Q: Why Does a Dog Lick Its Balls?
A: Because It Can.
In 1968 Jasper Johns silkscreened the title and blank facing page of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets to his painting Screen Piece Number 3. The painting is a masterpiece of radical reserve, exigency, and untamed elemental elegance. The poetry too was a provocation, one the wilder for its recklessness kept in check by rigor. Note the date. This was fully 40 years ago . . . One year before, Berrigan had published The Sonnets, in tandem with Bean Spasms, on which he collaborated with Ron Padgett. Bean Spasms also was a breakout (pun doubtlessly intended), though rude and anti-form. The shock of these two books taken together proved still harder to absorb as they present incommensurably different directives. The triple threat of Johns, allied with poetry’s new two-pronged attack, won for them an artistic summit.
Berrigan bought the fatal bottle. Padgett stayed on mission, elaborating his signature oeuvre of destiny and design. The legendary silence of Jasper Johns is not so much hermetic as it is a strict insistence sending us back ceaselessly to look at his art. Too tough an act to follow; history split (in both its meanings: divided and disappeared). For what came next, if anything, in New York poetry at least, woefully we cannot call true history at all. One wing of its highest poetry died, flaring out in a daring supernova*. The other multiplied and “succeeded” in decline, like Charlemagne’s idiot inbred children.
I heard Ted Berrigan read two years before he perished. He was a force of nature. He lived on East 8th St., read in a barren basement slantways from his digs. Beer can, T-shirt, 15 people in the crowd. “In that hole he roared out his soul.” (Bob Dylan)
Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg were the most famous underground poets around. I was in my 20’s and could not have cared less. I lived 3 blocks away, stayed busy getting laid, went but didn’t even know who he was. As poetry goes slowly nowhere, bless its pointed head, since then nothing has changed. Fame in NYC remains eternally the same. Last fall, I was sitting with Orphic poet Ariana Reines** in the B&H on 2nd Ave. She and I both had each just released new books; Antony of the Johnsons chowed down slop behind us. He’d recently appeared live in the documentary film I’m Your Man with Leonard Cohen. Go see it now. He stole the show. So? We’re all still eating our five-peso pierogis at the 11th hour in a flyspeck diner. The captain’s dead, tied to the mast! Edward Hopper’s ghost ship drifts towards Ted Berrigan’s sunken basement.
I once glimpsed Ginsberg exiting the Gem Spa three doors up from the B&H at St Marks Place. A bum (P.C. for “homeless”) asked him for a dime. Ginsberg said, “No, man. I’d much rather we had...some kind of relationship.”
I was sipping coffee in a café on Rue Poissonniere in Paris with Berrigan’s widow, (widowed twice by then) the poet Alice Notley. Her second husband had been poet Douglas Oliver. She was chalking up a hit list of dead poets she had known when two hijacked planes plowed through the World Trade Towers. We watched it in French on bar TV. Onscreen, New Yorkers duck and cover, screaming “Fuck!” and “Shit” in English.
All of which, for New York’s Lit or Death hardcore, affords a reassuring sense of continuity. But, you can never step into the same river twice. In the lag, the specious “new” New York School of poetry has utterly capitulated, then gone straight Mainstream.
Meanwhile, Language Poetry distinguished itself as the slowest art movement ever. It took 20 years to get off the ground. Theory-heavy, they should have called it Talk Poetry. In it, politics is defined as ineffectual insurrection, yack attacks meant to land university jobs. “Once the leaders of the avant garde, they’ve descended to defending themselves and sunk to explanation. So, farewell to them.” (Lyn Hejinian) Targeting her forbears, little did she guess how soon she would be speaking also of her crew. They sure learned a lot about layout. Mercifully, we were compensated for their unending years of yammer. “Don’t gimme all that jibber jabber!” (Mr. T.) Adroit and relentlessly intelligent—as exalted exceptions—Hejinian’s own “Oxota,” with her “Border Comedies,” and Bob Perelman’s “The Margins of Poetry” leap exultantly to mind. However, I’d call most of ‘em mechanics. They’re the nuts and dolts. Then too there are the butchers, who write steaming tripe.
Vital art movements explode into incandescence then exhaust themselves like sated lovers; lions sure they’ve got more to give. Glory. Thriftless passion. Mind-blinding excitement. Mad rapture captured for one stolen moment burnt on a borrowed bed. All questions answered or abandoned in bonfire conflagrations, gladly dying wild and free. No self-respecting urgent exploration lumbers down cracked runways towards Dullsville’s dud-end teaching careers. In Europe, Dada was a flash. Surrealism waxed senile and senatorial past its first few years.
Now we must ingest post Lingo=Po poetry! (GAG) Alphabet soup and coleslaw. Over-educated, these dweebs are Oedipally conflicted. We bite the hand that feeds. They can achieve separation/self identification solely through sophomoric pranks twisting their father tongue.
