Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ted Greenwald's Common Sense

In 1975, I published Ted Greenwald's Common Sense [Kensington, L Publications], effectively a selected poems covering all his previous work. Ted had published a series of short mimeo pamphlets during the 1960's and 1970's, establishing a clear independent voice. Though inevitably "associated" with the New York poetry scene of the 1960's, it was pretty obvious that Ted's work was neither imitative nor derivative of any pre-existing styles of composition. Poets in their youth nearly always begin by writing poems that emulate either the effects or the subject-matter (or both) of those writers they admire, but Greenwald's poems, from the start, were so much their own method and approach, that he seemed to have sprouted like some hybrid from the grey dense concrete of Manhattan streets.

"Eccentric" is a word signifying a kind of radical difference, usually applied to patterns or characters that seem unique. In poetry, we may propose eccentricity as formally unlike anything else, even when (or if) it seems superficially traditional. The work of Hopkins, for instance, is eccentrically different, even when it wears a familiar outfit, like a sonnet. This is a result of its rhythmic jaggedness, as well as its odd take on phenomena. There's a sensuality, a "clotted" quality to the vocabulary which makes it rich, and even a bit overdone. Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath is another kind of eccentricity, whose keen sensitivity to language is thrown into a weird light by surrealistic disjunction and cut-up techniques. The point I'm making here is that originality of form, or of language or of lyrical thematic, may seem so reflexive, self-referential, that it's regarded as revolutionary, or just plain strange.


Airy rushes punch my shirt
Through a window of sunset dirt
And send me reeling like a lure
Through the water nerves of America
Once on the other side of somewhere
I relax and become someone else
Not that I behave different
Just behave less often
The sky offers me solace and office space
And stars I keep in drawers
Wear nothing
But a little mist and halo
I will imagine myself
A sympathetic headlight
Knocking on the door of the night
To borrow a cup of sugar
From a beautiful neighbor
Who's moved in
Without even the clothes on her back
"Would it be possible
To borrow a cup of sugar"
"Sure Sit down, honey
Make yourself comfortable"
I ease down in the big dipper

This is working-class wit at its purest. But there are other ways of being different, and Greenwald's difference is a fascinating example of how one mind organizes and explores experience in and through language. Greenwald's point of entry into active writing parallels the period of the appearance of Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Jackson Mac Low, Bernadette Mayer and others during the mid- to late 1960's, and his work properly belongs to a tradition that begins with Stein, rather than with any of the other major Modernist figures such as Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore, Stevens et al. Like Stein, he explores self-generating, fractal nodes, usually at the level of the phrase, and then all0ws these to propagate into larger forms through lyrical formulae or eccentric ordering.

You could begin by imagining how many different ways you could get into a poem, then explore as many consequent techniques for getting out of one. For Ted is a strategist in a straightforward sense. Each poem begins innocently, then confronts the dilemma of possible strategies deriving from the implications contained in the first move, like a gambit in chess. But Greenwald is a lyricist, and in his early poems (especially), you can appreciate the lilt of specific phrases and sentence-rhythms, as traditional tropes of aesthetic regard. So building a poem involves providing just enough confirmation to keep you guessing about the course of the journey, and its ultimate destination. Endings may be like stepping down hard on a bug, or parachuting out the escape hatch.


stop for
a minute
wait up
for this
friend to
tick off
its catching
breath and
draw parallel
like two
lines with
two el's
the train
of thought
reaches the
station in
the Bronx
or Queens
the friends
get off
at and
walk out
of below
onto the
french tablecloth
of sun
in a
black and
white movie
in one
of those
theaters with
a sky

A poem like this typically begins in narrative simplicity, then veers off into distraction, which then becomes a part of the unfolding complexity of the moment. The imagination is like a magnetic force which pulls the proximal vector of the poem's direction off course, forcing the voice to accommodate a second, distracting reality of event. There are two possible threads intertwining here, drawing competing possible eventualities from the seemingly disparate intentions. Meeting a friend or friends, then going out to lunch and then maybe to a movie where the old "emporium"/"palace" ceiling is both the literal and the real sky. The poem's narrow focus tracks a linear demarcation which is like a meandering pathway through the urban matrix; and that's what Ted's poems often seem to be--complex mappings-out of the cultural grid in terms of the short-hand of a necessary efficiency--the expedient slang that greases the circus of commerce and desire that drives the motor of capital on its daily route.



The dislocation implied by the jettisoning of initial impulse, out of the poem, out of the context of the poetic expectation, is typically Greenwald. These flips or sleights-of-hand are acknowledgments of the impossibility of maintaining mastery over the materials of perception and language, and in any of Ted's poems they feel like discoveries, rather than victories over possibility. We want any poem to go somewhere, to take us somewhere--maybe out of ourselves, maybe all the way out of the galaxy--and Ted's poems both aim for, and facilitate that transportation, juggling levels of perception and address, going on his nerve, prepared for the unexpected, facing the music, declaring his independence.


The long and the short
Of it is
I have to keep pushing
I feel myself
Pushing against the
Lead-in to beauty
And take a hunch through
With me
Into the halls
Where the everyday
Seems like eternity
There’s no fooling around
About something
As serious
As it is beautiful
There’s no match
For the feeling
That gets there
When I get there
And absolutely no sense
Of duration
And no telling
How everything turns out

The chance that something might happen that you couldn't have predicted, would mean you'd be ready to improvise, not with the sweet sweat of thought-out measured enunciation, but the ad hoc extemporaneity of the quick side-step--watch out for that aromatic enchilada, the workman's power cord, the lady's glance--interruptions just the order of the day.


