Collected Poems, 1930-1976

By Richard Eberhart 

Original Publisher: Oxford University Press
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Kiki Petrosino writes: 

Last summer, I fell in with a company of Chinese poets.  We traveled and wrote together, shared meals, and told each other tall tales that grew even taller in translation.  Mostly, it was a dazzling, headlong plunge into the world of collaboration.  But sometimes, trying to mesh the poetic styles of such vastly different traditions was like using Coca-Cola to sweeten a cup of chrysanthemum tea.  Balance is everything.

My Chinese friends were all about form, seeing the poem as an aesthetic exercise arising from the poet’s passion for the natural world combined with his/her knowledge of the poetic conventions attached to each chosen image. We Americans, by contrast, were fascinated by process, by the idea that entirely fresh effects might be struck from everyday language. 

I wish that Richard Eberhart had been more present for me during my time in Asia—and not just because he once spent a year tutoring the son of the King of Siam. This is a poet whose rigorous attention to form is matched only by his innovative treatment of language.  Collected Poems, 1930-1976, for which Eberhart won the National Book Award, tracks over five decades of practice. A master formalist, Eberhart maintains a knowing dialogue with the traditional structures of English verse, and those who love sestinas, villanelles, ballads, and songs will find much to admire in this compendium. At the same time, Eberhart embarks on a uniquely American investigation of lyric utterance, and what he’s forged is a voice that sounds like no other.

Eberhart’s poetry begins from a place that would feel familiar to my Chinese colleagues.  He takes primary inspiration from nature, filling his verse with meditations on trees and hoot owls, streams and rose petals, forests and stars.  Observation leads the poet down paths of personal memory and philosophic discourse.  There is feeling here, openly expressed and served up with craft and intelligence.  Take, for example, this moment from “Looking Head On:”

We, who live so much within, look out
From ourselves, through the fires, 

But cannot see ourselves as others see us.
I look out.  I have been looking in
Through decades of the world’s history.
How dramatic to look at your own face

Hard as rock, fired in clay, as the sculptor
Sees it.  Which, then, is reality?

Throughout Collected Poems, we encounter Eberhart’s insistence on “looking out” upon reality, a stance that affords him a good view of where the human face falls short of its resemblance to nature, the ur-sculptor. Eberhart does a fair bit of his own sculpting when it comes to individual lines. And it’s here that my American colleagues would go off their rockers. Observe the rhythmical effects in this stanza from “Perception as a Guided Missile”:

The way by thaw is looking-glass of sleet,
If senses can see, but mostly prospect sweet.
Smooth, warm, I think it ravishing since found.
The voyage is contorted by hot rain
And hail: only can spit-spit back in vain;
Yet noon’s so sultry lovely, time can beat.
No path is rescued betwixt hard stars of frost,
Where to fall foul, and there the world’s lost,
On sharp cogs to you, and the space between impounds. 

The first three lines are (more or less) in iambic pentameter, and you could force yourself to read the rest of the stanza in that meter.  But just when the rain and hail “contort” our path, Eberhart introduces a pulse of spondees that do “spit-spit,” much like insistent drops of hail.  We return, momentarily, to a closer iambic pulse with the mention of “sultry” noon and the “beat” of time.  But “No path” and “hard stars” take us back to the world of “sharp cogs” that keep us from finding a smooth way through the stanza.  The assonant qualities of “sharp,” “hard,” “stars,” and “fall,” take our ears downward.  We do “fall foul,” in the space where perfect, iambic nature collides with the machinery of our lost world.  And Eberhart’s right: to occupy that space is to feel “impounded” there.   

Eberhart’s imagination is capable of animating a landscape in a way that recalls the procedures of the Romantic poets.  He searches for illumination in the rings of an oak tree and the froth of the ocean.  And often he finds it, as in these lines from one of his best-known poems, “The Groundhog”:

It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece;
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

It’s hard not to hear an echo of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” here.  The “whirling summer” and the cumulative repetition of and take us back to “the round ocean and the living air / and the blue sky” of Wordsworth’s imagining.  But make no mistake: Eberhart’s world is more fallen than Wordsworth’s, the distance between innocence and experience that much vaster.  Eberhart is searching for serenity in a world filled with violence and ruin.  To “think of China and of Greece,” to remember “Alexander in his tent,” is to summon images of war and destruction along with victory.  Montaigne and Saint Theresa represent the two extremes of human possibility, unreachable for most—ideal intellect and ideal spirit.  And though Eberhart acknowledges that the “impounding” conditions of modern life may keep us from fully illuminating our truths, the job of the poet is to sing, deftly, from “the space between.”

Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCEGulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller) 

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Irving Feldman for Leaping Clear and Other Poems
  • Margaret Newlin for The Snow Falls Upward
  • Muriel Rukeyser for The Gates
  • David Wagoner for Collected Poems, 1956-1976

Poetry Judges that Year: Howard Nemerov, Gwendolyn Brooks, F.D. Reeve

The Year in Literature: Divine Comedies by James Merrill won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Richard Eberhart (1904-2005) was born in Austin, MN.
  • In 1931, Eberhart served as a private tutor to the son of King Prajadhipok of Siam.

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(Photo credit: Thomas Victor)Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

By John Ashbery

Original Publisher: Carcanet Press
Current Publisher: Penguin

Evie Shockley writes:

Don’t we all already know what there is to know—what we want to know—about John Ashbery’s poems?  There is consensus on the lack of consensus about what he is up to in his pieces: he is either brilliantly difficult, writing in ways that emphasize the incoherence of our lives (rather than using language and narrative to create the illusion of order), or he is annoyingly difficult for the sake of being difficult, creating poems that offer the reader no rewards for struggling through them, that keep all the jokes and insights to themselves.

It might be easy for me to say now, in 2011 (it must have been a different matter in 1975), but after reading Ashbery’s best-known and most-lauded book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, from cover to cover, my feeling is that the work is not difficult at all—which is not to say that it’s “easy” either.  I think what I want to get at is that the difficulteasy spectrum is not the most useful one to engage for these purposes.  Or that to speak of these poems as being “difficult” is to problematize something that we don’t usually see as a problem: that we have to learn how to do things we don’t know how to do.  Or maybe I mean that it’s not fair to call something difficult, when in fact it is impossible: e.g., it isn’t “difficult” to take a photograph with a blanket, you just can’t do it—and there’s no good reason for you to think the blanket ought to function that way.  To call an Ashbery poem “difficult” because it doesn’t tell us a linear narrative or offer a pearl of wisdom at the end is to refuse to accept that this is not what his poems are for and, moreover, to indict the poems for having functions that we have yet to learn how to see and exploit.  I would say that Self-Portrait makes an excellent training manual.

For example, the poem “The One Thing That Can Save America” speaks to the issue of assuming that an Ashbery poem (a blanket) will deliver a message (take a picture):

            I know that I braid too much my own
            Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
            They are private and always will be.
            Where then are the private turns of event
            Destined to boom later like golden chimes
            Released over a city from a highest tower?
            The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
            And you instantly know what I mean?

It would seem that Ashbery, via this speaker, is responding to (or anticipating) his detractors, those who have accused him of writing poems that don’t give readers the key that unlocks them.  But even as he appears to concede their point, the language mounts a defense of Ashberian poetics.  The poems may comprise perceptions that are “snapped-off” and wildly associative, yes—but check out his verb.  The poet-speaker doesn’t “list” or “rattle off” or “gather” his perceptions; he “braids” them, a word-choice that emphasizes the artistic process and the intricate beauty of the result.  (It’s also true that braiding is one of those things that looks and seems difficult, until you learn how to do it.)  He then challenges the idea that the fragmented thoughts and experiences we have could ever simply be communicated to someone else, first in a statement and subsequently in a delightfully colloquial rhetorical question.  Between these two fairly straightforward challenges, he gestures toward the same point in a strikingly figurative image.  These lines themselves might be said to illustrate his “braiding,” as they constitute a single defense woven from strands of visibly (or audibly?) distinct diction.

Some critics describe Ashbery’s work as inviting the reader’s participation, much like one of my favorite prose writers, Toni Morrison.  From this perspective, we might say that his poems don’t give us readers a key, because we already have a huge, round ring of countless keys, in all shapes and sizes.  The pleasure of the poem, then, is in trying to figure out which of our keys might help us access something meaningful.  I won’t outline for you here all the keys I tried as I moved through this poem, but I will note one of the most satisfying moments.  It came in the final stanza of the poem, which figures the “one thing that can save America” as “a letter that never arrives”:

            Day after day, the exasperation
            Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
            The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
            The message was wise, and seemingly
            Dictated a long time ago.
            Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
            Not arrived.

