American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for July 2009

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.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 8, 2009 at 12:14 am

Lint

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Minute shreds of information gathering in my head, as in a pocket or belly button…

I was watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU the other day and saw that one of the scenes was filmed in front of the statue of William Cullen Bryant. I tried to get a picture but was too slow. It’s the episode with Robin Williams (appropriately titled “Authority“).

Emerson was Harvard’s class poet the year Bryant read his Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge (something I mention here). I’ve now found the poem Emerson wrote for commencement, and it bears comparison. Sample lines:

In this bright age, with seeds of glory sown,
The hand of fate hath placed us, — not our own.
When the old world is crumbling with decay,
And empires unregarded, pass away…

Bryant’s poem was called “The Ages”; here’s a sample:

Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
They fade, they fly — but truth survives their flight;
Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
Each ray that shone in early time to light
The faltering footstep in the path of right,
Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid
In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

In a comment a few weeks ago, David Sheidlower praised Emerson’s phrase “horizon walls” from “The Romany Girl.” I see now that Emerson liked the phrase too: he drew it from his earlier poem “The Humble Bee.”

Lacan citing Julia Ward Howe???

Yes. In “Psychoanalysis and Its Teaching.” The reference comes after a brief discussion of Jeremiah’s sour grape, leading into a self-quotation. Here’s the reference:

This is what made me pen the following passage … , restoring the import of paternal authority … , conjoining it as one must — in the Biblical terms used by the female author of the American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — with the curse of the mother:

And here’s the self-quotation (it comes from “The Freudian Thing”):

For the sour grape of speech by which the child received the authentication of the nothingness of existence from a father too early, and the grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair, set his teeth on edge more than if he had been weaned from an imaginary jouissance or even deprived of some real attentions.

Howe wrote her “Battle Hymn” in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, during an exciting visit to the front line. She had the idea of writing new words to “John Brown’s Body”; the visit inspired her. She tells the story in her 1899 autobiography. The description is worthy of analysis by Freud; strange to think it was written at the same time as The Interpretation of Dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

The American Flag: 2009, 1819

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Fourth of July thoughts on Dick of the Dead and the Croaker poems, continuing on from what I wrote a few days ago:

The biggest difference between the two bodies of work may lie in their authors’ views of the United States. Dick is a product of post-Watergate America, of the Bush years and the Patriot Act. The Croaker poems were written after the War of 1812, in which Fitz-Greene Halleck (“Croaker, Junior”) took drills as a member of the Iron Grays, a New York militia. He and his collaborator, Joseph Rodman Drake (“Croaker”), were patriots in the old-fashioned sense; they waved their flag without anxiety or qualms. Rachel Loden, who wrote Dick of the Dead, is also a patriot, but she waves her flag under threat of confiscation, in opposition to the security state; her anxieties and qualms are inevitable: Read the rest of this entry »

Inquisitor of Sprats and Compost!

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Rachel Loden

Rachel Loden

On a recent train ride down through New England and New York to Washington I read Rachel Loden’s marvelous new book Dick of the Dead. I chose Loden”s book for the last leg in particular: the Dick of her title is Nixon; I thought him a good talisman to carry into the nation’s capital. A kind of rabbit’s foot, something like the leg of Brezhnev broken off white marble in the book’s third poem, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” What I did not expect is that the book brought New York to mind more insistently than D.C.; but not the New York of my own experience, the decaying urban shell of the 1970s; nor the gentrified metropolis of today. Rather, Loden’s poems reminded me of the city mocked and celebrated and preserved for a dubious posterity in the Croaker poems of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, written for the New York Evening Post in 1819 and published under the names Croaker (Drake), Croaker, Jr. (Halleck), and Croaker & Co. (Drake and Halleck together).

What do the Croaker poems and Dick of the Dead have in common? Two things: first, a tone — by which I mean a certain attitude about their subjects; and then, a luxuriation in fact, in the whimsical properties of data.

The tone is easier to describe with the Croaker poems, but reading Loden in light of them makes it easier to hear the equivalent quality in hers: the sprightly, even agitated sound of language that comes from mocking a thing and loving it at the same time. You can hear this sound in one of the Croaker poems written by Drake; a fierce bit of nonsense addressed to the surgeon general of the State of New York, sprinkled with as many exclamation marks as a poem by Frank O’Hara:

Joseph Rodman Drake

Joseph Rodman Drake

Oh! Mitchill, lord of granite flints,
Doctus, in law — and wholesome dishes;
Protector of the patent splints,
The foe of whales — the friend of fishes;
“Tom-Codus” — “Septon” — “Phlogobombos!”
What title shall we find to fit ye?
Inquisitor of sprats and compost!
Or Surgeon General of Militia!

We hail thee! — mammoth of the state!
Steam frigate! on the waves of physic —
Equal in practice or debate,
To cure the nation or the phthisic:
The amateur of Tartar dogs!
Wheat-flies, and maggots that create “em!
Of mummies! and of mummy-chogs!
Of brick-bats — lotteries — and pomatum!

The sentiments are just as wonderfully unbalanced in Loden’s work; one never feels that she has seized on Nixon out of disdain, or disdain alone. And the same is true when she writes about other monsters: Cheney, Dubya, George Costanza. “Must not let on that my feelings are increasingly inappropriate,” she writes in “My Subject,” a poem that figures the writer as some kind of researcher. In a lunatic asylum? Perhaps so. But the inappropriate feelings are essential, more so than the research: the latter merely situates Loden’s language; the former gives it an audible character. Consider the sprightliness of “Nineveh Fallen”: Read the rest of this entry »