… when you can recognize people there’s no enchantment at all, just a lot of bruising, and a lot of bad luck. ___Sancho Panza, Don Quixote
Miguel De Cervantes was criticized for “interruptions” in the action of his epic novel Don Quixote by his use of adding interpolated stories, or novellas. Four hundred years ago he unexpectedly digresses from the main text, disregarding his main character Don Quixote in the chapter The Impertinently Curious Man, and presents an adulterous story examining a perfectly happy union between a lucky man and the most beautiful and chaste woman of the country. The married man named Anselmo asks his loyal friend Lotario to seduce his wife Camila in order for them to test her fidelity to him. This particular novella was a retelling of a tale from canto 43 of Ariosto’s poem Orlando furioso written sometime in the years between 1516 and 1532. The issue of a triangular infidelity among friends being examined by Cervantes over four hundred years ago was somewhat surprising. And though Lotario repeatedly attempts to resist and remain himself chaste, he finally succumbs to Anselmo’s threat of ending their long friendship if he refuses to at least attempt this infidelity.
Cervantes goes on to detail this elaborate affair of deceit and deception, and refers to these two men as the reckless man and traitorous friend. Needless to say, both the infidelity and friendship crumbled. Now guilty of this transgression Lotario safely hides Camila in a convent and flees the country. Repentant, he subsequently dies fighting for the French in a battle not his own. The husband Anselmo takes his own life believing the actual testing of his wife’s chastity was both foolish and reckless. And after hearing the dreadful news regarding both her lovers, Anselmo’s wife Camila takes vows to live out the rest of her life as a nun in the convent where Lotario had previously hidden her safely from her husband.
…In my version of strong reading, the strong reader is trying to rediscover what he hates, and he is looking for clues about how he can get out of it. ___Adam Phillips from Missing Out
However, and quite often, and mostly because of its verbosity amounting to great lengths, even in light of the delicious example above I consistently felt I was wasting my time. And though a clever book, comical and clownish, it did provide at times a bit of pause from more serious endeavors. And granted, I certainly desired to know firsthand what all the fuss was about and why this work was held in such high esteem. So I persisted through onto, for me, its coveted end.
I casually mentioned at an occasional entertaining lunch I take with a couple resident historical geniuses in response to them both expressing favor over their own past reading of Don Quixote that Part 1 bored me to no end, but I was having significantly more fun with the second part which would have no meaning at all if Part 1 had gone unread. But in my suffering I asked why a writer needs 940 pages to go on and on? And by my lights what Cervantes accomplishes is only rarely worth the time and effort required to read his outlandish fantastical tale. For a reader such as myself, who engages in seriously beautiful hate-filled language the likes of Thomas Bernhard and significant others, Cervantes fails in his own quest to buy me out. I will remain in the unpopular camp of the wholly disenchanted while encouraging the reading of this work for others like me to suffer through themselves. A human condition that blindly resorts to following the herd.
…so I ought to be hauled into court myself, brought to trial, dragged up in front of a whole tribunal, I’ll find myself the most vicious law-court there is, a law-court that will reprimand me, reprimand me until nothing is left of me, the court will pronounce a sentence appropriate to to me, it will convene in secret and assign me to a sty, to the human pigsty that creatures like me belong in,…___Thomas Bernhard from On the Mountain
The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures
by Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi (Editor)
Paperback, 290 pages
Published July 29th 1998 by Wesleyan (first published June 1st 1998)
ISBN: 0819563404 (ISBN13: 9780819563408)
Edition language: English
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry
by Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi (Editor), Kevin Killian (Editor)
Published November 30th 2008 by Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 0819568872 (ISBN13: 9780819568878)
It is my hope that at least one person will be glad I wrote this review. There will be no need to thank me. First off I want to express the great respect I have for the mind of Jack Spicer, for the seriousness in which he took his poetry, and the demands he placed on his students for them to do their very best work. It is also important to note that reading both the poems and lectures together concurrently offers more to the student of his verse and helps to focus on the particular components of his teaching. Even after plowing through the first sixty pages of his verse in these collected poems I was already doubting their worth to our literary history. Though a newcomer to the work of Jack Spicer it is clear to me he is, as a person and teacher, more well known than his poems. But it is possible, but not likely, that his teaching of poetry and his writing of it gave him all the fame he really needed.
