Culture & Criticism Since 2003
From the Editor: These books mark the best in the world of poetry for 2003, and come with our highest recommendations. They are simply a must for the shelf of all hard-core students of the art form.
O TASTE AND SEE: FOOD POEMS (A Collection of Modern & Contemporary Poems). David Lee Garrison/Terry Hermsen, Editors. Bottom Dog Press. This anthology builds a wonderful collection of poetry about food by some of the finest American poets of the last century. Vivid and evocative, these poems recall the wonderful passages Kerouac wrote about the diners on the rolling roads of America circa 1950. These verses capture the idea and echo of sustenance — feeding the spirit through the food of words. Highly recommended for both the student of poetry/literature and the casual reader. Poets featured include Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Wendell Berry and James Wright.
POEMS OF THE MASTERS. China’s Classic Anthology Of T’ang And Sung Dynasty Verse. Translated by Red Pine. Copper Canyon Press. In China, the poet is a revered species — a teacher and silent prophet loping through the deep verdant meadows, alone in thought, hungry in desperation, singing the unknown echoes of the mind. In China, poetry is aggressively taught in the school system as a means to understanding the development of culture and society — poems as the true record of the evolution of history, answers in word and song to the riddle of ‘how we got here.’ As Ts’en Shen wrote:
“If only I could climb somewhere
but no one sends me wine
my poor distant garden of mums
blooms by a battlefield now.”
The work of these Asian poets had a profound influence and impact on modern poetics in America (especially on Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure) — the great Chinese writers illuminating a sharper, more direct way of structuring a verse, ever-so delicately finding poetry in the obvious and the everyday. Note this poem by Hsueh Ying:
“Sailing on the Great Lake at sunset
mist and waves and everywhere sorrow
rising and falling events of the past
who can tell me why they flow east”
In addition to this wondrous collection of verse, Red Pine’s translations are perfectly understated — rather then overwhelming the blunt vision of the writers with half-tangled interpretations, Pine instead removes himself from the works and lets the original cadence of the imagery carry the book. Finally, we have been presented a glorious record of the poetry movement through the myriad generations of China’s history: these ancient old rivers surpassing younger rivers – and then rising: into the beautiful echoes of an everlasting dawn.
THE COMPLETE POEMS OF KENNETH REXROTH. Edited by Sam Hamill & Bradford Morrow. Copper Canyon Press. This collection of Rexroth’s poems marks the major release in poetry in 2003. Rexroth, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, was a guiding force in poetry during the latter half of the 20st Century. His impact was considerable on the Beats, especially on Mike McClure, Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen, and these collected works document the reasons why:
“As long as we are lost
In the world of purpose
We are not free. I sit
In my ten foot square hut.
The birds sing. The bees hum.
The leaves sway. The water
Murmurs over the rocks.
Rexroth was born in Indiana, and interacted with various labor and anarchist groups in Chicago during the 20s, before coming west. Even though his anarchist point of view was vital to his writings, Rexroth also penned stunningly beautiful romantic poetry, as well as contemplative studies on nature and the nature of Man. This present collection is further enhanced by the magnificent editing and sequencing that was done by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, and their efforts here should serve a model for future “collected works.”
More than anything, Collected Poems shows that without Rexroth leading the way the Beat Movement which took San Francisco and the nation by storm in the middle fifties would have had a much more difficult time garnering its energy.
Hands down the book of the year — and perhaps the decade — in the world of poetry.
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GOOF BOOK. Philip Whalen. Big Bridge Press. Edited by Michael Rothenberg. This manuscript, written in 1961, shows Kerouac’s dictum of spontaneous prose moving forward at full throttle. The thin little book is energetic and fun, charting all the bends and twists of Whalen’s mind on his infinite journey through time — “A book, for Jack, saying whatever I want it to say,” as Whalen stated in the opening line.
