The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry…and to look closely at the alternatives.
—Marjorie Perloff, Los Angeles Review of Books, July 16, 2012
Poetry readings were a staple during my years in college. Once, at Larry Blake’s on Telegraph Avenue, Frank Bidart and Robert Pinsky were especially memorable, embodying a belief that has stuck since my stint on the Berkeley campus: a poem isn’t fully realized until it’s uttered aloud by someone other than its author. Neither Pinsky nor Bidart performed their own poems that Tuesday night. They mouthed each other’s.
Specific pieces I heard those years have stayed with me. Robert Hass read a poem that continues to be emblematic of how I view the art. “A Lecture” is a portrait of a “certain student” watching and listening to Paul Valéry deliver a talk to “Duchesses and countesses / In gowns of high fashion / In exquisite coiffures.” But while the French poet is discussing “permanent features / Of Aesthetic experience / That confirm the eternal / Attraction of art,” the student’s mind is “busy elsewhere,” recalling events he experienced before arriving in Paris:
His hair stood on end.
His ear caught the screams of a hunt,
His flesh was fleeing across frozen fields
Where behind rimed barbed wire
The miserable souls of his friends
And enemies would remain.
The poem goes on to suggest that Valéry does not really belong among the opulence and snobbery in that lecture hall, that he “only pretended / To be among them, with them.” One has the impression, however, that this wasn’t really the case, but that “His listener, that student,” wanted it to be true, needed it to be true. Meanwhile, some of the more deplorable events of the 20th century are subtly hinted at:
Wind covered the signs with snow,
The earth took in the screams,
No one anymore remembers
How and when it occurred.
When I heard “A Lecture” at Black Oak Books as an undergraduate a little over twenty five years ago, it seemed to be asking: What is poetry’s role in the world? And to me, specifically: What might poetry mean to the son of Nicaraguan immigrants who migrated to San Francisco from Managua in the late fifties?
For Czeslaw Milosz, the author of “A Lecture,” the question may have been: What is poetry’s role in a world where there was “The cannibalism and wars / Of his century?” For I imagined a young Milosz as “that certain student,” loving the art because it was a source of pleasure and solace in a century gripped by its wars. The poem’s final stanza reads as follows, in Hass’ English:
And only the sumptuous, golden
Lasts and will last for its own
And I, late, am returning
With a shred of bitterness
To his cemetery by the sea,
In the always commencing noon.
Now I imagined an older, perhaps cynical speaker (Milosz?), somewhat “bitter” at poetry’s uselessness—but still surrendering himself to it, remaining faithful to the French poet with “A close-trimmed mustache.”
“A Lecture” prompted me to recognize what would become and remains, at times, a contentious “coin” of ambivalence. One side of this coin is suggested by the lines that connote certain events of 20th century history: they seem to designate “witness” as an important role for poetry. The other side of this coin is implied by the lines that dwell on the music of the art: the pursuit of poetry for aesthetic pleasure. Ultimately, what “A Lecture” conveyed, hearing it when I did in those formative years, was: You don’t have to choose. I didn’t have to choose certain kinds of poetry only, as a reader; I didn’t have to choose to write a certain kind of poem only, as an artist.
In other words, “A Lecture” nudged me to brush aside the idea that my work should mostly address, or only take on what were viewed as appropriate subjects for someone of my background: ethnic identity, family, community, social and political issues—that I should follow, or be inspired by, certain modes of writing only.
Instead, I absorbed the wide wave of voices the San Francisco/Bay Area offered an aspiring novice in the mid eighties. I fell in love with the “sumptuous” “rimes” of Robert Duncan. I bought Robert Hass’ books (Hass had taught my high school mentor at Saint Mary’s College, across the bay). I read everything by Robert Pinsky and Thom Gunn, with whom I shared a campus. And at Gunn’s prompting, experienced the vernacular speech of August Kleinzahler, his neighbor in the Haight, who himself introduced me to as varied a bunch as Basil Bunting, Lorine Neidecker, Hilda Morley, and the Australian poet John Tranter, for starters. In fact, I admired Tranter as a poet well before I admired him as the groundbreaking editor of the online poetry journal, Jacket. One of the last things I did as an undergraduate was organize a reading for him on campus under the faculty oversight of Ron Loewinsohn, whose class on Modernism was the most meaningful literature course I took at UC Berkeley—in English (I was a Spanish major). The first living Irish poet I encountered, and still love, was John Montague, who was a visiting writer one semester. I enjoyed puzzling over Michael Palmer’s poems, who lived walking distance from where I was born and raised in San Francisco. I relished the sculpted and musical early work of Denise Levertov.
