Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rothenberg's White Sun Black Sun

Jerome Rothenberg [1931- ] has accomplished a good deal in his lifetime. Aside from being a unique and interesting poet himself, he's edited a series of anthologies highlighting not only the American avant garde, but the literatures of cultures around the world, linking the common efforts of writers from diverse backgrounds, over long stretches of time, and facilitating the cross-fertilization of ideas and forms across borders and barriers. But his beginnings were relatively humble, if, in retrospect, auspicious.

One of my favorite poems from the post-War period is the lead (or "title") poem from his first, self-published, pamphlet, White Sun Black Sun [New York: Hawk's Well Press, 1960]. Published in the same year as the Allen Anthology, New American Poetry 1945-1960 [New York: Grove Press], it's only 30 pages long, and has a certain Germanic cast, with echoes of, for instance, the work of Paul Celan. A symbolic, deep imagery predominates. Ikonic "universals" are manipulated in dream-like sequences. There is no overt evidence here of the explorations of Jewish identity [Poland/1931, Unicorn Press, 1970], or the explorations of form [Conversations, Black Sparrow Press, 1968], or the interest in primitive/tribal cultural artifacts [The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell, Tetrad Press, 1969], which would characterize much of the work of his earlier period. Again, the driving influence seems to point to those German poets Rothenberg had translated [Young German Poets, City Lights Books, 1959]--Celan, Grass, Enzenberger--for Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets Series.

Poets' debut books often present either as ironic counterparts to their later careers, or as perfectly consistent prefigurements. Consider William Carlos Williams's first self-published book Poems [Rutherford, NJ, 1909], which, had you read it contemporaneously, would have held no clues whatever to his later accomplishments. Or Wallace Stevens's Harmonium [Knopf, 1923], published when he was in his early forties, which already feels triumphant in its mature command of materials--of which his later books seem almost an elaboration.

Had Rothenberg not been the impatient, curious explorer, his career might have developed along fairly predictable lines. But the Sixties exploded a number of traditional modes of professional literary presumption. What kind of poet might Robert Bly have become, for instance, if he had not confronted militarism, the counterculture preoccupation with sexual identities, and the poetries of South America and the Middle East and Scandanavia? Silence in the Snowy Fields [Wesleyan, 1962] shares a number of concerns with Rothenberg's White Sun, though the divergent paths of their respective careers tells us not only how fragmented the poetry culture would become in America over the succeeding decades, but also how similar (and cohesive) the poetry scene had been at their mutual beginnings [circa 1955-59]. The careers of both these poets benefited from a wide exploration of different literatures, as well as investigations into personal history and psychology.

But in 1960, this was all to come.

The pre-face to Rothenberg's pamphlet comes directly from William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1793]--one of his prophetic books--

By degrees we beheld the infinite
abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning
city; beneath us at an immense dis-
tance was the sun, black but shining;
round it were fiery tracks on which
revolved vast spiders, crawling after
their prey, which flew, or rather
swum, in the infinite deep, in the most
terrific shapes of animals spring from
corruption; and the air was full of
them, and seemed composed of them.
These are Devils, and are called powers
of the air. I now asked my com-
panion which was my eternal lot.
He said: "Between the black and
white spiders."

Blake's appreciation of the rhythms and literary styles of the King James Bible [1611] is reflected in his own quasi-prophetic linguistic expression. Indeed, the Biblical qualities in subsequent epochs of literary production is a whole field unto itself, and far beyond the range of my interest here. Suffice it to say that I see in Rothenberg's poem, a lineage of phraseology which though secular in content and purpose, employs rhythms and rhetorical turns which derive from that tradition. Rothenberg's poem is taken directly from the title of a Blake poem, but it may be unclear which poem/or poems Rothenberg's piece refers to. There is Blake's poem A Little Boy Lost (quoted below)--

A Little Boy Lost

"Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.

"And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door."

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
"Lo what a fiend is here! said he:
"One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery."

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion's shore?

--then there are the two poems The Little Boy Lost, and The Little Boy Found--

The Little Boy Lost

"Father, father, where are you going?
O do not walk so fast.
Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
Or else I shall be lost."

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.

The Little Boy Found

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
Led by the wandering light,
Began to cry, but God, ever nigh,
Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child, and by the hand led,
And to his mother brought,
Who in sorrow pale, through the lonely dale,
The little boy weeping sought.

