(Photo credit David Highsmith)
Ron Silliman has mentioned the late poet Darrell Gray several times on his Silliman's Blog, but he's never addressed Gray's own poetry as such. Silliman has basically abandoned commentary on his blog, after declaring himself interested in other media and other projects several months ago, not long after shutting down his comment stream. In one of those ironic coincidences, his interest in discussing poetry on the internet declined at about the same point that blogging, as a media fad, began to fade. So I guess it's up to stragglers like me, to keep the discussion going.
Silliman's interest in Darrell Gray was primarily limited to his devotion to a documentation of minor movements in Post-War American poetry. Largely as a spoof, Darrell invented a poetic "movement" called Actualism, even edited an anthology--The Actualist Anthology, Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray, eds., The Spirit That Moves Us Press, 144pp., 1977; and published a collection of prose pieces, Essays and Dissolutions [Abraxas Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1977] in which he laid out, with tongue in cheek, some of the "principles" of the movement's aesthetic. The Actualist movement, which he named, began in 1970 in Iowa City, largely because of the presence there of Anselm Hollo, Dave Morice, Allan Kornblum and George Mattingly--the last three of whom initiated little magazines and/or publishing concerns which had some legs--Morice's Gum magazine, Kornblum's Toothpaste Press and later Coffee House Press, and Mattingly's Search For Tomorrow magazine, and Blue Wind Press. Darrell Gray had graduated from the Writer's Workshop in 1968, and, casting about for social and literary connections, had hung around the college town after taking his degree. He fell easily into the "anti-workshop" scene which tended to cohere around Hollo (Berrigan had left the year before, taking Alice Notley with him), setting up as a kind of late faux-Beat-cum-New York School wunderkind.
Right after arriving at the Workshop myself in 1969, I had read a sheaf of Darrell's poems in Poetry Magazine (which can be viewed here), which really impressed me. It was clearly "workshop" material, but it was head and shoulders above what Poetry had begun publishing when Daryl Hine took over as chief editor (1969-1977). (Probably, Darrell's work had been selected during Henry Rago's tenure, but appeared after Rago's death.) The day we met in a small coffee shop in Iowa City that Fall, I mentioned to Darrell how impressed I was with these poems, and we struck up an immediate friendship. I think we both realized that he had moved on, so to speak, and no longer was interested in that kind of work, but Darrell was very eclectic and broad in his tastes, and could accept his previous attempts as valid efforts, even if they may have seemed passé to him later. When he collected his early work in Something Swims Out [Blue Wind Press, Iowa City, 1975], he included all of them.
What was pretty clear about Darrell, once you got to know him, was that he was a kind and generous soul, but that he'd had a fairly unhappy childhood, raised by a single parent (his mother), and that he was frankly lonely and somewhat introverted. Poetry--and the poetry "scene"--provided him with an identity that he wouldn't have been able to find elsewhere, on other terms. After only a few minutes talking with him that first Winter, it was apparent that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary poetry--the writers, the magazines, the publishers, the schools, everything--and that he used that knowledge to place himself in relation to the world. In this sense, perhaps, Actualism was a valid expression of his way of participating in the great debates about form, meaning and history. But rather than try to express my opinion about Actualism, which in any case was never really a serious attempt at storming the gates of the literary establishment, at least in my view, I'd simply like to talk a little bit about those poems of his I first read in Poetry Magazine.
As those who read Silliman's pieces about Darrell Gray know, he developed into a serious alcoholic after he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually died in 1986, probably of a heart attack brought on by debilitating alcoholic abuse (his body was discovered in his apartment), and his active writing had lain dormant for some time, though Darrell often could be seen in taverns and at poetry readings in the area during the 1970's and 1980's.
After I returned to the Bay Area in the mid-1970's, I rarely saw or heard from Darrell, but we did meet a couple of times, though he was usually drunk and a little woozy in his speech. There are some writers--Bukowski for instance--who can handle alcohol even while they are addicted to it, and may even use it to augment their inspiration--but Darrell was not one of these. Drink just destroyed him. And of course Darrell was usually broke, and his situation precarious. As with all gifted people who suffer from a powerful addiction, it was sad to see someone with so much potential fritter away his ability, wallowing in self-pity and frustration. We did have mutual interests, but I was tied down in a dead-end government job in those years, and we didn't run in the same circles. Darrell always complimented me on my own work, and I think, under different circumstances, we might have become great dear friends. But it was not to be.
Here are the six poems in their entirety:
"Elephants are at home anywhere"
How can we sleep with all these elephants
Around us? Oh Muse, must I placate you
Like the moon! I'm not so young anymore,
And moonlight on those huge sad humps
Leaves me helpless. Must they stand
At the foot of our bed? My peanuts are gone,
And their trunks are cold and hard.
Remember the jungle? Of course. Let's go
To sleep. I can't. Those mounds of sunlight
Running all over our feet. We were lost
For days in the wind. When miracles
Fell on us we had forgotten their language.
It was like living in a cloud. We felt
A breeze and suddenly the ocean appeared
"Out there," or so we said. I had a toothache.
You photographed the local ferns and vines.
It was there we saw the elephants. They
Were walking on the water, their long tails
Leaving little waves behind them. It was beautiful--
Those huge things silently on the water.
When we left, they followed. Now, our house
Is a heaven of snorts. The yard looks tough
In the sun. We live somehow, loving
And helpless, and always in their shadow.
"Grace to be born and live as
variously as possible"
The lightning arranges us
here in the tranquil reaches
where the red flowers
have history to grow from.