I pull out the key labeled “The Declaration of Independence,” whose prongs are formed by the phrases “all men are created equal” and “certain inalienable rights.”  It fits.  It clicks.  A little door opens.  Not in the poem, but in me.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Richard Hugo for What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American
  • P.J. Laska for D.C. Images
  • John N. Morris for The Life Beside This One
  • Leonard Nathan for Returning Your Call
  • George Oppen for Collected Poems
  • Carolyn M. Rodgers for How I Got Ovah
  • Shirley Williams for The Peacock Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: John Malcolm Brinnin, Babette Deutsch, James Scully

The Year in Literature:

  • Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Hayden was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

(Photo credit: NBF archives)Other Information:

  • John Ashbery (1927- ) was born in Rochester, NY.
  • The title for Ashbery’s book was taken from the 16th Century painting done by Francesco Parmigianino.  The painting shows the artist’s reflection as it appears in a barber’s convex mirror.  Ashbery references Parmigianino’s painting within his book, using it and other works of art as a jumping-off point for his own self-reflection.  

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(Photo credit: The Academy of American Poets)Presentation Piece 

By Marilyn Hacker

Original Publisher: Viking Press
Current Publisher:
Out of Print but available in a new collection, First Cities: Collected Early Poems, 1960-1979: Presentation Piece, Separations, Taking Notice.

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

Marilyn Hacker’s debut collection, Presentation Piece, published in 1974 when the poet was just 31, awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize in addition to the National Book Award, is a stunningly tight and bold collection of formal poems. Hacker is especially drawn to the villanelle and the sestina, two demanding French forms composed of prescribed, rotating sequences. Hacker’s structure and her engagement with the edges of formal limitations is also what her work is about—what drives the work is an urgency as sexual and vital as it is formal and precise.

Formalist women poets have few historical models, unlike the near-overwhelming canon of formal poetry written by men. Some feminist poets, like Annie Finch and Marilyn Hacker, see this historical lack of critical attention as an opportunity for contemporary women poets to make tracks in the open field, liberated from the burden of influence. As Annie Finch notes in her 2005 essay “Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation,” “Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages.”

The brilliance of Hacker’s debut is not that she emerged as a master of formal verse, or that the content of her poems fearlessly and inventively merges intimate, literary, and political territory, both of which are true. Her brilliance is how she truly weds form and content, forging a startling and compelling link between the polyglot and the polyamorous. The turning, and chafing, against the almost-too-tight formal constraints in which she situates her work are met with imagery that is physical, sexual, bloody. Here are poems about threesomes, assaults, war, suicide—poems that ask, as in the title poem, “Bite / on your lip; do you taste what I do?”

In addition to the internal repetition and accretion that mark the villanelles and sestinas, Hacker often carries a word or phrase from one poem to the next, so not only each poem but also each section, and the collection as a whole, foregrounds this turning, snowballing motion of the thing examined, turned in the hand, considered, changed. Hacker’s mind on the page moves quickly, doubles back, shifts. At times she is of two minds at once, or so it can seem from her ability to cast a repeated word or image in starkly different light. What often emerges from her torqued refrains is a new, third thing, made by the arc of our reach.

Presentation Piece introduces many of the themes that would become central to Hacker’s poetry. Exile, as an actual gulf between home and refuge, and as Hacker’s interior engagement with what binds the perennial and the polyglot, is at the center of one of the book’s first poems, “Exiles,” which depicts the distance in an intimate relationship between two women. It opens:

Her brown falcon perches above the sink
as steaming water forks over my hands.
Below the wrists they shrivel and turn pink.
I am in exile in my own land.

Wry humor provides a counterpoint to the intensity of much of Hacker’s work, as in this passage from “She Bitches About Boys”:

 but I, for one, have had a bellyful

of giving reassurances and obvious
advice with scrambled eggs and cereal;
then bad debts, broken dates, and lecherous

onanistic dreams of estival
nights when some high-strung, well-hung, penurious
boy, not knowing what he’d get, could be more generous.