And here is Rotheberg's poem:

"A Little Boy Lost"

They took me from the white sun and they
left me in the black sun, left
me to sleep among long rows of overcoats:
I was a city boy lost in the country, a
wound in my hand was all I knew about willows
Can you understand, do you hear the wide
sound of the wind against the cow's
side, and the crickets that run down my
sleeve, crickets full of the night, with
bodies like little black suns? try as I will
there is only this cry in my heart, this cry:
They took me from the white sun, and they
left me in the black sun, and I
have no way of turning now, no door

The poem's rhythms have a nursery rhyme jingle to them, an obsessive beat--

They TOOK me from the WHITE sun and they
LEFT me in the BLACK sun

This is emphatic dactylics--Dah da-da--or even a stressed syllable followed by three unstressed syllables--Dah-da-da-da / Dah-da-da-da. The Blake poems are in tetrameter, but Rothenberg's poem feels like much longer lines broken for perceptual effect--

They took me from the white sun and they / left me in the black sun

left / me to sleep among long rows of overcoats

I was a city boy lost in the country,

a / wound in my hand was all I knew about willows

Can you understand /

do you hear the wide / sound of the wind against the cow's / side

and the crickets that run down my / sleeve

crickets full of the night, with / bodies like little black suns /

try as I will / there is only this cry in my heart, this cry

They took me from the white sun, and they / left me in the black sun

and I have no way of turning now, no door

Nevertheless, the poem's rhythmic structure carries considerable force. Its chanting insistence in the repeated phrase at beginning and end, frames the imagery of overcoats, willows, cows and crickets. In terms of theme, Rothenberg's poem appears to play off of Blake's antinomy of innocence and experience in terms of dark and light/birth and death/city and country-- as if the speaker were trying to come to terms with the wildness of experience. If the city is represented as "white" light, and the country as "dark"-ness, or dark light, it may also signify evil or chaos, much as, in Blake's poems, the "mire," in the "lonely dale." Rothenberg's poem seems also to recall or evoke a childhood dilemma, a feeling of being lost in the wilderness, not just the literal universal wilderness but the wilderness or chaos of mind, entangled in transgressive or confusing nets. Though the poem doesn't strike me as a religious dialectic, it could be interpreted, in that context, in a number of possible ways.

If I had to choose an example of a poet whose annunciation of his life-task was as clear and persuasive as this one is, Rothenberg's would be near the top--as indicative, and convincing, in its way, as Eliot's Prufrock. A great beginning isn't crucial to the career of a writer, but it can be critically important, especially if it rings true. The final "no door" suggests a trap, a closed off space or room from which the poet cannot escape. But the poem, especially as the annunciatory entry into the clearing (Duncan) of verse, suggests a birthing as poet. The poem could be a metaphor for the sense of historical enjambment which Rothenberg feels as a Jew following the horrors of the Holocaust, the door a symbolic escape hatch from the fate of persecutions of race and ethnicity. As an American Jew, Rothenberg was in the crucial position of empathizing with the suppressed poetries (and peoples) of the Third World, and the many worlds (or rooms) he would explore in the ensuing years. Each door leads to the outer world, and each door to another room. An igloo is a teepee is a mud hut. Though the poem says "no door" it's actually the door--the road beyond. The poem is a door to the poet's future.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Rosetta Stone

HTML is the language for internet web pages. As such, it is not unlike the ancient Rosetta Stone, in that it provides an intermediary coded "text" which "translates" into a readable format (a "common tongue" language) as opposed to a jargon. Of course, without the technology of a "browser" such a translation doesn't happen. Could someone from an earlier culture--or, from one which had no knowledge of computer technology, untangle this code and make any kind of sense of it? Perhaps. Code-breaking can accomplish amazing feats.

(The image above is a digital photograph I took of part of a page display of HTML language which popped up when I was attempting to load a page from someone's web-site. Apparently my browser got confused and called up this gobbledygook as a PDF instead of the text version it's intended to display.)
Perhaps one would need both the HTML and the corresponding readable portion of any given text to be able to "decipher" it. Perhaps the "browser" is a kind of code breaker. Being able to interpolate from one language to another is in fact a kind of translation. Translators of known languages face precisely this problem: How to know the corresponding underlying meanings of the signifiers, and then transfer this precipitate or alembic into an equivalent language.

Indeed, though, referring to an underlying "code" as the metaphor for the "gist" of any written text, implies a third thing, i.e., the mental sense which thinkers/speakers have of something, through the screen of any given language. Can physicists "see" phenomena in terms of mathematical language? When Pasternak or Neruda or Szymborska or Rilke call a spade a spade, is it ever the same spade which English speakers like you and I perceive? We tend to think there are large or subtle differences in the way languages describe things, even if those languages are related (as with romance languages). As Frost said, poetry is that which cannot be translated, i.e., that which is "lost in translation."

