Discussed in this essay:
• Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems, Anselm Hollo. Coffee House Press. $17.95. 320 pp.
• In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems 1985-2003, Anne Waldman. Coffee House Press. $30.00. 491 pp.
1) To have a symposium dedicated to you, not posthumously but rather to be both honored guest and registered participant is testament to having arrived, and arrived in style, so it’s perhaps appropriate to begin with Anne Waldman, who was honored in just such a way. “Makeup on Empty Space,” a celebration of Anne Waldman, took place in March of 2002 at the University of Michigan where Waldman’s archives are housed. As the website dedicated to the event declares, Waldman is, “one of the most vibrant writers of the post-Beat generation, author of more than 30 books of poetry, a performance poet of electric intensity,” and indeed, she is a performer whose performances in some sense supercede her poetry but whose poems nonetheless precede and arise from her performances. She is polyphonous, fit to be lionized, a cultural activist and world traveler, collaborator and poetry icon whose stewardship of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from the mid-’60s to late-’70s ushered in a wave of improvisational, collaborative lyric and post-lyric fervency, during a time David Lehman described as the last gasps of the last authentic avant-garde movement America has seen.
Anne Waldman on America: “In a way, America’s the shadow of everything I do, everywhere I go, everything I carry, no matter if I travel to the ends of the earth. And I live frequently on the spine of the continent, near the Great Divide. Then there’s the side of it being the real energy center for a truly post-postmodernist poetry mind, which is also archaic, because we can still be close to the land.”
Anselm Hollo on Anne Waldman: “an essentially populist poet in the best sense of the word, engaged in winning back the so-called wider audiences of MTV and ‘Dallas.’”
The apocryphal rumor that she started—started— the phenomenon of Poetry Slams when she and Ted Berrigan donned shiny trunks and boxing gloves to verbally pummel each other with uppercuts of verbs and roundhouses of metaphor. Her prodigious proliferation: publishing a book of poems a year, not to mention translations, edited anthologies, sound recordings, cameo appearances in Bob Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara, performances with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Meredith Monk in the documentary Cooked Diamonds, Fried Shoes, collaborations with artists Richard Tuttle and Elizabeth Murray, with musicians Steven Taylor and Steve Lacy, the co-founding with Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, the first Buddhist-inspired educational institution in America, two-time winner of the International Poetry Championship Bout in Taos, New Mexico, recipient of many of the country’s major grants and literary awards, onwards and etc.
The task then: to tease from the raiment of name the thread of verse.
2) Post-postmodern poetry. Not a term with enough zip or encapsulation to catch on perhaps, but its logic might go something like this: if postmodernism is the abolishment of continuities and master narratives, the blurring of genres, the conflation of high and low art, the proliferation of collage, relativism, and ironic self-reflexivity, then post-all-that is an attempt to arrive, again, in certain cases using the very tools of postmodernism, at certain absolutes. Cultural theorist Terry Eagleton made just such an assertion in his book, After Theory claiming that what we need now are answers to, “fundamental questions of truth and love in order to meet the urgencies of our global situation.” Truth? Love? Have the Romantics risen from their graves to exact their saccharine revenge on the minimalists and appropriation artists? Does the green-eyed troll of hegemony stir in the cave to which it has been vanquished?
Take Anselm Hollo, Anti-Laureate. Born in Finland to a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, J.A. Hollo, and the musician daughter of an organic chemist, Anna Walden. Hollo’s very lineage speaks to hybridity and rupture, the periodic table of elements bonded to translations into Finnish, and he is a wellspring of voices, publishing more than 40 books in the UK and US, performing at the underground International Poetry Incarnation in London in the ’60s and winning a NEA fellowships in the ’90s. Anti-establishment yet establishment. Elected “anti-laureate” by the republic of poets associated with SUNY Buffalo POETICS list to protest the selection of Billy Collins as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Certainly Waldman and Hollo in their reach for something less tenuous than uncertainty, something spiritual even, could be seen as adherents of this not-yet-a-movement. Take the title of Hollo’s Selected Poems, Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence or the many allusions to Hinduism and Buddhism peppered throughout Waldman’s poems; indeed, it would take a pedant more than a few hours to tally the number of times she mentions one of the four yugas (or ages in Sanskrit). These poems, disparate as they are from each other, partake of Personality writ large, even if the subject matter and style are highly irregular. There’s no death of the author here—one need only glance at one of Waldman’s characteristic anaphoras or Hollo’s punning to know immediately who the author of the poem is.
