(Excerpts from the Informal Seminar Verbarium)


Collage and montage of various kinds are major modes of production. (The Eisensteinian montage of Pound's Cantos, Tristan Tzara's words out of a grab-bag, Max Bense's "stochastic texts" and h.c. artmann's "verbariums," Gysin's and Burroughs's cut-ups, Jackson Mac Low's and Clark Coolidge's continued majestic oeuvres, Kathy Acker's montages and appropriations can all be seen as parts of the canon of postmodernist verbal imagination.

        "It is important to keep old hat
        in secret closet."
                —Ted Berrigan

It also seems important to connect with the reader. And for the reader to connect with the author. Morty Sklar, co-editor (with the late lamented Darrell Gray) and publisher of The Actualist Anthology (Iowa City, 1966), states in his introduction to that book that "(E)ach Actualist is concerned with connecting with the reader on some level"—in retrospect, a concern charmingly optimistic in its assumption of a generalized "reader" who does not need to be thoroughly re-educated first, either in currently correct politico-literary theory, or in currently correct oppressed minority group allegiance, or in currently correct _____________ (fill in the blank), before s/he can even presume to "connect" with the author.
     Such an assumption may, of course, reflect a thoroughly antiquated bohemie-anarcho-individualist ideology, but I would not exchange it for another. Give me the Elysian, or Eleusinian, fields of poetry where Egil Skallagrimsson enjoys a picnic with Emily Dickinson, satyrs converse with cyborgs, and dinosaurs roam next to herds of programmed super-rabbits.
     The spirit of the Iowa City Actualist group owed much to the work of Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, and to the "actual" presence of Ted Berrigan in Iowa City for one memorable year. Ted composed his sonnets and odes with an immediacy, anarchic humor, and unpretentious artifice that still strike me as what might be The News.
     It also occurs to me that O'Hara and Berrigan may well have been the last WASP poets of the city, and that the Actualists were aware of this. In the last two decades, the still-dominant WASP culture in the U.S. has devastated the great cities of its country, and the only poets left in them are known as the "marginalized."

When asked about the inspiration of his poems, Guillaume Apollinaire said: "Le plus souvent il s'agit de tristesse" ("It is mostly a question of sadness"). But, as he knew, the trick is to remember that that is absolutely no excuse to be boring, or humorless, or too conveniently absent. At the risk of pushing my Old Codger routine a bit too far, I have to say that much of what I read these days in our poetry periodicals and books strikes me as culpable of those three no-no's.

Many of those who believe they are upholding the great tradition from the Isles, or advocate a return to it after a—to their minds, rather regrettable—eighty-year excursion into what William Carlos Williams called "the American idiom," tend to be only too obviously ( = boringly) 'present' in their work and solemn about it to boot, while some of those who still like to try on the old avant-garde hat often produce faintly ironic rearrangements of various debased public lingos that leave one neither amused (moved) nor entertained (smiling). The reason the irony is so faint is that there is, literally, nobody home. Which is very different from, say, Charles Olson's immersion in his best poems (e.g. "Maximus, from Dogtown"), or Louis Zukofsky metamorphosing into flowers of sound.

     While the "mainstreamers" or proponents of the nostalgia esthetic rely too heavily on First Person Singular and First P Singular's ancestors, relatives, lovers, enemies, pets and pet peeves, many of their seemingly more exploratory counterparts seem afflicted by the misconception that it is possible (or even desirable) to expunge all of the above, and all of one's feelings about (for and against) them, from the text. The currently sanctioned postmodern vanguard's main problem seems to be an infatuation with the not-so-new discovery of "opacity"—what we used to call "obscurity" in the old days, and not always pejoratively, either: Heraclitus was nicknamed "The Obscure" or Dark One. In present instances, this often seems to generate a kind of incoherent neo-Symbolism embedded in language that appears, well, stunted. It is true, as Philip Whalen has noted, that one cannot know what one "thinks" in a poem before one starts saying/writing it: but it is equally evident that there are times when one both thinks and writes rather less than memorably or communicatively, and if the results then seem opaque, that does not necessarily mean they are any good. Parenthetically, once again: I am aware of the interesting way in which the Mallarméan late Symbolist tradition is being revived by some contemporary French and American poets, but in some respects it feels too close to, or like another code for, the Anglo-Germano-Romantic strain. The reader should not have to "work to get the point" as if the text were a sophisticated MENSA exercise. With, say, John Ashbery, whom some may consider a sphinx, I get the sense that he is talking about exactly what he is talking about, not involving you in a "find-the-point" contest, nor nudging you to read his or his friends' latest essay on methodology (well, he couldn't do that, because they don't write those kinds of essays). . .

Hardly anyone writing and publishing poetry these days receives, or is ever likely to receive, any genuine—i.e., detailed, grounded, and thoughtful—"criticism." One of the reasons for this, pointed out by Samuel R. Delany in a 1974 essay, is simply that there is far too much of the stuff (in English, at least) for anyone to claim an "overview" of the "field."

Keep in mind that all of us have lived, are, and will be living through "interesting times "—times marked by unprecedented (and, as we are beginning to understand, insanely excessive) numbers of human beings on the planet, and therefore, and at least quantitatively speaking, also marked by unprecedented magnitudes of loss, injustice, oppression, and Weltschmerz—"sorrow or sadness over the present or future woes of the world," says Webster's, and I would not leave out the past woes, either.

On (my) personal bias—important to declare: It seems to me that I have always been (not unpleasantly) "torn" between

a) a poetry that is both transparent, or if you wish, limpid, and intelligent; that seems to be "saying itself": "My poetry is mainly just talk"—Ted Berrigan; that runs word-thought/word-feeling by me with economy and elegance, sometimes playing with different levels of available rhetoric, switching back and forth between them, and has some surprises in it the way good conversation does, often of a humorous nature—and

b) the total Sargasso Sea of Signifiers, from Joyce to Stein to Bruce Andrews. I remember Ted telling me once that he cherished the works of his friends Aram Saroyan and Clark Coolidge "because they do my research for me."

In days not too long past when education always meant knowledge of at least one other language, mostly Latin, even people who did not necessarily consider themselves poets had a go at translating a bit of Catullus or Horace, merely for fun, as a mental and linguistic exercise. To some extent, in our Anglophone sphere, the great modernists of languages other than English have now taken the place of old Horace and Gaius Valerius: consider how many different translations there are of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Lorca, Neruda, even a poet as 'difficult' as Paul Celan.
     The act of reading a poem with translation in mind is the closest reading imaginable, and that quality of attention, once acquired and exercised, is valuable in other contexts, not least in one's own writing. The participants in our translation workshops at The Kerouac School are practicing writers, and the workshops give them an opportunity to make this kind of intensive study of texts by authors outside their linguistic realm—to get ideas, and to creatively understand, or misunderstand, what those people were up to.
     It has been said that translation has no muse, but I think that it is presided over by a committee of at least six: Calliope (epic), Clio (history), Erato (lyric/amatory), Euterpe (music), Polyhymnia (sacred song), and Thalia (acting). The ancient Greeks were, of course, terrible chauvinists: they regarded other peoples (including their poets) who did not know and use their language as Barbarians, and translation was simply appropriation. I guess Ares presided over that. And when you find yourself truly engaged in a serious work of translation, it can indeed feel like an exhilarating form of Blake's "Mental Strife."

[Anselm Hollo. "Oh Didn't He Ramble (Excerpts from the Informal Seminar Verbarium)" in Caws & Causeries: around poetry and poets, La Alameda Press, 1999.]