#thestack (Next!)

You probably ought to read the first post “#thestack” before this one.


My first thoughts on seeing the next American Poetry Review in the stack was: Allen Ginsberg! Great! Instead of using a black-and-white photo of bald, crazy-bearded Ginsberg, the editors chose a Robert La Vigne painting of young Ginsberg for the cover of the March/April 2006 issue, and I approved of that decision immediately. The second thing I thought as I glanced at that goldish-yellow-and-blue cover was: Ira Sadoff wrote a part two to “On the Margins”? Maybe I should go back and read part one. The third thought: That Shinder guy with the mom-rectum poem is in here, too?

Before I were to read though, I had to do my browsing thing. On first glance, there seems to be more here that I will read. I can’t read Reginald Shepherd’s poems, because of his frowny author photo. (I read his “On Difficulty in Poetry” in Writer’s Chronicle years ago, and it didn’t incline me to seek out more of his work.)  But I know off the bat that I will read the commentary on Ginsberg, and the essay “This Working Against the Grain,” and John Koethe’s poem “Proust,” and I will definitely read JoEllen Kwiatek’s “Study for Necessity,” since I agree with her statement in the first paragraph: “To be literate as a writer is to have cultivated a writing process; that is, a relationship with time.”

This issue dedicated to Ginsberg’s “Howl” celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the poem’s 1956 publication by City Lights. Ginsberg was one of my early favorite poets. At eighteen, I had read Kerouac’s On the Road (and then Dharma Bums and then Subterraneans and then Desolation Angels), and an inquiry into Kerouac – via Nicosia’s Memory Babe – led me to some real names behind the pseudonyms: Carlo Marx = Allen Ginsberg. And I was off to the races in my late-teen/early-twenties Beat phase! After finding the little black-and-white Howl and Other Poems at a now-gone independent bookstore called The Bookmonger and devouring its contents, I found that I actually liked “America” and “Supermarket in California” better than that lengthy tirade against mid-’50s America.

And what was contained in that commentary on Ginsberg in that 2006 issue of APR furthered my comprehension how not-alone I was in that discovery: a young non-conformist, possibly artistic, definitely dissatisfied, living in a cultural backwater . . . who then read Ginsberg and went, This is awesome! For me, it was in the early 1990s. For Vivian Gornick and Mark Doty, who actually got see and meet Ginsberg, it was in the late ’60s. For Amiri Baraka, who was his long-time friend and one of the original “beats,” it was the post-war 1950s.

After skipping Shinder’s intro piece, mainly because I am already familiar with the history behind “Howl,” The first really interesting thing I read was in Vivian Gornick’s discussion:

Like Leaves of Grass, it is an ingenious experiment with the American language that did what Ezra Pound said a great poem should do: make language new. Its staccato phrasing, its mad juxtapositions and compacted images, its remarkable combining of the vernacular with the formal – obscene, slangy, religious, transcendent, speaking now in the voice of the poet, now in that of the hipster – is simply an astonishment.

Agreed. Then Mark Doty’s passages alluded heavily to Ginsberg’s openly gay attitude toward transcendence and his freewheeling attitude. After describing his experience attending a Ginsberg reading at the University of Arizona while he was still in high school, where “people clapped and laughed and shouted approval,” Doty asked, “Can you imagination gay liberation as a religious juggernaut? Probably not.” Then Baraka rounded out the homage, followed by a short catalog of blurbs, and finally a piece by Ginsberg himself, writing in the 1980s, who apprised the reader:

Blocked by appearances, love comes in through the free play of the imagination, a world of art, the field of space where Appearance – natural recognition of social tragedy & world failure – shows less sentience than original compassionate expansiveness of the heart.

Allen Ginsberg has been gone for twenty years – He died in April 1997. – and as I finished the seven-page section on his most famous poem, I was thinking about how we could use more people like him these days: a self-promoter with a sincere message whose goals didn’t seem to have anything to do with sales. Thinking as a teacher, sometimes I lament that I can’t teach “Howl” in my creative writing classes as one of the modern American classics, but then again I don’t think I should anyway. “Howl” isn’t for everybody; it’s something that just the right person has to discover for himself.

Moving on, I knew I wanted to read John Koethe’s poem “Proust,” but I ended up reading that and his other one, “16A,” too. “Proust” is really a biographical narrative that centers on the speaker’s readings of the novelist’s monumental and notorious series, Remembrance of Things Past. The poem had more name-dropping than I liked, but I looked up Koethe and wasn’t surprised to see that he’s a very distinguished professor, Guggenheim recipient, etc. Maybe the guy was talking over my head about authors I’ve never read and places I’ve never been. It sucks sometimes being an Alabama yokel who don’t know nothing.