The very first poem of the collection begins with Berkeley in the Time of Plague and with that beginning I was immediately impressed and excited about what I would find as I continued through the book. There were three poems worth reading and remarking on in that first book and it wasn’t until his leaving Minnesota and arriving in New York City and Boston that Jack seemed to hit his stride. But it did not last. Soon after his most-loved book After Lorca was published in 1957 Jack Spicer began his swift descent downhill. But in the meantime he was certainly developing his infamous teaching style, and the method in which he claimed to write his poems became for some otherworldly. And that is not a compliment. In my opinion, anyone who claims to hear the word of God, His voice, or even the voice of a green Martian dictating poems to him is cause for great concern. Whoever, in Jack’s mind, was dictating to him as if it were divine word and in no need at all of any revision or editing, but instead transcribed verbatim, is frightening. The evidence presented in the poems for us is proof they were not godly, not otherworldly, and not untranslatable. This provided some comfort to me by knowing his method and results were basic lies and I was dealing with a delusional man who craved these powers so much enough to imagine they were real. And for the student of poetry today who subscribes to these ideas of Jack Spicer’s I say good luck. The larger your collective crowd becomes the greater your delusions of grandeur about yourselves and your poetry shall be. And your castles will be made of sand.
For sake of argument and disclosure I will confess my own desire for composing poetry stems from the concept of my tricking my own unconscious enough that it speaks, which is not an easy thing to do, and not something to be recognized until the final product has been honed to perfection. It is true that a poet can know when a poem is right and there is nothing else to be done with it. It begins to have a life of its own. It is possible that Jack Spicer’s word for the unconscious was Martian or dictation, but again, I highly doubt it. I am also suspect of his so-called furniture placed within his “serial” poems. I just do not believe him. As much as I want to make claim that Jack was a liar and a fraud I will instead relax my toughened stance and give him measure enough to suggest again my idea of his likely delusions. Individuals in great pain are often delusional. Serious and practicing alcoholics are for sure.
It is quite obvious to me after reading just the very first lecture in The House That Jack Built, that Spicer was an engaging poet and teacher who was very smart and who could have been so much better as a poet and teacher than he turned out to be. It is a fact, for anyone interested, that practicing drug addicts and alcoholics do not mature emotionally. These addicts may have fantastic vision and resources in which to make a huge difference to the development of our art and social sciences, but never can they achieve their more vast potential that is due their talents and skills they have been born with or worked so hard to acquire. Even the hardest efforts involved in being an artist of some higher rank will fail in direct respect to what a more evolved and mature artist with the same exact talent and skills going for them can produce. A prime example of an evolved, mature artist would be Wallace Stevens. A brief look at the very first poems of Jack Spicer written in the early fifties can also prove this point. There are some brilliant pieces in that group and it is a shame he could not continue on with the job at hand with sober mind and the intensity he had for his writing and art. Early on in his poetry collection, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, I noticed the poems getting silly, coded, and abstract to the point of a pretentious elitism that was wasted on me as I was not at all impressed. It is the same reason I never have liked the poetry or prose of The Beats, and I predict that history will discount their work as art and only mention it in regards to its effect on our history. The Beats were definitely an historical sociological event, but really nothing much else. The title of the Spicer collected poetry edition incorporates his purported dying last words referring to his vocabulary. My argument would be that Spicer did not use his vocabulary to the poems’ benefit. Often a mediocre word or unnecessary word is used in any given line. A weak word rather than a strong word was typically used in almost every poem, and nowhere have I read that words were important to Spicer. Words are things and things are important. There is no doubt in my mind that Spicer would have benefited having a tyrannical editor and the fact that Spicer resisted any editing or revision of his poems tells me he was either delusional about the voices he was hearing in his head or afraid of the consequences an authority figure would have inflicted on his poetry. It is not a far stretch to imagine Spicer avoiding at all costs any authority outside himself and the Martians communicating to him.
