Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Day Three

Poets House is a great and somewhat astonishing institution located in Soho. It has various aims, but most of all it's a repository of poetry, and a quiet place where anyone can go and read poetry, surrounded by poetry. Their collection is immense, very America-centric, but that's to be expected and useful for me in any case because my reading list #1 is largely made up of the American poets I felt I should become more familiar with. So spending lots of days there has been a part of my exam-prep plan. It has the added advantage that my Australian poet friend Tim works there so we can step out for a coffee now and then.

Today, though, was a bit of a reading disapointment. For various reasons I left the apartment late, and didn't get to PH until around 4, and upon arrival was saddened to discover that they are currently displaying a showcase of new books in the reading room, making it impossible to access the stacks to find the old books. Most of the poets I wanted to browse - Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka, Jerome Rothenberg, Anne Sexton, Charles Bernstein, Langston Hughes, etc. - were inaccessible, and I'm told will remain inaccessible for another couple of weeks. So I guess I'm back to hunting for things in libraries until then.

One book I had wanted to find was available because it is a new book (2005), and I spent two hours reading it until I was kicked out for an event. It's quite a treasure in itself: Jackson Mac Low's Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, a big collection of his works from the 50s right up until his death in 2004, that comes with a CD. Mac Low was an original and influential NYC poet/artist/performer (he effectively blurred the distinctions) who was best known for pioneering "non-intentional" writing, using various aleatory techniques in order to empty the influence of the ego from the compositional process. He did this in a way that no one had done it before (notwithstanding the activities of the Dada poets, for example), but he was influenced by John Cage and actually studied with Cage for a time. His writings often came in two forms: concrete word collage or chaotic sound performance, and it was not necessarily clear if the collage was a score for the performance or if the performance was an interpretation of the collage: neither the oral nor the visual were privileged.

I managed to meet Mac Low before he died, briefly, one Saturday afternoon in 2002 I think it was, shortly after I moved to New York, when I saw him perform at the Bowery Poetry Club. At the time I had heard of him, but it was without realizing what an innovative and interesting figure he was. My gradually increasing awareness of the New York poetry scene(s) has produced numerous experiences like that for me: the generation of poets discussed in All Poets Welcome, including some very influential writers, are dying off just as I get to know them. Kenneth Koch, one of the original New York School poets, died the month before I moved here, and Larry Rivers, the pop artist who collaborated with Frank O'Hara and other New York poets, died shortly after. Barbara Guest died just two months ago, which leaves John Ashbery as the only main "1st generation" NY school poet still living. Robert Creeley died last spring, and I attended the memorial reading held for him at St.Mark's Poetry Project, where I had also seen him read before he died. He had an amazingly distinctive voice, and although I wouldn't say his poetry affected me deeply, I can still clearly hear his voice in my head. And of course every time I go to teach a class at Brooklyn College I am reminded that it wasn't very long ago that Allen Ginsberg was riling up students in the same classrooms. I seem to be vulnerable to the postmodern (or is it universal?) suspicion of having been born too late. At the same time, although this sounds like a horrible thing to say, perhaps it is just as well that these formidable figures have passed from the world. It creates space for newness.


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