Browsing through more of the poems: I got distracted trying to read Alfonsina Storni when I saw an ad on the opposite page for Samuel Delaney’s book About Writing, and thought, I ought to look into that one. I spent some real time with Michael Burkhard’s poems in the Special Supplement section, and really liked “aha: shadows of confessions,” though I’m not sure I understood it, and also liked the final lines in “‘I talk to your father but only by telephone’—Bernadette Mayer,” which preceded it. Burkhard’s poems had a strong sense of wordplay that made his poems like moving targets. Of Donald Hall’s four poems, “Safe Sex” was poignant, but the ending of “Usage” didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the poem, and “The Master” was something of a gimme.  I didn’t give DW Fenza’s allusion-heavy “My City” much time or attention, and Elliott Figman’s poems— I didn’t see the point in either one. Though, I particularly like Phoebe Zinman’s poem “Patience” about “the baby, the cat, / the deaf girl, / the man who wasn’t sure he loved me.” Thankfully, that wishy-washy suitor became “the man who was slow to love me” and I was very glad for Ms. Zinman, whose author photo made her look like a cute 1960s receptionist.

After trying to the read the poems in the American Poetry Review, I went back and read JoEllen Kwiatek’s essay “A Study for Necessity,” which briefly goes into a writing habit that I know well myself: I may not look like I’m working to you, I may be “staring straight ahead while eating a bag of Doritos on my sofa,” but I also may be working— composing, drafting, ror evising in my head. Yes, I agree, Ms. Kwiatek, with your fist on your chin and your pensive expression, that the “process of writing has become for me more and more unobtrusive, like eating, taking a walk, or opening a cupboard or a drawer; that is, it takes place in real, in daily – voracious – time.” Amen.

Last but not least, I had to tackle Reginald Gibbons’ essay “This Working Against the Grain.” I’ve already explained that I browse first, and Gibbons seemed long. Call it laziness, it might be. At first, I did what my students do when I hand out a reading: I flipped ahead and counted the pages. Trying to avoid getting started, I Googled Reginald Gibbons, and dammit!— another one of these accomplished types with professorships and Guggenheims and things like that. I told myself that it was going to be okay, and I got started reading.

Though I really want to block quote the lengthy passage near the beginning of the essay that cut straight to my bones, I’ll spare that and simply explain it. Wait— no, I won’t . . . because for this to make sense you need to know what Gibbons wrote:

Almost any moment in a life of writing – whether early or late – can seem a crucial reckoning, an opportunity or an obligation to challenge one’s feelings, to rethink, to choose to continue as before or to change, to commit oneself definitively to what one is writing and how one is writing it, or to throw it aside (or try— this isn’t easy to do). I question my ear; I wonder in what book of poems, in what novel, I will find the key to what and how I might write. I middle age now, and despite my sense that I seem to be who I am, and despite what I know of myself, and the many traces of myself that I have left in my own writings, I cannot fully remember who I was, and must wonder still who I may have been, and who I may be yet— feeling a little disappointed in myself if I must continue to be who I think I am, just as I am, till the end.

Then down the page, a bit he wrote,

And yet, despite not wishing to stand still, I am also apprehensive about leaving this place that I don’t even fully know. It familiarity is reassuring (even when it is disappointing).

His words struck me to the core. Of the rest of the essay, which delved into a poet named Donald Davie and the French feminist Heléne Cixous and the Greek writer Heraclitus and “intertextuality,” nothing was as impressive to me as the passage above . . . because . . . I too deal with these issues.

Now in middle age myself, when I consider the person who I have been – a complicated and elusive subject, an entangled mixture of unseemly actions, withheld justifications, and decisions based both on unrecognized ignorance and vague principles about righteousness, freedom, and value – I also have to consider whether the person that I have been is in any way the person who I am now. Could I even draw a line from the sweet, pleasing little boy to the distraught, troublesome pre-teen to the lost, reckless teenager, and then to determined young man who followed a vague dream, and then to the young husband-turned-father who made the best of what little he had— and now to the reflective middle-aged writer-teacher who wonders what mix of fate and accident landed him here? And I’m thankful to Reginald Gibbons for sharing his experiences with this desperate uncertainty before he went down his own literary rabbit-hole, which was of little consequence to me.

What the hell happens to us? When I was eighteen and nineteen and twenty, and reading the Beats and Henry Miller and Arthur Rimbaud, I pictured an artist’s life, an outlaw’s life, a life in constant motion – my life has been anything but, having lived it all in my own hometown – and I wonder why, for two adult decades, I let the dream of a foolish young past-me, who knew nothing about any of the things he wished for (high-speed trans-American travel, dire poverty in Paris, communal bohemian degradation) dictate my image of a writer’s life, the life my older self hasn’t lived up to. Though I now recall my fondness for Ginsberg with fondness of a different kind, I know I can’t be him, nor Kerouac, nor Henry Miller, and I wouldn’t dream of trying. Me, I’m a semi-failed poet from a middle-sized city in a state best known for backwardness, hate, and oppression. I’m an accidental teacher with no education degrees, a somewhat accomplished writer with no MFA, a wannabe professor with no Ph.D.— in short, the living result of a twisted but fruitless path to becoming what I once admired, built from effort I put it in when I still believed that was possible.

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