Which is not to say that the detours and u-turns of postmodernism are not accelerated down with glee and sheer velocity—take, for example, the title poem from Hollo’s 1998 collection, “Johnny Cash Writes a Letter to Santa Claus”:
now too old to run away
(three months older than Donald Duck)
well they still seem to need me
& feed me at least some of them do
“Are you in the middle of something?”
“No I’m totally marginalized”
but still interested in these critters
walking lyrics to the grand abstruse song
so singular they are
in their parts assigned reassigned
&Lyn Hejinian quoted Shklovsky
“Role of Art—to kill Pessimism”
translation not a matter of one to one
relationships any more than anything else is
Zophus the cat well pleased and even amazed
by his consciousness in successful leap
Now we have all the familiar obfuscated tropes: The Man in Black and Kris Kringle, popular music icon and children’s fairy tale involved in a highly whimsical poem, which, as many of Hollo’s poems tend to do, partakes of allusion and unattributed dialogue. Johnny Cash used to occasionally begin his shows by saying, “I’ve been writin’ songs as long as I can remember and I guess I always will write songs, ’cause I can say things in a song that I don’t know any other way to say or maybe something I can’t get away with otherwise,” and there’s this the sneaky sense of getting away with it here, the speaker reveling in the weight of the ad absurdum nature of language, allowing the liberating idea that anything is possible in a poem that might not be possible elsewhere: a hodgepodge of Donald Duck (which immediately evokes John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”—something strange is creeping across me); Hollo’s contemporary Lyn Hejinian; leader of the Russian formalist movement of the 1920′s, Victor Shklovsky; and the idiosyncratic and hermetic reference to Zophus the cat, about which I could delve nothing, save a reference to Eleutherodactylus Zophus, a rare species of tree frog.
I suspect the last line provides some clue for us on how to read the poem—if nothing else, this is a poem of parataxis, of leaps. Additionally, there’s the familiar guise of self-referentiality here, and the speaker seems to acknowledge that the lyrics to the “grand abstruse song” that he participates in are necessarily on the fringes, marginalized, not taken from the middle of anything. Further, in order to further contextualize the feeling of uncertainty here, one could also bring to bear Shklovsky himself on making art:
Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. . . . Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
Well and good but ultimately, and this is perhaps where post-postmodernism, if in fact it’s even a movement and this poem an exemplar, fails. I sense in the barely submerged delight a mobilization of the deeply arbitrary here at work. Why these particular references in this particular order? Why the caesuras in the middle of the poem? Who is speaking and to what end?
3) Rather, give me the comic. Frission of the unexpected against expectation, the lyric twisted into a blague. Take Hollo’s poem “Godlike,” anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, but not, surprisingly, included in the Selected Poems:
when you suddenly
feel like talking
about the times
in your life when you were
a total idiot asshole you resist
& just sit there
at the head of the table
Now there’s a poem with panache, lucidity, plus it’s damn funny and applicable to a wide swath of beings. A poem that uses its enjambments successfully, that builds to the singular punchline with ineradicable force. Or take, “In the Raging Balance” (from the collection Corvus), an imitation of Jack Clarke:
Energy, the man said, equals
Eternal Delight. Does our return to it
mean shedding all that was our art?
