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Dwight Garner reviews Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West. (The Times seems to go in for this sort of alarmism lately.) Garner concludes:

It is hard to argue with his ultimate observation about Europe today: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture” (Europe’s) “meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines” (Islam’s), “it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”

Hard to argue with, because no specific examples are provided. But is there any “culture” more “insecure, malleable, relativistic” than that of the United States? Surely our success in reducing any immigrant strain to three-day weekends and Taco Bell should be grounds for optimism in this regard.

I came to political awareness (well, relatively speaking) in the late 1970s, so one of the first foreign “uprisings” I can remember following was the Danzig shipyard strike, culminating Aug. 31, 1980, in the official recognition formation of the trade union Solidarity (Solidarność). It was tremendously stirring to follow from abroad, not least because of good graphic design — in the Polish tradition, starting with the beautiful, “casual” but unmistakable Solidarity logo itself, by Jerzy (Jurek) Janiszewszki. As several have lately commented, the struggle there and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc had a certain polarity with respect to the United States: the regime(s) were broadly anti-American, the popular movements were to some degree philo-American, etc. Yet even then, vicarious participation at the level possible to me in Los Angeles seemed practically pointless.

How much more so today with the struggle in Iran! My sympathies are with the demonstrators against the theft of the election, and to the extent (not great) that I understand what’s going on, my thoughts. We are not Gary Cooper, nor were meant to be.

What attracted me to this image was the glamorous name of this Miss Seattle — Peggins Madieux. But the more I look at it, the more questions it raises. Does the cow over Miss Seattle’s head imply that the cans are of milk (e.g. sweetened condensed, to mellow the harsh of the coffee from that urn)? Would the number over her customer’s head have raised an eyebrow in 1927 (the year of my father’s birth)? But most of all, what value did UW think was added by links, on the descriptive text, to search queries for the likes of “U” and “S” (on the honorific of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, to whom she was briefly married)?

Logging Haida Gwaii

I’ve been reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, about the strange eco-vandalism incident in 1997 on Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands), northern British Columbia. (If you’re interested, the New Yorker article he distilled from it is a better read.) Mostly I’m indulging a mild obsession with a remote corner of the map — now even more tantalizingly quasi-accessible, of course, via Google Earth and such. But in browsing around, I encountered what might be the most beautiful map I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and certainly one of the most effective in conveying its message.

The map shows the extent of logging, both historical and geographical, on the islands since 1900.  It was produced by the Gowgaia Institute, of Queen Charlotte on the islands. Definitely click through for larger versions (without the superposed town names).

Updated to restrain some overheated language.

America is too exceptional; and American soldiers are people too.

Updated: here’s Obama’s ‘exceptionalism’ answer:

In one sense, of course, it’s nearly vacuous. But in “threading the needle”, as someone put it, in building a principled frame within which cake may be both eaten and had, it resembles the lightning-strikes of insight familiar from psychotherapy or religion.

Entrance to Balmy Alley

In lieu of a real post (and in celebration of moving back to the Mission): tour San Francisco’s Balmy Alley.

Photo by Flickr user dogwelder used under a Creative Commons license.

Updated: of course, with bonus Sendak.

A couple of links:

  • The building housing the archives of the city of Cologne has collapsed. “Two or three” people may have been killed; the material destroyed includes the “minutes of all town council meetings held since 1376” and the papers of Heinrich Böll.
  • And a fresh episode of horror in Zimbabwe….

Just a squib to direct you to Errol Morris’s piece on pool photographs of GW Bush. Mainly it’s striking how generic they are, how déjà vues — though chosen by three photographers, scenes are repeated, one especially familiar one three times — until you get to the last one, three in a row snapped after Bush’s farewell address, capturing something in his face I had never seen before.

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each. (That’s the length of iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t use that effect.) The lines are grouped in tercets, with one lone line at the end. There are sentence breaks at the ends of many lines, and of most of the tercets. In other words, there’s a strong formal grid, achieved through means that were inaudible in her performance.

(And she uses the grid intricately: in

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

see how the four -ings are placed in the lines: near the beginning, at the end, near the end, and at the beginning.)

