Flowers were the sopranos; Mareda Gaither sang mezzo-soprano; Gloria Wynder, contralto. Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who commissioned the piece, played piano. There was also a percussionist, Al Howard. Columbia then released a recording with this delightful cover:

Cover by way of Discogs (click here for album info and on the image for legible text).

Cover by way of Discogs (click here for album info and on the image for a larger view).

As the arrows indicate, Davy is sitting beside Schuyler, on his right, in the back row of the car. His libretto, apparently, also appears on the cover, bearing a dedication absent from the text in Collected Poems: “to Mrs. William Esty” —  arts patron Alice Swanson Esty. Her paper are kept at Bates College, and there’s Schuyler material included there [link]. I’ll have to make a day trip.

Paul Bauschatz

Paul Bauschatz

Schuyler’s libretto — his poem — is divided in six sections, the action of which is easily summarized: a surprise visit from friends, who propose a Sunday drive and picnic, then the planning of the picnic and the drive itself (section I); arrival and lunch (II); a reading of the Sunday paper, beginning with horoscope (III), followed by advice column (IV) and garden section (V); then the packing up and return home (VI). Given how much of this matter is supplied by a newspaper, it’s appropriate, I suppose, that the New York Times led me back to Schuyler’s poem. Or maybe not appropriate; but ironic, since the Times had no use for this text in ’54, characterizing it as nonsense, adding: “Absurdity can sometimes be delightful, but this … is merely absurd.” A judgment I find hard to fathom: Schuyler’s poem is a hymn, so to speak, to  “The Art of the Ordinary,” to quote the subtitle of Bauschatz’s essay. Yes, there are dizzying moments, especially if one wants to differentiate characters amid the lovely bubbling of voices. But absurd? Nonsensical? As Bauschatz notes, “Schuyler’s typical poetic practice presents an ordinary mind or minds, somewhat befuddled, trying to organize or make coherent sense of ordinary events in ways that also let us, his readers, partake in the organizing process.” The Times, obviously, had no interest in partaking.

Not in the fifties, anyway. A 1992 revival was more fortunate in its reviewers, with Bernard Holland bestowing his approval, after a fashion: “thin to the point of triviality, … this glassy-eyed account of four women on a picnic has a zany and wholly winning ingenuousness.”

Four women, one of them, once upon a time, Gloria Davy. I clipped her picture yesterday, and put the rest of the paper in the bin.

Robert Kroetsch 1927–2011

From Robert Archambeau and others we learned a few weeks ago that Robert Kroetsch, the great Canadian author, was killed in a car wreck in his native Alberta, just a few days short of his 84th birthday. This sent us back to our Special Canadian Issue of Sagetrieb, guest edited by George Bowering and Ken Norris, which included Kroetsch’s “For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.” The essay is fluid and notational, divided like a day into 24 brief sections (an homage perhaps to Zukofsky, whose example, though uncited, is well-summed in Kroetsch’s third possibility: not the short long poem or book-long poem, but the life-long poem). Reprinted from Open Letter, originally presented at the MLA in 1980, the essay is focused on the 1970s, ranging widely across that decade to consider work by some twenty poets. Less an argument than a series of inferences and suggestions, it is in some ways a sketch for a workshop, informed, it seems, by Kroetsch’s poetic practice and pedagogy as well as by his critical intuitions.

Photo by Pearl Pirie (Pesbo) by way of Flickr

Archambeau’s Samizdat Blog has a lovely tribute to Kroetsch that pays particular attention to the poetry,  (link). Sandra Martin  has a broader overview of Kroetsch’s career in the Globe and Mail (link). There she writes, “Although Kroetsch walked on two legs, he had four literary pillars: fiction, criticism, teaching and poetry.” The last three, at any rate, are well represented in his essay on the long poem.

Some sample sentences:

The long poem, by its very length, allows the exploration of the failure of system and grid. The poem of that failure is a long poem.

Homer wrote poems without stanzas. We threaten to write stanzas (fragments, pieces, journals, ‘takes,’ cantos even) that cannot become the poem.

