Back in the 1960's, there was a lot of interesting new poetry being written. Hah. Is that an understatement or a joke? A lot of little publishers, little magazines, underground stuff kept popping up. The mimeo revolution.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The Discrete Delicacy of David Gitin
One early voice that was immediately recognizable and exciting during that time was David Gitin's. It was immediately apparent that he must have known Eigner's work, maybe Anselm Hollo's, the Objectivists, Chinese traditions, probably Zukofsky's lyrics, and Creeley without a doubt.
I never met Gitin, but I felt I knew him right away from the formality of his verse, the counterculture subject-matter. A quick, light wit, charming, sharp-edged, ingenious.
Gitin's first book, Guitar Against the Wall [San Francisco: Panjandrum Press, 1972], arrived at just the moment in my own writing life that I was attempting to cobble together a living space that would permit me to pursue poetry more or less full-time (an attempt that would prove to be unsuccessful, as it turned out). David's work seemed, on one level, to be about the ways in which one might go about reconciling the different contexts of life, work, perception, art, music and American culture. In that sense, I felt a kinship with his work, not only because we probably shared many of the same likes, but because his condition bore some apparent resemblances to my own, at that moment. He seemed to be juggling the same hot potatoes, the same slippery plates--though with more success, I deduced, than I would.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1973--which considered books published in the previous year--was Maxine Kumin's Up Country: Poems of New England [New York: Harper & Row, Publishers]. Finalists for the award have been announced since 1980, so I have no idea who else was nominated in that year, but I think we can be fairly confident that Gitin's collection could not have been nominated, given the literary power-structure of that time; though in retrospect, there are few poets' first books that could compete with it in terms of promise, and precocious fulfillment.
Gitin's book contains 52 pages of verse; in terms of length, and depth, it's a full-scale collection. Stylistically, it's arrived. There is no hesitancy, no obvious apprentice work: This is the work of an individual voice, original in manner and approach.
Its primary technical innovation, if one chooses to call it that, is in its enjambment of phrases, coupled with surprising shifts at line-breaks and stanzas. Impressionistic short-hand. Take, for example, the second poem in the book:
bound of dread
end, the record
right for me
I did not, do
For those who may be too young to know, "jukeboxes" once functioned by literally playing records. When you put your nickel into the machine at your booth and punched up your selection, the old "45's" would be unslotted by an automated "record changer" and would flop down on the turn-table, then the tone arm would descend onto the spinning surface and play your selection. The "record//turns over" seems to be an evocation of the sense of a selected musical number, mechanical and inexorable, but suddenly, without any kind of transition (except the line break), the subject becomes birth, perhaps not the poet's literal birth, but at least a sense of misapprehension, of the "world/I did not, do/not know." Words "bound of dread/end" may contain the seeds of our mortality. Or is death the flipside of birth, of life? Is this painful solo blare the elegy of birth and death? The tight cohesion of phrases, the hard, uncompromising turns demonstrate a complete command of form, in the same manner that William Carlos Williams would have done, not a word, not a space wasted.
More often, Gitin's manner is delicate, the lines unfurling like fine filaments or traceries of impression, fastidious, subtle, pirouetting with delight and tease.
scrapes along the grain
where the nail was
deep Irish gutturals fearing
the attention I give
to the porch not unlike
a second home
the nails between her lips
for a crosspiece
A poetry without explanatory bridges, in which event and impression occur seamlessly, with a kind of simultaneity which the balanced, floating stanza'd groupings perfectly weigh. This is a poet in complete command, but whose language is primarily metaphorical and symbolic ("the nails between her lips/readied/for a crosspiece" speaks worlds, the sexual, constructivist, conflicting archetypes, hovering in the moment like a wire mobile in the breeze).
This is a poetry, too, whose delicious effects occur at minute levels:
what's this tomahawk
doing in my linen closet?
The Hardy Boys
As the symbolic talismans of childhood, such tiny, vivid snapshots capture perfectly the fragmented vestiges of a specific life, while cashing in on their generic Pop Art associations.
Splitting up (deconstructing) these rhetorical flourishes allows Gitin to display these syllabic fragments as iconic deities, "ram," "shack" and "hawk/King" function separately as phomenic entities which acquire almost a separate material density, a formality that renders such signifieds into a realm of pure opacity. It's a series of dualities: ram/shack, le/cow (an amusing turn as "le" the definite pronoun (the) in French), hawk/King, dom/come--roughly a four syllable iambic line. Perhaps a prayer, "kingdom come" from the third line of the Lord's Prayer, which every kid of my generation, it seemed, learned. A pastoral, no less! The poem has a peculiarly American quality, call it rustic gothic, in the tradition of Walker Evans and Wright Morris, raising the forlorn "ramshackle" cliche to heroic proportions simply through syllabic enunciation/annunciation. Ordinary entities elevated to the level of icons.
In terms of poetics, Gitin travels light--
waters runs gold with black silt
the yellow moon
pops between stars no matter the road
sixty cents buys ice
to keep the chicken for tomorrow
--the quickness, here, eliding gold/black, driving along a road at night under a yellow moon, carrying food in a cooler--language as the vehicle which conveys us along a route we discover as we go, punctuated with pungent detail that carries a necessary weight as well ("chicken for tomorrow")--the imaginative qualities of actual things. Poems are like temporary camps--we set up quickly, get our bearings, then move on.
Reviews like this only can give you a taste of what there is. Gitin's poems are like rich Tapas, savory tidbits of indelible experience netted out of the sheer air. There is poetry you should read because it improves your mind, or because it teaches you lessons in life. Then there's poetry like this, which is as evanescent and fun as cotton candy. We need both kinds. Guitar Against the Wall is an important book, both for what it isn't (mild imitation), as well as for what it is (lovely original lyric voice).