Task of The Living: to ask questions
of The Dead. You did it well, you
Weird and Funny Dude! I thank you
and wish you a good Eternal Night
in Tunisia or wherever you’ve taken
The Show. “The winds on the moon
blow so cold, so cold” could be a refrain
but isn’t nor will this last line rhyme
with anything but tears then again why
should it be the last line and come to
think of it it couldn’t possibly be
This is an elegy proper, full of reverence and pleasure, but made all the more melancholic for being so chuckle-worthy. Hard to think of another poet who could get away with “weird and funny dude!” but here it’s as natural as ointment in a drugstore. The end of the poem, with its refusal to end at all, is moving tribute and apt testament to the continuance of life and poetry. The tragicomic redone as signature Hollo.
4) In Indonesian culture, there is no clear demarcation between life and art, and this concept is perhaps best embodied by the gamelan orchestra, which can consist of up to 80 instruments and which, in certain segments of the population, comprises a completely communal, non-elitist method of making music, where everyone, regardless of their age, gender, or talent, can participate. In these renditions of the gamelan orchestra, music-making is a form of spiritualized activity and aesthetics is an integral part of the quotidian. The primordial impulse toward shared beauty resonates throughout certain (non-Western) communities.
The few times I’ve seen Anne Waldman perform, I’ve heard her sometimes make some reference to the aforementioned, appropriate since she has played in a gamelan orchestra for many years, as an example of her own ethos that making art is not separate from living life, that the impulses that propel us to act compassionately toward our fellow beings are the selfsame impulses that creation stems from. And Waldman is a fount of creation. Indeed it’s difficult to discuss her production because it’s so maddeningly prolific. The self-proclaimed fast-talking woman is mandarin raised to the nth degree, her work influenced by ancient Buddhist sutras and Allen Ginsberg, Sappho and Jasper Johns, Dido and Bernadette Mayer, and from prose poems to quirky iconographic lineations, she has no particular form that she prefers, no constant cradle to which she returns. She is the shaman(ess) figure who stalks the liminal space between visionary and verbal diarrheaist.
So where to begin? I suppose the first poem from her collection Kill or Cure is as close to an ars poetica as we have:
“Suppose as Game”
Suppose language is a game
whose rules are dreamed
by an agreement of players
Once broken, the speakers are tossed
& know no rude tongue but their own
no (fixed) meaning in solipsism
But always in a process of being stranded
are spectators of solipsism
stuck with themselves, empirical data
Theirs is a private language
obstruction, ownership, demand
Is the door open?
Rain here yet?
Have their ideas entered all heads?
Is this the end of the game?
They quickly become the ex-modern
and you, poet, enter the arena
an animating principle to a touch of words
Seduce them to your page
beat them to a fine shapelessness
Or sentences are for the first time stark & clear
not untrue of what flaunts style:
webs of cloth, a mirror you hold
The players conjure nihilism, their only way
to be curious, vain, a waste of strength
as confusion weakens the vocal arts
Cybernetics is the exchange of their news for yours
Yours is However abundant the nectar,
the bees stop dancing as the sugar drops
They tell you nothing, their lips are sealed, you keep dancing
Was the agreement that words shine like sun,
or glint as weapons in moonlight?
The idea of a language as a game references Wittgenstein’s idea of sprachspiel, or the fact that the meaning of words is based on use, and therefore that language is unfixed, multiple, motile, and rule-governed by the tacit agreement of its users or players. Once that agreement breaks down, language is unmoored from collective signification and becomes something else, something deadly, a “private demon language” of “obstruction, ownership, demand.” The opposition that Waldman sets up in this poem is between the generalized they, the masses, and the particular you, the poet and the reader, two principles balanced in opposition to one another. Being solipsistic and nihilistic, they use language in a coercive way and wish to have their ideas enter all heads (Kill). Whereas, the singular entity of the poet attempts to imbue language with newness, nuance, and cleansing violence (Cure). “Seduce them to your page,” the poem reveals, “caress plosiveness / beat them to a fine shapelessness,” and one is unsure whether the antecedent to the pronoun them is the words themselves, the coercive they, or the world of readers who could potentially be transformed. In any case, we are given a set of imperatives: to use language with tender precision (“caress,” “fine shapelessness”) and revolutionary gusto (“plosiveness,” “beat them”). The choice, as articulated by the last line of the poem, is between sustenance and illumination (“like the sun”) or compulsion and harm (“weapons in the moonlight”), and it’s clear which side of the fence Waldman, boddhicitta that she is, would have us fall on. The poet meanwhile continues to dance.