Hacker’s poems engage language as tangibly as they do the body. In the poem “Cities,” for example, she writes, “There was a word like a lozenge on your tongue / and words buzzing the height of the darkening room,” and, in “Forage Sestina,” “Words will peel off you, revealing the structure / of a human body branched with wires.” Or this, from “Nightsong”: “it’s not my fault that you are beautiful / as a refrigerator full of words.” Hacker’s concern with structure and skeleton is mirrored in her interest in maps, travel, and the movement between languages. In her inventive “Imaginary Translation” series, Hacker speaks directly to the reader—“You know the plot, how the traveler, / too rich or too poor..”—through the gauze of unfixed voices and narrators.

“Polyglot” is a word that Hacker uses often, referring not just to the languages she slips between—English/French, married/polyamorous, heterosexual/lesbian, academic/streetwise—but also the way that she stretches pairings into triangles, suggesting a third possibility when offered a choice between two. In this way her work enacts the social and political activism of which she speaks; her refusal to take simply what is offered, her blueprint for inventing that necessary, elusive third thing, and teaching it to sing in harmony with the earlier duality, is nothing short of revolutionary.

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • A.R. Ammons for Sphere
  • John Balaban for After Our War
  • Albert Goldbarth for Jan. 31
  • Richard Howard for Two-Part Inventions
  • Josephine Jacobsen for The Shade-Seller
  • Michael Ryan for Threats Instead of Trees
  • Susan Fromberg Schaeffer for Granite Lady
  • David Wagoner for Sleeping in the Woods
  • Reed Whittemore for The Mother's Breast and the Father's House 

Poetry Judges that Year:

  • Karl Malkoff, L.E. Sissman, Mona Van Duyn

The Year in Literature:  

  • Turtle Island by Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.            

Other Information:

  • Marily Hacker was born in the Bronx, NY in 1942.
  • Hacker is also an award-winning translator.
  • In 2009, Hacker won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and the Robert Fagles Translation Prize for her work on King of a Hundred Horsemen by Marie Étienne.

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> A Tribute to Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)


Diving Into the Wreck            

By Adrienne Rich 

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Evie Shockley writes:

Adrienne Rich is so widely known, read, and beloved not simply because she is an excellent wordsmith, but also because she puts her abundant talents as a writer to work in service of her deeply held political beliefs.  In a society that clings to the idea of aesthetics and politics as separate spheres, for more than half a century she has interwoven her work as a poet and essayist with her activism on a spectrum of issues that only begins with women’s rights.  Her commitment to this approach has brought her criticism and dismissal from some quarters, certainly, but has also earned her the respect and admiration of large numbers of readers and activists, both within and beyond the poetry community.

I was reading Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, by Alexis De Veaux, just a couple years ago, when I first learned about the pact that Rich, Lorde, and Alice Walker had made in 1974 when they learned that all three of them, along with Allen Ginsberg, had been nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry that year.  The women agreed that if any one of them received the award, she would accept it on behalf of all three and read a collaboratively written statement—a feminist manifesto, in fact—at the awards ceremony.  Rich and Ginsberg were named co-recipients of the award.  De Veaux’s account relates that Rich, in keeping with the pact, invited Lorde (Walker was not present) to share the stage with her as she read their words, including this pronouncement: “We symbolically join together in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.”  Rich’s poetry, like Lorde’s, was and is equally unapologetic about naming and resisting the systems of oppression that keep the powerful in power.

Diving into the Wreck, the award-winning volume, represents Rich’s activist poetics as elegantly and stunningly as any collection in her still growing oeuvre.  The subjects these poems tackle encompass everything from nuclear weapons to women’s identity, from the need for truth to the difficulty of solidarity across difference, from patriarchy’s egotistical power-trip to women’s complicity in their own and others’ oppression.  But as is true of so many powerful political poems, Rich’s vibrate with the pulse of individual human desires, fears, and longings.  What is a “protest poem” but the casting of one person’s voice like a stone against the imprisoning walls of injustice in hopes of breaking through?  Rich does not write “protest poems,” per se, but her poems do offer sharp critiques of the power structures that use guns, rape, language, silence, and denial, among so many other tools, to disenfranchise the vast majority of the people on the planet.  Yet they do so often by representing individual people in situations at once specific and symbolic, literal and metaphorical. I might let the poems speak for themselves:

