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Walt Whitman

 

Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

Most of the work I do in the garden is a sort of re-reading. I might stare at a spot for a good ten minutes, then go to another place and stare at that same spot again until either satisfaction, or displeasure, or further bafflement causes me to place a few rocks, or to plant a delphinium or conclude: “there’s too much there already. Let it be.”

I don’t know what I’m doing and that makes it all the more enjoyable and baffling. I have some vegetables in, but not for the purpose of feeding myself. I intend to give them away. To me, holding up a squash towards a stranger and saying: “here… have a squash,” is a god-almighty amazing experience. Me and the rain and the sun and days of weather went into that gourd’s existence. There’s a bit of the child in it: “See what I made, mommy?”

Of course, most people don’t know what to do with a squash. Those that do know what to do with a squash most likely already have squash of their own. My grandmother said: “The true message of all gifts is: I have seen you. You exist upon the earth. See me.” She claimed that once you realized this, any gift you received would be in good grace. ” It’s not the gift; it’s the grace.” She once watched a woman say to her child who had brought her a wilted dandelion: “It’s wilted, Mary. For Christ sake, don’t be an idiot. I have no use for a wilted dandelion.” My grandmother said: “After that, I had no use for that woman… She was a bad reader of the truth. She prided her self on her honesty, but she wouldn’t know the truth if it rose up and bit her on the arse.” My grandmother had a bone to pick even with God in this respect: “Cain gave his offering no less sincerely than his brother Abel, but God wanted to show his whim was boss. He spat on Cain’s heart, and so Cain killed Abel. To spit on another’s heart is to create a murderer. If you could look at the hearts of murders you would see them covered in spit… God let Cain live. God had a plan I suppose, but I don’t see much of a difference between God and that mother with the wilted dandelion. God forgive me, but I think God acted in poor taste… no wonder he let Cain live. Poor Abel… I don’t think he rubbed it in his brother’s face, and he should not have been murdered, but that’s what we do, don’t we? When someone too powerful to hurt, hurts us, we go and slit the throat of the next fellow, and on and on. Envy and the hurt of it makes a terrible mess. The rope coils and we get more and more tangled. don’t we? Ah ‘tis a truth; no use asking why. Y is a crooked letter won’t be made straight.”

I loved my grandmother. She smelled like dirt, and old newspapers, and cough drops. She died when I was 11, my first true death. As a member of a large Irish Catholic family, there were always the wakes of friendly but distant great uncles, but I had seen my grandmother and she saw me. We watched each other. We were vigilant as regards each other’s comings and goings upon the earth. When she died, the song “Bridge Over Troubled water” was a new hit. The lyrics Paul Simon later regretted writing because they seemed mere filler had great private meaning for me: “Sail on silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to fly. All your dreams are on their way.” I would sit alone in my room with a transistor radio and wait for this song, and when it came, I would wail to my heart’s content. I knew then that loss had given me significance, and, more so, it had given whatever I loved significance. My grandmother had become enormous, even a little terrifying–a presence and a myth rather than an old lady who smelled like dirt and never stopped talking. She was in the landscape all around me, in the moody shifts of the weather. Winter was now her season for she had died in winter. I was almost angry at the spring for arriving.

A garden, like all true relationships, is a pact with loss, with effacement, and when we fear effacement, it already begins to give birth to power and envy and death inside us. This is the grasping that undoes all we might be given. Zen monks expend great care on creating a mandala they then erase. It may take weeks of painstaking skill, and then they just rub it out. Love does not fear effacement. It comes into the world to be erased. It comes with great trouble and care, and much reading and re-reading in order to die. The loss is in–not of–the loss in things. I see this in my garden. Nothing I do succeeds in the way of permanence. It is not change either. I hate change. change is the great whore of the present hour. I have no use for that whore. If truth is passed permanence, then it is also passed change. Permanence and change are both to be discarded. What we lose and what we gain have nothing to do with either. Permanence and change, upon close scrutiny, always yield their falsehoods. They exist to prove each other false. I call this the comedy of revision. By gardening I revise the landscape, and when I die, the earth will revise me. What I edit will become my editor.

Yesterday, I was away from my garden, reading for an anthology “Working Poets” in Paterson. My wife and I had some time to kill, so we wandered into a Barnes and Noble. I looked at all the hundreds of new books, and then I went to the poetry section and picked up Whitman’s Leaves of Grass–a work I have read and re-read many times. I was looking for a certain section, much the way you look for a grave of a relative you have not visited in a while. the cemetery always seems different. You can’t find the grave right away. Someone is always coming out with a new or final version of Whitman and many of these wish to be faithful to Whitman. And you cannot be faithful to Whitman, but, hey, why not? The versions did not have the usual section markers, so I read poems I had no intention of reading, and soon I was crying, and ashamed of myself for I am a big cry baby.

What I was looking for was the sixth part of song of myself. I intended to read it in honor of a woman named Arlene who had worked for Maria Mazziotti Gillan for many years and had once given me 200 bucks to get my car out of a tow yard when I parked illegally to do a school visit. She had died the week before after a six year battle with ovarian cancer. She had gone way beyond the call of duty for me, and, from what I understood, she was always going way beyond the call of duty for someone. I did not know her well. I knew her kindness–her grace, and I wanted to honor it. So after reading perhaps thirty pages and telling my wife to leave me alone (in a loving way) I found the grave I was looking for. For me, poems are graves. While you are there, the dead rise, and they speak to you whatever wisdom they have, and then they return to the earth. You are always both pleased and a little worried when you find the grave of a loved poem. What has happened to you since the last time you visited? Will the flowers you left still be there, albeit, browned and dry? Were you forty the last time? Did you weigh less, hope more? How will you approach–with reverence, or as casually as a child playing among the head stones? Will it still mean something to you, or will your visit be merely obligatory? The new books did not matter for I was on a mission to pay my respects. I found the section (which was not marked as a section). Whitman in this poem claims there is no death, but then he revises this claim and says that death is better than we could ever imagine–and luckier. It is a poem I have read perhaps a hundred times and cannot fail to be awed by. At certain moments of my life, it has seemed the only poem I ever truly read. Here it is. I offer it like a squash. If you know what to do with squash, you have most likely read it yourself, and have your own relation to it. If not, consider the grace of seeing and being seen.

A child said what is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the hankerchief of the Lord,
A scented remebrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say whose?

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same,
I recieve them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire form the breasts of young men,
it may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
it may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I percieve after all so many uttering tongues,
And I percieve they do not come from the roofs of motuhs for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere.
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And, if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at
the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.

Etheridge Knight wrote some of the only haiku I can stand in the American idiom. In addition to that, his ear was impeccable, and he was liable to go just about anywhere in a poem so that he invigorates the tradition of the conversational lyric and does so by using mixed registers of speech while avoiding both the political correctness and formulaic “Non-academic” traditions of spoken word. The list in second part of this poem shows how a poet can still use cursing and invective to maximum rhythmical advantage. This is a list, worthy of Whitman. Knight is not an “unschooled poet.” His training is in the whole array of American speech from the reflective, almost introverted poet, to the raucous street preacher. “All Fucked Up” represents true spoken word–not a slam formula.

Feeling Fucked Up
by Etheridge Knight

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs–

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcom fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing

 

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
Birds,
That won’t stay
Dead.

When I die,
I won’t stay
Dead.

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.