5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.”
Ezra Pound: “I think there is a “fluid” as well as a “solid” content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase. That most symmetrical forms have certain uses. That a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms.”
Gertrude Stein: “I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word, and at this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense. I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible.”
The Heart Sutra: “All dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete . . . in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness. . . . There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment. . . . Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!” (trans. Edward Conze)
6) If Waldman comes out of Walt Whitman, then Hollo comes out of William Carlos Williams. If Hollo is a polyglot (he is; a bio online, for the Anne Waldman Symposium no less, assures us that he grew up in Finland and Sweden and had command of four languages by the time he was ten years old), then Waldman is a polyglyph (by which I mean, she’s as typographically inventive as perhaps no one since E.E. Cummings; Iovis: All is Full of Jove has sections where phrases are crossed out, where an eye or a sun has been drawn, where sestinas, odes, sonnets have been embedded, where each line is prefaced and followed by =, where the names of constellations are rendered by rays of lines that span the page diagonally, forward, and upside down; another collection, Marriage: A Sentence, is composed entirely of prose poems; still a more recent collection, In the Room of Never Grieve, has a collaboration with visual artist Jane Dalrymple-Hollo—Anslem’s wife!—that looks like a Lichtenstein lithograph with the poem transposed around the border and body of the picture).
If the characteristic movement in Waldman’s work is the anaphora, the repeated subject and verb laden with varying clauses (like in her poem “Why I Meditate,” which begins, “I sit because I’m wing’d with awe / I sit because the poetry scene got sour in America in 1980 / I sit because Milarepa did,” and ends, “I sit to scandalize / I sit because I won’t take it lying down / I sit to test old friends & lovers / I sit because passion burns me up / I sit because I’m a paranoid speed freak / I sit because I deserted the poetry wars / I sit to be exile from Ego’s land”), then the most persistent trope in Hollo’s work is paronomasia, or the pun (just take the following titles of his poems: “Dedication: A Toke for Li Po,” “Si, Si, E.E.,” “And What’s Your Derivational Profile?,” “Still Here & Here Again Then Here & Still” or “‘Tempus? Fuggit!’”).
If the cosmic and the comic are conflated and mimed in Hollo’s work, then the profuse and profound are fused and found in Waldman’s. If Hollo is an Internationalist and a Minimalist, Waldman is a Transpersonalist and a Maximalist. If Waldman’s deity of choice is Kali, Hindu goddess of time and ferocity, meat and skulls, remover of the advidya (the ignorance that makes us fear death), a creative and destructive force who wears a girdle of severed arms, a bracelet of cobras, corpse-earrings, and a mouth darkened with blood, then Hollo is her consort, Shiva, in the form of Nataraj, Lord of the (Survival) Dance, holding high a hourglass, dancing on a dwarf’s head upon the lilting stage of a lotus petal. If Hollo is a Finn, Waldman is a Flame.
7) What Apollinaire was to the Surrealists, Neal Cassady was to the Beats, and Frank O’Hara to the first generation of the New York school, Ted Berrigan was to a further generation of poets that included Ron Padgett, Jim Carroll, Alice Notley, and of course Anselm Hollo and Anne Waldman. In fact Waldman edited a collection of essays, stories, poems, paintings, and photographs dedicated to him entitled Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan, and throughout Hollo’s poems we have mention of the oracular extravaganza of “Ted.” Berrigan’s early masterpiece was his Sonnets, a sequence of 78 brief lyrics, none of them sonnets in the formal sense, though generally 14 lines long and throughout Hollo and Waldman’s poetry we hear the reverberation from this early, seminal collection, which for many critics represented the nadir of Berrigan’s literary career. What Berrigan’s Sonnets granted in some sense was permission—to cut up and collage diary entries into poems, to cannibalize friends’ letters, to collaborate with other writers and artists, to leap remorselessly from image to dialog to signs in the world, to let B-movie icons commingle with literary luminaries, to transpose lines from one poem to another, to use disjunction and disruption as (un)conscious strategies, in short to stuff the stuff of life into the suitcase of art. This influence is felt deeply (though very differently) in the work of Waldman and Hollo.
