Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jack Spicer's Collected Poetry

Buy the Book

I was first introduced to Jack Spicer and his poetry when I was involved with the Synthetic Poets of Dallas, Texas in the late 1990's. My compatriots had been influenced by him so I read him and was not moved at that time. I am a thick and sometimes stupid person-but Spicer's work is in many ways more like a slow virus than a major epidemic and I became very sick with the virus.

As one grows as a poet or person the work slowly breaks down the rocks and creates a new canyon. In "My Vocabulary did this to Me" the Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer from Wesleyan University press two poets, of equal import to Spicer, Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian delve into this man's seminal work and give us something that is rare in poetry today, a sense of the poet as revolutionary and conservator at the same time. Spicer like Gizzi and Blaser are forging new landscapes and this book does much for our understanding of the monument of the work.

There is something very Gnostic about Spicer and his friends Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. In many ways these poets are Seminal in the original use of the word. Seminal comes from semen and the Gnostic orgiastic ritual where in the purity of that sexual ejaculation was viewed as the way to return to the Divine and bypass the Earthy Demiurge. In many ways Spicer is of this mentality he helps us to bypass the Demiurge and return to poetic divinity.

There are many great poems in this book. One of my favorites is They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Rexroth. I am a huge Rexroth fan and so when I first found this poem I read it out of my affection for Rexroth but this poem is so much more than a tribute.

"I will never again climb a mountain, read St. Augustine or go to bed with a woman"

Without wishing you were there Kenneth Rexroth"

In this poem Spicer both critiques and lauds Rexroth and he also encapsulates a poet's life his Obra in a short poem. He brings together poetry, jazz and religion "Each of whose tones perfectly overlays the other" And Spicer goes on to laud and critique Rexroth and his political verse and in the end he defines influence and image and makes us see both what Spicer views as his ultimate concern and his gratitude to an older poet.

Later in the Collected Works they give us Golem from 1962. His poem begins October 1, 1962 with the Dodger Giant playoff for the National League pennant. The first stanza is all about baseball the second is a devastating critique of early 1960's middle class ness. the fourth stanza however is something worthy of Plato or Augustine;


Everything is fixed to a point.
The death of a poet or a poem is
fixed to a point. This House, that
Bank Account, this Piece of paper
on the floor. That Light that shines
there instead of elsewhere.
Appealing to the better nature of
things. Inventing Angels.
Inventing angels. The light that
that light shone shone there
instead of elsewhere. Each
corner of the room fixed in
an angle to itself.
The death of a poet or a poem or
a piece of paper, Things
Fix themselves.

In this stanza Spicer ascends to a poetic depth that is not normally found in the American idiom. There are few poets who have written in our nation's poetic life who can get away with what Spicer did and be taken seriously. Spicer does this without flinching.

What is amazing about Spicer and this is also true for Williams is that their collected works are so small. Williams for example is less than a 1000 pages including Paterson. Spicer is perhaps 1500 pages. Yet his influence along with Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan continue to enlighten things. It is not the quantity but the quality of the work that is evident here.

The sense of the Gnostic in these poets was illustrated well in a book by Peter O'Leary The Gnostic Contagion but it is in reading the actual work that this neo-Gnosticism comes to the forefront. Spicer has been viewed along with Duncan, Blaser and Creeley as proto-Language poets. They are the Austrolopithicines of the Language revolution of the 1970's and this might be true but I think more so Spicer and his SF Rennaissance friends are the culmination of a great tradition of heroic poetry.

From this peak the break down of the work caused new stones to be created and among these is Language Poetry but the work here is more is heroic and seminal in a Gnostic way.
Gizzi and Blaser have created a great valedictory for Spicer and we can hope that Lisa Jarnot's long awaited biography of Robert Duncan will do the same for his work.

In the end though these San Francisco Renaissance poets and Spicer's work in this book are towering as to make much of the poetry we are all writing seem like broken shards to their great marble masterpieces.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The End of American Dominance

The National Intelligence Council has published a report about the end of American dominance within the next 20 years. Of course from where I sit- I feel like I am watching this decline before my eyes. It appears that the great house of cards has fallen and now we need to ask ourselves questions.

