The Volta: Friday Feature

Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980 – 2012 by Kenneth Warren. BlazeVOX Books, 2012.

cover of Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980 – 2012

Reviewed February 1, 2013 by John Olson.

As anyone who has spent time reviewing a book knows, it is often a thankless task. And unless you’re writing for the New York Review of Books or Harper’s, monetary rumination is negligible to nonexistent. I find it very hard work. One is doomed at the outset to feelings of arrogance, presumption, and deep insecurity. Who am I, one ponders, to be evaluating this person’s work? How can I honestly evaluate this person’s work without hurting anyone’s feelings or becoming a literary pariah never to be published again? without appearing to be a shameless sycophant if I give too much praise? without sounding like a complete idiot?

Kenneth Warren makes it look easy. And enjoyable. This near-500-page compendium of literary criticism covers a broad range of contemporary American poetry. It is evident that Warren takes a very keen interest in the work of Charles Olson and Clayton Eshleman, but there are many names with which I was unfamiliar, and soon became quite intrigued. I won’t reveal my ignorance and mention which names those were, but can say with absolute confidence that Warren’s essays cover a breadth of poetry that is nothing less than staggering. Weiners, Eigner, Creeley, Kerouac, Sanders, Susan Howe, Acker, Myles, Oppen, Hirschman, Kaufman, Wakoski, Grossinger, Tarn, Cage, Bremser, Waldman, Warsh, Codrescu, Sorrentino, Duncan, Dorn, and Snyder. This represents maybe half of the figures covered. Nor are all the figures “literary.” He also writes with zeal and insight about Bo Diddley and David Lynch.

The essays cover a period from 1980 to 2012. There is even a section devoted to the underground rock and punk scene in Cleveland, circa the mid-80s, where Warren spent 25 years as head librarian at the Lakewood Public Library. Here we find Warren among Cleveland’s packed punk rock crowds describing groups such as Mad Money, The Residents, The Mice and The Floyd Band. There’s a lively description of Johnny Thunders performing at the Phantasy Nite Club:

A classic New York type, a skinny kid with a beak who likes to fuss with his hair, a dead rock and roll animal from a garage in Jackson Heights, Queens, a smart ass who has probably seen it all from early snaps by the Rolling Stones on Channel 11’s old Clay Cole Show to Anita Pallenberg on the Sunday morning soul shot to nowhere. Naturally, when Thunders beached on the frozen northcoast, the F train’s Keith Richards soon found himself at the Phantasy Nite Club being ostracized by a bunch of Lake Erie misfits, torn as we always are between chronic depression and the need to transcend it with music.

I like the tone these early rock and roll essays set, and Warren’s edgy and colorful descriptions. One thing Warren is not: academic. The essays in this book, as its title suggests, are free of academic jargon. They’re fresh, invigorating, and unbridled by university politics. He does not resort to theory to support his views. He forms theories. He opines with sass and vinegar. His passions are unaffected and his oppositions are open, palpable hits.

Here, for instance, is his take on poetry’s bad boy Gregory Corso:

Gregory Corso has been insisting, ever since Shelley’s great lyricism spoke to him in jail, on the authority of his identity as poet. He has dared poetry, from the start, to move through him and become the expression of his soul. With the tools of his class, he has tried to muscle himself into the romantic tale of creation that transcends him. One of the earliest romantic elements to shape this practice is Corso’s belief that in time poetry true poetry would issue from the struggle between the self-creating word and street punk’s voice. So it is not surprising that he should be inclined more toward pronouncement than composition. Yet there is certainly the feeling in reading him that he has always needed something divine to blow his New York City accent, emotions, and personality off the block and into heaven.

This is but the opening paragraph. The essay continues for some several more pages evolving a view of Corso that is as encyclopedic as it is honest and perceptive. Warren, as would be characteristic of a head librarian with punk leanings, manages a tough erudition that never becomes stodgy or ponderous. I imagine him as the kind of librarian who greets you with enthusiasm as soon as you approach the desk with a question and leads you down the aisles pulling titles off the shelves and filling your arms with the glories of contemporary poetry.

A phrase caught my attention in Warren’s appraisal of Larry Eigner. “There is a memory at back of Eigner’s nonlinear constructions, a maternal imago to which his flux of nouns returns.” It had occurred to me before that Eigner’s confinement to a wheelchair might have something to do with his nonlinear constructions, but the way Warren describes it took me a little by surprise: “emotional, physical, and spiritual attachments to [Eigner’s mother] moves his concrete, elliptical involvement with objects over years into a much higher psychic focus.”

What surprised me was Warren’s emphasis on the psychological aspects of poetic construction. He counters the strictly linguistic aspects of writing promulgated by the Language movement – desubjectivized and bleached of interior vision – with a more humanized approach strongly influenced by poet Charles Olson. “We are ourselves both the instrument of discovery,” declaimed Olson in his seminal essay “Human Universe,” “and the instrument of definition.”