Waldman builds on Berrigan’s impulse to leave it all in, especially in her sprawling epic Iovis, about which she has written, “the Iovis project has an exalted tone and purpose: total assault on and transmutation of patriarchy—through imagination, compassion, and magic. It undermines and subsumes dominant patriarchal mindsets and fabrications. As reclaimed tantric female epic it challenges assumptions of forms, intervenes in and torques narrative, disgorges themes, and shunts war again and again. It names and calls out enemy, weaponry, swagger. The presenter is a hermaphroditic hierophant with vatic power.”
A speaker who is a “hermaphroditic hierophant with vatic power” (imagine that on a business card) is clearly and consciously dramatized, meant to encompass history’s cycles (“My Carmelites, do not desert me!”; “I speak as Hetaera . . . I give you pain”; “Thucydides would mock me or would he even care”), to speak not from the cell of the I, but the vantage of the Eye, which is not to say personal anecdotes don’t enter into the poem. They do; in fact, everything seems to enter in the poem and the effect of reading it is like skirting a moraine, something jagged and impressive yet impossible to fully take in due to its scale and our endurance.
Alice Notley on Waldman’s epic: There may be initially irritating aspects of Iovis; I find that familiarity with the voice of the poem, really giving oneself over to it, alleviates the irritation. Since the poem is built on the presentation of a person and her life, one accepts the poet finally as a friend, gets used to her “faults,” and comes to enjoy her company. . . . Parts of the poem may feel thin; I think that is built into the genre, parts of Maximus, Paterson, and the Cantos feel a little thin to me—as well as garrulous, cornpone, flowery, forced, self-indulgent, pretentious, and impenetrable. The form makes flaws possible; possibly poetry should make room for flaws, being a human form.
In Iovis which seems to grow like a replicating virus, to swell and discourse like a raga, to overwhelm our ability to assimilate it, Waldman inserts fragments of letters from former students, journal entries, drawings, quotations, though being unconstrained by 14 lines (or any other constraints), the poem balloons into its epic-nature in a very different way than Berrigan’s sonnets. Part of its purpose is to investigate the nature of gender, the male paradigms of power, to reclaim the feminine as an organizational model, to pay homage to the masculine even while rebuking it, and ultimately to collapse the easy binary of male/female along the lines of the yab-yum (what Waldman herself has called the both-both), the Tibetan term for mother-father, or the embrace and union of sexes revealing the falseness of duality and the holistic synthesis of gender.
Hollo’s poems, on the other hand, partake of the disjunction and compression inherent in Berrigan’s work and throughout his poetry, Berrigan’s presence is omnipresent. This is especially true in his piece, Lines from Ted: An Ars Poetica, which collages together excerpts from comments Berrigan made at the Naropa Institute in 1982. This form—both a kind of canto and a homage—is novel and the “sonnets,” that follow are reminiscent of both figures.
Alice Notley on Hollo: “There is probably nothing special about Hollo’s methods . . . there is probably nothing very special about any poet’s methods. However, it’s difficult to think of anyone who practice the same methods as Hollo, anyone who gets meanings in quite the same way. He doesn’t join the disjunct, he doesn’t change syntax; rather by being terse, and careful, he brings things together that don’t belong together.”
