The New World By Tom Clark (New York: Libellum, 2009)
Battle Scars By John Bennett (Stockholm: Kamini Press, 2010)
Review by Jim Feast
From the beginning of our republic, there has been a rivalry between French and American creative types. And it seemed in the U.S., that after World War II, it was time to settle accounts. It was felt that the French have lorded it over us in the fine arts long enough, and the Abstract Expressionists were going to set things right. These painters gleefully (as depicted by Greenberg and others of its champions) became the new leading edge of world art, with New York replacing Paris as the paramount center of visual expression. Of course, on the broader front, things didn't work out as planned. In theory, haute couture and haute cuisine, for instance, even now Paris still rules the roost.
The case of American letters is a trifle more ambiguous, but I would like to contend here in my review of Tom Clark's The New World and John Bennett's Battle Scars, that in experimental poetry a curious transaction took place. While certain New York schools of verse (the Ashberry and O'Hara factions) in the 1960s– although they may not have seen themselves this way – went to battle with the old guard French Surrealists for the crown of being the leaders in avant-garde poetry, in doing so everything changed, changed utterly. Because in fighting for the high ground, they reproduced the de facto division of surrealist verse into public and private modes (those of Breton/Aragon and Eluard/Desnos), but reversed the division's valences. In this flip-flop, the public writers became self-absorbed (if I can use that adjective in a positive sense), while those who concentrated on private matters seemed inexorably absorbed by how private life is filled (as Ayckbourn would have it) with public fears.
Since Clark has been the leading edge of this second movement, it would be appropriate to graph some of these gyrations, before settling down to review his book. (And let me mention that my mind has been wonderfully stimulated in investigating these issues by Jerome Sala's important, What If Someone Were Listening? though I don't merely suspect but know (based on an email exchange) that he doesn't agree with my conclusions.
It could be said that the Americans had no intention of challenging the French, but against this I would argue that Surrealism was the dominant avant-garde in poetry from the '20s through the '40s. Any important post-WWII experimental writing had to deal with it. The Americans did so by, as it were, a division of labor. One group, the Ashberry/language poetry branch, worked to take on surrealist public poetry; while the O'Hara/Berrigan/Meyers/Clark branch did the same with private verse.
But I don't need to talk so much about how they borrowed from while working against the earlier masters, so much as how they applied their understanding of the French in a strangely dialectic manner.
When I say Breton was writing public verse, I don't mean he wrote nothing else, but that in career highlights, such as Les Champs magnétiques or Ode á Charles Fourier, he took up such tasks as an evaluation and denouncement of civilization. You may recall the ingenious structure of the Ode. Breton introduces Fourier's shade to the modern world, circa 1947, and notes how none of the utopian thinker's dreams have found embodiment. Instead, human life has savagely deteriorated in ways fraught with dark absurdity. As to the family instinct, for instance, the Surrealist remarks, "The family is characterized by exclusiveness, sluggishness, egoism, vanity, strife, hypocrisy and lying." And looking at what the current age touts as improvements, such as superhighways, Breton sees them as having none of the charm of Fourier's "trottoir à zébres," "zebra-striped pavement."
Railing against civilization is hardly foreign to the language poets. Indeed, I painted their political colors in Evergreen Review 113. Still obsessed with the French perhaps, I wrote:
When a stage of the Modernist construction collapses, there are two directions open. One path is for true believers, like Rimbaud, for whom the slaughtering of the Communards along with the dissolution of the homosexual coterie that was a pendant to the workers movement, meant the only answer was a move to silence. But for those who wish to press on, as Mallarmé did, there is the post-Communard alternative. This path consists of retreat to a stronghold of like-minded writers, where they—like Marx who wrote Capital during a moment of proletarian retreat—can undertake a deeper analysis of the coercive society, so as to provide useful information when a new moment of Modernist insurgence presents itself. In this group, I put such writers as Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews and Susan Howe, and such journals as Vanitas.
So, from this description, you can see, I am arguing the Ashberry group is still addressing public issues. We can see this in Andrews' The Millennium Project, for instance, where the author writes of "the breeding of objects we call history" and how the "divine smothers radar etiquette." The topics are public ones, such as history while, judging by the dislocated syntax and word use, the theme is language, not subjective considerations. Thus far, it appears there has been little change in this half of the French division.But the Surrealists were something special.
As Peter Burger has emphasized, the program of Surrealism was to do away with the separation between art and life. So along with painting, writing and other purely aesthetic activities, they engaged in provocative public demonstrations. These run from those targeting the general public (an advertised tour of the Eiffel Tour at which the "guides" read from a phonebook) to the more literary (the mock trial of respectable author Maurice Barres) to the artistic (the 1925 gallery show deriding de Chirico, put on after they broke with him).
Now Ashberry and the language poets mastered the elements of Surrealist style, including the use of collage, the drawing out of elements from the subconscious, the creation of collaborative works, and the use of humor and satire. And they stopped there. The Americans had turned Surrealism into a literary movement.