The paradox becomes this now: that art does not quite narrate, while life, possibly, does.

My own continuing poem is called, somewhat to my dismay, Field Notes.

When the poem finally appeared under the revised title Completed Field Notes (1989), Kroetsch’s dismay was apparently matched by that of his readers. As Archambeau reports (he was a student at the time at the university where Kroetsch was a presence), “I remember the arguments in the student pub about whether that word, ‘completed,’ represented a transcendence or a betrayal of Kroetsch’s project.” Reading Fred Wah‘s introduction to the 2000 reprint (link), one can see why the arguments were had. “Kroetsch’s poem,” writes Wah, “attempts to avoid design, to occupy a position of unresolved tension.” And then, noting “our desire … to make meaning from the fragments, to see pattern and connection,” he adds:

If our reading is not [to be] directed by the need for completion, we must syncretize dissonance, seemingly unconnected particles ‘going nowhere,’ in order, by chance, to intersect with a present moment that leads, perhaps, somewhere. And that present moment, given the phenomenological status of Kroetsch’s poetics, seems to be the action of writing itself.

And here is a poem from that book, showing Kroetsch-the-novelist to advantage. It comes from the middle section, “Advice to My Friends,” and speaks directly to the desire cited by Wah:

Sounding the Name

In this poem my mother is not dead.
The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.
The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
Our hired man, a neighbour’s son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills
near our farm, does not turn from the phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o’clock. My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not smile,
assuring each other (forever) that words are
pretenders.

In this poem my mother is not dead,
she is in the kitchen, finishing the October
canning. I am helping in the kitchen

I wash the cucumbers. My mother asks me
to go pick some dill. The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the garden gate.

Ice Fishing with Lorine Niedecker

Although ice fishing season is far behind us, I was excited nonetheless to read a poem by Lorine Niedecker on the topic, posted on Jonathan Skinner‘s blog Ecopoetics (read the post here).

The poem, from New Goose, reminded me of the vast stores of Niedecker material the NPF has published and promoted throughout the years. This includes printed scholarship, as with Elizabeth Savage‘s essay, “Love, the Lyric, and History in Lorine Niedecker and Susan Howe,” published in a special issue of Sagetrieb on women poets of the 1950s, edited by Savage and Lynda Szabo. Skinner chaired a panel on Niedecker at our 2004 conference on poetries of the 1940s, featuring work by Jayne Marek, Mary Pinard, and Judith Schwartz. New material on the poet is forthcoming in Paideuma 37, which includes an essay by Jeffrey Westover entitled “‘My Sense of Property’s / Adrift’: Attitudes toward Land, Property, and Nation in the Poetry of Lorine Niedecker.”

The NPF has also included Niedecker in our Person and Poet series (link). That volume, edited by Jenny Penberthy and published in 1996, includes the following excerpt from a letter from Niedecker to Paul Zukofsky on ice fishing, dated February 7, 1952:

Let me see what stories I can tell you from way out here in Wisconsin….

The other evening when Henry had a party at his place, after packing away inside the people all his headcheese till their heads were solid cheese and tying a beer stein around each one’s neck with a hose that ran to the stein from the upstairs kitchen, and after they’d all bid him a merry but bleary good night – and after he’d washed the dishes till three o’clock in the morning – a knock sounds on the door. Henry goes to answer it and there stands a stranger who was wandering – Odysseus himself – in search of his home. He had been walking from the taverns below us up toward the fishing shacks where he works and in the dark imagined he had got off our road. Seeing a light in a house he thought he’d better stop and inquire where he was. The stranger put his hand up to Henry’s face to show how cold it was outdoors. This could only happen at my father’s house.

Everybody is going out on the ice on the lake to fish. They take little huts along to sit in while their lines and hooks hang outside, down through the holes in the ice. The huts are heated and there the people sit and play cards. Someday I’ll get tired of trying to write radio scripts and jump into my waste basket which I’ll have on skids and I’ll skedoodle out onto the lake.

Good-bye!