Whether Martians are dictating to you, or a muse, or a memory of something still there in your subconscious, or any other of the multitudes of methods poets reveal and lay claim to as the way in which they get a poem onto the page, it matters little to me and I wonder why these people who teach (like Jack Spicer) and act as if they know make such a great big deal out of it. I love a good lecture. I have been present for several of the seven to ten hour lecture-ordeals made of, and by, Gordon Lish in his fiction-writing classes he has held privately for over forty years. What will be a thread in this digression to follow is that Lish championed a student of Jack Spicer’s back in 1962 and this ex-student, Jack Gilbert, went to on to immediate great fame for six months before rejecting it and escaping to an island off of Greece, not to be heard from again for twenty years. In 1982 Lish, as an editor at the publishing house Alfred Knopf, published Gilbert’s second book of poetry, Monolithos, and Knopf continued to publish every book thereafter until last year in 2012 when the Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert arrived to literary acclaim. Instead of attacking Jack Spicer and provoking the wrath of all his admirers, I think it best for me to focus on what made Jack Gilbert such a better poet than any of his contemporaries of the sixties including Denise Levertov, the Beats, Duncan, Spicer, and anyone else who might come to mind in the process of my expression. There is good reason to expect I will also say something about the methods Spicer used to exact his poems and the reason I think he was wrong in the way he went about it, precisely because their quality was surely lacking.
Most of us who are aware of the pop group, The Beatles, and the beautiful catalog of songs, specifically the ones credited to Lennon and McCartney, are also aware that on the rare occasion a song came to one of the boys in a dream or in waking from a sleep and was written down exactly as it came to them. The key word here is “rare”. It does happen. I can attest to it happening to me at least twice. But to think that anything that comes through our consciousness is worthy of not editing, not revising, not taking a second look at to see if it can be improved is hogwash pure and simple. Many times a poem that comes to us by way of stream of consciousness is simply a matter of getting our attention, writing it down as it comes, and then going to work on it similar to an ironsmith working away at his anvil. Jack Spicer did not believe in this method of composition and that is why the vast majority of his poems are unfeeling, blank, and full of unnecessary and weak words. Only a pretentious and delusional person would think that what they wrote spontaneously and verbatim would be worthy of no revision and actually looked on as great art by the person who feels he or she was the vehicle for the enlightened artistic transmission. It is difficult for me to imagine Spicer devoting four hours of gestation over a line he first heard before setting it down on the page. Making sure he was listening correctly to the Martians instead of simply arranging the furniture in his head seemed ludicrous to me and more than slightly insane. Catchwords such as “dictation”, “furniture”, and “craft” go a long way in explaining Spicer’s verse but fail in making his poems ultimately worth reading.
It became obvious to me later in the collected poems of Jack Spicer that his so-called “furniture” was made up of an enormous study on his part and a working knowledge of historical works by dead poets of some renown. For me it was no different than Yeats using the Greek mythologies and other more sophisticated ideas to construct poems that only brilliant academics and students of this mythology could ever understand. It was this code that would keep the common man at bay and unable to appreciate the poetry of William Butler Yeats. In other words, his work is useless to the vast majority of people on the planet. Same goes for Spicer but he calls this his furniture and respects its use when dictated to him from the voice he happens to be listening to coming from his head. In most of the lectures it is painfully obvious to me that Spicer is nothing less than full of shit, but he does believe in what he is saying, and therefore, for me at least, extremely delusional. It is a wonder to me how poets of this northwestern region became so respected and revered when an actual real poet such as Jack Gilbert stayed basically on the periphery. History is bound to correct this grave mistake and I suppose Gilbert knew it all along and felt no need to self-promote or advertise his genius. This private and reclusive behavior can be likened to Emily Dickinson who must have known she was producing great work that the common people were just not ready for either. After the end of her humble life, history has shown her to be as great as she most likely already knew she was.
The introduction to the third lecture, Poetry in Process, warns the reader that it is “the most contrary and least accessible of Spicer’s lectures." I believe the lecture is inaccessible because of its hogwash and the examples Spicer gives and reads from, Book of Magazine Verse, is probably the worst poetry of all his poetry to date that I have read. Connecting his dots as if God had spoken to him as He did with Moses is the most grandiose stretch he has produced yet on the page. It was such a burden for me to complete this lecture, but I did so in order to see the trees. Spicer glorifies in the absurd, claims that poetry is not to be enjoyed, and suggests he is providing the world some greater spiritual truth if only he and his students can figure out what the Martians are attempting to say through Spicer’s poetry. Respectfully, I must ask of those who are his acolytes if you are all just kooks? A poem without feeling is to be avoided. Without feeling, there is no reason to even live or especially to suffer through reading bad poetry. A dead poem is entropy and to be avoided at all costs. Having to have something explained is not poetry at all but allegiance to a false god.