As close to an epic poem as Hollo has written is the long poem Arcana Gardens which proceeds in numbered sections that themselves are mainly in couplets. Here’s the beginning of section IV, which also mentions Berrigan:
oh it’s just like magazines used to be—with poems
by Ted in them
(who wants them to like their poetry
as long as they read it)
well it’s time to be drizzling on
truckloads of stuff to keep us within the framework
but writers of small language groups
their admirable stubbornness
clings to the ‘absoluteness’
of their particular language
their words by extension that’s of course true
There’s a rather biting critique of aesthetic encampment embedded in this section, whether it’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets or neo-formalists, the speaker is critical of the narrow provincialism that colors too many poetry “communities,” and the idea that any one mode of utterance could be the one way to do something is shown to be claptrap. Or take the beginning of section XII:
hooked on English I make six cents a word
no epiphany sans community
the dick came striding down the hall
“goddamn fucking Greek deities again”
old Mozart . . . young Cassandra . . . owls
swoop through the canyon at night
aah am I supposed to say aah? is this
the “aah experience?”
who you asking? dunno
is Robt. Bly around?
That delicious poke at Bly, poet of the men’s movement, is characteristically Hollo, not hollow, though the temptation to say so is omnipresent. One way in which Arcana Garden might be successfully post-postmodern is in the use of biographical material. Rather than having language speak for itself, unmoored from any perceptible consciousness, there’s a voice, ever-changing, true, but united through perspective and the evocation of memory. Indeed there’s much of this poem that could be seen as “confessional”—as in the admission that “Papa wanted me to marry the Finnish language / Mama chemistry (her father’s life) / both kept me away from Finnish women with all their might // so I went to Germania and married a German speaker / but couldn’t make a living in those lands.” But because that straightforward testimony is bracketed on all sides by allusions (to Bertolucci, to Peter Handke, to Trotsky), tangents (about Puritans, academics, and the King James Bible) and wisecracks (“get ready for MacCommunism,” “first prize: dinner in Des Moines // second prize: two dinners in Des Moines,” to name just a couple), the poem feels categorically different than either a poem in which the first person is spoken of as a transparent entity or a poem in which the first person is occluded altogether. Feels altogether Berriganesque.
8 ) Whatever else Waldman is—and she’s manically various and voracious—she is also a highly unconventional yet purportedly formal poet. This might not be readily apparent in reading Iovis, which, it could be argued, ultimately lacks the sinew or scaffold to be a successful epic (but then again, that could be also be said about Hart Crane’s The Bridge, or Pound’s Cantos, or Williams’ Paterson, or Zukofsky’s A, brilliant works in their own right), but some of her other collections are based on explicitly formal principles.
Take Marriage: A Sentence, a serial poem based on the Japanese tradition of haibun, which is a combination of prose and haiku originated by Basho during his travels. Waldman actually does away with the haiku portions, instead using the sentence as the basic unit of meaning, elongating it and overloading it with repetition as a means of getting at the nature of the institution of marriage. So what was begun as haibun becomes, more or less, a collection of prose poems. When put to the measure the master of the genre, Russell Edson, posits in his piece, “Portrait of the Writer As a Fat Man,” “a prose that is a cast-iron aeroplane that can actually fly, mainly because its pilot doesn’t seem to care if it does or not. Nevertheless, this heaver-than-air prose monstrosity, this cast-iron toy will be seen to be floating over the trees.” Waldman’s pieces do lift off in places, especially “Coyote Almost Takes a Wife,” about the trickster figure’s near-seduction, and “Her Sure Joy,” “a poem in which nearly every sentence begins with the feminine or masculine pronoun.” Or take Not a Male Pseudonym, a collection that Waldman writes, “is a Sapphic paean, a reverie both lyrical and bittersweet.” The book-length poem might be a Sapphic paean but it’s not in Sapphics. There are no hendecasyllables, no adonics, no interplay of dactyl and trochee. These are Sapphic poems in name and impetus only, not in form.