Sala agreed to my interpretation, with reservations (especially about the centrality of Surrealism), in an informal email, which reads in part:
Sounds to me like what you're saying is that the Surrealists tried to undermine the literary institution with their pranks and hijinks. The experimental writers that followed later in the US, were more interested in questioning traditional forms and ways of meaning than literature itself. This is closer to my view of things. One thing to remember, though, in the interests of accuracy: the experimental generations of US poets often did question the idea of the "author" – or individual inspiration, through aleatory techniques. In the US, popular culture is so powerful (and literary culture so lacking in importance) that almost by necessity writers here tend to back the literary.
This explanation shows the rationale for the limitations on public verse imposed on this side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, while public poetry withdrew from the whole program the Surrealists had advanced, private poetry, which, since Eluard had dealt with individual feelings, moved out of that position, braiding public issues into poems of soul searching. Clark is the apex of that movement.
I am using Eluard's name loosely here, especially as he was considered the poet of the French Resistance. Remember copies of his "Liberté " were dropped by the RAF as part of its anti-Nazi propaganda. So when I speak of him as a private poet and precursor to the O'Hara branch of New York verse, I am thinking only of a fraction of his output, such as those poems he wrote just after being de-mobbed from the army after WWI. In them, Max Adereth notes, "He praised the simple, ordinary life which the war had disrupted."
A second problem with my genealogy is that most of Eluard's verse of this type is love poetry, where he developed an unadorned, un-rhetorical surrealism of intimacy, in contrast to the O'Hara school, which centered on city moods. But therein lays a common characteristic. Eluard's private pieces are often centered in a bedroom, but one that appears as a torn-off piece of the city: the sheet, an urbanized street, the pillow, macadamized. In "En Avril 1944," he writes, "A city between our hands like a broken bond" ("Ville entre nos poignets comme un lien rompu") and "No one could hurl down the bridges that led us to sleep and from sleep to our dreams." Such citified bedrooms are in the spirit of Rosset's snapshots of Joan Mitchell, sprawled clothed or dress-less on beds in Brooklyn and Chicago.
And add to this that many of Eluard's poems seem to inventory if not the physical details, then the social mood of a setting. "St Alban," for example, delineates Eluard traveling to visit friends in the country, noting "the air is cool and evening comes we join // Our eyes on the road") In "Le Baiser," Nusch (his wife) is caught just as she is pulled down by a dream tide, "You have closed your eyes and you drift" ("Tu fermes les yeux et tu bouges") ["Le Baiser" is usefully compared with Clark's "Suite," where he writes, "Her skin a dreaming surface // blood drifts up through shadows."] In "St Alban," describing an outing with friends, Eluard, just as Rosset does in his finely textured photos of East Hampton in the early 1950s, captures a community texture. It is the sense Clark denotes (in describing a photo of a male get-together) "A man // is his relations // with men, he // is strings // coming together // to form a knot."
To my mind, O'Hara, Berrigan (who, according to Clark in Late Returns, revered O'Hara, dragging Clark to see all the dead poet's haunts), and the first wave of private poets share these traits with Eluard, yielded poems that are not only richly inscribed with an urban geist, but privatize the city in how they interlace the vie quotidienne of the polis with their own personal circumstances. And, like the surrealists, they seem to give us off-the-cuff jottings from a day's memorandum. Yet, these are diaries with a difference. The essence of this last aspect is nowhere described better than in Clark's critical writings. He says of William Corbett, that he "labors to capture not only a cool picture of casual experience, but its peculiar personal flavor," and continues, now referring to Williams, that he had "an almost religious devotion to the actual shape of the moment, however joyous, painful or plain."
This might seem like an awful lot of background but, in any case, now we come to my thesis. Where, almost by default, the Ashberry arm of American poetry lessened some of the public nature of surrealism (not engaging in "pranks and hijinks"), the other group, particularly as embodied by Clark, gave private verse an inflection toward public issues.
The only critic I know of who has called our attention to this feat is poet Elaine Equi, who wrote in a review: "Clark is not merely painterly, no matter how lush and seductive the scenery may be. His readings/writings of particular places also convey a sense of their history, of the way they've changed and the social and economic forces that have changed them."
No one else has gotten this. It's almost as if the same misunderstanding that has plagued the understanding of classic Chinese poetry has arisen in relation to Clark. To discuss the former, a moment, in classic Chinese philosophy, such as in the work of Hong Ge (Confucius), there is only one link in the overall chain of being in which the harmony of nature can be (and frequently is) broken: the human. I can illustrate this by referring to two key 14th century novels, each of which is put in motion by such a transgression. If a general usurps a sick emperor's throne (as happens at the beginning of Romance of the Three Kingdoms) or if a nobleman is unjustly accused by a corrupt government official and sent into exile (the beginning of Heroes of the Water Margin), nature itself is disturbed by these aberrations. In verse, where the classic poetry of, say, the Tang Dynasty has been viewed as attempts to precisely capture an exact moment, the real central consideration is the match/mismatch between an individual and the elements. Does the poet's mood coincide with the tempo of the season or not? And, centrally, how does his or her mood cause an incremental shift in how the season works out? These are the questions the poems ask.
