≡ Menu

Brooks Lampe

Paul Breslin, in his introduction to The Psycho-Political Muse, outlines the psychological theories influencing the radical poetry of the 1950s and 60s. Finding that the psyche is culturally conditioned, recent psychological theories found that neurosis can be identified as a type of resistance to social norms. Correlatively, art was seen as counter-acting repression, freeing consciousness from the constraints dominating the acculturated ego. In this context, the rhetoric of the New Left shifts, according to Breslin, from focus on class struggle to the opposition of “the falsification of consciousness in all classes.” Liberation from “the system” or “the establishment” was thought to come, not so much from the overthrow of economic relations, but through the individual’s “relative immunity” to society’s interlocking network of illusions.  As such, poets “had only to look about [themselves], or even into [their] own soul[s], to be confronted with the crisis of American society,” making the private and public realms effectively interchangeable. In this context, Breslin argues, poets chose to either

<blockquote>become radical Fruedian versions of the poète maudit, exhibiting their distorted consciousness as representative of society’s distorted consciousness, or to speak from the unconscious, which is untainted by acculturation but, for that very reason, has no language.</blockquote>

With this framework we can understand the emerging trends in experimental American poetry during this period, including, especially for the Beats, the proliferation of surrealist themes and techniques, who often alternately positioned themselves as pathologically warped or as transmitters of an “untainted” consciousness. I would include with these responses identified by Breslin a third approach particular to many of the Beats—the poet as alchemist, transmuting the socio-political reality using the mundane elements found in the (social) environment with the transformative energies of consciousness. The Beats attempt to repair society intrinsically by conjoining its disparate elements in inventive combinations, or, as Ginsberg may have termed them, “reality sandwiches” (a phrase he used for the title for his fourth collection). This approach reflects surrealist tradition, positing that consciousness itself—even the acculturated consciousness—contains the necessary ingredients for its restoration, if it is allowed opportunity for free association and play. This “alchemical” approach, like surrealist collage, imbues acculturated experience with new meaning through the synthesis of its fragmented parts and immediacy of presentation.

Gregory Corso is considered one of the founding Beats met Ginsberg in Greenwich Villagein 1950 and, who over the next few years encouraged and mentored him. This happened after a prison term Corso served for an adolescent mishap, during which he read the dictionary, Shelley’s poetry. Corso’s reputation began growing with the publication of his second book, Gasoline (1958) and blossomed after he published The Happy Birthday of Death (1960). Around this time Corso spend several years in Europe, especiallyParis, deepening his appreciation for modern and Romantic poetry and further exposing him to the surrealists.

Corso’s single most important influence is Percy Shelley. In addition to his frequent allusions to him in his poetry, he is reported to have reverently kissed the carpet in the poet’s old quarters at Oxfordand had his ashes scattered near his tomb in Rome. For Corso, Shelley is a “revolutionary of the spirit” who transcends the mundane through poetic imagination. Corso’s surrealist poetics can be seen as a continuation of Shelly’s poetic model in a 20th century context. In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley analogizes poetry and the imagination as the dialectical counterpart to reason. Whereas logic is analysis, poetry is synthesis, a harmonious blending of external and internal impressions. Poetry recaptures life’s immediacy and “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehendable combinations of thought.” This process is alchemical in nature, making good and beautiful out of what is corrupt and ugly. Shelley envisions the poet as a word combiner, who, through his imagination, synthesizes thought in vivifying and regenerative ways.

Surrealism provides Corso a way of applying Shelley’s model to modern experience. In the poem, “No Doubt What He Saw,” Corso presents the image of the “Daisytaur”—a bull conjoined to a daisy—an icon of the imagination’s ability to unveil the wholeness and harmony of the world. The speaker recounts his childhood memory of seeing a horse with a daisy in its mouth and being struck by the juxtaposition of beast’s power and the flower’s fragility. The child interprets the sight as anticipating the eventual synthesis and harmony of the plant and animal kingdom. But his “playmate” is skeptical until the child Corso takes his friend to “a field of burning hay” and shows him “[a] pastoral metamorphosis! / A Daisytaur” (46). As Gregory Stephenson points out, this story puts “[s]eemingly strange attractions and affinities, incongruous unions of unlike things…in full accordance with the deepest natural law,” suggesting that “all life and being…is ever seeking to restore itself to its original state, the disparate parts striving to come together again”

Corso’s poems are filled with many variations of the “Daisytuar,” including the list of “Saleable Titles” to The Happy Birthday of Death, which Corso provides opposite the book’s title page. These alternate titles, some of which he was genuinely considering, form incongruent adjective-noun pairs such as “Fried Shoes,” “Pipe Butter,” “Radiator Soup,” “Flash Gordan soap,” and “Gorgoyle liver.” Like “Daisytaur,” these constructions isolate the basic surrealist technique of forming incompatible, transformative juxtapositions, and like Shelley, Corso plays the role of the synthesizer and alchemist, transmuting images of experience through combination and metamorphosis.