And the choice of words is timid, sometimes banal, starting right with the first line. There’s a certain amount of padding, as if to fill out lines — the doubling in “noise and bramble, thorn and din” is redundant. And the language is self-conscious, perhaps particularly in the way the text repeatedly proclaims itself a “praise song” rather than just praising.

But most importantly, the poem puts in view at once, in relation to one another, a number of serious thoughts on the occasion — on what it may mean, for many people, that for the first time a member of a minority group has taken our highest office. In crude and partial paraphrase:

  • Our ancestors suffered
  • which is a painful memory
  • but they suffered and labored for something;
  • Here we are at a great day
  • Let us move forward with love
  • so great that it will not efface that memory (“pre-empt grievance”) but encompass it.

As nearly everyone says, writing a poem for an inauguration, or any momentous official occasion, is a mug’s game — it’s almost impossible to do well. And surely everyone has a favorite exception. Mine is John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”, commissioned by the Department of the Interior for its bicentennial exhibition, “America 1976”. It’s a magnificently inclusive ramble, as sincerely kitschy as Rushmore (or at least North by Northwest).

Part of me, this week, wished the old surreal master (still writing at 81) had been given the chance instead. But I have to admit that Ashbery could never have done what Alexander did — to tell home truths in perspective.

Via the Modesto Kid, William Zantzinger has died.

Football Players

On November 30th, 1899, at Sixteenth and Folsom Streets in San Francisco, Berkeley defeated Stanford 30-0 in the Big Game. The most famous trophy of the game was the Axe, which had been introduced in the baseball Big Game that spring. But with this victory, the second in a row for Cal football, Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco also awarded Berkeley a finer and more substantial trophy, a lifesize bronze statue called “The Football Players”, which stands today in a grove toward the west side of campus, on the way up into the university from downtown Berkeley.

Douglas Tilden was born in 1860, and attended the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. He went to New York and then to Paris for further studies. He finished “The Football Players” at the end of seven years in Paris — note that, apart from being French, the players are dressed for rugby rather than American football. He did several other public sculptures in the Bay Area, including the “Baseball Player” in Golden Gate Park, the Mechanics’ Monument on Market Street downtown, and the California Volunteers’ Memorial at Market and Dolores. The monuments are bombastic in the style of the day, and hard to look at seriously now. (My daughter likes the Volunteers’ Memorial, not because she’s passionate about the Philippines War but because the horse has wings.) But the “Football Players” does something quite different than any of these, turning the conservative academic style to recognizably human ends — the composition, angles of the limbs, etc, harmonize with the gazes and the points of contact between the bodies, making a vivid if prettified image of male friendship and physical intimacy.

Photo by Flickr user marymactavish used under a Creative Commons license.

Jay DeFeo, during the removal of The Rose

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San Francisco. Hedrick and others founded the Six Gallery, remembered today for the first reading of “Howl”. He and DeFeo established themselves on Fillmore Street, and for the next ten years, a rotating cast of San Francisco’s painting and writing bohemia rented other apartments in the building.

Through the 1950s, DeFeo painted productively, making a name for herself in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. She had paintings in a group show in Los Angeles in 1959; then, she and Hedrick were invited to participate in “Sixteen Americans”, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside the likes of Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella. The curator, Dorothy Miller, wanted to include Deathrose, a large new painting, but DeFeo said it wasn’t ready. She and Hedrick didn’t attend — with true bohemian insouciance, they gave away the airplane tickets MOMA sent them — and in any case, by the time of the opening, DeFeo was already deep in work, extending her new painting beyond anything she’d done before.

She worked at it all day, every day, for the next five years. The basic design was set early on — an abstract sunburst or cloudburst radiating from a point a bit above eye level — but the surface kept changing, and growing. Photographs of its various stages show many different textures. Sometimes she carved into the growing surface, but mostly she built, layer on layer of paint, even before the last layer had properly dried. At one point, the paint spread outward off the canvas and onto the wall around it: she jerry-rigged a new frame around it to accommodate the new scale, and kept working.

