Sunday, May 21, 2006

Day Seventeen

Okay, as is pretty obvious, it's not day seventeen. But I'm smart enough to figure out the next number in the sequence, usually. How do I know I'm smart enough? Well, the exam that I've been preparing for all this time took place at 1 pm on May 17th in the thesis room at the CUNY Grad Center, and when it was all over and the dust settled and the jargon stopped flying, I had passed with distinction. So I breathed a sigh of relief and left for Canada to perform at the conundrum press 10th anniversary anthology launch and then to start teaching at Bishop's.

I may return to this site to discuss some of the books I haven't discussed or future readings as I work toward writing my dissertation, because I find this exercise useful, and because I like continuity in certain forms.

Onward, as R. Creeley would say. But sideways this time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Day Sixteen

Jack Spicer: San Francisco Renaissance poet (along with Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan) whom I find both delightful and sometimes misguided. In his After Lorca he talks (in one of his letters to Lorca) about creating poems out of things. Not in the W. C. Williams sense ("no ideas but in things") but in a much more literal, concrete sense, a Kurt Schwitters sense of pasting newspapers and lemons together to make a poem about newspapers and lemons. This would be better, he suggests, than using words, because the only usefulness of words is to bring the real into the poem. The words cling to the real and vice versa. Other than that, words have no value. The perfect poem, he says, has an infinitely small vocabulary.

These letters to Lorca are obviously poems in themselves, more than they are serious attempts to theorize his practice, if serious means unambiguous. But Spicer seemed to be one of those writers - a true poet, if you will - who was incapable of distinguishing much between the poetic and the theoretical. His A Textbook of Poetry his explanations are surreal and concerned with things like ghosts. In his lectures, his apparently earnest - albeit intoxicated - attempts to explain his practice continually call on esoteric forces - whether ghosts or Martians, some external force - as the inspirational factor in poetry-writing. At first I thought this was a conservative sort of mythologization, an attempt to turn writing into a kind of transcendental, inexlicable religious experience, which in practice would only reify the exalted aura of the poet. It bears a resemblance to what Creeley talks about as poetry by dictation. However, taken another way Spicer's philosophy can be seen as a determined attempt to evacuate intentionality from the writing process. This is not so different from the thoroughly post-modern and (I think) progressive aleatory practices of John Cage or Jackson Maclow, or of the Oulipo writers, and not so unrelated to the Death of the Author. It may be just Spicer's way of saying, as Derrida does, that language is never entirely in our conscious control.

Spicer also seemed concerned that poetry be an act of communication, although he thinks this is incredibly difficult and rare. Communicating with the dead seems to be the most he consistently hopes for. In the Lorca book he dedicates every one of the poems to someone he knows. This, he explains, is to ensure that each poem will be able to find an audience of at least one person.

Day Fifteen

Kenneth Rexroth, American poet once referred to as the father of the Beat Generation (he rejected the label): I read a couple of his essays that clearly demonstrate how wide-ranging and encyclopedic were his knowledge and understanding of the modern world. (The story goes that he read the Encyclopaedia Britannica every year, "like a novel".) One of them, "The Making of the Counterculture" (1969), is interesting in how adamantly it rejects the conservative notion which Rexroth thought was common in the 50's, that the age of experimentation in literature and culture was over. Instead he suggested that the political and aesthetic revolutions that were happening and would happen made Modernism look modest by comparison. He said that the culture - particularly the writing - that really mattered was happening not in the academy or in bookstores but in small copied magazines and readings, and was produced by and dominated by youth culture. He could have been discussing spoken word when he said that the vital poetry of counter-cultural readings "has no life beyond the immmediate occasion." The Beats, he said (he classified only four writers as Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso) were significant not so much as literature but as social history.

"The most significant, if not the best by older critical standards, literature in America today is to be found, not in books, or even in the established literary magazines, but in poetry readings, in mimeographed broadsides, in lyrics for rock groups, in protest songs — in direct audience relationships of the sort that prevailed at the very beginnings of literature. The art of reading and writing could vanish from memory in a night and it would not make a great difference to the poetry, or even much of the prose, of the youngest generation of poets and hearers of poetry. This is the new world of youth which so disturbs the oldies. Rightly so, it is a world they never made. In it they are strangers and afraid — totally unable, most of them, to comprehend what is happening." —from "The Making of the Counterculture"

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day Fourteen

I want to mention a few writers here who are not on my reading list but perhaps should have been.