In The Happy Birthday of Death, he deliberately confronts many of the destructive and erroneous concepts at work in contemporary society and weighs them against a surrealist vision of transcending and transforming modern experience. The longer, popular poems of the collection explore, in an unorganized but encyclopedic way, the subjects identified in their titles: “Marriage,” “Bomb,” “Food,” “Hair,” “Police,” and “Army.” Corso’s troubled or sarcastic treatment of these topics—which, for contemporary audiences, represent sources of modern anxiety—forms a layer of implicit criticism through a light-hearted iteration of the poeté mauidit. Stephenson names these poems “anti-odes.” They depict a mentally unstable speaker who reflects a modern collective consciousness, revealing layers of psychosis and absurdity. They are humorous and incisive in their treatment of their subject, representing what Michael Skau calls Corso’s “peculiar strain of surrealism, with its combination of humor and threat.”

In “Marriage,” Corso give a free rein to worries about marriage, loosely following an imaginary chronology of events in which the speaker is introduced to the parents of his love interest, gets at the ceremony, is teased by in-laws at the reception, and eventually finds himself trapped by fatherhood and domestic malaise. The situation is comical but poses sincere questions. The speaker’s opening query, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” typifies the modern adult male’s social situation in existential and moral terms. Skeptical of established cultural traditions, he is unable or unwilling to be subsumed into prescribed roles, and thus he imagines himself resisting expectations through various clownish pranks. This pattern is established at the dating stage: “Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? / Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries / tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” (29). He thinks about “Flash Gordon soap” while meeting his fiancée’s parents, he substitutes “Pie Glue” for “I do” in the ceremony, and defiantly rejects sexual consummation on the wedding night because everyone knows and expects it happen: “Everyone knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! / Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye! / Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!” (30). The speaker’s rejection of social norms stems from a perceived contradiction between his autonomy as an individual and social customs. To him, the concept of marriage and all its trappings are “obscene” and threatening.

Yet, the speaker is obligated to attempt to reconcile himself to marriage because the alternative—a life of bachelorhood—promises a lonely demise in old age. Thus, his imagined compromise is resistant participation characterized by arbitrary behavior and displays of irreverence. He baldly asserts his autonomy and freedom through spontaneous declarations and through substituting appropriate interaction and communication with verbal non-sense. Later in the poem, for instance, he imagines himself incapable of normal fatherly discourse, shouting, instead, absurdities to his children: “Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!” To fend off suburban ennui, he executes Dadaist pranks:

So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
And cover his gold clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
Like past Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence

And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When you are going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust— (30-31)

He identifies himself to others as one who defies and rejects authority or only grudgingly participates in domestic rituals. Thus, whether he foregoes marriage, accepts his social roles or does so with qualification and resistance, the result is the same—he is stripped of his identity and alienated from others. Given the impossibility of his situation, with none of these alternatives being adequate, absurdist humor is perhaps the most expedient response, as it foregrounds his resistance and affords him, at least, the consolation of retaining a degree of integrity and identity. These acts deflate the social situations in which they occur; their spontaneity exercises and preserves the speaker’s imaginative vitality and playful innocence. In other words, creative surrealist clowning is his vehicle for coping with the dehumanizing influences of social institutions.

Yet, behind the humorous mask is a lonely, paranoid persona—the modern individual who, due to a variety of social and psychological forces, does not know who he is or what he wants. Even when the prospects sound nearly ideal, such as the “beautiful sophisticated woman” in the New York City penthouse, he is dismissive and subjective: “No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream.” In as far as he remains without companionship, his wellbeing is threatened, explaining his sense of urgency and his tone. He becomes a mentally unstable figure, a poète maudit forced into “madness” by modern life. Corso thus amplifies the implicit critical function of surrealism by positioning himself as the maniacal figure oscillating between resistance to society and ironic embrace of the absurdity of his condition.

In many of the poems of Happy Birthday of Death, Corso writes like he does “Marriage,” from a pathologically warped or maniacal state of mind, projecting a persona who, as Stepheson puts it, “unleash[es] an arsenal of antic, vatic babble and bombast.” Corso’s style generates an accelerated tempo that stem from both the uninterrupted progression of images and their discontinuity. The combination of spontaneity and breathless forward movement generate a “hysterical” vision that disrupts and decomposes reality. In several of these longer, subject-based poems in Happy Birthday of Death, Corso synthesizes mania and alchemical transformation through this stylistic technique, which one might term the hysterical catalogue: a litany of images often expressed with strained syntax and with increasing intensity and semantic disparity, emulating frenzy or ecstasy. This hysterical tone is often visionary, elevating the poetic utterance to the register of prophecy or shamanic chant.