Now typically I would say these types of gods must be destroyed, but I doubt Spicer had anything evil going on but a bad case of low self-esteem. He was short, and rather ugly, and bit sexually confused according to what I have read so far about the loves in his life. Spicer had little respect for authority or those poets and teachers elevated to higher standing than he enjoyed. By being contrarian and smart, as well as dangerously versed in poetic history, artists on the fringe were attracted to his teaching. Wannabes especially. Spicer insisted that poems were made to be read by, and to, other poets as nobody else could ever understand them. This club-elitism is sickening to me and ridiculous. Of all the poets present for these lectures of 1965 in the rooms of Vancouver, how many are known or respected today as poets of the first rank? Jack Spicer is hugely popular today for reasons I have not quite figured out, but definitely his current popular rise is an interesting study of the human condition. In the following segments I have taken in pieces from an interview of Jack Gilbert, it is interesting to note the differences Gilbert saw between himself, Jack Spicer, and Allen Ginsberg.
From The Paris Review
Jack Gilbert, The Art of Poetry No. 91
Interviewed by Sarah Fay
(regarding Jack Spicer and Allen Ginsberg)
Is there a community—of writers or of anyone—to which you feel you belong?
Not anymore. No.
Was there ever? Have you ever felt that someplace was home?
San Francisco during the sixties maybe. I lived there for seven years, like a hippie without drugs. That was lovely.
In the late 1950s you were in Jack Spicer’s poetry workshop—what was that like?
You have to understand that Jack and I were very different. We knew each other well. We hung out the way everyone hung out in San Francisco at that time. We used to play chess a lot. He always lost. One day he was sitting there mumbling to himself and finally said, You cheat! What do you mean, I cheat? I said. How can you cheat at chess? You’re not so stupid that I could take pieces off the board. And he said, You cheat. You’re thinking. He was dead serious.
You say it was lovely to belong in San Francisco in the sixties. It was also an intense literary scene. Did you ever feel that you were in anyone’s shadow?
There were people I respected, but we weren’t fighting. Today, you have to do something to distinguish yourself. Maybe because there’s so much money in poetry now. We used to type our poems and then go around and nail them up. Nobody would give Allen Ginsberg any money for “Howl.” It wasn’t in the running.
You knew Ginsberg. How did you meet?
We had an argument about meter. He was trying to explain anapests to one of the young poets in North Beach. I leaned over and told him he was wrong. He was fresh from New York and of course thought he knew everything. He was affronted. We started arguing. Finally, he admitted I was right and he took out a matchbook, scribbled his address on it, handed it to me, and said, Come and see me. I liked him.
When he came to town he wanted to write little quatrains. They were neat, but they weren’t very good. We liked each other, but I kept laughing at him nicely. One day, he got on a bus and went across the Golden Gate Bridge to see me in Sausalito. The streets turned to lanes, and the lanes to gravel, and the gravel turned into a path and then just woods. Up and up. He finally reached the abandoned house where I was living. After we talked, he said he had something he wanted to show me. He got two pages out of his bag. I read them and then read them again. I looked at him and told him they were terrific. Those two pages eventually became “Howl.”
In your poems, how important is the interplay between syntax and line breaks?
I don’t think that way. I work by instinct and intelligence. By being smart, emotional, probing. By being sly, stubborn. By being lucky. Being serious. By being quietly passionate. By something almost like magic.
To which of your poems are you most attached?
That’s like asking to which of the women you’ve loved are you most attached—the best ones.
Do you revise a great deal?
Do you throw away a lot of poems?
More than I would like.
Both Jack Gilbert and Jack Spicer were a bit obsessed with myth and often we see Orpheus present in their poems. For the sake of comparison two early poems by each should cast light on their qualities as poets and who might have had the better luck at getting to the meat of them.
ORPHEUS IN HELL
When he first brought his music into hell
He was absurdly confident. Even over the noise of the
And the jukebox groaning of the damned
Some of them would hear him. In the upper world
He had forced the stones to listen.
It wasn’t quite the same. And the people he remembered
Weren’t quite the same either. He began looking at faces
Wondering if all of hell were without music.
He tried an old song but pain
Was screaming on the jukebox and the bright fire
Was pelting away the faces and he heard a voice saying,
He was at the entrance again
And a little three-headed dog was barking at him.
Later he would remember all those dead voices
And call them Eurydice.
ORPHEUS IN GREENWICH VILLAGE
What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly,
they had no ears?