She might never have finished The Rose (as it came to be called) without the intervention of fate. In March 1965, Walter Hopps of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) asked to show it. And then in September, the landlord at Fillmore Street served an eviction notice. Quickly, she accepted Hopps’ offer. The day after the painting was moved, DeFeo and Hedrick vacated the building, and separated. DeFeo followed the painting to Pasadena, and worked at it a few months longer before breaking off for good.

She returned to the Bay Area, but to Marin County, rather than San Francisco; she dropped out of the art scene, and didn’t pick up a brush for the next three years. She resumed painting in 1970, and continued painting, photography, and teaching (at Mills College) until her death in 1989, of cancer. (It’s hard not to suspect that the years of work on The Rose, living on paint fumes and Christian Brothers brandy, contributed.)

The painting itself returned to San Francisco in 1969. It was exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, but soon began to sag badly. To slow the damage, the Art Institute wrapped it up and plastered it into the wall, until the resources could be found to restore it properly. Finally, after DeFeo’s death, the Whitney Museum took on the project. The painting was excavated and carefully restored, with a new steel frame inside the layers and layers of paint. It first appeared in its new form at the Whitney on November 9, 1995, thirty years to the day after it was untimely ripped from its birthplace on Fillmore.

I saw it a year later, on loan at the Berkeley Art Museum. For such a massive, extravagant effort, it’s surprisingly reticent at first — the sunburst is muted, white on mostly gray. In the crevasses of the surface, though, other colors peek through, hinting at what’s buried beneath. The effect is at once overwhelming and shy.

Today it’s out of sight again, packed away in a metal cage in the Whitney’s storage facility. When I inquired this summer, they told me there’s no way to see it. These days in the City, we’re hearing a lot about the proposal of Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, to build a museum in the Presidio for his collection of modern and contemporary art. I would suggest to Fisher, once he gets the site he wants, that he make room in the building for The Rose — the greatest artwork ever made in San Francisco, and in need of a good home.

In the meantime, for a taste of the painting, you can’t do better than Bruce Conner’s beautiful short film of the removal, The White Rose (with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for a score). I also recommend Jane Green and Leah Levy, Jay DeFeo and The Rose (2003) — great photos and useful writing.

[Updated to correct a serious misstatement at the end: the painting is inaccessible, not decaying again.]

Man with Small Beard

Would it surprise you to learn that in rural Wisconsin, at the end of the 19th century, there was poverty, failure, vandalism, arson, domestic violence, disease, depression, alcoholism, insanity, suicide, and murder? Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973, reissued 2000) is built on the assumption that it will. The book consists largely of clippings from the Badger State Banner, of Black River Falls, Jackson County, WI, and images by Charles Van Schaick, a local commercial photographer. After some 200 pages of grim citation, Lesy steps in to comment directly:

Pause now. Draw back from it. There will be time again to experience and remember. For a minute, wait, and then set your mind to consider a different set of circumstances….

The book certainly made a strong impression on me when I saw it as a boy. Reading it now, I have to wonder what the fuss was. The people in the pictures look…pretty much OK. You can see that they lived tough lives (there are some awesome farmer’s tans), but there are hardly any whose faces I now find scary, not even the tendentiously blurred ones Lesy enlarged from group photos. Real people can in fact look pretty strange — take a good look at your fellow passengers on the bus, or in the mirror (or, not to put too fine a point on it, at Lesy today). And in the 1890s, many of us were still new to having our pictures taken. (The nakedness of Julia Margaret Cameron‘s portraits is even stranger, though from a different place and a more privileged social world.)

Similarly, I’m unconvinced that the objective difficulties in Jackson County at that time were historically unusual. (There was an economic depression, certainly, but that was national.) Lesy tries to argue statistically that the area was worse off than its neighbors, considering the suicide rate, economic growth, etc., but his figures are inconclusive. (The suicide rates he cites, for example, are close to that for the US today.) Warren Susman, the Rutgers historian who introduces the book (he was Lesy’s thesis advisor) writes that “Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life during the 1890s; some have gone so far as to call it a ‘psychic crisis’…”, but does not explain or offer citations.

