SINK LIKE A STONE, FLOAT LIKE A FEATHER:
THE POETICS OF BOBBY PETERSEN
A few months ago I was asked by Nicholas Meriwether – scholar and archivist in charge of the Grateful Dead Archives at UC Santa Cruz — to contribute a piece on poet and Grateful Dead lyricist Bobby Petersen for an essay section that will accompany the reissuing of Petersen’s currently out-of-print collected poems, Alleys of the Heart. What follows is a truncated, reconfigured, and otherwise shortened version of that essay entitled, “Sink Like a Stone, Float Like a Feather: The Poetics of Bobby Petersen.”
Robert Hunter and John Barlow were the lyricists for the Grateful Dead, but Bobby Petersen was their poet. There is a difference. Although Bobby Petersen was at the inner circle of the band, writing three classic Grateful Dead tunes – “New Potato Caboose” “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga” and the one-off tune, “Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues” –he remains a shadowy figure in the Dead’s well-plumbed lore. He wrote about the Dead while straddling the thick, murky zone between the band and Deadheads. It was just the sort of street-level, Beat-level wilderness that only a tough jail kid with an eye on Nirvana could inhabit. Neal Cassady lived there too. But Cassady – to his frequent frustration – could only get his visions down as spontaneous raps. Petersen managed to get it down in poetry. He straddled the Beats and the hippies, the inside and the outside of Dead culture, and he developed a rhythmic, straight-shooting, literary-informed style that would speak to all those worlds.
In the larger context of his collected poems, Alleys of the Heart, the restraint shown in Petersen’s first book, Blue Petre, comes through exactly as it should: the start of a poet’s style. His subsequent poems would cohere into the mature style that would define the bulk of his work; a blending of syllabic concentration with more overtly Beat-influenced relaxation of line. In one of Petersen’s most structurally complex and daring poems, “Fern Rock”, these influences also circle back to Modernist giants Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams with the insertion of prose lines containing historical data that both informs and disrupts the structure of the surrounding verse:
like so many cups
only to run dry by summer
be swallowed in smoke
the company town where my grandparents lived
was destroyed by fire sometime around 1938, on
what was the klamath reservation. The klamath
people, in earlier times, used to live on venison…
It is this blending of influences that situates Petersen’s poetics most clearly. His poetry bridges Modernist and Post-Modern concerns while also situating itself uniquely as mid-XXth-century West Coast poetry by way of Beat and Black Mountain school influences. There is certainly nature in Bobby Petersen’s verse too, most overtly in his meditative collection, Cabin Fever. In fact, he aptly alludes to often-unsung nature poet Lew Welch in his poem, “Portrait: The Raven”, when after shooting a squirrel he thinks, “of lewie welch/ but that buzzard/ never showed”. These lines also illustrate Petersen’s sly, dark humor as the buzzard carries the dual symbolism of death in the form of a buzzard that never arrives, as well as symbolizing Lew Welch, the Beat nature poet who walked into the mountains outside Gary Snyder’s house near Nevada City one day and was never seen again.
Petersen’s freest verse – and the most clearly Beat-flavored – is that which places him as a reveling observer. Petersen was no spotlight-absorbing Ken Kesey or even puckish stage-stealing Gregory Corso. In the truest San Francisco street poet tradition, Bobby Petersen was the guy you’d never expect to write poetry, but did. One can almost picture him breathing a sigh of relief as his Grateful Dead compositions fell out of concert rotation.
But Bobby Petersen was there. Watching. Poeticizing.
& the grateful dead
they of visionary song
plumbing the deepest channels
to blur for awhile
what no art can
what these high hungry
If Bobby Petersen’s Grateful Dead poetry and lyrics were his only contribution to literature, they would be worth noting. But Bobby Petersen gave us more. He left a trail of breadcrumbs leading toward a new picture of a familiar world and, in turn, a chance to reevaluate the world we thought we knew. In the end, Bobby Petersen documented his life and times using a poetic technique that aptly illustrated his sincerity. And that is worth noting too.
[Originally published at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers’ Blog, http://blogcitylights.com/2012/03/07/sink-like-a-stone-float-like-a-feather-the-poetics-of-bobby-petersen-by-peter-conners/, March 7, 2012.]