I have been impolitic and perhaps a little bit too irascible over the past couple of posts. The fact is however that the separation and lack of engagement with the seething mass of people by most poets bothers me. I look at a poet like Whitman and I wonder who cares now about real people.

When pundits say that President Obama is going to be like FDR and we need new New Deal. Lets hope that President Obama is as wise as Franklin Roosevelt. Because we need it...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Inside Jokes, Giggles and Self Absorbed Poets

Near to my mother's hometown is the Vittoriale of Gabrielle D'Annunzio. In many ways the Vittoriale is the kind of house a poet would design it bears all the narcissism that is so much a part of our art form.

The home has everything original folios of Dante and Shakespeare, Marble reliefs of the greatest italian poems. A bathroom that is to say the least poetic and a battleship jutting out
of a mountain.

As a small child I would go the Vittoriale with my Grandparents we would make a day of it lunch, Gelato, Vittorale, Nap.

In Italy poets, even Fascists like D'Annunzio are held in high esteem. When I Published my first book of poems that was a moment of pride in our house. Being an artists was something to be respected. In the valley where my mother is from artists and poets can get a free ride and their lives are allowed to unfold as they see fit. It helps being in one of the world's most beautiful places as well.

I often think about D'Annunzio and his narcissism when I am at poetry readings. How many poetry readings have I sat through where inside jokes and giggles are the norm. I have sat through work that is just filled with self absorb ion and giggles. I wrote earlier this month that I thought that the reason for Flarf and also Ironic Poetic is now in question because of the election of Barack Obama as president. I also questioned the validity of the Obscurist trend that is embodied by a couple of poets here in Chicago but is part of our larger poetic reality. I was excoriated for these comments both on line and in emails to my personal account- I especially like being excoriated because I know that I have hit a nerve which means people are thinking.

I have stopped going to many poetry readings. The reason is that there is so much 'inside' baseball. I have sat through Flarf readings where everyone sits there-trying to understand and a small group sits in the corner and giggles at the insider jokes. I have sat through readings where the poet has to explain that he/she is using this source material from a 9th Century Zen Koan rather than letting the world speak for itself. I go back to what Mark Tardi said to me once that the work will stand or fall on its own merit no matter how obscure or 'clever' you make it.

As we move into a new age- and I do believe that it is a new age-we see global forces redefining what we are to be. I recently read the new issue of Sibila a Brazilian on line magazine published by Regis Bonvicino. He wrote a mostly laudatory essay about Obama. But just a year or so ago he and Charles Bernstein while in Brazil wore Abu Graib inspired hoods to a poetry reading. They used that tragedy as a backdrop to their poetry. This was an easy way of appearing provocative but what now? Bonvicino and Bernstein used our national political tragedy as a vehicle to contextualize their poetry and to appear cutting edge. This is what poets should be doing but what do poets do now?

In a response to an earlier blog post Dave Pavilich (I think it was Dave) wrote that really nothing has changed and that during the Kennedy Administration other bad things happened. He also defended the obscurist tendencies of some poets. But is poetry to always be inside baseball? Is it always to be some rarefied conversation between MFA's and other smarty pants? OF course the poets who dwell in the obscure are there for a reason that is where they can matter. But shouldn't poets try to do more?

I think about Vallejo politically active, intellectually curious, poetically spectacular. There is a poetic that really speaks on many levels to a time and place. Does the poetry we have created do this? Shouldn't we ask it to do more than be an insider club or a marginal retreat for academics and sycophants?

As a person who works in business rather than academia I see what is happening around our nation clearly. Companies are firing people, money is drying up, people are losing their homes, we are a nation filled with uncertainty. I do not know if irony and inside baseball gigglefests are what we need now? I do not know if poetry that is about obscurity is where we need to be?