First thought worst thought. Respect for Allen Ginsberg collapses after “Howl.” Arguably the greatest American poem (GAP) ever penned, “Howl” came out of the mouth of hell, fierce and tight of form so tough to master. From such demanding heights he then took the path of least resistance, slouching towards Boulder Colorado, Bunny Bread Buddhism and its hokey haiku. The sheep looked down and followed. Verily, the Beats struck killing blows for independent publishing (Jack Kerouac, and later Charles Bukowski, have outsold every academic writer put together in a pile) yet I watched aghast as Ginsberg, now our grooviest guru (early 1970s), mumbled morose mantras over a pet monkey’s mellotron. By then Ginsberg had become but a lifestyle, his own cult of personality, who fell for it like a fool; badly “beat” (as in beaten) dumbed down and doomed by his inconstant rising star.
In the wins column: “I’d suck the dusty cunt...of...Emily D!” His cohort Gregory Corso corrosively caterwauled, pitching pie-eyed off an Amherst Massachusetts student union stage during their umpteenth vicious circuit On the Road revival college tour.
As counterpoint Roland Barthes wrote of writing, at roughly that same time, “What comes first is stupid.” Psychoanalysis abandoned free association when all it ever brought was knee jerk regurgitation and singsong market jingles.
Barthes’ D.O.A.—“death of the author”—though, was visited upon us with a vengeance. Anonymity. Appropriation. Collaboration. Karaoke, cookie-cutter cliques ‘n computer tweaking geeks, copycats, ventriloquists. The dismantling of the first person singular pronoun in an enforced (an avant-garde with rules?) flight from the I. How “Now.” Is it time to remind ourselves that Rimbaud’s then revolutionary “I is another” today is one hundred and fifty years old? Kevin Davies/Tim Davis, thank your lucky stars. 10th generation New York School is so homogenized the only difference in its poems is the author’s name.
We distinguish three types of games: Illinx, based on giddiness; Alea, made by chance; and Agon, which is grounded in contention. War is an agon game, gambling is aleatory. Some of the principles of composition for music and poetics employed by John Cage were aleatory. Ditto Jackson Mac Low. Most games of course swap elements from the other kinds, but video games are in their essence out of touch. Bubble boy, barnyard idiot giddy. Flarf, which conflates the hot air shot from an inflated condom with any adolescent giggling at his farts, for instance, is an illinx game. It’s consistent with a babysitter’s toys and tricks of infantile distraction. Its complicity with Capital has been elsewhere described and decried.
It might be noted that Flarf co-flounder Gary Sullivan’s book How to Proceed in the Arts (2001) was titled after an impromptu manifesto composed 40 years earlier (again, there’s that number) by Larry Rivers and Frank O’ Hara. He then went on (and on) to publish all his emails to his girlfriend Nada Gordon. “Private life drama; baby leave me out.” (Grace Jones). And didn’t we get our dime’s worth too, as every one of hers also is included! He now draws cartoons, which meet success only inside poetry.
Think of it in this manner. Hollywood and the art world have blind spots in their cars. They drive on in utter ignorance of each other’s doings, which allows them to repeat—poorly—what the other has already done. Both call that invention. Shirin Neshat fumbles story. God forbid, Stan Douglas attempts to depict action, while Miramax achieves climax by filming blank off-focus walls. Sullivan’s cartoons would get run right out of Romper Room, then pounded to the ground by Zap or Marvel. Nevertheless, they supplant the Grail in poetry’s utter void of able competition.
I write here a lived history that cannot be reduced to “subjectivity” or comfortably dismissed as mere opinion. The weak-kneed feint-‘n-flee ruse of sheer relativism obscures the very scary righteousness of truth. “Are you experienced?” (Jimi Hendrix). We perfectly well can tell what’s going on. The diagnosis is sclerosis! Lily-livered chicken shit in with the in-crowd plague. A conformist formlessness (did I mention repetition-compulsion?) Contagious! Inability. inanity and inanition. Onanism. Look-a-like cliques and clichés.
Antidote: “Accused me of murder in the first degree: judge’s wife cried—Let that man go free. Took me to the doctor, shot full of holes: nurse begged that doctor—Save his soul.
I am . . .” (Willie Dixon)
Originality is closer to result.
I palpate the heart of a machine; cut to the guts of one sick mother-fucking structure...
In our next eye-opening installment: Snore! Forty Years of Formlessness—When Will They Get Fed Up? (Or, If We Call It Spinelessness, Will That Too Catch On?)
* Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan both died untimely deaths: that is, early, as well as ahead of their time. Of course, even together they did not constitute the total worth of New York poetry, and we will trace its undiminished strengths.
** But this is the “I” of poetry
And it should be able to do more than I can do. (Coeur de Lion: Ariana Reines)
Lyn Hejinian’s quote may be inexact. I render it from memory. I am a poet. I move. Get kicked out. Travel. Do you want facts or action? My books are in boxes in an East Village basement, and cannot be “accessed for reference” at this time. I will correct it in the future if required. Meanwhile, applaud my proud refusal to stoop to scholarship.
Grow up before I throw up. These (squids?) kids are middle aged.
Stick to what you know: We now have poets making film A.K.A. Voiceovers. CGI/digital video. If they won’t even read outside their set, do they ever see real movies?
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.