Is poetry a quality which develops with the immature mind, a process during which complex interrelationships and a deep familiarity are built up, a process which perhaps is difficult, at best, to replicate later in life, or in other ways? It may be possible for children to be raised as bi-lingual, but this process may be possible to certain individuals who retain the ability to acquire new language with great facility, throughout their lives--an aptitude that is not common at all. But is it possible to replicate the intimate familiarity which is acquired during the formative childhood years? It's a ponderable quandary.

The relationship between what is not known about the way language is experienced as a cognitive process, and the significance of symbolic/linguistic representation as only a partially reliable basis for apprehension, comprises the mediated no-man's land which is poetry's specific precinct. Any poetry which does not enter into or partake of this interzone of flux and shifting apprehension, risks being prosaic and doesn't deserve the name. It's the area of dreams and suppositions and irrationality and the unknown, and it's also where words undergo transformation and evolve into newer shades of meaning, where language undergoes mutation and recombinant change, becomes, in effect, new avatars of signification. 

It may be, too, that the rebellious child or adolescent mind resists the given cultural paradigms by deliberately (or unconsciously) reconfiguring the language as a way of adopting it as his own, or as a statement of individuality (or alienation). Abstraction in language could be described, in some cases, as a bastion against received sense, or the imposed "wisdom of the past." Attempting to valorize such private (or hermetic) abstracts of language is one way to legitimize one's idiosyncratic separateness or eccentric outlook. The investigations or discoveries in artistic media may be regarded thus as part of a campaign against the collectivization of thought or behavior. 

The language of the computer age could be seen, ironically, as part of a process of homogenization or regimentation of human thought and inquiry, or one unintended consequence of the globalization of discourse. Is this to be regarded as a favorable influence, of the democratization of peoples and cultures around the globe, or as an harbinger of a new authoritarianism spawned by technocrats looking to integrate communities into willing customer-bases or to manipulate them for purely political ends?

Are we, as participants in the HTML-based media world of the internet, being subsumed into a global system of organization designed to align us into manageable constituents of the new world order? And if so, what would that order look like?               

Monday, November 21, 2011

James Koller's California Dream

I first ran into James Koller's work back in the late 1960's. His poems appeared in a series of small, unassuming little pamphlets--Two Hands: Poems 1959-1961 [James B. Smith, Publisher, Seattle, 1965; Some Cows, Poems of Civilization and Domestic Life [Coyote, San Francisco, 1966]; and The Dogs & Other Dark Woods [Four Seasons Foundation, San Francisco, 1966], and then in 1971 Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, published California Poems.

Some time in the early 1970's, probably in 1973, I wrote Koller a fan letter, something I've rarely done in my life. Koller, in the last-mentioned title, had evoked a rural feeling that struck a chord in my heart--it seemed like a book I might have written, had my life-path taken a turn or two closer to his. I'd grown up in Napa in the 1950's and early 1960's, at a time when the Napa Valley--along with the Sonoma Valley--was on the cusp of an explosion which would sweep away much of the charm and seclusion which had drawn the first wave of post-War Midwesterners and Southerners there.

It was still possible, in those decades, to imagine what life might have been like in rural California in the latter half of the 19th Century, and the first half of the 20th--to conjure up an unspoiled countryside of live-oaks and grain-gold hillsides, criss-crossed with stone fences, dotted with well heads, and connected by train-routes. Koller's poems seemed to describe the edges of this world, and though he had come here as a transplanted Midwesterner in the 1950's, his feeling for the California landscape, for a world of semi-rural existence in which scraping along and getting by and making-do had been subsumed into the ambient aesthetics of the then novel ecological-populist movements, and given voice in a poetry that clearly owed more to Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg than to T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, which seemed to share a common aspiration with the work of Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Drummond Hadley, Lew Welch, Jack Kerouac, Ted Enslin, Doug Woolf and others of the generation of the New American Poetry. Koller participated in the Berkeley Poetry Conference in July 1965, and would probably have been included in the Allen anthology, if he hadn't been so young (he was born in 1936). In 1964 he started Coyote's Journal, an avant garde little poetry magazine which defined a nexus of voices and concerns that paralleled his interests, and the underground cultural trends of the time; ostensibly started in reaction to the suspension of publication of the Northwest Review by the University of Oregon in 1964, that initial pretext would seem in hindsight to have been largely a symbolic impetus.