I keep going back to older work. I look at poems like Mauberley and the Wasteland or even Patterson and I see depth and texture. I see poems about something and I see poems that are teasing out the sense of a time and place. I think that techniques like Flarf are interesting just as Language writing is interesting but I keep asking myself is this what we need now? Is cleverness and insider poetry what needs to be written?

Or should we be about more?

So much poetry now is written for the margins because it is in these micro communities that a modicum of success can be achieved by a poet. Look at the SPD catalogue lots of communities are represented but where is the working class writing, and where is the world writing?

Does anyone in the academy care about the working class? Studs Terkel just died two weeks ago would SPD have a section for someone like him? Does anyone is poetry really care about in the words of Kenneth Rexroth getting their nose in the armpits of the people?

So I guess again I bellow from my fat belly and ask does any of this matter?

As I spend time with old literary friends mostly for solace; Rexroth, Sorrentino, Augustine, Williams, & Vallejo. I continue to look amid our current poets for this kind of depth and texture.

Is poetry just about our own narcissism? Or is there more to be written? What happens when the nation and the world continues to go into a deep economic downturn?

Do we continue to giggle at our own cleverness?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's America the Death of Irony and Mediocrity

Josh Corey- mentioned a recent post of mine about
Obama and the end of irony in our poetics. What I think is a deeper question is that poetry and poetics have been dominated by two tendencies in recent years- fascileness and a fixation on the obscure.

The fascileness in poetry is embodied by the Flarfists and other nonsense poetry that substitutes chance for craft. Chance of course is a great tool in art. I for one am a huge fan of Jackson Pollock and much of drip painting for example began in chance and it has grown into great art. But having said that you do not get great craft from chance.
It is hard for example when looking at a great piece of architecture to separate the craft of the work from the form. Many times in poetry there is an elitism which simply removes so much of the potential audience as to make the work a secret of the know club rather than art or even communication.

Another fixation is on the obscure. We have a large school of Obscurists here in Chicago. Poets like Peter O'Leary and John Tipton who are great at Craft. These are good examples of Obscurists poetry. They tend to be elitists and are drawn to very peculiar minutiae as fonts of the work. O'Leary for example will use medieval Byzantine monastic tropes, Tipton will re translate Ajax and so the poetry instead of being nonsense like Flarf and instead of being left to chance is very controlled. The control however protects the poet from engaging with the world as it is- rather the poet constructs his/her cathedral and dwells in it in a kind of sacred mystery.

So why do these two tendencies present a problem for poetry as we move into an age where irony is challenged?
I am convinced that many poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because they are insecure with their place in our society. During the Bush era it was easy to think of oneself as John the Baptist or St Simon of the Pillar standing against the barbarians. But in the age of Obama how does a poet do this and remain a prophet and not a frothing at the mouth lunatic? The problem is that poetry is filled with people who have peculiar gifts. Most poets are not in the business of big things and we are woefully low on poets with big projects. The result of this is that poets retreat into obscurity or fascileness because it is easier than engaging with the world.

So Obama presents for poets a challenge. We are already marginal --but does poetry as an artform want its innovative and experimental self to become anachronistic? I have argued for a long time that poetry needs to reach out to the greater world of poetry for answers. Even a nonsense/ironist poet like Charles Bernstein has done this with his great interaction and work with the Brazilian poet Regis Bonvicino.

Having said this I think that it is time for poetry- especially of the experimental variety to move out of the shadows into the light. I think that best model for this type of poetics is a place like Brazil. In Brazil most poets are engaged in a greater dialogue with their society. There are fewer readers of poetry in Brazil than there are here in the USA but many of the poets are about big things.

I just translated RETRATO TOTÊMICO DE CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS by the Brazilian poet Sergio Medeiros. In this work Medeiros weaves Strauss, Scriabin and Ives into a work that has challenged silences. None of these subjects are particularly Brazilian but the work itself harkens back to not only Iberian writing but to Guarani and the Jesuit reductions in its complexity. (the work will appear in the next issue of the magazine Mandorla) When I look at the work that some of these Brazilian poets are doing- with its depth and layering I think this is where poetry in the USA must go.