An evening
Spent talking
Spent thinking
About what my life would be
If I’d stayed
With a particular girl or woman
I went with
What would be
If I’d’ve been accepted to and gone
Where I applied
To a different school
Than the one I did
Where I’d learned
Different social graces
Then the ones I have
Where some of the material
Values of the American dream
Had rubbed off
Enough to make me
Live it out
In the good-works sense
If I’d settled down
And settled
For the foundation
On a house
For future generations
Instead of assuming
Immediately past generations
My foundation to mine
If I’d been
A little quicker to learn
What was expected of me
And wanting to please pleased
Going on that way
Through all eternity
I’ve probably been saved
From mere routines
By a streak of stubbornness
By a slow mind
And tendency to drift
By an emotional development
That requires
My personal understanding
Before happening
Feeling out the implications
An emotion has in
Form of expectation
Before trying out and
After awareness
I sense a willingness
To tell someone
I know and like
And sense the same from
Anything they’d like to know
About me
And, at the same time, have
A vast sense of privacy
Which means
There’s no way
I’ll wear out my personality
And its sense of continuity
Although sometimes
I feel empty
But talking to
Someone I like
And trust
And sense the same from
I feel way up
And after a long evening
Of talk about this and that
Feel wide awake
And feel the world
Wide and awake around me
And have a visual intensity
In memory
That, in near memory, dulls
And throbs
And grows vivid as hell
When I bring it to mind
Some time from then
What my life
Would’ve been like
Under different circumstances
Would’ve been different
With its own
Attendant ifs
And its own what-might’ve-been
But this way
I’ve elected to follow
And cast my vote
Each waking day in
I avoid
The possibility
Of taking the past too seriously
Or feeling any bitterness
Or sadness
This way
When my ship comes in
I’ll’ve passed out of mind
Beyond the sight of land
And won’t hesitate
For a second
To look back on all this
With fondness or remiss
The air’ll be clear
The moon’ll be there
And you, whoever
You are and hope to be,
Will be here with my love

In publishing, the gist of what you imagine as the material realization of text always bears the seeds of the unexpected. When Ted and I began work on editing the work for Common Sense, I don't think either one of us had a clear idea of how it would pan out. There were perhaps a dozen short pamphlets of work, but it was obvious that it all hung together, if we could cobble a sequence that gave it form as a single run. Blocking out poems into a specific order is strange. Pure chronology seemed not to present any compelling structure, so we measured kinds of poems and thought about how to shuffle them into constituent hierarchies. I thought the long poem "The Life" (26 pages in length) ought to come somewhere near the end of the book, maybe even as the last poem, but decided that might seem a bit over-bearing, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or something. The selection and ordering we did choose made a beautiful collection, a verdict I stand behind to this day. The raw design of the cover, by Bob Kushner, was fine-tuned by putting it into the beautiful dark brown tint. Fifty hardcovers, 950 paperbacks. All folded signatures sewn and gathered. I didn't know it at the time, but Ted's other major collection, Licorice Chronicles [New York: Kulchur Foundation], would be published the very next year. When Ted told me he wanted the title to be common sense, I offered the observation "common is not ordinary." "Right," Ted replied. We both knew what that meant, not just in the simplest sense of an extraordinary literary occasion, but in the deeper sense of the commonality of application to a cross-section of readership.

I have called Greenwald an "urban primitive" because his work seems to spring from the base materiality of New York streets, the immediacy of enunciation, abrupt demand, tough neighborhoods, shifting milieus, grit and exhaust, flux and flurry. I see him as a genuine original whose method is a unique exploration of common language, utterly without academic pretense.


The book I toss is Boss
It bangs against the walls
And gets me working
I watch its thin green
Recede into a reed
And think the time right
To set the Boss right
We argue
Cops suddenly appear
I throw them and Boss
Out the window
And unscrew my ankles
I be my own boss
I be my own police

Considering "the Boss" as a metaphor for all formal conditions suggests very smart convergencies: law, tradition, anxiety, license, resistance, gamesmanship, play. All of which apply, but without any uptightness. Ultimately, it's about freedom and the permission all experimentation implies.

1 comment:

Ed Baker said...

he sure looks familiar I may have met him (maybe at Ear Inn or a reading or a party somewhere in The City long about 1968-1972 ? NICE ESSAY... "take" on things
as you say I really like/appreciate
he explores self-generating, fractal nodes, usually at the level of the phrase, and then all0ws these to propagate into larger forms through lyrical formulae or eccentric ordering."
and that great-leap-into a (the poems') "self-generating, fractal nodes"

then you add: "[...] it's about freedom & the permission all experimentation implies"

well this Urban Hermit appreciates this "Urban Primitive" (Ted Greenwald) and, again, I think I've met him... at a bar on 2 nd Ave ? Ask him if he knows Pauline (Fay) Chin ...

that title WHIFF BRILLIANT.... and the poem too...

well it POPS

The moon'll be there
And you, whoever
You are and hope to be,
Will be here with my love

WOWOW! he knows MY Muse
know his punctuate responsibilities to his
craft. NEAT !

a breath of very welcomed fresh air.