American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Great Companions

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The following is excerpted from a note I wrote a week or so after Robin Blaser’s death.

Blaser-sundayRobin Blaser was a lover of quotation, of echoing words staged as conversation; his beautiful, learned writing was a testament to the resounding otherness that constitutes experience. “We are articulated into labor, life and language, the three great modes of the Other,” he once declared, adding, “Yes, I’m talking about a mystery, and yes, I’m talking about the absolute invasion and the peculiar task of poetry to perform in public the Otherness of these huge realms.”

Blaser’s name will forever be linked with those of his friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, poets to whom he paid continual tribute, and yet Blaser’s own writing took shape most marvelously after he took his distance from Duncan, leaving their shared San Francisco for good, and after Spicer’s death. A lesson in detachment whose script was written most forcefully by Walt Whitman, in “Song of the Open Road”:

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

We can guess that Blaser read these lines, and took them to heart, because he took a title — and task — from the one that comes right after:

Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

The “Great Companions” in Blaser’s collected poems, The Holy Forest, are Pindar, Dante, and Duncan, but Blaser’s interest in companionship hardly stops there; friendship is one of the pillars of his poetics. One poem begins: “Aristotle said, ‘all men by nature desire / to know’ / Dante added, ‘every man by nature is a / friend to every other man’ // I believe both worlds / and dream their necessity.” And elsewhere, in a statement of methodology, “I have chosen a poetic practice of entangling discourses, including the running about of my lyric voice. A companionship of seeing through ‘the lack of meaning in our time and the lack of a world at the centre of meanings we try to impose.’”

To be after the great companions is to work in the absence of what life finds most necessary, and yet make a livelihood out of the search. It can feel at times like a mournful half-existence, and yet it makes one attentive to all that remains, so that even the rumbling of a stomach (“borborygmus”) can be instruction from the gods, as in Blaser’s “Demi-Tasse,” an elegy that begins:

the silence surrounds me   political silence    where
the words were deeds once upon a time and space
social silence    where a fragile good composes    bankruptcies
of ideas run through two centuries    my centuries, watching
the poets sit on the shelves

Later in the poem he writes, “yet here among gathering bankruptcies, we touch / and part … according / to our lights.” And also:

after is never a condition of beyond, but of comparison, even
of companionship

He will be missed, sorely.

Read Stan Persky’s obituary for Blaser at Dooney’s Cafe. Persky also has a more extended essay about Blaser at the same site.

Robin Blaser’s author pages at the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

July 8, 2009 at 12:14 am

One Response

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  1. Lovely, economical tribute. Glad to see Blaser back in the blog cycle.

    rodney k.

    July 8, 2009 at 11:11 am


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