Corso’s “Bomb” is the quintessential articulation of the hysterical catalogue. He articulates society’s absurd and psychotic relationship to the bomb with the hyperbolic but sincere observation that

All man hates you     they’d rather die by car-crash   lighting     drowning

Falling off a roof     electric-chair     heart-attack     old age     old age     O Bomb

They’d rather die by anything but you (Happy Birthday of Death, insert)

The speaker reasons that he “cannot hate” the bomb because it is shares the same purpose and affects the same end as other weapons and fatal forces: “Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt     the jawbone of an ass / The bumpy club of One Million B.C.”?    He even argues that dying by an explosion is superior because of its suddenness, quickness and “extravagance,” and pays homage to the bomb with a litany of images that catalog the details of an apocalyptic explosion. The images are fantastically hyperbolic:

Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
The top of the Empire State
Arrowed in a broccoli field in Sicily
Eiffel shaped like a C in Magnolia Gardens
St. Sophia peeling over Sudan

Similar images throughout the poem, whether it refers directly to the effects of the explosion or not, create a wild, associational texture, reflecting the bomb’s disruptive force. But as the speaker progresses through the vision, the images, rather than outlining horror and death, turn toward non-threatening, pleasant scenes. First are “the temples of ancient times” are restored through “Electrons Protons Neutrons / gathering Hesperean hair / walking the dolorousgulfofArcady…” The speaker envisions the explosion not merely effecting physical reality but also collapsing time and space, bringing together historical and psychological realities. The bomb, in other words, turns reality into a dream-world wherein any imaginable associational possibility can be realized. This sur-reality, moreover, is depicted in utopian terms, wherein all aspects of reality are reconciled. At one point in the poem, this vision becomes a baseball game:

Lo the visiting team of Present
the home team of Past
Lyre and tube together joined
Hark the hotdog soda olive grape
gala galaxy robed and uniformed
commissary     O the happy stands
Ethereal root and cheer and boo
The billioned all-time attendance
The Zeusian pandemonium
Hermes racing Owens
the Spitball of Buddha
Christ striking out
Luther stealing third

Seemingly contradictory religious figures and ideas are re-contextualized into an innocuous contest, trivializing their differences and historical identities, and emphasizing instead their common humanity.

The bomb becomes cosmological and spiritual. The speaker “stands before [its] fantastic lily door” with offerings of roses and musk. In the final, climatic thirty lines, the speaker shifts into Psalmodic rapture—“BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns / BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM / night ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM /”—which devolves into hysterical babble: “Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM / Ubangi BOOM orangutang / BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon / ye BANG ye BONG ye BING…” At this moment, the poet is simultaneously ecstatic and manic, in both adoration and blind hysteria. He functions as a prophet or shaman, allowing his consciousness to be subsumed by its subject, and the bomb’s chaos-generating powers, reflected in the poet’s hysteria, are integrated into a transcendent vision.

The poem’s form mimics its subject, not just in its pictographic imitation of a mushroom cloud, but in its “explosion” of stimuli, overpowering and disorienting the reader. Cutting against an illusory order in the progression of thought, the poem, vortex-like, cascades aurally and visually, overpowering its logical structure. Through the catalog of images, lack of punctuation, miscegenation of diction registers and shifts in semantic reference, the poem disarms and imposes its will, catching the reader up in its forceful sweep. Rather than persuading through argument, the hysterical catalogue immerses the reader in visionary energy. As a result, the audience “experiences” the bomb—both as a fragmenting and chaotic force and as a vehicle for spiritual ecstasy in its trajectory of transcendence. The poem transforms the deathly powers of the bomb into an experience of rapture and beauty.

The poem demands different interpretations in different realms of discourse—on the political level, it is an invective against weapons of mass destruction and the “culture” of the bomb. But in order to see the poem’s implicit critique, one must perceive its sarcasm and humor. Corso assumed no reader would take his bomb “worship” seriously. In this sense the speaker’s embrace of the bomb is sardonic, a parody of a society so petrified by the bomb’s threat that it effectively idolizes it, paralyzed by fear. The poem attempts to liberate humanity from its terror by showing the futility of this kind of abstract anxiety. Of course it also implicitly critiques the political ideas and choices responsible for creating fear in the first place.