The credibility of Lesy’s vision of rural hell is not strengthened by his handling of the text. What he excerpts from the newspaper is principally police-blotter items, briefly recounting murders, deaths, the commitment of the insane to the Mendota asylum, etc.  Beyond that, he uses no other primary or secondary sources (until the epilogue). Instead, he interpolates invented material — passages attributed to  a “Town Gossip” and a “Local Historian”, and excerpts from fiction (Hamlin Garland, Glenway Westcott, and apparently Lesy himself).

What bothers me most about the book now is its treatment of Van Schaick, the photographer. First, the book’s atmosphere of doom severely constrains one’s reading of the photos — it overwhelms the normal liveliness and humanity of such pictures as the young couple laughing, the woman bathing a baby; the handsome young man in a turtleneck, and the men clowning in an office. (OK, I’ll relent — to read that they’re doctors, clowning with electrical shock equipment, makes that last one legitimately ghoulish.) But worse, I think, is Lesy’s strange uncharity toward the man who supplied the meat of the book. In the introduction, Lesy dismisses him as merely conventional, and in the text he gives an anecdote (unsourced, and presumably made up) of Van Schaick’s poor hygiene in old age.

Thirty years after, Lesy gave an interview to Identity Theory, which is quite a bit more gracious and humane. Now he gives Schaick his due, making an apt comparison to August Sander — clearly a stronger image-maker, but likewise an example of how meaning and value in documentary photography are built by serial accumulation. So if I’m ungracious to Lesy now, perhaps I should reflect that my equanimity in the face of the images he assembled is partly owed to the shock they gave, to me and many others, back in the day.

Photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Death Trip Flickr set, used under a Creative Commons license. See also the large Charles Van Schaick archive at the WHS’s own site.

[Updated with some minor corrections.]

On Oct. 7, 1955, the Six Gallery in San Francisco presented a reading by five well-known poets of the local scene (including poems by a sixth). Allen Ginsberg went on second to last, reading his new, unpublished poem Howl. The response was so strong — chants of “Go, go, go”, led by Jack Kerouac from the audience — that Kenneth Rexroth, the “M. C.”, called a break before the last reading, Gary Snyder doing “Berry Feast”. Afterward, elated, the crowd moved out for Chinese food.

It’s the signal event of the Beat moment in poetry — and yet it’s doubly exceptional. The poem is unique in Ginsberg’s oeuvre, to begin with. He wrote other good things (mostly during the same year or so), but nothing, not even Kaddish, is at the same level. Within a few years, he had moved on to the “King of the May” phase of his career, best captured, I think, in Jane Kramer’s book — a benignly inclusive celebrity but no longer primarily a poet.

And further, Ginsberg was not really “of” the San Francisco scene, but rather a globetrotter, for whom the globe revolved around New York (and New Jersey). His time in the Bay Area lasted about two years, from 1954 through 1956. He was clearly inspired by the scene he found there, and he came to symbolize it, but he didn’t shape it in the way Rexroth did, or Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (Or Snyder, in his way, dropping in periodically from the Cascades, the Sierras or Japan.)

Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and impresario of the City Lights bookstore and press, who made a slim volume of Howl and the other poems Ginsberg had been working on that year. This became the focus of an obscenity trial, ending two years later in victory for the press.

But all gossiping aside, we have to be grateful that the stars should have aligned themselves, however briefly, so powerfully that Ginsberg could ring on like that through line after Whitman-biblical line, dense, rich, hyperbolic and accessible like nothing else in our canon. It’s too tempting not to quote a bit (only hard to stop):

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, […]

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

Cadets reading Howl

You’re probably already reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog: but if you aren’t, you should be.  And if you haven’t read his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, you must.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen have outlined Coates’s remarkable story. But what strikes me most is his voice. I have about as little exposure to the language of black America as is possible for an American. At points in the book, the unfamiliar slang knots up beyond my guessing. And obviously I have no way to know how close it is to the world he’s remembering, West Baltimore in the 1980s and onward. Yet throughout I hear Coates’s ownership of this voice — his fusion of diverse vocabularies, registers, traditions into a personal creole, faithful to all its origins in pandering to none. A passage of direct narration (116-7):

Plus I was not alone. We would start off only five or six deep, trooping down Tioga, down Gwynne Falls, and then up the grass hill. But all of us had boys from other districts, and as we traveled you would see a homeboy from summer camp or elementary, whose clique would be assimilated, and in this way we would expand until, atop Dukeland hill, dap was exchanged, and we were many deep. We’d front at the top of the concrete steps, talking shit, cultivating rage until we were ice grilled, until our movements were warning flares and bared teeth.