Warren looks for more balance. We don’t want the smelly sock stench of confessional poetry, but neither do we want a writing based entirely on collage, cut up, and mechanical assembly. Eigner is a perfect example of this. As stark and objective and fragmentary as his poetry can be, there is a deeply sensed presence behind the words, a reverence and caring and focus deepened by great compassion.

Not surprisingly, Warren’s most sustained focus is on the work of Charles Olson. He devotes over 50 pages to an exegesis of Charles Olson’s Selected Letters, edited by Ralph Maud. “As an initiate into a new epoch,” Warren observes, “Olson steps into the age of monopoly capitalism, ready to realize the world’s subservience to material, secular powers.” It all has to do with empire. “From ‘hideous’ interaction with elite political environments, Olson acquires the language, memories, and traits—the memes of empire, if you will—which eventually pass into the singular polis of The Maximus Poems.”

Warren follows the evolution of Olson’s development first as a government official, working for the Foreign Language Division, Office of War Information, and later as an employee of the Democratic National Committee, then focuses more on “Olson’s spiritual life.” “When Olson’s belief in progress wanes,” Warren observes, “tradition—with its store of archetype, hierarchy, myth and symbol—fills the ideological vacuum.”

Shortly after 1944, Olson decided to devote his life exclusively to poetry. He celebrated this in the poem “K.” Olson’s poetry, like Whitman’s, is declamatory and expansive and invites confidence in the scope of its vision. But don’t look to Olson for political wisdom. “…. there persists a liberal presumption that Olson’s postmodern project,” Warren writes, “unlike that of Pound, contains a measure of political wisdom. But the irrational is ultimately too large a force in Olson’s life and art for the reader to wager confidence on him as being a fount of political wisdom.”

Warren identifies Jung as a key element:

With Jung as guide, Olson pushes deeply into the world of archetypes, which is to say, into the world of spiritual realities. As the politician folds into the poet, revolution folds into tradition; soma folds into psyche. How the psyche functions in relation to archetype and form emerges for Olson as the crucial question…. For Olson “Muse” is, therefore, the archetype that intervenes from above to save the incarnate, socialized, time-bound poet from his subjectivity.

Warren also takes a deep and abiding interest in Clayton Eshleman, another poet for whom Jung and the agonies and ecstasies of poetic evolution evince a strong universal character. Eshleman is even more eclectic in his inclusion of world religions and myths, going as far back as the cave art of Upper Paleolithic France. In an essay titled “The Essence of Spider Man,” in honor of Eshleman’s totemic archetype the arachnid, and as a quip to the popular film series based on the Marvel comic book character, Warren notes Eshleman’s commitment to poetry as a journey of spiritual and psychological transformation. “For Eshleman,” he writes, “writing does not begin with the death of the author, as it does with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, but the with the death of the conditioned personality.”

He links Eshleman with Olson:

Spawn of the Sixties, Eshleman is no simple-minded hippie. From Caterpillar to Sulfur, Eshleman realizes as editor the high standard of inquiry set by Charles Olson’s interdisciplinary mandate, nurturing thinking among poets, while combating the decline of intellectual rigor within both Beat and New Left camps. By approaching the imagination through counterculture, moreover, Eshleman advances within the mythopoetic tradition, extending from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael (1947) through Robert Duncan’s The Truth and Life of Myth (1968), a humorous strain missing from his more seriously determined predecessors.

Warren, drawing from the essays in Eshleman’s Companion Spider, opposes the model of the poet as advanced by critics like Marjorie Perloff, whose overemphasis on craft leads to a place where “the said exists only in the saying.” “Poetic language,” Perloff remarks, “is never simply unique, natural, and universal; it is the product, in large part, of particular social, historical, and cultural formations. And these formations require study.” Yes, they do. I agree. But I can’t help feeling that something essential has been demoted, if not left out altogether. Which is vision. The poet as shaman. Poetry not just as a construction requiring craft and study but a medium of vision. It is in this particular zone that Warren champions Eshleman’s example.

With Eshleman there is no denying individuation must inform the path through which the poet is born. While the romantic emphasis on the individual persists in Companion Spider, authorial personality is now linked to the psychological process and symbolic language of alchemy … To become a poet, suggests Eshleman, individual character must be cooked, armor processed, resistances integrated.

I don’t think I could overstate the importance of a book like Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch to a young person beginning their journey as a poet. It provides a comprehensive view of the development of poetry in America in the last three decades. Warren was himself a student at the legendary Black Mountain College where luminaries such as Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, John Weiners and Robert Creeley taught. Warren is a captain, indeed, and this book is a companionable log to the navigation of poetry.

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John Olson is the author of The Nothing That Is and Larynx Galaxy.