Conversely, on the philosophical and existential level, the poem is partly sincere. Although the bomb is made and controlled by humans, the average person’s experience of its dormant threat is passive and intangible; seemingly, it is “[n]ot up to man whether [the bomb] boom[s] or not,” as the ordinary person has no direct control over the arms race. In a letter to Paul Blackburn, Corso writes that, although the poem is “very much against the bomb,” his approach is the “right way” because “one must not hate, for that which one hates is apt to destroy.” In this context, the poem confronts the dilemma of post-atomic man and offers an alternative to terror and paralysis. The alternative is not literal bomb worship but an embrace of the totality of human experience, including mortality—a position implicit in the title The Happy Birthday of Death and in many of the book’s poems. Rather than urging abstract, philosophical resignation or mere escapism, Corso overcomes the psychological crisis by transforming the bomb into a symbol of primal energy and imagination. Contrary to expectations, the bomb’s detonation actualizes, in a cosmic sense, the conditions of the imagination, creating a space of total freedom and play.

Thus, like “Marriage,” “Bomb” responds to and transforms the threats of modern civilization through a bold assertion of the alchemical powers of human consciousness. This interpretation supports Stephenson’s claim that “[p]oetry for Corso is a mode of rebuking, rebutting and refuting the pheonomenological universe and of imposing inner desire on the external world.” The poems of The Happy Birthday of Death achieve both these objectives, partly through employing the technique I have called the hysterical catalogue. Through it, Corso introduces a new, distinctly social application for surrealism, absorbing destructive, dehumanizing forces of the psycho-social conditions of the mid-century.

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk. See Uut Poetry for more info.

Here’s Matthew Zapruder’s “To a Predator”

I woke up early and saw a fox.
It was leaping and dragging its glorious
red and white tail behind it across
the road. It held a grasshopper in its mouth,
which it dropped when it saw the small
carcass of a young javelina. Last night
I was woken by their hairless rooting through
a field of cactus in moonlight. They all
stood together, ears rotated forward into
the breeze, protecting the single mother
protecting a pair of young. Their
mustachioed labium superius oris i.e.
upper lip protects a gentle tusk
the color of greywater. I almost sympathize
with their corporate need to snuffle
and roam in packs until dawn returns them
to hollows they made in the ground.
But my sleep does not. Thus I shone
a very powerful flashlight into their midst
and watched them scramble across
the highway, dispersing. Thus I walked
out into this morning, wearing a shirt
the color of a dandelion, whistling
an uncertain tune about the mild unequal
life I would like to know better of a rich
acquaintance in the Mexican city of Guadalajara.

I’ve been thinking about what Robert Kelly wrote in the early 60s about each image in a poem having “its field of force, its shadow moving darkly through the poem.” Arrangement, or sequence, for Kelly, is the key:

Basically, the fullest force is possible only by means of the successful employment of one image’s position in a context of other images… The subsequent image is conditioned, made to work, by the image that precedes it, and conditions, as it is finally conditioned by, the image that follows it: through the whole poem…

The whole poem is more than the sum of its parts. Very important for this superequivalence is the ORDER of images within a poem.

Kelly is thinking about images, but it is impossible not to see an overlap with narrative or dramatic sequence working the same way and being almost the same thing. In Zapruder’s poem, the most remarkable moment is not the encounter with the fox-mother and babies in the night, but the “shirt / the color of a dandelion” the speaker dons the next morning. The sensory and psychological tone in that detail gathers almost all of its meaning from the scene preceding it, the nocturnal encounter. “Thus” rhetorically aids the transference and reinforces the sense of a causality-link between this moment and the night before. We’re cognitively confused and delighted at the notion that a shirt’s color (or his choice of shirt) hours later had anything to do with the foxes. The tight, chronological structure of the poem amplifies this effect. What’s the “residue” of the previous images on the image of the shirt? It’s impossible to say—herein is the ineffable, almost magical trick poetry playing on the mind.

The effect also comes through a paradigmatic or contiguous relationship, much more directly having to do with what Kelly is referring to. Zapruder’s parallelism hints at it:

“Thus I shone / a very powerful flashlight…”
“Thus I walked / out into this morning…”

Synchronicity or simultaneity: two seemingly unrelated things happen in different places or times but are held together artificially. It’s more jarring when the things are further apart in time and space, such as the “rich / acquaintance” in Guadalajara. Somehow this new character belongs in the network of meanings with the foxes, flashlight and shirt.

This is more than, or something other than, metaphor. Zapruder’s metaphor of the foxes’ “corporate need to snuffle / and roam in packs” places a lovely, filtering veil of corporate America over fox-ness, opening all kinds of analogous correlations and possibilities. But corporate America is not the dramatic frame of reference, whereas the dandelion-colored shift and flashlight and foxes are and are thus forced into contiguity along a lateral axis. They share the same “ontological” status, whereas metaphor is figurative and removed. Obviously, metaphoric vehicles still lurks around “darkly through the poem,” but not as prominently.

