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american poetry

Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0

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Jackleg Opera is the fourth collection by BJ Ward and is a collected poems gathering together over twenty years of amazing work. It was published at the end of 2013 by North Atlantic Books and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Ward’s poetry is an incredible blend of wit, intelligence, playfulness and insight. He is a poet that not only loves language and craft but loves humanity, the adept phrasing that reflects the hidden emotional realities, charting what Emily Dickinson called the “internal difference where the meanings are.” His own words describe the accomplishment of his poetry, for his poems are

a net to capture the moment
but release the energy
–Suzuki Dance

This is appropriate for a poet who often writes about poetry, its power and purpose. That’s not to mistake his work for merely academic word wizardry. For his primary concern is with how we connect with other people, and language is one of the essential tools for that connection. So in a clever poem about the purpose of poetry called “Portrait of the Artist as Egg Salad,” the speaker is eating an egg salad sandwich which, of course, the reader can’t taste and in this context, he’s

. . . reminded of the thickest-

headed student I ever had—Debra—
who, when I told her her poem conveyed
nothing, said, “But I really feel this.”

So here we are,
Debra invoked yet long gone,
just writer and reader liaising
in the rectangular dining room of the page,
me still eating my egg salad sandwich,
you beginning to cross your arms and get upset

because I haven’t offered you anything yet
and you’re still hungry and it’s all my fault.

So poetry offers us or is supposed to offer us something that feeds us and nourishes us. In it, we often find the courage to face—or simple the ability to admit—the darker or wilder side of our own nature. It gives us a palatable way to assimilate the unavoidable darkness that is a part of our condition. These are what another poem calls “the molded hollows / in us worn from containing / and releasing, holding and letting be” (A Note to Karen). But those molded hollows are more than simply allowed to exist in the end; they are what make us who we are. Avoiding them is what a life of repression is built on and Blake’s specters are born of. But Ward is a wise poet and tries to guide us aright, for he tells us straight, as a Jersey poet would, “The more rocks we hit, / the louder we sing” (For Those Who Grew Up on a River). This embracing of the forces that wound us or are untamed within us, takes on many shapes in the poems. So in “The Noise I Make,” Ward declares, “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Or in “New Jersey,” it’s “the short, imperfect loveliness of groundhogs.” Or in “Spring Begins in Hinckley, Ohio,” it’s “a wrenching into tenderness.” That last phrase might contain the beautiful power of his poetry, for it is in understanding the deep wounds in us that we come to embrace the full extent of our humanity.

The poem “Compassion,” brings these elements together: that of the difficulty of intimacy in a modern metropolis and the compassion born of the deep wounding that defines a person. The poem opens

Out in this profane city,
sometimes sidewalks
seem the only cement that connects us

As the poem focuses in on a central figure living in this “profane city,” he is in his apartment “checking your scars / which spell your real name.” Later in the poem, the figure gives a dollar to a homeless man, and confronts the various voices that would condemn this compassion since the homeless man will simply “spend it on booze,” and “spend it on his / own death.” But in the end, though the central figure is a dollar poorer and isolated by his compassion from the callous voices that would deny the act,

. . . your inner
walls feel emblazoned by a song
rising from the fathomless depths,
a rosined bow rubbing
its awfully taut body
against catgut

to make music.

Here is one of the rocks that makes us sing from the inner depths. This is the point of it all, the sine qua non of poetry, music—art in general, that, as Stevens put it, makes it a “dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” But, of course, at the other extreme, Ward also explores what separates us and, not surprisingly, it is often technology or symbolized by technology. Don’t presume he’s a Luddite for he does have a website. But, for instance, in the poem “No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend,” a person with an answering machine blinking to let them know he has a call, recites a litany of the various ways this means the world is reaching out to connect to him. But that expectation is destroyed when he presses the button and

a single electronic static train,
its boxcars full of emptiness,
departs from the speaker,
routes through my chest,
and out the front door—

. . . . . . . click

. . . giving me another hang-up.)

A wonderful double-entendre in which the language of our technology multiplies the emotional turmoil of the speaker. And technology has only accommodated this distancing with irony in something like Facebook, something Ward taps into with his poem “Upon Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a Smart Phone,” which ends,

My friends are so thirsty with water in their eyes
so back to the well we’ll crawl:
Tell Plato to rise and rephilosophize—
Facebook is the new cave wall—

Our most popular social media for connecting with people is merely a shadow play of reality. Our connections are only phantoms of the truth as in Plato’s famous allegory. It’s also notable that here we find the relation of this disconnection to a thirst, that is, something primal in us that needs to be nourished since “my friends are so thirsty.” What poetry provides is lost in this network of virtual connections. Poetry, by using language in striking ways, reveals the hidden realities within us and provides a real, emotional connection to others across great distances and sometimes across impossible time. Most forms of social media, tethered and defined by the speed and rush of technology, often have a leveling influence on our language and interactions, and create connections that are as often fleeting and superficial as a single electrical spark. It is a problem Ward states with a kind of epigrammatic precision in “After Googling Myself, I Pour Myself Some Scotch and Step Out onto My Front Porch.” In it he says, “What a sum freedom plus apathy have equaled.”

But countering that apathy, that disconnection, is this collection of twenty-three years of great poetry and something to be deeply grateful for. It is among the best antidotes out there and should be marked by that peculiar phrase in his poem “Cross-Pollination,” which attaches to

. . . one of those rare moments in life
one would never get rid of.

These poems will strike you with their humor, their honesty, their emotional depth and their music. Like me, you may find yourself turning to someone and saying, “You have to hear this.”

bj-ward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?

BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.

Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?

BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.

Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Michael T. Young:  The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?

BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”

Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?

BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.

Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?

BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?

BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.

Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.

BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?

BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.

BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.

And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt

(x, x, x)

whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?

Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,

and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips

as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love

but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,

knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,

the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?

            (from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])

————————

You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.

 

 

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.

 

 

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.

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.

Iris

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–”: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.