Clark, too, I believe is generally viewed as a simple scribe of the moment, not understood as one who integrates a wide perspective into his pointillist observations. But Equi has put her finger on this larger dimension, so let me simply take what she says further, first looking at his general practice and then at this new production.
In the poem "The Lyric," Clark lays out his writing project, "Suffering // lament, sorrow, and wild // joy commingle in // the lyric – a collective // sigh of relief." The poet takes up the burden of conveying the feelings of the collective so that, he continues, for a poet it is as if "everyone alive were speaking through you." This jibes with the qualities he picks out to praise in such fellow poets as Louise Edrich, whose "mixed roots tangling the bloodlines of the prairies immigrant pioneers with those of its antecedent tribal residents create the principal drama of her writing." And it's found in the Eskimo poet Sister Goodwin, of whom he says, she "writes not in the tone of an originator but of one extending the message of ancestors." In both cases, the poets are, as he says about a third writer, "political in the best sense" because their poetry "shares and makes particular the sufferings of the underprivileged and repressed." This is the same aspect that Rosset has praised in the rebel writers of Ireland.
Tying this up, we can say Clark draws into his diarist reflections both the sense he has of the common people's sufferings and a reference to America's home-grown radical traditions. All this is quite evident in his new book where he has fully fleshed out his vision, but it is already discernible, less blatantly, throughout his career. Take the poem "First cold winter's twilight." There is a mood of wistfulness in his pairing of the gorgeous sunset he is watching, "saffron violet red indigo // becoming blood red as the sun descends," with its proximate cause, the "Richmond refinery fire." The intersection of his mood, the surroundings and the supra-historical context are clear.
I'm not suggesting that environmental issues are his perpetual concern, but that his casual recapturing of a day's or hour's breadth always implicates a social dimension. So in "Night Sky (March 23, 1997)," for example, a thoughtful evening spent with his wife sitting on the roof watching the lunar eclipse ("this eerie coppery glow against the deep blue black of night") – a very Chinese occupation, by the way – is broken by a thought of the Middle East. The moon looks like "the ancient blood oranges in the Sultan's garden // In the old walled city of Fez." The date reminds us that not only was there an eclipse that evening but it was also the day the Los Angeles Times headlined, "100 Arabs Injured by Israeli Fire in W. Bank." The poem suggests that even an attempted communing with the cosmos must be pulled down to face the realities of war and violence.
But none of this brings in the mood of the people, which I talked of as key to Clark's new stance. And I dare say it is because his forte: the scrupulous depiction of how political and economic shadings filter into the interstices of the everyday is a thing of the past. In The New World, instead of being in shadings, the strains of poverty, the dislocations of war and other failings of our society are in his face. That is, he has opened himself so fully and vulnerably to the life of his times that he is no longer a watcher, but a participant-observer.
Talking with a Palestinian coffee shop owner, Ayman, he finds out about "the fresh welling up of blood and anger // In my friend's home town." He returns later and the Arab staff is comforting a young girl. They tell Clark, "She's just lost her home and family." In another poem, he sees a huddled mass of street people. He doesn't hand them some piffling change, but sits down to chat, listen to their woes, even writes a poem in their midst. In one poem, he describes hanging out with one of the homeless, who watches how the well-off ignore her.
"They think they're better than other people"
Quoth Sharon the sweet frizzy haired "three stroke"
Shattuck and Cedar beggar lady, late, hard
Put to reach her required fifty dollar
Nightly begging take – sighing, looking a bit
Careworn despite her sweet smile, earnest
Lipstick and makeup
In other words, Clark has the wide, courageous humanity, which Rukeyser finds in her portrait of painter Albert Ryder:
He gives a painting to a tubercular seamstress
"to look at while she lives," talks poetry
And philosophy to the woman at the newsstand
It's as if, having demonstrated that the diary poem can have a distinctly public hue, now Clark has decided on a second revolution, to restructure his life so that no one's pain will be closed to him, which he can now depict un-brunted in one sledge-hammer poem after another. Witness this keenly observed passage:
With the tall haunted Tom Waits lookalike guy
And a Latin dude with a handheld video player,
Carrying a formidable knife. Dave proffered
A Foster's in a paper bag, the invisibilizing
Container which shielded crime from police eyes.
The night deepened. Some drunk high school
Kids mocked up from the bus stop.
Clark has always been hyper sensitive to the nuances of landscape, interpersonal connection and language, creating his assemblages from that. But now he has set the foundation stones of his empathy a few fathoms deeper, creating a work near unbearable in its humanity and truth. And with this, he has lifted private poetry into a fully communal setting. But, lastly, to say a word about Bennet's new book, Battle Scars, the product of another street wise writer, I can note that I have labeled him not only the last, but, truth be known, almost the only rebel poet to walk the land in the last few decades. This very brief collection is another gem of antic social critique, even sometimes turned against himself. Witness "Proof Positive Paranoia."
Every time I get
the feeling that
everyone despises me
in the cupboard
But more often he comments on the mainstream. Here's "The Herd."
Bennett's tradition is different from Clark's, but the two share one crucial aspect: tough-as-nails honesty. And both are key players in the shift to a new understanding of the public/private dichotomy.