Around them, we become
direct & conversational,
having stood for so long
accomplishing great stumps
on the frozen lawn. But soon,
we imagine, we will collide
with furry places--the rose's
One cannot close this eye.
For it is the world in the end
that moves us--its miraculous urges
waking us each morning. The sky
focuses on all the strange little plants,
and we are among them, strangely,
holding a cup of coffee,
because we can't be perfect.
And the car drives over it,
soundlessly, its volume equivalent
to the air its movement displaces.
Today is Water
Today is water
flowing from the faucet.
I shave, noticing a smear
the rain left on the window.
Outside, dark pools
are lying on the ground.
Leaving the house,
I see myself in the water,
smaller in the smallness
of the pool.
For the Future Occupants
Having shortened the space between our fingers,
and felt the walls pull finally apart,
we are no longer ourselves
on edges nor care to be.
Breaking the surface of the formal past
we discover endless cups of coffee,
paper-weights containing tiny oceans,
and old shoes emitting a slow
Our neighbors in the bone stand close together.
Their children draw on our doors
mountains and rivers,
and below them, in bold letters:
IF THOSE THINGS IN THE DISTANCE ARE STARS
THEY'LL HAVE TO BE TAKEN AWAY
No one listens to the shafts of sunlight
arriving continually to take our place.
At the moment, we are not here. The moment is
shortening, takng us
in. But we come back on the sand,
on lawns. We look around.
We are on an archery range that extends forever
like a photo of arrow caught in mid-flight.
Some of us have glimpsed the dart-games of ruminant angels,
and some, touching the delicate curves
of clavicles, have forgotten their names.
We are going back to where we had no name,
back through the grass, through the groves
of pianos. We are approaching woodlarks, crickets,
and bridges long covered with water.
In the distance, transparent tractors
climb the terraced hills, and into the fields of dark poppies
whose seeds contain old photos of the Civil War.
When I think of everything I have been thinking
It appears like the reflection of footprints on a glass floor
Through which I look down on the park
Containing the bodies of the young girls
Under the trees, their faces startled by the glass
Birds flying through the green depths of the day--
Typographical errors take root, and the future becomes
An enormous glass harp attracting the sleep of animals
As my life continues to roll its electric ball of darkness
Leaving no mark on the ground
Our bodies are like the shadows of unborn planets.
Sometimes, when we are alone, they are all we have.
Though in many ways these strike me now as typically "workshop" poems from the late 1960's, in a style which many people were using in those days, I still find they have redeeming values, and they show Darrell's typical modesty and tact--though he could, on occasion, exhibit boisterous humor. Darrell often used laughter to defuse tension, or to cover his embarrassment, something I think that was typical of some of the people he tended to associate with. Though he was erudite, he frequently settled for simplistic transactions in mixed company, and could, on occasion, clam up without warning.
In the Sixties, the Workshop became known for a certain kind of poem, exemplified by the work of James Tate, which you can read in his first (Yale Prize) collection, The Lost Pilot. That collection is anchored by the emotional intensity of the loss of Tate's father, a pilot in WWII. But the overriding stylistic character is a prosaic narrative style, employing techniques from Surrealism to free verse, but in every poem keeping to a strict simplistic arc. Formally, the work doesn't ask anything of the reader, except a mild curiosity. It is as if Eliot and Stevens and Moore and Pound and Williams had never existed. As if Modernism had never happened. The Workshop became known for promoting this kind of writing, perhaps as a consequence of the way that workshop classes are run, or were run in those days. Reacting to new styles and different kinds of writing takes time. Sitting down and reading new work for the first time in a class setting, it may seem that a charming, witty, playful, humorous or clever poem makes more sense than one which challenges our expectations. Hence, a poem like "For the Future Occupants"--which seems more about the rote strategies of expedient construction, than about any compelling argument or story. Each statement proposes a peculiar, tantalizing assertion (i.e., "dark poppies whose seeds contain old photos of the Civil War"), but the purpose to which such events or fantasies might refer is not furnished. You could say it's lazy writing, except that the evident confidence of the rhetorical devices used tends to dampen our curiosity. It's almost as if the sequence of phrasing--the matrix of the whole poem's syntactic layout--is a scaffolding, into which a number of different statements, metaphors and images, could be put without disturbing its basic design. That's very much what Iowa taught, in those days--the strategic template for writing successful, risk-free, poems. Poems weren't supposed to challenge the reader, but to satisfy him, make him nod approvingly, "yes, yes...that makes sense...um-hm...it all fits together." Making things fit.
But Darrell demonstrably didn't "fit." And his anxiety to do more than just use poetry as a social entry into a purposeful life, made him abandon the path these early poems had made for him. In an earlier post on The Compass Rose on my late fellow student poet of the late 1960's, Patrick Schnoor, I speculated about the casualties, of those caught up in the enticing diversions of those years--drugs, sex and the underground life. As Darrell seemed someone whose life would forever be incomplete, his eventual decline and demise may appear to have been fated.
I recall certain lines of his--"The sky focuses on all the strange little plants, and we are among them, strangely, holding a cup of coffee, because we can't be perfect"--which seem themselves nearly--but not quite--perfect in their appropriation of his singular humility and ironic virtue. "I see myself in the water, smaller in the smallness of the pool."
The poem about the elephants is certainly a wholly successful effort. What is the significance of the elephants to the speaker? Are they powers over which we have no control? Or slightly overgrown playthings, remnants from an overactive childhood imagination? We share space with these slightly disquieting Pleistocene deities, which haunt our dreams. I think Darrell would have liked this picture of an elephant swimming, photographed from under the water. It's not walking on the water, but just seeing it swim, from this vantage, is nearly as miraculous a phenomenon.