One poem is full of unnecessary words and bereft of feeling. The other is compressed and strong and musical. I hope you can tell that it is Gilbert’s poem which comes last. There are many examples of brilliant and important poems written by Jack Gilbert. I cannot think of one important poem written by Jack Spicer, nor can I remember one I might even call remarkable. But Spicer’s quest for fame, respect, and acknowledgment is definitely remarkable, as was his brilliant mind, but it is a shame that he never really grew up, just as many others of his time on the planet failed to do either. It is time we recognized the truer greatness of Jack Gilbert and others attempting to take poetry to the level it deserves and something the common man can enjoy and hold on to. I am so sorry to have to say it, but Jack Spicer fails to make this grade.
A talk given by the poet M Sarki on Saturday, November 6, 1999 at Loyola University in New Orleans as part of “AN OTHER SOUTH, SYMPOSIUM AND POETRY READING”.
BEING AND BECOMING: A NOVELTY
Thank you Ralph Adamo, Bill Lavender and the New Orleans Review for having me here. Ralph Adamo as editor of the New Orleans Review was the first person to publish a poem of mine in hard copy. I had played around with the e-mags on the internet and was enjoying no little success. And I had already over fifty poems accepted for publication in The Quarterly, and as most of you know that great magazine died in January of 1997. Gordon Lish, the editor of The Quarterly, returned the poems to me and asked that I send them out. Ralph Adamo picked a poem called “Ausable” and published it in the New Orleans Review the following spring along with an interview they did of Gordon Lish. What a fantastic way to begin a career in print. Hunter Thompson was even in that same issue and Thompson is originally from Louisville which is just down the road from where I live. For this very special first instance of being in print I will be forever grateful to Ralph Adamo and the New Orleans Review. I owe you, and this is the truth. But you cannot know the even greater truth governing the satisfaction I have for standing here in front of you all, unless, of course, I tell some lies. So the first lie I will submit is that I am afraid of you. Afraid of your academia, your awesome powers in matters beyond my academic scope. Afraid, given the common discourse, that I will reveal my own barbarity, my crudeness in matters that have always felt foreign to me. So for this I ask you to forgive. I have no wish to insult, nor to waste your time. But for the ensuing insult I myself would not be here. I am, for the record, here to reject, repudiate and refuse the genre word “experimental”. And if this genre word “experimental” finds itself now in the book of official genres then anything “experimental” must now be of the common discourse. If it is my poetry that is to be included in this genre “experimental”, then it is my poetry that is also of the common discourse. Hence the insult. But the truth is my work is not “experimental”. My work is simply novelty. A brush, as a feather’s touch, on the Das Unheimliche. We are, for the most part, always in flight from novelty. Novelty is, of course, frightening to us. It threatens our understanding of the world we have ground ourselves to. We find ourselves instead much eager and more willing for the common discourse and its subsequent explanations and predictable complaints. But for me to come here as the insulted in order to reject, repudiate and refuse the genre “experimental” is to be the one who is truly original here. For I am not one of the same herd huddled in one corner. Listen, I have come here to say that the only being is one of becoming. I am here only to say that the only being is one of becoming. Arthur Rimbaud said in a letter to a friend, “Let him die in his leaping through unheard-of and unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin on the horizons where the other collapsed!” You see, there should be no end to the horrible worker, the writer who leaps through “unheard-of and unnamable things”. Putting a label on what the “horrible worker” does is an attempt to make of it something of the common discourse. The common discourse is an attempt to make us feel comfortable. To make us feel safe and secure in our understanding of something better left misunderstood. To be just another part of this common discourse is to make us feel as if we are standing up straight in a stable world. And we know this is not true. I will take my leave with a segment taken from the book, Difference and Repetition by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. He says, “How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow‑‑-or rather, to make it impossible. Perhaps writing has a relation to silence altogether more threatening than that which it is supposed to entertain with death.”
Poet M Sarki and Gordon Lish, NYC
Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond
by Denis Johnson
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 24th 2001 by Harper (first published 1986)
ISBN: 0060187360 (ISBN13: 9780060187361)
Edition language: English
Original title: Seek
It was back in 1997 I think, the year Gordon Lish retired first from teaching fiction-writing, before he began working again at the Center for Fiction in New York City, when I said something to him in Chicago that didn’t sit so well with the famous teacher. I made a flippant and off-handed remark about the short stories of Denis Johnson, specifically if memory serves about Jesus’ Son, how I didn’t think too much of it, and Lish quickly slammed me down to the canvas with a sharp kick to my groin while instructing me that I was actually nobody and in no position to comment on anything literary at this stage of my game. Now Lish never actually slammed me down and he really didn’t say what I said he did, but he said just enough to make me feel exactly what I just related. I think he said something to the effect that I was no Denis Johnson. It was the sort of comment that brought back the same shameful feeling as the remark made during the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle when he said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy." On my stage with Lish it was I who was Dan Quayle. His comment stung like merthiolate. Gordon and I have never again brought Denis Johnson up in any conversation, and I have since made my feelings known to Lish about numerous other writers and we don’t always agree, but surprisingly often we do. The most important point being that Lish no longer makes me feel I shouldn’t make my feelings known. He respects me. In fact, he asks me my opinion about many things such as books, writers, suicide, submarines, women, and pornography to name just a few of our more popular topics.