This effect operates in a poem whenever there is a shift in discourse of subject matter. It’s not necessarily just Bly’s “leaping,” either, which requires emotional content. In Leaping Poetry, Bly wrote that Ashbery and his disciples didn’t properly “leap” because they merely change subjects without a “head-of-emotion.” But Zapruder’s shirt doesn’t have much emotional valence and it still works to bring that special aspect of reality to the fore: the paradox of the simultaneous unity of everything hidden in the appearance of disorder or chaos. So I’d take issue with Bly and agree more with Kelly, who says nothing about emotion. Merely changing subjects does seem to work.

Kelly sees transformation of the world as poetry’s function: “We are given: 1 world to transform, 1 language to transform it with,” and adds, “transformation is process, involves truth as emergent from process and not distinct from it.” Kelly was describing a new kind of poetry (deep image) when he wrote these ideas, but they have proven applicable to a whole range of poetics of disjunction.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

The Dog in the Garage

The dog in the garage,
The hound that wanders around
Snapping at flies, with an infected ear —

Suddenly starts to run
Across the street at an angle.
He must have remembered something

Mixed with the odors of dust
And car-grease — a delirious
Fragrance of sexual life.

I just started reading Kayak—the poetry magazine George Hitchcock ran almost single-handedly from 1964-84. It’s a wonderful zine brought to life with Hitchcock’s visual collages. The magazine serves as a portal into the surrealist and deep image poetry of the period. Andrew Joron cites it as “the most sustained, and most visible, interact between deep-image and surrealist poetry.” This is good and bad, however, since deep imagism, for many, is a tamed, domesticated pseudo-surrealism—surrealism without teeth. A pertinent quote from Joron:

Such notions [of the deep image], in spite of their superficial affinities with Surrealism, fall short Surrealism’s radical demand for the dialectical Aufhebung of dream and reality. The deep imagists tended to rely on “intensification of intuition” (citing Jung) rather than on the intensification of contradiction; theirs was essentially an affirmative art, devoid of the surrealist appetite for negation and otherness (as exemplified by Breton’s phrase “Existence is elsewhere”).

Joron’s evocation of Hegel’s term, aufhebung, is very interesting. The contradictory meanings of the word (“lift,” “abolish,” “sublate”) make it an intriguing choice for surrealism (which is, to a great extent, Hegelian). The word suggests more than synthesis, as thesis and antithesis are “preserved and changed” simultaneously. In aufhebung, objects remains open and distinct while, simultaneously, merging with the other.

I wonder if a useful dividing line can be drawn between epiphany-centered poems (those written in the spirit of Bly and James Wright) and the “non-epiphanic” deep image poems that gesture, much less conspicuously, toward sublation. There are many poems in Kayak modeled closely on Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock.” Take this poem by David P. Etter:


Hollyhocks are swaying gently
under the blue branches of an elm.

I watch 82 freight cars
sink into the corn leaves
and over the rim of the prairie.

On my back now, I watch the sky
make wool pictures of mothers.

Two blackbirds fly toward the river:
the muddy river of endless regret.

I could lie here forever
and look up at these hollyhocks.

I will never get on in the world.

The same pattern of the meditative, nature-conscious Wordsworthian speaker builds up to an implied epiphany, which is expressed through a “gap” or “leap” into a profound thought, usually in the final line. This is a wonderful way to express the powers of intuition and deep interconnection of man and nature. It is “affirmative,” finding resonance and basic goodness in nature and consciousness.

Such a vision and expression is successful in many ways, but it is different, as Joron notes, from one of the more important characteristics of surrealism. And it’s not that the surrealists are dour pessimists who take the same experience and draw opposite, nihilistic, conclusions. Rather, the difference is one of discursion. The “Lying in a Hammock” poem draws a final statement from the experience, whether good or bad (usually good). Their experience of the world is epiphanic, even mystical. The surrealists are more skeptical epistemologically. Epiphanies, by their nature, are conclusive.

But what about Simpson’s poem? Epiphanies seem to be a matter of subjective judgment. His poem doesn’t seem to contain an epiphany. If there is one, it is so minor that it is almost inconsequential. The speaker interprets the dog: “He must have remembered something.” This could be an epiphany (or become one), but the statement is speculative (“he must have”), whereas Etter’s and Wright’s interpretive statements are declarative: “I have wasted my life” and “I will neverget on in the world.” What the dog remembered might be epiphanic—for the dog—or, the fact that the speaker sees this in the dog might be epiphanic for the speaker. But since what the dog must have remembered isn’t stated. Behind the statement is a potential epiphany, but it is gestured toward from a distance and remains hidden. This lends the poem a sense of openness.

Surrealist aufhebung required openness. The surrealists achieve this by eschewing conclusions (and hence, epiphanies). The simplest way to do this is to stick to images and juxtapositions. The implicative nature of juxtaposition seems to do most of the dialectical work automatically for the surrealist. Yet, only when sublation goes unstated can the paradoxical nature of aufhebung be fully realized.