Hollo has a similarly cavalier attitude towards form. Take the poem “Now on to Ghazal Gulch,” which would seem to indicate some play against the ghazal form, but nothing we get in the poem replicates the form—no couplets, no quafia, or rhyme scheme, no radif, or refrain; instead we get (from the last four stanzas of the poem):
Sorry I thought you person
I think I run into them
from the past
in pork pie hats
And why not
think of them as
“souls free of the body”
In this context, the evocation of the ghazal makes no sense and feels deeply frivolous. If even the shadow of a form is going to be called on, I’d assume it would be for an explicable reason, but unfortunately the shards here don’t cohere into anything that would indicate why this poem was from Ghazal Gulch and not Villanelle Way or Mount Pantoum.
9) Say then the effect of Waldman and Hollo on the world of contemporary poetry has been immense. Say they have served together and individually as catalysts for many emerging poets, have championed a new aesthetic model, one that came through the Objectivists and the Black Mountain Poets, that found particularly compelling crystallizations in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems or John Ashbery’s Houseboat Days, but that took on unique inflections in their work, which, say what you will about the dilution inherent in proliferation or the arbitrariness manifest in certain forms of leaping, has evolved, changed over time into newer, more challenging forms. Say that both their poetics diverge from the modernist notion of art for art’s sake, that they are not trying to craft perfect urns or symmetrical edifices, but rather to use autobiography, the messy stuff of living, as the basis for a messy form. Rather say that instead of speaking about form to discuss their work, we should saddle the idea of movement.
This is particularly true of Anne Waldman’s work, which is the antithesis of stasis. Orality is crucial to her, and many of her poems feel like they were composed for the voice before they were rendered on the page. In the Room of Never Grieve comes with an audio CD, which shows some of the dimensionality of her work. The recorded pieces, accompanied by music arranged by her son, Ambrose Bye, rise in pitch and urgency, are operatic in parts, and feel like performance piece a la Meredith Monk or Yoko Ono, and those figures, pioneers who transcend their particular fields, are perhaps the best analogies for Waldman. She is a force of nature. Needed to be in order to hold her own in the male-dominated world of the Beats. And her work is an especially potent example of Hélène Cixous’s idea of écriture féminine, female writing that overcomes the limits of Western logocentrism and male patriarchy, or in Waldman’s own words, “body poetics and politics, right now.” Her erudition, which she wears like a mantle, is deeply eclectic and one feels that all of the turbulent waves of the late 20th century have washed over her. From Olson to the Oulipo, from Sappho to Diane di Prima, from apperceptions of genocide to sexual empowerment that encloses menstruation, Waldman’s a sponge who has soaked up art and drips what she’s absorbed in splotches of color. She also leans Eastward, uses Buddhist concepts and Sanskrit words in a way that doesn’t feel like dilettantism or mere shrubbery in her poems, but something meditated upon over the course of years, studied and given breath to breathe.
Anselm Hollo’s own work is jouissance, play in the best sense of the word, and his critical reputation is cemented by his work as translator of contemporary Finnish poets Paavo Haavikko and Pentii Saarikoski, among others. Farcical, fanciful, light as cappuccino froth, serious in political protest, swerving, never settling, his poems are among the most pleasurable to read among his peers, which of course obviates ennui and rigorous introspection, lyric edifice and oracular transfiguration, thought that takes itself too seriously, engenders instead capriciousness which disjoints thought into trailing-off lines, into glintings and transmigrations, but so be it, not all poets need to dive deep, to emerge scathed with fistfuls of mother-of-pearl and mollusk shell. Hollo wears his erudition like a “mild wind, a wild mind,” and some of his most memorable poems are his imitations and homages, to and for such figures as Ernest Hemingway, Paul Celan, Larry Eigner, and Kurt Schwitters. If Chaucer’s idea that the best work of art is one you read for sentence and solas, instruction and pleasure, then Hollo’s work is skewed towards delight, which has its own lessons. The world as refracted through his lines is sparklingly absurd and sudsy with the unexpected, and the reader leaves his poems with eyes peeled back and antennae twitching.
Ravi Shankar is Associate Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Central Connecticut State University and founding editor of the international online journal of the arts Drunken Boat. He has published a book of poems, Instrumentality (Cherry Grove, 2004), co-written a chapbook, Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006) and is co-editor of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008).
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