Lorine

It seems a shame, speaking as someone with a keen interest in ice fishing, that Niedecker chose not to participate in the sport save in poetry. I will allow that Niedecker makes up for this with the cheeky last line of her poem: “well, we never go fishing, so they can’t catch us.”

Award for a Sagetrieb Author

We are very happy to learn — belatedly — that Danette DiMarco won the 2009 President’s Award for Scholarly Achievement at her home institution, Slippery Rock University. The announcement notes her scholarly focus on Victorian and 20th-century feminist authors, adding that she has also published pedagogical work on the teaching of writing to first-year students (link). We are especially happy to see her work for the NPF singled out.

‘Misfortune’s Monsters / The Human … Race’: Mina Loy’s American Lineage and an Urban Poetry of Economic Deprivation” appeared in a special issue of Sagetrieb devoted to women poets of the 1950s (Sagetrieb 19.3). As DiMarco notes, Loy spent many years living near the Bowery and was often consumed with money problems of her own. The four poems central to the essay’s argument — “On Third Avenue,” “Chiffon Velours,” “Hot Cross Bum,” and “Lady Laura in Bohemia” — are sharply observed and sharp in their address. DiMarco situates these poems in a lineage of critique that includes the work of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (DiMarco pays particular attention to Denise Duhamel, Janice Erlbaum, and Maggie Estep). Here is an excerpt; the quotes come from John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958):

Historically, sociologists and economists have two basic labels to describe the poor: case or insular poverty. Galbraith states that case poverty “is commonly and properly related to some characteristic of the individuals so afflicted.” It is due to “some quality peculiar to the individual or family involved” and assumes that the afflicted have not “mastered” their “environment.” Galbraith argues that people have assigned the term case poverty to describe those whose “sufferings” are the result of “deficiencies, including the moral shortcomings.” …

Unlike case poverty, insular poverty “manifests itself as an ‘island’ of poverty” where those involved “have been frustrated by some factor common to their environment.” Those suffering from case poverty often live amidst wealth while those experiencing insular poverty live among many of similar cast. … Although case and insular poverty are seemingly distinct, at least as Galbraith defines them, the separation is less real than one might like to think. In fact, when regions experience poverty because of environmental factors, the characterization of the population as disabled is often not long to follow. The group’s monstrous experience becomes naturalized as a necessary component or characteristic of that group.

Although Loy does not use “case” or “insular” to characterize the poor, her work reveals an understanding of the inner workings of both concepts. It is this effort to ever render the poor as monstrous that some of Loy’s later poems address. Her poems expose how stereotypes of the poor are reliant upon containment; in addition, her poems show that ideological boundaries must be maintained in order to perpetuate specific capitalist system.

It’s a great essay; DiMarco’s recognition is richly deserved.

Clearly a Winner

Last week came the wonderful news that Rae Armantrout won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, for Versed, her fourth volume with Wesleyan and her tenth overall. You can read the announcement on Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors (link), and see a video of Armantrout reading from the book on the website of the National Book Foundation, which administers the similar-sounding National Book Award (link). Armantrout was a finalist for the latter prize, along with Ann Lauterbach, who — like Armantrout — was a featured reader at our recent seventies conference (the winner, Keith Waldrop, was a featured reader at our earlier sixties conference).

Armantrout’s award sent me back to her 1992 essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” now part of her Collected Prose, first published in Sagetrieb. The essay was a sequel to her earlier “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” (published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978). The earlier essay was posed as an answer to the title question. The later one flipped the script by using the title to proliferate questions. That proliferation — and the questing intelligence behind it — is very much a part of Armantrout’s appeal. Even when the questions are leading, the invitation to think is welcome.

Here are some of the last sentences of the Sagetrieb essay — a statement of poetics in Socratic form:

What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you? Is readability equivalent to clarity? What is the relation of readability to convention? How might conventions of legibility enforce social codes? Does so-called experimental writing seek a new view of the self? Would such a view be liberating? Might experimental writing and feminism be natural allies? I think questions are most useful when left open. I will merely assert that there is more than one model of clarity.

It’s nice to see another model of clarity get official recognition!