But the African American writer Ishmael Reed, my first poetry teacher at Berkeley, was concurrently introducing me to the spare slender poems of Gary Soto, the idiosyncratic linguistics of Victor Hernández Cruz—resident of Oakland at the time who I eventually interviewed for The Berkeley Poetry Review, on whose staff I served. And one Wednesday night at Cody’s Bookstore, I met Francisco X. Alarcón, an openly gay Chicano poet who read from an unpublished manuscript called Cuerpo en llamas, which I went on to translate and publish with Chronicle Books as Body In Flames—the first of our four book collaborations. It was through my experience with these writers that I began to devour, as well, all the Latino poetry I could get my hands on. This was another community to which I aspired to belong.
But I was ambivalent about what sometimes felt like competing allegiances. Thankfully, Milosz’s poem taught me to feed off that ambivalence: it was both a permission slip, and a challenge. Permission and encouragement to read, emulate, learn from, as wide a range of poets as possible, but also—in my mind—a challenge to become well-versed in the poetry that emerged from the community in which I was raised, what some might derisively call “ethnic poetry” or “poetry from the barrio.” Garret Hongo’s anthology of Asian American poetry, The Open Boat, now twenty years old, would become one touchstone in this regard; Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets, edited by the late Ernesto Trejo and Jon Veinberg, would become another. Thus: the two sides of my coin—sometimes in tension, sometimes in sync.
After college I lived in Spain for ten years. I returned to California in 1998 and my stretch of luck continued, where my education in poetry was concerned—this time at UC Davis. For it was during these years (1998-2000) that I studied with Gary Snyder and Alan Williamson, who each provided an engaging context from which to explore the distinct worlds of Phillip Larkin and Jack Spicer, respectively, to name two poets I read deeply then. One may now recognize a pattern, where my sensibilities come into play: different styles, wildly different styles of poetry, can and do push my buttons.
I can’t believe she just said that, I thought to myself. It was November of 2004, the setting the University of Notre Dame’s new performing arts center—specifically, the Philbin Studio Theater where “Textsounds: a mini-conference” was well underway. Among the invited writers who performed their work in the “black box” was Charles Bernstein, whose poems I grew acquainted with a couple of years earlier in a graduate seminar at Notre Dame. In said seminar, Marjorie Perloff, whose essays I’d often enjoyed, had been a special guest. Her presence at our seminar table one afternoon had been an enriching experience.
But my years on the Berkeley and Davis campus didn’t telegraph nor prepare me for what Perloff, the keynote speaker at “Textsounds,” would say in one passage of her address. Don’t get me wrong—I knew the drill. I knew where her sympathies resided, that her standard bearers for poetry were, say, a Steve McCaffery, a Caroline Bergvall, or even a John Cage, to give a few names from her particular pantheon.
But then she started talking about Lyn Hejinian. Specifically, the recently published edition of the Best American Poetry series (2004) edited by the author of My Life. Perloff transitioned into a blistering critique of her choices. What sin had Lyn Hejinian, the anthologist, committed? Well…try Billy Collins. Try Yusef Komunyakaa. Try Jane Hirshfield. Or, perhaps worst of all judging from her tone, Robert Pinksy—all of these poets representing, I guess, the “sludge” of American poetry. But you also would have found, among Hejinian’s selections: Rae Armantrout, Anselm Berrigan, Fanny Howe, Rodrigo Toscano, Ron Silliman, to name a few “alternatives.” In essence, Perloff was suggesting that Hejinian was wrong-headed for including in one volume poets whose poetics were so diametrically opposed to one another—because, she argued, a selection like this would only “confuse” students.