What most distinguished it (the work) in my mind, then, and still does, was its sense of integral purpose, in which the life lived, the daily realities of work, love, and immediate sensory data were drawn up into the higher consciousness of meaning and purpose and given force in a most direct and simple style. I find it difficult now to speak of that time, the Sixties, without feeling some of the emotion which characterized it, for those of us young enough (or susceptible enough) to be swept up in the romance--intellectual, political, social--of that epoch.

Koller's earliest published works look a little bit like Michael McClure's (with the centered lines and capitalizations), and even sounded like it some:

on a steaming horse
in a cold rain
before a ploughed but empty field
& the road reaches up
dark in rain
& my horse is gone
I walk in wet shoes
dropping seeds
from an old sack
children walk behind me
& I can not hear their words
I walk up & down
in a steaming field
the dark ground reaching
pulling at my beard

The dream-fantasy persona he uses has a semi-rural setting, consistent with the Sixties Hippie Culture of a return to the land, an awareness (or summoning) of ancestral identities (or deities), a faux-primitivistic evocation of animal spirits, the sense of community in shared interest and communal political consciousness.

By the time of Some Cows, he'd abandoned the centered lineation and was employing more direct narrational structures:

salt water swirls at the stone
sandstone, an alcove's gentle curves
ridges & hollows, a honey-combed holy place
where I led my daughter, almost a cave
at the water's edge, we sat on our heels
the tide in, caressed the stone
this is the owl's house, she said

Most of the poems in Some Cows stretch their legs a bit more than this, as the individual phrases and stanzas begin to break up into dialectical islands of assertion, and the authorial presence (voice) becomes interactive rather than soliloquial.

for Charles Hassler & Sally Joe Knowles
who were run down by motor vehicles
March 17th & March 18th 1964


O Sally Jo & Charles

dead animals all along the roads
the hawks hungry
tightening their circles

are one with it

with their gasoline engines
kill themselves their children their women
& even the earth
quakes can't keep up

the final score


why bother with breeding


I saw you coming
turning the corner

down to the road

& you were walking

turn & rust


& where else there is
no other place


because we are one with it
we bother with breeding

& keep your eyes open no one
can do it for you

O Sally Jo & Charles

engines are rusty flowers
bombs for the beautiful
the hands of death have wheels
a bright pair of eyes that see
eyes that see nothing


my grandfather, who was also Irish
& had the nose for it, said he was part Cherokee

my mother, his daughter, is English

& don't you bring home any Indian girls

when the man died, they stretched his body in a tree
this out of Browning, Montana

against the law, the White Man said
we don't want to see anymore bodies in trees
you bury them, like everybody else

the Hawk has an Indian nose

Crow is black because he stole fire

he learned from everybody he ever stole from

Coyote is the color of his own dried blood

A lot of poets paid lip-service to the trends these poems address, but Koller was one of the few for whom they seemed genuine and immediate. I thought of him in those days--the late 1960's--as being a kind of minor Gary Snyder, not nearly so intellectualized and sophisticated, but rawer and perhaps more genuine--as if maybe Koller wrote the way, and lived the way, that Snyder might have, if he hadn't been a sort of perpetual graduate student in oriental studies. Snyder, of course went on to have a full career as an academic at UC Davis (now emeritus), while Koller seems to have steered clear of the academy.

Koller's appeal, to me, was to a significant degree, the impression he made of a man living on the edge of civilization. The tension between the wildness--its violence, sensuality, hypnotic instinctual forces--and the comfort, the encircling, reassuring formalities of civilized human habitation--is emphatically embraced and enacted in The Dogs & Other Dark Woods [1966]. The "dark wood" of nature, of the dark nature within humankind (our nature), to reproduce, to kill (to eat), to taste the vivid thick gruel of fleshly motivity, drives these poems to an edge of incoherence, barely contained--

THE OWLD & THE EAGLE (I am tired of sleep)

low over the corn with blood in his throat
the cock
& ran

in harness tail back
dragging the A

& the bitches so hot the place filled with smoke
or maybe it was dust
trying to get at him

I wil be ready for the snow

in harness
dragging my ass

(I am tired of sleep)
the owl blind
the eagle up
(I am tired of sleep)

Nearly all the poems in this Four Seasons collection are set within the dream-state consciousness of pre-historic subsistence and intensity. Sexuality, animal archetypes (both confronted and assumed--in the shaman tradition), place the speaker at a frontier of "domestic" regard for the primitive.

