The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Edited by Ron Padgett, with an introduction by Paul Auster. Library of America. 535 pp. $35.
In the first volume of her diaries, Susan Sontag, on an off day in 1957, begins listing, in no particular order and with no reason stated, an odd assortment of memories from her childhood and early youth. It may be that the desire to write down (and ransom from oblivion) moments on the face of it trivial but somehow still persistent in memory comes occasionally to all reflective people. Certainly it does to many writers. Four or five years after Sontag’s journal entry, the painter and poet Joe Brainard began a work composed of several hundred disparate vignettes drawn from his past, each recorded in a thumbnail paragraph, each beginning with the incantatory phrase, “I remember.” Not billed as either poetry or prose, the book can be classed as a prose work simply because it’s not composed in lines; yet its directness and foregrounding of autobiographical experience remind us of Song of Myself , as well as the conversational poems of Frank O’Hara. Haikus of recollection, we might call these brief notations; but Brainard’s minimalist title is, simply, I Remember. Two of them should give the general flavor:
I remember butter and sugar sandwiches.
I remember Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.”
Part of the work’s appeal resides in its evocation of the 1950s, the twentieth century’s most unironic and blithely American decade, the decade of I Love Lucy, Elvis, and Sputnik. Unironic, that is, until revived by an artist alert to the camp aspect of phenomena like Fifties movies, advertising, and pop music. Brainard’s best known work, it occupies the place of honor in this new edition of his writings even though putting it first violates authorial chronology. Included along with it are a number of short poems, lineated and sometimes fanciful; a dozen or so drawings; a few short prose works; two journals that were published during his lifetime; substantial excerpts from diaries never before published; and two interviews. I also want to mention “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night,” a prose piece written shortly before Brainard’s twentieth birthday, appearing for the first time in this volume. It’s probably the most passionate and painful text he produed, touching on nearly all the themes he would, in more considered pieces, return to later on. What themes? His dissatisfaction with himself as a visual artist and writer; his poet friends, in particular, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman; the importance of generosity; honesty, imperfectly attained; money; and love.
His reflections on these topics pour out in no particular order, according to the “free writing” method, and when he runs out of steam he stops without reaching any concrete conclusion except the stated desire to get on with his life as well as he can. He briefly comments on the topic of “pills,” which he began taking regularly when he moved from Tulsa to New York. Noting his own growing dependency, he says, “But I nevertheless think they are basically evil; the effect they have on us is not ‘the way things are’ but ‘the way we’d like them to be.’ It would be so easy if I always took them and don’t know why I don’t want an escape. I don’t owe myself or the world an honest memento of life. God only knows most people don’t give it. In fact those of us who occasionally do are resented. We know too much.” Brainard believed that truth and beauty were the same thing, so in order to create beauty, he had to be truthful. His commitment to honesty sounds admirable, but it made life difficult for him, not just because he didn’t like hurting his friends’ feelings, and not just because pills distort the “way things are,” along with the way we report them. He fairly soon caught on that, however resolutely sought, honesty can only be a goal; it isn’t a mode of discourse ever fully realized. Though words may intend to reveal the truth, in fact, they also inevitably conceal it. To state is always, if only slightly, to falsify. All social actions are, in varying degrees, compromised by deception; and language is social. A decade later he commented on the question in a diary entry dated February 8th, 1971 (from Diary 1970-1971):
Brigid Polk said to me last night that I was the most honest person she knew. I wanted to say, “No,” but somehow more than just “No.” I don’t remember what I said, but this morning I was thinking about it and it came to me what I should have said. That honest is only something you can try to be. (If you want to be.) And I do. But I don’t want to have to take the credit for being honest. Because, even if it were possible, it would be too much to have to live up to. Another impossible weight.
Full disclosure: I knew Joe, admired him and liked him. At some point in the mid-1970s I read I Remember, not expecting much. It finessed most of the aesthetic criteria I knew and cared about. It avoided metaphor and memorable images. The rhythms were unremarkable, the syntax overall flat and declarative. I couldn’t discover any significance in the ordering of his memories; they arrived randomly, flickered, burned out, to be followed by a jumpcut to the next memory. Yet this slyly humorous and sexually candid work was gripping and left me with a strange, triumphant glow hard to account for. Until that reading I’d thought of Joe as a visual artist only, but the estimate clearly had to be revised. Reading him was a pleasure not like any other, and his honesty was part of the reason for that.