We must move away from a poetry of shallowness. I would use poets like Duncan, Olson and Creeley as models but also the linguistic strength of a poet like Stein would do as well. We cannot as an artform remain in this world of throw away poetry and throw away opportunities. The moment we are in with a new president and a new age before us offers as chance to open dialogue with global poets and also to our past. A past not without irony but also a future with a big project.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Has Changed... 1928-1968, 1968-2008

Before 1928 no Roman Catholic had ever run for President. The nomination of Alfred E Smith
the Governor of New York ushered in a new America. The America of White Ethnics, Catholics, Jews and Labor Unions.

There would never have been FDR without Alfred E Smith. Most Americans today do not know who Smith was but he was essential to the America that came later. Before Smith most progressives came from the country like William Jennings Bryan after Smith they came from places like New York and Chicago.

From Smith's nomination until August of 1968, forty years the New Deal coalition of Catholics, Jews, Working Class Workers, Poor Southerners, Blacks and Intellectuals dominated American politics. On the streets of Grant Park that coalition was destroyed. Southerners and most Catholics left the Democrats and for the next 40 years they voted for Republicans. The Nixon-Reagan coalition was almost unbeatable.

Alfred E Smith was done in by bigotry and hatred of Catholics. The Republican coalition was done in by the Bigotry of the Republicans toward immigrants somewhere Al Smith is smiling.
It has been discovered that a huge amount of Hispanic and other Immigrants and their families voted for Barack Obama. The hatred of Immigrants by the Republicans and their allies has created a new coalition. One that Al Smith would recognize and feel right at home in again.

On Tuesday a new coalition was born. Barack Obama, African, Irish, son of immigrants, Chicagoan, Hawaiian, has created a new world. In many way Obama has done another thing he has made it impossible to demonize people for their skin color in national elections and for this he is a world changer.

Silvio Berlusconi the president of Italy made a racist remark about Obama being tanned. While 'the knight' is a moron he does embody a kind of bigotry that is rampant in many places where culture is equated with race. (Europe, China, Japan, Korea other places). My family comes from the north of Italy in Brescia and in the little town where my mom is from a person like Barack Obama is very alien. In Chicago my hometown in America Barack Obama is our favorite son.

That says something about America doesn't it?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Poets and Poetry in the Age of Obama

I have been thinking alot about poets and poetry in the face of what an Obama presidency means over the past couple of days. For most of the past forty years poets could default to the counter cultural because of the political realities of the United States. Poets could retreat into a corner with other poets and create complete poetry worlds insulated from the big bad world. Poetry has become almost like Kabbalah or Scrabble rather than a grand art form. Either a secret practice or a odd craft.

It has been an easy default for poets to exist as ironic cynics who live juxtaposed against the corporatism and conservatism of the past 40 years. In fact if you look at poets who have built much of their street cred around irony and cynicism (Charles Bernstein comes to mind) a sense that their work is dated and anachronistic in light of new realities becomes a real question. How do we read the Girly Man poems with Barack Obama in the White House? It almost seems as out of date as reading poems about Mc Carthyism.

It is not that we are entering the sacred Millennium with Obama but what we are entering is an age where many of our values as poets are embodied in our President. I go back to an earlier post where I talk about Obama being a member of Seminary Co-op here in Chicago. Obama is a serious reader and is more intelligent than most poets I know- this could not be said for Bush or Clinton. Where do we as poets position ourselves how can we be social critics when the President embodies much of what we desire for America? Where do we find our edge? Do we move into the kind of navel viewing that so many poets prefer? Do we retreat into the academy as so many poets are wont to do? How do we engage now with a new and better world where our irony and cynicism don't really compute?

One of the things that has embodied so much of contemporary poetry is a focus on irony and cynicism. You see this in so many poets today the irony of Flarf or the hip poet writing of many young women poets even the crypto marxism of Language poetry. The reality of this poetic sense is that you can live life as a kind of drive by shooting where you leave your slugs in society and drive off to your next kill. Since none of us have ever had a president with whom we believed (In the way Americans believed in JFK or FDR) how do we now relate? Do many of our poetic projects become redundant and in need of revision?