Then I was alone again, because initially none of my crew was gifted and talented. I soloed into the next level of the Marshall Team — 8-16, fewer boys this time, and that meant trouble. Our army was smaller now and could not tolerate pacifists. I remembered who I’d been just a year earlier, spaced out and ready to run, and wanted no part of it. I thought of walking in, smacking the first fool I saw, and taking a suspension like a badge. But that was just the voice of my intelligent armor. I was still a dreamer, if now repressed, was still cupcakes and comic books at the core. 

Take a minor precise detail: “gifted and talented” — the grammatical incongruity tells us the phrase is in quotes, from the bureaucratese of school. Or the chiming of “dap” and “deep”, both used repeatedly elsewhere.

The closest analogy in my own reading (an idiosyncratic association, implausible as influence) is Iain Sinclair’s nonfiction, say Lights Out for the Territory. But enough about me — go read.

America’s first composer died on this day in 1800. William Billings was born in 1746 in Boston, and lived there all his life. He was described as “somewhat deformed in person, blind in one eye, one leg shorter than the other, one arm somewhat withered.” He was a tanner by trade, and self-taught in music. In 1770, he published The New England Psalm-Singer, a collection of his own compositions. (Above is the frontispiece, by Paul Revere.) He would go on to publish five more such books; his music was widely reprinted; and he taught singing frequently. Yet this was not a living, and he spent the last decade of his life in penury. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Billings’ music is almost all four-part vocal harmony, the prevailing form of religious music in his day. It’s essentially diatonic, with little modulation or use of secondary dominants. The technique is crude in a distinctive way, at once rougher and more cautious than the European style of the same period. It’s rough mainly in its disregard for contrapuntal rules, such as the prohibition on parallel fifths and octaves. But it’s cautious in its treatment of dissonance — indeed there’s hardly any, except for passing tones off the beat. (Thus he did without one of the principal expressive tools of classical music — there’s never a suspension, or a 6/4 to prepare a cadence.) He was criticized for this by the cognoscenti of Boston, and he responded with bravado, writing a satirical address “To the Goddess of Discord”, and a short composition, “Jargon”, made up entirely of dissonances. (You can hear it sung here.)

Yet within its narrow limits, the music still has real strength. The secret is in its fresh and vigorous rhythm. He knows how to sustain the pulse for line after line — it must have been satisfying to belt out those closely rhyming texts in their hearty meters. His greatest hit, and the one with the greatest resonance for history — even military history — is the patriotic hymn Chester. He printed this in his first book, and again with more verses in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). It became one of the most popular songs of the Revolution, second only, they say, to “Yankee Doodle”. (You can hear it at the same site.) In its stirring words,

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.
When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

If you’re curious, here’s Wikipedia’s score of Chester marked up, with the fifths and unisons in red. (I’ve also highlighted spots where he doubled one of the tones in a tritone.)  For more scores, see the William Billings page at ChoralWiki. And for more information, see McKay and Crawford, William Billings of Boston (Princeton, 1975).

The Modesto Kid has drawn my attention to a new blog, It Is Time For History. With his characteristic, er, modesty, he neglected to emphasize that he himself is a contributor (see here). The prevailing tone is sarcastic, unreliable, amusing. Plus: history!

The poet Jack Spicer is more blogged about than read, as you’ll read in practically every post about him. This will be no exception. I haven’t read him enough either: I’ve known him so far mainly as a focus of gossip. (A San Francisco poet I know once told me, as we marveled at the inanity of Billy Collins, that back in the day, Collins had been one of Spicer’s disciples in North Beach.) This week I’ve been reading Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan, 1998), which is a feast of anecdote. But there’s news, and I expect soon we’ll be hearing more about him again.