Our circles of friends differed, so I didn’t get to know him well until 1981, and then by accident. I happened to end up with a country place in Vermont about an hour’s drive from the house near Calais where he and Kenward Elmslie spent every summer. My partner and I used to go there once a month for dinner, after which we went on to some card-playing, contract bridge, to be specific. (In an interview he says that he learned to play bridge with Frank O’Hara, who was devoted to the game.) We, on the other hand, were anything but bridge whizzes, yet surprisingly enough came out more often than not with a higher score than Joe and Kenward. I’d forgotten the I-remember that reports Joe’s habit of letting opponents win when he played. In any case, the game provided an occasion for low-key, amusing conversation.
What I don’t understand now is why, once back in New York, we never made any effort to see each other. As said, our social sets there were very different, and I’d always felt that the (as they are called) New York School of poets had a rather exclusive code about who belonged and who didn’t. Being a poet in New York indifferent to middle-class values wasn’t enough to qualify. Admiration for Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, and Koch wasn’t enough. Being gay wasn’t enough. It seemed to require something like pledging Nu Gamma Sigma fraternity, where you agreed to get to know, admire and uphold all the other brothers (some of them pretty obscure) and to regard the NYS as superior to all other literary coteries and their approaches to writing. Further, to constantly mention the names of the other members in and outside your poems. From the first, the New York School (much like the Beats) exhibited enthusiastic team spirit, a reflex that has served them well. Not much of a joiner, I never made the effort to pledge and, if I had, would probably have been blackballed. That said, I liked Joe, his paintings and his writings, and the same goes for several of the others—not on the basis of their being members in good standing, but because of what they wrote. Is it necessary to point out that, when Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler and Koch were starting out in the 1950s, nobody referred to them as the “New York School”? The term had been used by art critics for the Abstract Expressionists, but its application to poets was the invention of John Bernard Myers, a gallerist and small-press publisher of that era who produced the first anthology of their poetry in the late 1960s. This was followed up in short order by one that Ron Padgett edited, its cover designed by Joe Brainard.
Joe, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro, Kenward Elmslie, Eileen Myles, and several others made up the “second generation” of the School, and their work (with the exception of Shapiro) tended to resemble O’Hara’s and Schuyler’s more than Ashbery’s and Koch’s. Joe sometimes wrote lineated poems, but his works much more often were cast in prose format—not only the I-remembers, but also his mini-essays, diaries, and travel journals. Influenced by his writer friends and by the rise of Pop Art, he moved away from the emo intensity of his “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night” towards something dryer and funnier, reminsicent of the “Oh wow” flatness of Pop. It was the era of deadpan minimalism; a favorite restaurant in SoHo was called FOOD. American commercial brands, cartoons, and advertising were suddenly the stuff of “high” art. Andy Warhol had put a big cardboard Brillo box in one of his shows and painted Campbell Soup cans. Susan Sontag’s influential “Notes on Camp” appeared and was singled out for special praise in her successful first collection of essays. One of the reigning artistic modes of the time was the “faux naïf,” a wide-eyed cluelessness adopted as an enabling mask by artists of considerable sophistication. Of course American naivety is real enough, fostered by hit-or-miss education, provinciality, and the rigorous conformity imposed on our middle-class, at its most oppressive during the high-school years. But the 1960s artists taking the faux naïf approach were hardly Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday or the eponymous Forrest Gump. They were savvy urbanites who saw the humorous potential in dumbing down and saying things that could easily have been jobbed into cartoons or TV soaps, this time surrounded by invisible quotation marks.
Humor aside, the pose of naivety plays out as a peculiarly American feature in the arts, an anxious reaction, I speculate, to a never fully resolved doubt in our consciousness: Can American civilization stand comparison with the complex achievements of the cultures that preceded it, and of Europe in particular? It’s as though many artists have decided it doesn’t, and therefore have beefed up our supposed cluelessness, as a way of turning it into a virtue. At this point in history, the notion of American cultural deficiency is strange given our extraordinary achievements in government, industry, science, technology, scholarship, and the arts. The USA, considering how new a nation it is, has accomplished incredible things. Yet the intimation of inferiority has been persistent for nearly two centuries, surfacing in bizarre ways—for example, the 19th-century fad for American heiresses going to Europe to marry themselves a title, rubber barons building French châteaux in Newport or the Hudson Valley, or the way natives still gush when a visitor speaks with a British accent. The insecurity can also take the aggressive form of dismissing anything transatlantic as a toxin produced by “dead white European males.” The hard-shell American attitude is: “I may be a rube, but I’m a good person—anyway, a lot better than y’all sophisticates.” The idea is that if you’ve very clever, you’re not going to be as straightforwardly goodhearted as your blank-slate counterpart. It takes a Mammy Yokum to come up with formulas like, “Yep, good is better than evil—because it’s nicer.”