six placenta in four hours the sacks
broken the water
drained the blind pups six times out
on their bellies their legs drag behind
like fish to the breasts & the tongue
drys their breath & finally
the bodies sleep seven
sleep mama & six pups who are
is here for we
are here for the breeding the breath
the young who chew blind
months the breasts
their mother our women
are for breeding & life
the narrow motion the passage
the fluid fuck the breath of it
for breeding & the blood that flows
through us the food
looking after us not to be forgotten
we are not & death is not & life
moves us & death too
moves us & after us breeding we are
breeding & life is for the living & death
is for the living
not to be buried
born on his tongue red the
father hunting the father anxious
to kill for love the movement the process
the fluids dropping from her the red &
after the birth red & she is all
teeth & growls & life & death
& love the food
the fluids between them
But where I really pick upon on Koller is his first full collection, California Poems [Black
Sparrow, 1972]. Koller has said often that he's a restless man, living in many places, traveling
around America, sizing up her land and settlements in her full breadth and extent. It may be
that his personal vision is as an imagined temporary settler in successive places, each offering
a specific resonance and inspiration.

That fall, on bicycle, at dusk, I heard the Canadian Geese--
honking low over the Samish, out the mouth
south, after the sun

& winter was early & hard

driving to Bothell, the seminary lawn
covered with coots

my daughter woke me with a flute

off San Rafael Creek, the bay--today--full of coots

I saw a girl in Burlington
with a wild goose
blazoned on the back of her jacket

she was going to the bowling alley

I was driving my truck home from the dump

Koller has said that he was much affected by Pound's work, and you can see how Pound's
stanzaic ordering of assertions has opened Koller's sensibility of the organization of experience
to dovetail separate apprehensions into a directed flow.


the mountain behind me, I drove south & west
passed three angels in Valley Ford
five more & a girl at the cross roads to Tomales
& four gassed up at Point Reyes Station, roared away
chrome & hair catching the sunlight, to the north
to join the others

Billy & Toby were off, again
to Oregon, as per
I Ching, The Book of Changes

going thru changes

like music
harmoniously, minor discords
like she burned or threw away everything, always
burns her bridges
pulled the old light out of the ceiling
tore the wires loose, all connections

change gears

angels at every turn
all crossed roads

both sides, the streets lined with Harleys, choppers
of every description

he opened her coat
& holding it open
carefully & with expert eye
what she had to offer
so to speak, as it were

a whole world

& nothing ever dies, it's all here
on every road, behind every tree
growing out of the ground, a beautiful
fire, flames

I'm grinning

exhaust, carbon

diamonds & threads
my mind is filled with diamonds & threads

we go off in all directions, thru intersections & crossed roads

a necklace to live in

There's a restlessness about all of Koller's work which may be its enabling force. The theme of
propulsion is crucial in much Beat Literature--Kerouac's road, Ginsberg's plane poems,
Snyder's seaman's journals--and there was an ecstatic visionary role which Koller felt he could
fill in those years--

we came out of that city
like we meant to stay out
north across the bridge
thru Sausalito, & in Mill jValley
drank, wine, ate Italian foods
Phoebe & McAdams turned back
we went on, the truck's bed
filled, the canopy
rattling & slapping
we stopped for all
wanting to go with us

from Tamalpais
we took the ridge road
sunset golden hills
red sky & blue
the Pacific, back of Bolinas

there were deer at the bottom
grazing the south edge
of that meadow

California Poems embraces the counter-culture sweep and promise of the late Sixties, and yet
moves out and beyond that to an unending pathway. Did some in our generation think we could
return to an hybrid agricultural subsistence that might allow us to live simply off poetry and
sex and a little easy gardening? The affluence of the post-War years probably encouraged some
to believe in a modified paradise (or a modified illusion thereof), right at the edge of
possibility (civilization). Or paradise squandered. It sounds naive today, when shortages and
selfishness and competition are beginning to impinge on The American Dream.

Koller eventually settled in Maine, but has spent a good deal of time in Europe (Italy and
France). The integration between the life and the work which Koller's earlier work implies,
may have given way to a higher degree of holistic inclusiveness, one in which the territorial
expansionism of our "western" consciousness is only the tail end of the migratory period of
human history, stretching all the way from our ancestors' first explorations of the New World,
from Scandanavia, Mongolia, or the Pacific Islanders, to the stubbornly frustrated aesthetic
colonials of the Bolinas township. Stopovers along the road.


1. From Two Hands: Poems 1959-1961, James B. Smith, Publisher, Seattle, 1965.
2. From Some Cows: Poems of Civilization and Domestic Life, Coyote, San Francisco, 1966.
3. Ibid.
4. From The Dogs & Other Dark Woods, Four Seasons, San Francisco, 1966.
5. Ibid.
6. From California Poems, Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, 1971.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.