Simpson’s poem walks the line between surrealist openness and deep-imagist closure. This poem is affirmative—of animal life and the power of the unconscious—and the resonance of “delirious fragrance” pushes the poem toward closure. On the other hand, the poem’s basic maneuver (and its success) comes through contradiction and contrast (infection/virility, memory/delirium, industrialism/sexuality).

Most importantly, the sublation is hidden within the world itself and is not a product of the speaker’s consciousness—the dog itself is aufhebung. It (gender unknown) is a living animal that bundles together energies of disparity, disorder, and disjunction. Yet that bundle of attributes achieves a tenuous cohesion—it is a thing capable of following scents (and sense), and of crossing the street successfully (albeit without efficiency or grace). That awkward hodgepodge, the dog, is the paradox of sublation. Simpson both does and does not suggest that miracle for the reader. Undoubtedly he perceives the mystery, and yet, he’s “just reporting” the dog’s actions and psychology. The poem is surreal because the dog in itself is surreal. The poem is deep image because our experience of the dog carries resonance and (potentially) closure. The line between closed/open, epiphany/non-epiphany, intuition/contradiction, or sublation/deposition can be quite elusive. More importantly, Simpson reveals the surreality, theaufhebung, lying hidden within experience itself. (In that sense, the poem points to something I am growing increasingly aware of: surrealism is fundamentally mimetic.)

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:


A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca that could change your life, if your name is Euclid or Bernhard Reimann:


My time
moves on in a spiral.

The spiral
limits my landscape,
leaves what is past in the shadows
& makes me advance
full of doubts.

Oh perfect straight line! Pure
spear without spearman.
How your light turns my solomonic
path into dream!

This little lyric turns a beautiful, minimalistic image into a philosophical meditation. If the spaker is imagined to be in a “landscape,” as he calls it, then it is a Dali-esque landscape. That is, it’s basically a vast desert with just a few important, unusual objects placed in our field vision. We must confront and make meaning of them. Here, we have the spiral and the straight line—two ways of interpreting experience.

The spiral is a mixed bag and quite ambiguous: it brings “advance” but also the discomfort of “doubts.” Does Lorca think “limits” or leaving the past behind are good? Is “advancing” a good thing? Is this a forced march or an existential embrace of the present? The perfect straight line is an ideal. It stands above and beyond time, caught in mid-air, as it were, a “spear without spearman.” But again, ambiguous: it is a “light” that turns the path into “dream”—but is that necessarily good? Is a “solomonic” path better or worse than a dream?

In any case, there’s no clear favoritism, landing us squarely in the dilemma and the paradox of the “real” versus the “ideal.” What is the nature of that relationship? Philosophers have given us little to sort that question out. This poem suggests they are both operative in life and sustain each other in a mysterious paradox. Who can say, though, what straight lines have to do with spirals? What grounds does the speaker have for hoping in the straight line, caught as he is in spiral reality?

Isn’t it curious that “time,” which most people think of as a straight line (or horizontal trajectories) is here called a “spiral”? That’s western thought for you, thinking something is linear when in fact it is curved, cyclical, centrifugal. Most non-European philosophies have something closer to the spiral model. Another thing we tend to think of as linear when it’s really not: writing. We write in spirals, not from start to finish.

A spiral is a corrupted line, a line finding its way back to straightness, its former state. On the other hand, a spiral turns on a center, creates its own gravity and identity. It is a line finding its way back to itself, moving inward and outward simultaneously, “advancing” but “full of doubts.” It “limits the landscape” by cutting itself off with its own curve/past, thus leaving itself behind “in shadows.”

Now re-read that last paragraph substituting “human” for “spiral” and “life” for “line.” Then re-read it, substituting “poetry” for “spiral” and “language” for “line.”

Photo by Marco Munoz.

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

City Lights Books just published Compression & Purity, a new poetry book by L.A.-based African-American surrealist, Will Alexander. Alexander writes densely textured “psychedelic” or scientific surrealism with a strong affinity for arcane vocabulary. “On Scorpions & Swallows” begins:

Not claimed
by the accessible as contrast
or as competition by loss
or mathematics by peril

but occlusion as opposable phylums

minus a dark synesthesial as rote
minus the axial smoke of a rotted bonfire hamlet

I mean
oasis as savage dialectic rotation
meaning species as aggressive salt
as curious vertical blazing

in reversed arrayal
I think of interior cobalt swallows
with predacious ignition
a contradictory igniting
beautific with scopolamine

I am struck with Alexander’s careful phrasings, his manipulation of thematic shape and his mastery of extensions. For instance, the poetry quoted above, “On Scorpions & Swallows,” reads like a single, extended sentence creating a sonnet-like problem-and-answer structure to the poem. Alexander favors long, elliptical syntactic units that span several stanzas, increasing the complexity and obscurity of his style.