I think that it is important for poets and other creative people to ask themselves the question of what we do next? Do we as a creative community continue to dwell at the margins- doing work that is ironic and cynical but marginal? Or do we rethink our poetic project and begin to believe again that poetry can be trans formative? How do poets whose whole lives have been spent in irony and cynicism learn new ways of being poets?

In the end this is a dialogue for the poetry community to have with itself but lets just say that with the age of Obama the time when a poet can get away with the Girly Man poems is past and we need a new paradigm of poetic conversation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Obama Means for Poets

On the day I was born, May 14th 1967 African Americans had been using the same water fountains as Whites in the south for two years. I have witnessed bussing, White Flight, Willie Horton and Law and Order pleas within my lifetime. I have also witnessed the election of an African American president.

What does this mean for poets?

I believe that in many ways it destroys current paradigms of poetry built on irony and inside baseball. So much of our current poetry is vaguely political, ironic and cynical. How is one cynical and ironic in front of President Barack Obama? We poets need to look again at what we do and realize last night the world has changed, for the better. We are entering a new world and one where we as Americans are not reviled in the world. How will we deal with that?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Few Hours

We are a few hours away. This morning I voted and saw a little miracle. A African American family, Mom, Dad three year old. They voted and the father took the child's picture and told him "remember this day".

It made the day for me.

Monday, November 3, 2008

What if Obama loses?

What if Obama loses?

Last night traudi and I went for a walk in Oak Park, IL where we live and almost every home had multiple Obama signs. If Oak Park is along with the Senator's own Hyde Park the Obama heartland. Our area is 35% African American, we are also a neighborhood filled with Chicago White Ethnics, Fauxemian liberals and Cosby Show blacks. Oak Park is a place that those like Sarah Palin views not a Real America.

We in Oak Park do not live in the 'real america'.

It is ironic we live in Open America because we live less than a mile from what was once ground zero between Real America and Open America; Cicero, Illinois (the hometown of Al Capone). In 1967, the year of my birth, the Italian, Bohemian and Polish whites of Cicero stoned Martin Luther King as he marched for Open housing. That was 41 years ago. Cicero also welcomed George Wallace, Richard Nixon and many others it was the home of the angry white ethnic urban backlash. Within a block of my house are areas denuded of people from White Flight in the 1960's and 70's. But today all these neighborhoods White, Black and Hispanic are voting for Barack Obama.

What has happened?

Cicero, Today once the city of backlash is multi-ethnic, Hispanic, White Ethnic and Black and in the Illinois Primary in February went 82% for Obama. Can you imagine in 1967 yardsigns with a black man's name in Cicero? Well I am looking at them and believing that Open America can beat Real America. Just maybe?

So now after all the donations, phone banking, and struggle could Barack Obama lose? Well in a word yes he could. The fact is that the America of Barack and Michelle Obama is alien to many but it is the America most of us dwell in today.

Imagine what might happen tomorrow?

Michelle Obama's family is desended from Slaves. Her children are descendants of Slaves. Barack Obama recently at a Chicago restaurant was thrown car keys one of the diners thinking he was the valet. This family will become the first family and make Open America a reality. Dr King's Dream writ large.

Do We live in Open America. Or 'real' America?

There are millions of Americans who view Open America as alien America. The America where Blacks, Hispanics, Euro-Americans, Women, Gay Americans and more meld and build a new place is alien to them. Open America is the future but does that future come tomorrow? I am beside myself with anticipation.

Are we going to let "real America" defeat "open america"?

It is fitting that in the week that Studs Terkel died that another son of Chicago is trying to bring to the fore the Open America. Have we changed enough? Georgia GOP senator Saxby Chambliss sent an email to his supporters telling them "the other folks are voting". The other folks are voting- will this be enough? He was referring to the African Americans in Georgia but he was also referring to me.

In the end it is 24 hours before the first election of the 21st Century or the last of the 20th. It is our choice.

Do we want Open America or Real America?

We can hope...