This is the only thing I remember about her address. Which may be an indication of how my body registered her address. It sounded absurd—it was absurd given my own experience as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. The following year (2005), after my first book was published, Lyn Hejinian, who by then was teaching at UC Berkeley herself, was a gracious host when I returned to my alma mater to read in the Maude Fife Room on the third floor of Wheeler Hall. Perloff’s comment, now that I think about it, may have felt a little personal, too. One thing it did do was bolster my admiration for Hejinian’s vision as an editor of verse.
The next day, at Bonefish Grill over lunch, seated in high stools (Perloff to my left, Bernstein in front of me) she tried to walk back her comment. But based on the extended conversation that afternoon, where more poets were brought up, sanctified, or dismissed, the attempt rang hollow. Perhaps she thought she had been preaching to a lockstep choir? Who knows. I’ve reached a stage where I manage my exasperation when I come across a piece of writing that treats accessibility (poetry that is accessible) like a dirty word. It’s what amounts to something approaching a stalinist sensibility in poetry criticism. Is that too harsh, inflammatory? Perhaps. Mind you, it’s a sensibility that manifests itself on the other side of this stale divide, as well. Perloff just happens to be the most articulate mouthpiece for one side of it. Having said that, she’s arguably peerless when it comes to giving interesting, provocative readings of poems she admires. But if it’s a poem by someone she deems in the “wrong camp,” it’s not that she can’t be bothered, which would be fine, but that she takes it a step further (“The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry…”) offering generalized opinions that, more often than not, remain in the realm of sarcastic rhetoric—and from which I learn nothing…except re-confirmation of what I guess are her visceral biases. “It’s chemical,” August Kleinzahler once quipped, during a friendly game of one-on-one basketball, when it comes to taste in poetry. So I’ll just chalk it up to that: a lack of chemistry.
My own pursuits in poetry are rooted in, and stem from, my condition as a reader, listener and lover of the art—from an ample field of vision, where aesthetics are concerned, as I hope I’ve made clear. The irony is that, lately, I seem to be enthralled by collage (something Perloff seems keen on these days) as a method of composition, but not because I’m “openly against” lyric or narrative, far from it, but because collage is just another viable strategy when making a poem. Put another way: text as springboard is the kick I’m on these days, both as a poet and as a translator (my riffs off Rubén Darío for example).
My first audience, truth be told, is my ear. And perhaps because poetry’s readership is so anemic, I lean on Louis Zukofsky for a favorite maxim: When you create a work of art, you want to give it to at least one other person—that’s your audience.
All of this is not to say that my preferences haven’t changed or evolved. There are poets I read and liked in the mid eighties who I rarely read today. I only started reading Jack Spicer in 2000—in the context of a seminar on the San Francisco Renaissance, which included a visit by Robin Blaser. In contrast, I read through much of Robert Duncan for the first time, as mentioned earlier, in my undergraduate years, and I’m currently re-visiting him through Lisa Jarnot’s gorgeous biography where, I’m honored to say, I’m quoted on page 423:
“On February 4 , after one of the H.D. classes, Duncan crossed the bay to give a reading in Berkeley. Audience member Francisco Aragón recalled that even at low energy, Duncan was a spectacular performer:
Up until that point, I had only read him….I had no expectation…(I’d had my share of famous poets reading horribly.)….What I enjoyed was how playful he was, the richness of the voice, the banterting between the poems, which was nearly as enriching—and then almost without warning he would launch into a voice performance (his illness, I suppose, did not allow for any sweeping arm gestures…just the voice) of one of his poems, the most memorable—not surprisingly—“My Mother Would Be a Falconress.” [His] recitation…of that poem remains one of the high points of my experience with poetry.”
When I ponder this manufactured conflict between the “avant-garde” and the “traditional,” as well as discussions on how old-fashioned or retro “accessibility” is, I find myself recalling, with affection, the blurb written by my late mentor, and model when it comes to reading. Thom Gunn (who loved J.V. Cunningham and Ronald Johnson) had it right: “Mina Loy has finally been admitted into ‘the company of poets,’ the canon. As if she cared.”