            Your dry heat feels like power
            your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
            they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
            when you get up and pace the floor

            talking of the danger
            as if it were not ourselves

                                     —on the testing of nuclear bombs, from “Trying to Talk with a Man”

            Here in the matrix of need and anger, the
            disproof of what we thought possible
            failures of medication
            doubts of another’s existence
            —tell it over and over, the words
            get thick with unmeaning—
            yet never have we been closer to the truth
            of the lies we were living, listen to me:
            the faithfulness I can imagine would be a weed
            flowering in tar, a blue energy piercing
            the massed atoms of a bedrock disbelief.

                                    —from “When We Dead Awaken”

            If I’m lonely
            it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
            in the last red light of the year
            that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
            ice nor mud nor winter light
            but wood, with a gift for burning

                                    —a response to being asked “if I’m lonely,” from “Song”

            There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
            he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
            had certain ideals.
            You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
            on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

                                    —on filing a police report, from “Rape”

            the thing I came for:
            the wreck and not the story of the wreck
            the thing itself and not the myth
            the drowned face always staring
            toward the sun
            the evidence of damage
            worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
            the ribs of the disaster
            curving their assertion
            among the tentative haunters. 

                                    —from “Diving into the Wreck”

This is sustaining, nurturing poetry for those of us dissatisfied with the status quo: it feeds the heart and the head.  Don’t overlook the skill, the technique that first put Rich on the poetry map.  Listen for the stretches of iambs and anapests, the repeating and building rhythms.  Pause to take in the startling image.  Linger over the language that brings its own music, whether aria, dirge, or blues.  Rich’s poetry reminds us that this care-full attention to craft was never in opposition to care-full attention to politics.  The poet’s job is to see everything, if possible, and to use every tool at her disposal to record her observations.  As she writes in “From the Prison House”: “Underneath my lids another eye has opened / . . . / its intent is clarity / it must forget / nothing.”

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for From Snow and Rock, from Chaos
  • Evan S. Connell, Jr. for Points for a Compass Rose
  • Peter Everwine for Collecting the Animals
  • Richard Hugo for The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir
  • Donald Justice for Departures
  • Eleanor Lerman for Armed Love
  • Audre Lorde for From a Land Where Other People Live
  • Alice Walker for Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
  • Charles Wright for Hard Freight

Poetry Judges that Year: David Kalstone, Philip Levine, Jean Valentine

The Year in Literature:

  • The Dolphin by Robert Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Stanley Kunitz was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Adrienne Rich (1929- ) was born in Baltimore, MD.
  • When Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award in Poetry, she was joined on stage by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.  They jointly accepted the award on behalf of all women.  

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Rich reading her poem "What Kind of Times Are These" for Poetry Everywhere.
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.

The 1974 National Book Award Invitation (25th Anniversary)

















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Allen Ginsberg's 1974 NBA Citation written by judge, poet Philip Levine.The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971 

By Allen Ginsberg

Original and Current Publisher: City Lights Publishers

John Murillo writes:

I have to say, with the exception of Howl, I've always been more impressed with Allen Ginsberg's poetics than his poetry.  I loved this first book from the beginning and still come back to it often. But I was less enamored with Kaddish and even less so with his National Book Award-winning collection, The Fall of America. (Frankly, I think Adrienne Rich should have been the sole winner that year for Diving into the Wreck.) But there is something about his process, his “first thought, best thought” philosophy, that I want so desperately to believe in, that I keep coming back to his work in the hope that I may find something to love. But try as I may, I can find nothing, and very little to recommend this book to any but the already die-hard Ginsberg heads. And they don't need me to recommend them nada.

When I started reading Ginsberg, I never bought into this whole first flash business. Howl was just too damned good not to have been gone over at least a few times. Was it really possible to write like that?  Even Whitman compiled years' worth of notes before writing “Song of Myself.” All those images were carefully selected and placed and replaced until he got his litanies just right. I believed Ginsberg did the same with his first and best work. With The Fall of America, however, I think I'm starting to believe him, that this time he just wrote down the first randomness that popped into his head. For pages.  And pages.  And pages. 