I still don’t think much of Denis Johnson after all these years, but this book of essays has won me over to his talent for the genre. I just don’t like very much his short stories and novels. They don’t move me as they obviously do for others, and it is perhaps my problem and not his as Johnson remains very popular and respected these days. But my reading of this collection of essays titled Seek did wonders for my given notions of Johnson as a writer. He is talented, smart, and very good at reportage, and the proof is discovered and verified in who he has been working for. To be sent overseas on assignment by magazines such as The New Yorker is no small potatoes. I had no idea that Denis Johnson had this journalistic life outside his fiction. I was impressed with how much work he put into his nonfiction pieces, though not all of it was I interested in, and he failed to make me more interested in the process of my reading it. Unlike David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and even Ander Monson, there just wasn’t enough of Denis Johnson himself present in the work, and if he was there he just wasn’t that interesting. Essays regarding Bikers for Jesus, mining for gold in Alaska, revisiting the Alaska locale under a completely different name, the Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Taliban ordeals, all of these left me cold and unmoved with only one exception. Johnson brought back memories of my own trips to Alaska, flying in float planes in terrible storms, wanting to always fly with the experienced old pilot who had crashed numerous times only because he knew how to survive them, the old Beaver cargo planes, wilderness jaunts, loggers, whiskey, and barges. A story relating to the wilds of Alaska, actually being there and still living to tell about it, is no easy feat.
But there were essays I thoroughly enjoyed and wished would never end. Run, Rudolph, Run was my favorite and it focused on one of my own obsessions of years past about Eric Rudolph the Centennial Olympic Park Bomber who eluded FBI agents for seven years while hiding in the Appalachian mountain wilderness. He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for five years before finally being captured May 31, 2003 in Murphy, North Carolina. I kept his "Most Wanted” poster tacked to my office bulletin board for several years before finally putting it away. I am not sure why except that he interested me. I certainly did not support his criminal activities. Another Johnson essay I was also interested in was his The Militia in Me about the Weaver Family at Ruby Ridge and their holding up against the FBI in Bonners Ferry. Johnson also weaved the nutcase Bo Gritz into the piece as well as Waco and all the carnage occurring in Texas at the time. Seems the FBI was of interest not only to Denis Johnson but to me as well. I also liked the essay Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells and Johnson’s personal account of being a Boy Scout temporarily and how that experience affected him. I only made it through Cub Scouts myself before burning out on the whole idea of being a good scout. I do believe in being a good citizen, however.
Denis Johnson clearly writes more than just fiction and poetry. It was pleasing to me to find some common ground where I could relax my previous stance on my not relating to his writing at all. But I found his essays as a way for me to climb back in, though not comfortably as I am not for the most part interested in the same things he is. And Johnson doesn’t make me want to dive in any deeper, not like I do for my revered giants of the genre, and for that telling reason I still hold Johnson, Lish or no Lish, an arm’s length away. My friend Gordon Lish is extremely loyal to his writers, and he champions them to degrees many consider a fault, but I do appreciate the depth of feeling one senses when The Teacher assumes his fighting stance. Which reminds me of his wonderfully engaging ten-hour classes, along with that favorite gusto command of his for ones responsibility for living and writing being, “There is no cover. Charge the fire.”