Bob Kaufman, one of the few African-American Beat poets and the man sometimes credited with inventing the word Beatnik, is often dismissed as a minor figure because he was supposedly a bit crazy and his poems are pretty cliche-ridden and derivative - "unselfconscious" might be a kinder and perhaps more accurate word. But my interest doesn't stem from the supposed quality of the poetry but from the role of the poet in creating the social phenomenon. (If I were only interested in excellent poetry I probably would not go to many spoken word events.) Kaufman is a much-overlooked figure, a pure jazz-poet who insisted that poetry was primarily oral, who would recite his poems from memory on the streets (and often got arrested for it), and who lived a non-conformist life more than any of the other beats. Non-conformism may not have been good for his life, of course - he was a drug addict, was sometimes without a home, got put in jail and mental institutions and was subjected to shock therapy against his will. When Kennedy was assassinated he took a vow of silence which he kept for a decade until the Vietnam war was ended - and then his first words were a poem declaimed in a coffeehouse.

Vachel Lindsay was a white American poet at the turn of the century who had an interest in black poetry and musical forms - he claimed to have "discovered" Langston Hughes when Hughes was working in a diner - but who today is usually seen as an example of the deep-rooted racism of his day. His most famous poem, "The Congo" uses racist stereotypes to glorify African music and culture - sort of like other primitivist movements in Modernism - but it's interesting in its use of abstract sound that prefigures sound poetry. He is sometimes cited as one of the first jazz poets, and he considered himself a sort of modern troubadour, selling his poetry on the streets and insisting on the oral and folk aspects of poetry - which apparently gained him the acknowledgement of W.B. Yeats.

William S. Burroughs was of course connected to the Beat poets by friendship / habit / aesthetic outlook, and although you could say he was a novelist rather than a poet, the techniques he used (like the cut-up and fold-in) meant that he treated words in a much more plastic way than a plot-oriented novelist. He said himself that Naked Lunch was a work that you could start on any page. He was more obsessed with language than story. And if his prose work blurs the genre boundaries with poetry, his work as a spoken word artist is a reminder that spoken word isn't specific to verse forms. He developed many of his original techniques in collaboration with Brion Gysin, whom I will perhaps mention later.

John Giorno is a curious poet / performance figure from New York - known as, among other things, the actor/subject in Warhol's film Sleep - who has done things like the Dial-a-Poem experiments. His improvisational energy - using various artistic approaches, a cultural tactician in Michel de Certeau's sense of the word - is really important to the spirit of spoken word today I think.

There are many others, poets and artists, whose names come up and who ultimately I may want to acknowledge in writing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Dunbar, Quincy Troupe, Jim Carroll, Laurie Anderson, Miranda July, Patti Smith. Right now I'm sort of focussing on Americans, because I'm in the United States of, and because I've been trying to flesh out my understanding of writing scenes in the 20th century in this country. Other people I think it would be interesting to look at in connection with everything else on my list: Tristan Tzara, Jerzy Grotowski, Abbie Hoffman, Leonard Cohen, Filippo Marinetti, and Annie Sprinkle.

Day Thirteen

As the 17th gets closer I'm being slowly buried in a pile of books; the one I've been spending the last few hours with is The Collected Poems of Anne Sexton. Sexton is an interesting figure; she was very well known even in her lifetime even though her poetic output was concentrated in the last 18 years of her life. She's never associated with the New York-style avant-garde partly because she lived all her life in and around Boston, and partly because she was pegged as a confessional poet in the style of Lowell and Plath. Her poetry was not that formally experimental, but it was progressive in one important way: that she pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate subject matter for poetry by writing about the real traumas of her life - depression, suicide, abortion. In particular she opened up the possibilities for women to write about their lives - something that seems intrinsic to the style of much spoken word today. That's not the only reason she's on my reading list, though. She was also well-known partly because of her readings - which were mostly pretty traditional poetry readings, but which showcased her apparently impressive stage presence. I don't know what to make of the occasional suggestions I've read that her physical appearance figured in her popularity. It is always mentioned, for example, that for a time she worked as a model. She was tall, slim, and striking, and had a certain gravitas in reading her work. Mentioning this could be interpreted as either a sexist objectification or an interest in the role of the aura of the performer. In any case, Sexton liked performing and for a time she even fronted a jazz-poetry ensemble. Another interesting thing about Sexton - whose work developed intellectually without the benefit of any university degree - is that for a long period she would workshop her poems with her friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin over the telephone (she had a second line installed in her house so that they could stay on as long as they wanted). This must have had an effect on the sound of the poems and the construction of her line breaks, as the work evolved in a purely oral medium.

Day Twelve

It's not really day twelve, of course - I've lost track and been too busy this week marking papers. A problem with this whole endeavour, with the particular lists I devised for myself, is that I find it hard to shift from the mindset required for reading theory to the mindset required for reading poetry. In a way, it is just hard to read poetry for an exam. With the prose and theory, there is something recognizable to be got, and I need go only slow enough to get it. With poetry slowness is part of the point.