The dense texture might intimidate the reader, but it does not necessarily ambiguate meaning. Contrarily, he is often clear and exceedingly poignant. Take, for example, how he uses scientific jargon to describe Cesar Vellejo:

calling up vacuums written in vicuna

through fabulous confounding

through anarchical visceral cascade

like unstructured findings

curiously filtered

through a partially constricted gullet

Stanzas like these are astounding to me, perhaps partly because they are foiled by adjacent stanzas that seem obscure. Perhaps the oscillation of each stanza’s “logical” effectiveness is part of Alexander’s trick, as the images that resonate with readers probably vary significantly. On the other hand, even the obscure passages are attractive in a hieratic, rarified, geeky way. A good “Alexandrian” phrase gives the kind of satisfaction scholars get when they lecture at conferences in words that are technical and precise and somehow on the brink of incomprehension. The paradox and inner tension of precision and incomprehension creates an amusing, ironic tension. Carried through by this underlying tension, Alexander’s poetic textures hypnotize and seduce.

What is Alexander doing with language? His work focuses quite obviously on a particular semantic field (science) and employs strained but traditionally lyrical syntax. I, like Joron, see in this as reclaiming or deconstructing language—especially vocabularies that have been hitherto forbidden for the vast majority of literary writing. Certainly postmodern works has blurred generic boundaries, but Alexander seems to be showing, in an almost Pynchon-like way, that even the nuances of specialized language can be conscripted and subsumed into a larger poetic utterance. To a great extent, his project resembles the surrealists’ neo-Romantic mission to subordinate external reality to consciousness through linguistic looting. Furthermore, if we read Alexander as a surrealist, his poetry represents a shift from image-centered to poetry to word-centered surrealism. As Joron states, Alexander “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from restricted economy of the image.” In the stanzas I quote above, you can see Alexander cutting up and recombining scientific language in this way, creating new contexts and opening up highly controlled language to expansive subjects. His poems are Max Ernst collages constructed from the archives of Scientific American and biology textbooks.

Until now, Alexander has been most known for his 1995 collection Asia & Haiti, as well as his 2005 Exobiology As Goddess. But when I examined the “books by” page of Compression & Purity, I was astonished to see several other titles attributed to Alexander in the two years, several of which I believe are forthcoming:

Impulse & Nothingness (Green Integer, 2011)
Aboriginal Salt: Early Divinations (White Press Inc., 2011)
The Brimstone Boat (Reve a Deux, 2011)
Diary as Sin (Skylight Press, 2011)
Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents (Oyster Moon Press, 2011)
On the Substance of Disorder (Inset Press, 2011)
Inalienable Recognitions (eohippus labs, 2010)
Inside the Earthquake Palace (Chax Press, 2011)

The sheer number of titles here suggests a prolific burst of energy, almost outnumbering in a matter of months the works he has published before this decade. Suffice it to say, if these titles are all indeed realities, then Alexander may be entering the definitive stage in his career. Even more impressive, many other categories are represented here in addition to poetry: fiction, philosophy, essays and drama.

For more on Will Alexander, check out this video of him reading and this poem.

Galen Strawson, in his essay, “Against Narrativity,” challenges the validity of the popularly held hypothesis that human beings experience and make sense of their lives as narratives. The effects of narrative self-articulation, he says, are “potentially pernicious.” The predisposition “to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding.” He distinguishes between Diachronics and Episodics, individuals who view the narrative arc of their lives as continuous, versus those who see their lives as discontinuous. The Episodic view, he shows, is less dangerous because it tends to mitigate the temptation to fabricate and revise our stories in order to reflect what we want to see ourselves as rather than who we really are. “Diachronicity” “is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life.’”

Bidart’s “Golden State” might be seen as an examination of the diachronic urge in the form of a dramatic monologue. On the surface it’s a poem about the poet coming to terms with his father through therapeutic autobiography. But it also questions the role of narrative to decipher experience and achieve self-understanding.

The poem is divided into ten numbered sections that relate to each other in complicated and multifaceted ways. There is linear progression, but the more important structure is a psychological one. The speaker encounters each scene like he is flipping through a photo album or shuffling a pack of cards in which each card contains a riddle or puzzle that must be solved. The poem emphasizes the process of reaching insight—a personal “dawn”—rather than a finished product or presentation of the son’s discovered meaning. Finally, the recurrence of subjects creates a partially cyclical structure. Each section returns to the same problem from a different angle, and the son’s slowly-evolving ability to respond is realized only through repeated encounters.