And pages. I feel compelled, at this point, to admit a serious bias toward the taut, muscular line.  But I can also appreciate sprawl. When Ginsberg is at his best, he rocks it. Here, though, he doesn't sprawl as much as ramble

Setting out East on rain bright highways
                        Indianapolis, police cars speeding past
                        gas station—Stopped for matches
PLOWL of Silence,
            Street bulbs flash cosmic blue—darkness!
                        POW, lights flash on again!
                                                Mobil station pumps lit in rain
ZAP, darkness, highway power failure
                        rain hiss
                                    traffic lights dead black –
Ho!  Dimethyl Triptamine flashing circle vibrations
                        center Spiked –
                        Einsteinian Mandala,
            Spectrum translucent,
...Television eyeball dots in treehouse Ken Kesey's
Power failure inside the head,
            neural apparatus crackling –

The hell? And I'm not picking on Ginsberg; I didn't choose that poem in order to make a point.  Really, I flipped through the collection just now and landed on this poem, “Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington.” But I could have picked almost any poem in the collection and would have happened upon the same madness. Take, for example, a shorter poem like “Smoke Rolling Down the Street”:

Red Scabies on the Skin
Police Cars turn Garbage Corner –
Was that a Shot!  Backfire or Cherry Bomb?
Ah, it's all right, take the mouth off,
it's all over.

Man Came a long way,
Canoes thru Fire Engines,
Big Cities' power station Fumes
Executives with Country Houses –
Waters drip thru Ceilings in the Slum –
It's all right, take the mouth off
it's all over –

For pages. And pages. When Ginsberg is at his best in this collection, he's most coherent and, dare I say, most conscious of his craft. In the long last poem, “September on Jessore Road,” we see Ginsberg the technician at work. This poem consists of carefully considered rhymed quatrains that serve the subject well and—partly because it's so different from anything else in the collection, or anything we've seen from Ginsberg—seems strangely modern, even as it utilizes more traditional devices.  Ginsberg described this poem as a “mantric lamentation rhymed for vocal chant to western chords F minor B flat E flat B flat.”

At his worst, Ginsberg appears not only to imitate, but to caricature himself. “Please Master” returns to the anaphora, the litany, that swept us away in the first section of Howl, as well as the bold references to the speaker's sexuality, but to much lesser effect:

Please master can I touch your neckplease master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I gently take down your shorts
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes...

please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole
please master can I pass my face to your balls...

For pages. And pages and pages. And pages. But I hang in there, wanting to believe in his driving methodology.  Spontaneous.  The first and best thought.  Everything happening in the here and now.  In Ginsberg's own words, “tape-recorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automated Electronic War years, newspaper headline radio brain auto poesy & silent desk musings, headlights flashing on road through these States of consciousness...”  I want to believe in it.  Just like I want to believe in Kerouac's “Spontaneous Prose,” Charles Olson's “Projective Verse,” and Jack Spicer's “Transmissions.”

As a former hip-hop emcee, I'm well-schooled in the art of freestyling. When rapping “off the top of the head” as we say, there's always the chance that one may say something magical, completely unexpected, and beautiful. Most of the time, we're just talking shit, but every now and then...magic.  One advantage that the writer has over the poet who only speaks his verse into the ether is that the former can record these moments. Another is that though 99% of what one may record is garbage, one can also erase, delete, edit, and revise. That first flash is not always brilliant and often needs to be worked up into brilliance. When left alone, though, what we get is often, well... what we got here.  In a freestyle rap cipher, we'd call it “wackness.” 

Pages and pages. And pages of wackness.

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for From Snow and Rock, from Chaos
  • Evan S. Connell, Jr. for Points for a Compass Rose
  • Peter Everwine for Collecting the Animals
  • Richard Hugo for The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir
  • Donald Justice for Departures
  • Eleanor Lerman for Armed Love
  • Audre Lorde for From a Land Where Other People Live
  • Alice Walker for Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
  • Charles Wright for Hard Freight

Poetry Judges that Year: David Kalstone, Philip Levine,
Jean Valentine

Other Information:

  • Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, NJ.
  • Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. Due in part to his strong religious beliefs, he participated in non-violent protests of everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs.

Suggested Links:

BBC2 Interview - Face to Face with Allen Ginsberg

The 1974 National Book Award Invitation (25th Anniversary)

















Buy the Book:

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