Spicer was born in Los Angeles in 1925. At UC Berkeley, he met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, who would remain the poets closest to him. He studied for a few years in Minnesota, and then briefly worked in Boston, but he soon returned to the Bay Area to stay. He worked at Berkeley as a research linguist, but spent as much time as possible on the poetry scene in North Beach.

It’s astonishing how much of Spicer’s energy (and indeed that of the whole scene) went into the epiphenomena of poetry — teaching, talking, theorizing, publishing, arguing, drinking, cliquing, gossiping. (Spicer even supplied items to Herb Caen, gossip columnist for the Chronicle.) And yet he made poetry anyway.* He wrote steadily, publishing a stream of little books with fugitive presses. He distanced himself jealously from success in the poetry world — New York, Allen Ginsberg, even Ferlinghetti and City Lights — but achieved some success despite himself, speaking to attentive audiences, for example, at the University of British Columbia. His drinking caught up with him: in July 1965, he fell into a hepatic coma, and died after three weeks in and out of consciousness, fellow poets visiting whenever he could talk.

For Spicer, poetry was like receiving a radio transmission: something spoke through him. And more than a conceit or a superstition, this is borne out in the poetry. The language is direct, flexible, unshowy — what’s strange is the elusiveness of the voice, the instability of the poems’ agenda. It really is as though the poet had short-circuited himself out and his language spoke instead. Take this, from the book Language, of 1964:

    This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
    Tougher than anything.
    No one listens to poetry. The ocean
    Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
    Or crash of water. It means
    Is bread and butter
    Pepper and salt. The death
    That young men hope for. Aimlessly
    It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
    One listens to poetry.**

There’s an extended analogy at work here, but it would be hard, and misleading, to explicate it fully. One could assimilate “bread and butter / pepper and salt”, for example, to the analogy, but more plausibly they are simply clichés, half-abstract language objects bobbing up to divert the flow.

This week I went looking for the Collected Books, edited by Robin Blaser in the 1970s.  I used to see this on every poetry shelf in town, but now that I’m ready to read it, it’s become a collectible. Thank goodness, though, Wesleyan University Press is bringing out a new Collected Poems, long rumored and now on the brink of publication. (I’ve preordered it from Amazon.)

The title of the new book, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, is not a line from the poetry, but something Spicer said to Blaser in the hospital at the end. Or so Blaser says: another poet remembers the phrase differently, and a third denies it outright. Apart from its joke value, then (and Spicer might not have been joking), it’s an example of how Spicer is remembered — and an apt encapsulation of his poetic.


* Graham Mackintosh, who published him, said later, “I think what happened was he’d be of a certain blood-alcohol count, which would allow him to pass out for about five hours. Which would bring it around to approximately seven in the morning. Which was the time he would do most of his writing. Then he’d go back to sleep, and sort of pass back out.” (Quoted in Ellingham and Killian; but like most of their sources, Mackintosh is talking as much about himself as about Spicer.)

** Copied from the Spicer page at the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center.  For more, see the Spicer feature in Jacket magazine, April 1999. And Lawrence La Riviere White dug deeper in a post at The Valve (almost on the fortieth anniversary of Spicer’s death).

From the day’s papers:

Berkeley protesters come down from the trees peacefully, after nearly two years.

Overnight stay for two at Hearst Castle, up for auction on eBay.

Photo by Flickr user brainchildvn used under a Creative Commons license.

Of her tumultuous, nomadic life, Tina Modotti spent only eight years in the United States. She was born in Friuli, northern Italy, in 1896, and spent her earliest years in Austria. Her father emigrated to San Francisco, and in 1913 she followed him. She worked as a seamstress, but soon began acting, rising to stardom in the local Italian theater. In 1918, she married a bohemian aspiring artist named Roubaix de l’Abrie (“Robo”) Richey, and they moved to Los Angeles. They had some success in crafts (e.g. batik), and Modotti made some first steps in a film career, appearing most notably in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). But in the same period, she met Edward Weston, and they began an intense relationship, both a love affair and an apprenticeship, which turned her toward the work for which she is now remembered.

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