The first several sections of the poem recount frustrating altercations with his father, who is a constant source of disruption. The father is a wild and confusing force that the speaker fails to understand: “And yet your voice, raw, / demanding, dissatisfied [. . .] remains [. . .].” By the middle sections of the poem, the speaker is determined to analyze the father’s failure in life because he recognizes his own need to understand and appropriate that failure as part of his own identity. The process starts with resisting the easy explanation, which he relied on previously. This means revisiting the facts of his father’s history and puzzling over the baffling patterns of behavior.

By the eighth section, the speaker starts to see his father’s failures as part of the wider scope of human struggle. This requires reconfiguring the father’s role in the son’s narrative: “I must unlearn; I must believe // you were merely a man— / with a character, and a past.” The son must transform his father, who he has always experienced as the villain, into an antihero. Section “IX” allows this to happen, wherein the son recognizes that his own attitude and actions, motivated by bitterness, has implicated him in his father’s downfall; he then sees himself as part of the same inevitable cycle of contradictory forces that defined his father’s life.

The final section claims that narrative approach has failed: “no such knowledge is possible.” The speaker is left with disparate images of his father—looking at old photographs, he “cannot connect” the “handsome, dashing, elegant” man in early adulthood with “the defensive / gnarled would-be cowboy” of later life. The son concludes that his father is “happy / to be surprising; unknowable; unpossessable . . . // You say it’s what you always understood by freedom.” The father remains allusive—narrative, in the end, fails to (de)mythologize him.

The speaker’s ultimate discovery is that he must let his father remain unknown, untellable, beyond narrative. By letting go of the need to explain his father’s life, the son allows the father remains “free,” and the son, while not finding what he originally sought, discovers himself as part of the same set of forces that governed his father’s life, although he has avoided their destructive forces.

As Bidart explains in his interview with Halliday, the son’s “way of ‘solving problems’” is the converse of the persona of “Herbert White,” who “give[s] himself to a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past.” The speaker of “Golden State” steers clear of the pitfall of a revisionist or reductive account of his father. The episodic, discursive structure of “Golden State” reflects the skepticism of the final section. Rather than a linear, “ordered” narrative, the poem assumes a fragmentary nature, with partial, juxtaposed glimpses of the father’s life. This method of writing seems to go to the heart of Bidart’s poetics: “I needed a way to embody the mind moving through the elements of its word, actively contending with and organizing them, while they somehow retain the illusion of their independence and nature, are felt as ‘out there’ or ‘other.’”

Poetry & Episodic Narration

Is poetry, especially lyric poetry, intrinsically predisposed toward episodic, rather than diachronic, narration? We know that the traditional dichotomy of narrative v. lyric is false, but on the other hand, modern poetry has substantially shifted toward story telling through implication by means of images. The “image narrative” offers mere snapshots that are often temporally isolated clusters of events and images. Consider Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The middle stanzas are simply a series of snapshots: “At fourteen I married My Lord you. / … At fifteen I stopped scowling, . . . / At sixteen you departed . . . .” The image narrative, one might argue, is the natural way for a lyric poem to tell a story. It allows the poet to stay concrete, to “show not tell,” to compress and to juxtapose. As a series of shots or tableaux with little or no connecting “syntax,” the image narrative foregrounds discontinuity, fragmentation, isolated scenes and episodes. It resists closure and false cause-and-effect logic.

Is it possible, then, that generic customs tend to align poetry to episodic thinking, whereas novels, for example, pressures individuals to frame experience diachronically? If so, might poetry offer an important corrective to society’s apparent preference for diachronic thinking? One might facetiously cite an example like Twilight and other teen fiction (or any fiction for that matter) with formulaic plot structures that create a false sense of coherence to life and suggest the inevitability of one’s (eventual) fulfillment and self-actualization (or cosmic justice or closure).

If a diachronic framework for interpreting our lives is at least partially misguided, as Swanson and Bidart suggest, a good many of us might be living in self-deceiving fictions. Ironically, this implies a critique opposite to the one we often here leveled against the 21st century—the libel bemoaning our diminished ability to think in terms of the “big picture,” to act out of a sense of the whole of life and history. While, of course, an inability to think outside of the present is pathological, so is forcing all experience into a “big picture.” The problem for all of us is that narrative seems to hold a privileged position in the hierarchy of meaning-making and we have subconsciously absorbed it as an the overarching structure for comprehending reality. So: what to do with the diachronic urge? Do episodic “image narratives” offer a viable alternative?

My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?

I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.

One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:

No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.

As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.

Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:

Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.

Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.

Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:

My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.

Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:

The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees,
Filled with dead
That won’t stay

When I die,
I won’t stay

On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.

Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.

Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.

Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.

Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:

But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar

The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.

Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like

when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)

A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.

It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”

I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)

and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:

nobody waits
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?

“Howl” by Gene Tanta

In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.

“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim


his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull


Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.


My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”


Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

[click to continue…]