Strangely enough, American naivety has been welcomed by Europe as a possible escape from the quintessential European dilemma. Which can be summed up this way: “If my culture of origin gave to the world a Homer, a Sappho, a Dante, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Velasquez, a Bach, a Goethe, a Tolstoy, a Proust (add names here), what could I possible produce that might deserve the admiration those figures command?” It’s a crushing legacy to have inherited, so no wonder if many European artists have snubbed it. Granted, the USA has itself originated a few sophisticates fully conversant with the European tradition—Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, to name only the best known. But these don’t, in contemporary Europe, generate the same enthusiasm as our so-called primitives—Whitman, Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Chandler, the Beats, Bukowski, et al. How the rating game will play out in the 21st century, though, is anybody’s guess.
A provocative feature of Brainard’s writing is its dialogic character, composed always with a cautious awareness of possible future readers. In journal writing, when he mentions a friend’s name in a third-person sentence, he often then switches to “you” and addresses the friend directly, as though absolutely certain that his remarks were going to be read by the person commented on. Sometimes he anticipates a reaction from his subject and responds to it as though it were actual. It’s a curious rhetorical strategy and certainly dispels any notion that Brainard’s journals are private, spontaneous utterances. They are designed to be read by friends and eventually by people he doesn’t know. Unless you conclude that otherness, in the form of the internalized personalities of his friends or some abstracted General Reader, a nonspecific “you,” was a permanent fixture in the diarist’s mind. I sense that it was. Brainard’s other-mindedness peopled his solitude just as it prevented him from ever being entirely offstage. The following entry from Diary 1970-1971 (dated December 28, 1970) shows that mental configuration in action:
If I have anything to “say” tonight (a bit drunk) it is probably just this: to like all you can when you can.
Or, don’t think about things too much.
I don’t know who I think I am, giving you this advice. Actually, when I “talk” to you I am really talking to myself (mostly) but I guess I wouldn’t be writing it down if I didn’t think that—you might want to know what is going through my head too.
No, the truth of the matter is, that I want you to know.
Yes, Brainard did want us to know. He honestly did. That included exploring the topic of his good luck in having a rich patron in the person of Kenward Elmslie, heir to the Pulitzer fortune. They were sexual partners for a while and loving friends thereafter. Brainard tries on a couple of occasions to go into this subject and admits he likes the freedom from fear, indeed, the luxuries that Elmslie’s sponsorship afforded. But it seems clear he also felt some guilt about having an advantage over others equally deserving. Not that he wasn’t generous. I remember once being invited to dinner by Joe and not being allowed to pay. In an almost theatrical gesture, he slapped down a couple of bills with Grant’s portrait on them, smiled, and stood to go.
Why did Joe stop producing artworks at the end of the 1970s? The explanation often given is that he swore off amphetamines and couldn’t then recapture the intensity they gave him for the making of art. But there seems to be more to it. His dissatisfaction with his painting, oil painting in particular, grew steadily. He decided that he could never do as well as the Old Masters, and, if not, then he should just pack up his brushes. Yet I don’t find any record of his saying the same thing about writing. It’s possible, though provocative, to say that his I Remember is an American’s faux-naïf answer to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the great European epic of heroic recollection. Since Brainard didn’t have to earn an income, and he had pretty much stopped painting, there was the problem of how to use his time. He spent a couple of hours every day at the gym, maintaining his washboard abs, and the rest of his leisure hours absorbed in Victorian novels. The choice of reading matter seems telling: not poetry and not the avant-garde novels of, say, The Fiction Collective or the Dalkey Archive, but instead Mrs. Gaskell and Anthony Trollope. (His pronounced preference for the Victorians may explain a couple of British locutions in his own writing, for example, “at any rate” for “anyway.”) I sense that he wanted to equal not only the Old Masters of oil painting but also the equivalent for literature. I wish he hadn’t regarded his own work as unworthy of the tradition. His writing is an achievement of a different sort, not earthshaking, but real and compelling, one than can count admirers as disparate as Paul Auster (who provides the introduction to this edition), John Ashbery, Georges Perec, Edmund White, Craig Raine, Frank Bidart, and obviously the members of the NYS, who all seemed to have learned from him. He is the second of their number (after Ashbery), to have received the Library of America treatment. Well, not quite. Instead of that series’s standard cloth binding, the book has a pasteboard cover and instead of Bible paper, a less delicate stock. For the series’s uniform black dust-jacket with red-white-and-blue stripes, this edition substitutes a pale blue cover ornamented with gold stars drawn by the author. You could say it was less pretentious than the routine Library of America format, more amusing, more down to earth. But if Joe had lived to see it, I think the difference would have disappointed him: for him it was Old Master or nothing. On the other hand, the text is there and perfectly readable, with all its drollery, honesty, and surprise, which is the main thing. His pages speak to you; and they will be remembered.