This collection is noteworthy because it rails against censorship of heart and spirit as it explores the bottom rungs of sweet imagination; wrote Whalen:
“Where would the world be without HIPPO, ELEPHANT, RHINO? Without some notion of huge gentle patience giant love lazily wandering rivers & woods wherever its pleasure leads, nothing to stand in its way…”
GOOF BOOK marks a major step on Whalen’s journey as a poet and true seeker of God in the light. As much as it might seem like a throw away book of “goofs,” it is not; instead every word is about the pursuit of the muse: Whalen now among us pursuing castles in the dusk as the last faint dust caps of Autumn splash the sky soft into golden. A must read for those interested in the origins of the Beat Generation and in Jack Kerouac’s influence on his contemporaries. Also required reading for any and all students of poetry and for those interested in exploring the work of Phillip Whalen, who died in June of 2002.
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This collection by Michael McClure, released last year, is a major work by one of the seminal members of the Beat Generation . McClure is the most versatile of all the Beats — an energetic risk taker who has published collections of poetry, novels, songs and award-winning plays since moving west to San Francisco in the 1950s. Recently, the influence Phillip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and others have had on McClure through the years has surfaced in poems that explore the blackest smokiest depths of the subconscious.
In his preface to this book, McClure described its contents as “the energy of consciousness moving vertically on a scroll.” PLUM STONES is the continuation of a journey which began with the 2000 release, TOUCHING THE EDGE. At once, these poems move us into uncharted waters: The poet alone moving through time and the timeless mind, stepping slowly now, aware of the craters just beyond the hissing tongues of water, aware of the snakes and goblins, the poet alone moving through himself into the sacred and holy place of no thought — that soft and peaceful place where there is no thought and no preoccupation with the Self. No ego. No eyes. Only spirit. Ghostly peace. And simply content now to be.
WHERE RIVER MEETS OCEAN. Devorah Major. City Lights Publishers. Devorah Major is the new Poet Laureate of San Francisco, and this collection features many new pieces, including her inaugural address — a soft blooming and deeply introspective piece that examines the role poetry can play in the evolution of a culture. Major’s themes are sprawling and varied (politics, spiritual discovery, the mystery of love), but they always seem to return us to the same place: knife in hand cutting away the layered shadows, knife in hand revealing the depth of the human spirit – singing in honor of the soul:
“but I am a mother true
and my poems
like my children of flesh
crowd my dreams my room
And from another selection:
“have i told you
that i love words
that i embrace them as my constant lover
am always available early dawns
Where River Meets Ocean is a typical City Light’s release — a hard-hitting mind feast that seeks to cradle and comfort as it inspires the free movement of thought. Appropriate for veteran fans of Major’s work and for readers interested in discovering why she came to be selected as the poetic voice of the ‘city by the bay’. Also recommended as a college-level text for courses on modern poetry.
DARK ARCANA/AFTERIMAGE OR GLOW. Anne Waldman. Heaven Bone Press. Anne Waldman, who along with Diane di Prima, comprises the “female” voice of the Beat Generation, has presented us with a magnificent collection of poetry that should once and for all solidify her standing as one of the most important writers in the country. In addition to writing, Waldman is internationally known as a cultural activist, performer and professor (at the Naropa School of Poetics in Colorado), but her true calling is as a poet. And DARK ARCANA brings us Waldman at her lyrical best: a true commentator on the society and its aimless eyes, she blends Allen Ginsberg’s keen awareness with Emily Dickinson’s soulful poignancy to create this unique verse, these poems like a transparent sea of echoes now working line-by-line to build permanent harmony between the spirit and its many passing realms.
Looking back at her formidable body of work, “DARK ARCANA/AFTERIMAGE OR GLOW” is probably the best single poem Anne Waldman has ever written – a deep examination of the impact of the Vietnam War on the world some 4 decades after its bombs shook the face of the sky into embers. Aside from its thoughtful dissection of the affects of the war on culture, the piece’s relevance extends all the way to Iraq in the autumn of 2003: As American soldiers attempt to bring the essence of democracy to a people who resent the smell of our very presence. Also note the wonderful cover photography by rock and roll diva Patti Smith. Although she’s often over-looked in university literature classes, DARK ARCANA states in no uncertain terms that Anne Waldman is a poet who deserves the attention of readers in America and beyond.