Photo credit Bill Hayward
I was recently asked by a fellow art blogger to choose my favorite photographer. I responded that I would have to think long and hard on that one as an abundance of photographers have inspired me to work harder at my own craft of which I will admit is not one craft but many. I immediately thought of photographers of the nude form such as Edward Weston and young Robert Maxwell who I admire for their great work, their seriousness and respect they have for their models, and their final prints. I considered the texture I love so much in fine photography from artists such as Minor White and Evelyn Hofer. The insanely disturbing images produced for us by Diane Arbus. The fantastic and historical portraits taken by Gerard Malanga and Richard Avedon. I paused for some time to consider the personal stories that added so much to the photographs of other favorites such as Clarence H. White, Harry Callahan, and Imogen Cunningham, knowing that all of these photographers mentioned above were indeed worthy of being my all-time favorite, but one in particular somehow always stood above these giants of the field. No other photographer has given me more satisfaction throughout my life than John Deakin. He has challenged me to see my subjects better whether I am working in verse, paint, or photography, and to produce an image that stays with me, unhinged by a lack of formal training, and always experimental as I am constantly finding new uses for button and dials I find on both my camera and my mind. It makes the poetry flow more naturally not knowing the correct way to fashion it. It makes for good playtime, and follows sequentially a unique and profound frustration in doing things you know must must must be done the wrong way.
John Deakin has remained my favorite photographer for several years now. Commissioned by Francis Bacon to provide images from which to draw inspiration and detail from, Bacon used these images to produce several extreme works of art he certainly is now famous for. Observed side by side it is apparent that Deakin provided a deeper insight for Bacon with these cruel but still beautiful depictions of people both artists were familiar with on a day to day basis. It has been remarked that Deakin produced truth unwrapped and unpackaged, with no pretense to flattery.
Although fired twice from Vogue, Deakin amassed a catalogue of work unmatched by others given the same scope and time frame in which to produce it. He began taking pictures in 1939 and gave up photography sometime in the mid 60’s. He always maintained his real calling was for painting, but Deakin flitted between several vocations including photography, painting, collages, and sculpture. Deakin died a chronic alcoholic in 1972.
There is a growing body of work evolving now examining the life and work of John Deakin. He has not gained the same level of recognition others in this field of photography have already garnered. It is perhaps fitting to note that Deakin was loved by many and loathed by even more. Francis Bacon is reported to have held John Deakin in the highest esteem, and even quoted saying as much, but he once exclaimed that Deakin was “a horrible little man and not a very good photographer”. I am of the opinion that these words of Francis Bacon could be credited to Bacon’s own fits of drunkenness and rage, and the outbursts common of the time in that select group of SOHO artists.
Another common reason for Deakin making little historical gain in popularity is that he did not compromise. He made photographs that many of his sitters recoiled from upon seeing them for the first time. Comments offered to describe the work of John Deakin include brutal directness, haunting images, andpsychological intensity, all of which favor discounting and evoking disdain for this great artist. Add that Deakin hung with the outcast, the derelict, and the drunken characters frequenting the seedy SOHO neighborhoods, and that he was also prone to embellishing “wildly the known facts”, the official deciders of what constitutes great art have been purposely slow to come around.
It is a given that a sloppy drunk doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in any society. But it’s hard for me to imagine differences between an alcoholic of any type, sloppy or responsible, but our culture seems to have more hatred for the too-direct derelict. One example of how chronically bad John Deakin had become with his alcohol consumption was one instance of his drinking Parazone bleach instead of what he thought was white wine, which of course landed him in the hospital. But besides the unfortunate life and failure of John Deakin to stick to anything for any length of time, his photographs remain a testament to his superior ability to construct an image from something most others just do not see. For that we can be forever grateful to John Deakin for having the courage to see, to point and shoot, even if his images ended up on the floor, trampled and torn, stained and splattered, all the richer now for us as well, us being there, visiting, trampled and torn, stained and splattered.
These two old guys drove twelve miles into the city to attend a special poetry reading, hoping to eventually read publicly a few of their own poems in the ordered process of each signing into the listed queue holding court on the official table of the local coffee house. These two gray-haired gentlemen suffered through the chief poet, the headliner, the star, who had earlier sashayed into the coffee house wearing his poet’s garb, looking like the great poet he claimed to his university students to be because he had published books and because, in the course of things, his peers themselves also said he was a great poet. He was there to be seen as the great poet he believed he was and to premiere new poems about his cat. On and on he droned in verse so boring it was hard to tell anymore what the old men had come to partake in and where they thought they might be headed to if they knew. And then, like that, the poet was done. Finished. And off he went, this handsome poet in his great coat and hat, out the same door he came in, not stopping to listen to any of the waiting novice or amateur readers to come, some of them surely his current students, but the important poet had other more pressing matters to attend to. The eager readers then shuffled up to the same podium one after another until finally, seemingly hours later, the old friends cried uncle and put their own poems away.