I've been trying to slow down and focus on poetry this week (hard to do when my deadline is getting nerve-wrackingly close). Some poets are easier to focus on than others, of course. I've just been perusing Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry, from 1960, which is a kind of who's who of American poets of a certain progressive avant-garde breed, encompassing the Beat poets, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance, as well as others. It does not include confessional poets, many academic poets, the ones that would be seen as more traditional. It includes the inheritors of Pound and Williams, but not those of Eliot or Frost, let's say. Its appearance marked the establishment of a clear dichotomy between two competing fields of American poetry.

So far, I find it easiest to slip into the rhythm of the Beat poets (Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti are all in there) and I find the New York School (O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, Guest) witty and strangely light-hearted. Ashbery and Ginsberg were among my favourites before I embarked on this review. The parts I'm having more trouble slowing down enough for are the Black Mountain parts. Creeley is crisp and serene but still cryptic; Duncan and Dorn are a little more clear but quirky; I like some Levertov, but Olson, the granddaddy of the bunch who is the first poet in the collection, continues to seem mostly pompous and esoteric to me. I feel like given the amount of reverence shown Olson I am exposing myself as an impatient philistine by saying that. But while I sense a lot of wisdom in his writing - each line is thick with allusion and archetypes, and also thick with an overwhelming sense of grandiose life-affirming philosophy - I don't sense much ability or desire to connect or to share the comedy and pathos of human life, as it's found in the NY School. Alas, my reading list is crowded with BM poets more than anything else. One of the best things about this collection is the section of theory/poetics statements at the end. One thing that I feel like re-reading is Olson's Projective Verse essay, a massively influential document, although I don't think his theory is really of much help to me.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Day Eleven

One of the difficulties of writing about spoken word is also one of the more interesting aspects of it as a genre: the fact that it's not obvious which artists, writers, or performers should be included. I've been focussing mainly on poets in my research, partly because many spoken word artists identify themselves as poets, and partly because it's just easy that way. But it makes sense to include theatrical traditions in the history of spoken word as well, and for me the artistic development that is most significant to spoken word is performance art. In fact I think that much of the work done by spoken word artists I know has more in common with that tradition than with poetry. But there more definitional questions arise because not all or even most performance art is text-based, so where is the word to be spoken? Also there is the issue of populist vs. "serious" work, which somehow seems to be more easily dealt with in poetry. Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, for example, are theatre practitioners whom I would include, and I would include a performer like Laurie Anderson, who uses speech, but other artists like Vito Acconci or Carolee Schneeman or Jenny Holzer for example fit only partially. It demonstrates, perhaps, that spoken word is not a category but a behaviour (sort of like homosexuality?) So there are many examples of performance which we might consider as spoken word under certain circumstances. Lenny Bruce should be cited, for sure, but are all stand-up comedians a part of it? Why not? Is it Bruce's subversiveness that is important? There is also the entire category of the rock-star spoken word artist, like Lydia Lunch, or Henry Rollins, whose approach is so different from the "seriousness" of performance art - his approach is quite serious too, but aimed at a different audience.

All of this is a preface to mentioning Karen Finley, whose book, A Different Kind of Intimacy, I've just been reading. The thing that makes Karen Finley's work related to what we normally see as spoken word is not that she writes and uses spoken text in her performances, but that there is an identification between her work and herself as the artist figure, which separates it from traditional theatre. Finley doesn't always speak autobiographically (although she uses autobiographical elements), and she certainly plays characters, but at a Karen Finley performance it is still Karen Finley on the stage. At the same time, her career is an interesting example of the blurriness of serious art performance and entertainment. She says in her book that early in her career she took what she did very seriously and had not much of a sense of humour about it - especially when it came to defending her work against censorship. Later on, it's not that she doesn't take it seriously anymore, but she starts to see that it was always a form of entertainment as well - that is, she realizes that her "fuck you" to the audience was also a kind of seduction. She goes from insisting that if she takes off her clothes and pours chocolate all over herself, that shouldn't be construed as sexual, to making erotic performance central to her work. One of my favourite parts of her book and her career is her piece that parodies the entire saga of going to the Supreme Court to challenge the NEA's revocation of her grant under pressure from conservative politicians like Jesse Helms. She portrays the conflict as a long abusive relationship based on Helms' sexual harassment of her - coming to grips in the process with her own complicity in the abuse. I think an awareness of the reciprocal attraction of performer and audience, and of the implications of that for the art as entertainment, is an important insight to be gained from performance artists, something that poets often overlook.