I hate poetry simply because of all the poor poetry that stands with others of their ilk as good poetry when in fact it is not. And all the bad poets praise each other’s work and more bad work is propagated because of it. Some of the propagators are teachers, or become teachers, and on and on it goes. When the teacher gets to a kid like me (of course that was many years ago) and tells me how great something being taught is that I inherently already know isn’t, it makes a kid like me not trust adults beginning at a very early age. It is sort of like religion being taught to an atheist as something real and factual. It just doesn’t hold water. But when one comes upon a great poem read correctly you know it in every fiber of your being, teacher or not. The body knows. Something happens to you physically. Sometimes that type of reading has to be taught. You have to be taught how to read a poem. But you can’t teach a bad poem to anyone but a poor reader or a terribly bad listener. All you can do is teach your morals, politics, or gender issues and hope for some sentimental support for what you are saying. Why not instead have an experience unexampled in its feeling? Something novel, new, fascinating, and even a bit disruptive.
*From Genesis West, number one
Interview With Jack Gilbert, conducted by Gordon Lish
Poetry Is The Art Of Prejudice, page 86
Jack Gilbert- …But usually my poems are caused by an impulse to communicate some part of my life rather than to please. I don’t want the reader to finish the poem and say how lovely it was. I want him to be disturbed. Even miserable.
Gordon Lish- Do you think people who are involved in poetry to further their careers or who make mild poems out of trivial material are dangerous to the reader?
Jack Gilbert- Mostly in being dangerous to themselves and other poets — in that they reduce poetry to something toilet-trained and comfortable…Poetry is almost the only way we can escape from the vicious constipation of moral relativism. Because poetry is the art of prejudice. If prejudice is the inability to discuss a conviction calmly, then poetry is prejudice…(Poetry) doesn’t argue, it demonstrates…Poetry isn’t fair…Poetry is one-sided, and being one-sided, it can say what truth is.”
I think it is pathetic, searching here and there, through the endless articles about poetry and the writing of it, and have to sift through the drivel most of us call good. But I am not in the crowd of “most of us”. They are simply bad. And the conversations about them are bad. It seems to me to always be a community of like-minded citizens who like crappy poetry and the crappy writing of it. Well I don’t. I am insulted by the work and I think it adds more to the general claim that maintains poetry is boring and even stupid.
*From 19 New American Poets Of The Golden Gate (on believing a poem) page 6
…A lot of Elytus and the others feels like lazy language-mongering. A pretend-surrealism with no need behind it. The mediterranean delight in the dance of the mind over a subject without trying to get anywhere. The subject being merely an occasion for the performance. Like poets giving birth without getting pregnant.
(on less being more) page 7
…One of the special pleasures in poetry for me is accomplishing a lot with the least means possible…and a pleasure in the scantness of means…the use of a few words with utmost effect.
We have far too many learning institutions from which to spread more bad poetry and the writing of it. Teachers throughout history have taught the same old stuff, boring the hell out of most young minds, and sealing the fate of a vast majority of students never to have seen or heard a very good poem. I know I didn’t. Of course, there are Shakespeare’s words available to us all to use as he did, but with no teacher capable of explaining anything meaningful about his work the typical student could not gain much of anything from his poems except perhaps a headache. Perhaps there is the random teacher who cares so much for the words that the teaching is meaningful. But I never met one until much later in life.
Poetry was ruined for me from a very early age. I did like nursery rhymes my mother read to me as a young child, but these were later dismissed in school as poetry for younger children and they were not used to teach us how poetry can work. Then we had Dr. Seuss who was also dismissed by most as some eccentric fellow writing silly stuff for young kids. The Doctor actually wrote some very brilliant poems that tend to stretch reality into something unmanageable and therefore unsavory to most palettes.
Though Seuss made a point of not beginning the writing of his stories with a moral in mind, stating that “kids can see a moral coming a mile off”, he was not against writing about issues; he said “there’s an inherent moral in any story” and remarked that he was “subversive as hell”.
“Yertle the Turtle” has variously been described as “autocratic rule overturned” …”a reaction against the fascism of World War II”… and “subversive of authoritarian rule”.
The last lines of “Yertle the Turtle” read: “And turtles, of course … all the turtles are free / As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be.”… When questioned about why he wrote "maybe” rather than “surely”, Seuss replied that he didn’t want to sound “didactic or like a preacher on a platform”, and that he wanted the reader “to say ‘surely’ in their minds instead of my having to say it.”
Drawing by Leonard Cohen