Purple Passages and Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch

Patrick James Dunagan

Eros is the desire to be making. That is, eros here is a work and a drive, the work of making works. (30)

-Rachel Blau DuPlessis

The clash of poetics over “the onslaught” of soul in Buffalo involves claims by these opposing clans to earthly lineage and heavenly linkage. (423)

-Kenneth Warren

Kenneth Warren has from the start been writing from a truly outsider perspective (outside any and all sense of academia and at times outside the already fringe camps of experimental poetry) and, as is well demonstrated by this massive collection of reviews, essays, and other assorted commentaries, Warren grounds his critical responses in both the local and personal while demonstrating a vital interest in appealing to wider societal concerns. Included here are his early beginnings as a chronicler of the local music scene in Cleveland, OH, reviewing shows by a number of punk bands and other more widely recognized performers such as Bo Diddley. He also offers a consideration of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. Throughout the 80s and 90s Warren published these writings regularly in publications such as: Alternative Press, American Book Review, Contact II, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, Intent, and Rolling Stock.

Purple PassagesCaptain Poetry

In equal spirit, the commentary Rachel Blau DuPlessis adds to critical consideration of twentieth century American poetry and poetics is vital and she’s able to present it as all the more so since her own creative work as a poet is influenced by, and in conversation with, the poets she’s addressing. Thus, coming from her, the criticisms offered are not only further validated but also presented in a compelling manner. As in the case of Pound’s editing of a Mina Loy poem:

Pound tries to shelve her (in his library and his anthology) and thereby to claim her innovations for himself. Women, in Pound’s irregularly affirmed truism, could not be original, complex, cynical, or critical about heterosexuality (even when they were); men (like Eliot) had to be held to originality (by cuts) and were allowed by Pound to have a complex sex-gender position including androgyny, sexual frankness, and queerish wavering. (56)

In the first half of her book she moves from Pound’s editing of Loy and T.S. Eliot to the complexities of his relations with Louis Zukofsky, particularly in regards anti-Semitism, and in the latter half she covers the homo-socializing at play between the relations and works of Charles Olson, with considerable attention to his correspondence with Frances Bolderoff, along with primarily the work of Robert Creeley and John Wieners.

Olson’s life and work cuts a large swath right cross the middle of twentieth century American poetry. He remains a figure central to the work of both DuPlessis and Warren. Olson, as DuPlessis states, “held a position in which maleness was so important and humanly hegemonic that female power was viewed with ambivalence, resisted with conviction, and simultaneously exaggerated in impact and repressed.” (14) It’s impossible to read Olson (and much other writing which emerges from his influence) without becoming aware and wary of the ramifications of t/his “position” within patriarchal realms of cultural and historical poetics.

DuPlessis’ book provides incisive commentary and critique of the problematical issues arising in Olson’s wake— issues Warren’s own work remains well aware and in the midst of. For readers like Warren and DuPlessis there’s an undeniable usefulness Olson’s work serves, attracting and encouraging poets to pick up on many of the diverse strands found in his work. Much of the commentary gathered in Warren’s collection covers the vast terrain of poets working in and out from Olson’s vein over the last few decades. Warren himself has been in the middle of the action both as a poet and editor/publisher of House Organ wherein much of the writing gathered here also first appeared.

Warren points out that “By the fifties, Olson is gravitating toward a gnostic milieu” (346) which was based upon an ever closer knit weaving of textual sources to reach a cosmic sense of purpose in poetics, which could be strung across and throughout one’s poems. This ultimately results in a like-minded shared poetics based off a hermeneutics with some texts held central to what often appears to be nothing short of a quasi-cultish practice of worship. For the uninitiated reader (especially any critic/poet) this makes for a situation in which, as DuPlessis comments, “it is hard not to find the hermeneutic circle dizzying” (15). Approaching Olson from divergent as well as shared points of contact and interest, DuPlessis and Warren spark a lively consideration of an order of poetry which too often goes under-recognized, particularly in corridors of today’s more MFA-centered discussions where the poem is more often viewed as a predetermined product of the student poet’s experiences primarily concerned with of personal interests and commonly held cultural beliefs and less a voyage of discovery towards unchartered territories of the soul.

Warren’s insistent use of language in terms representing a conceptual mixing of Jungian, Catholic, and what’s best described broadly as interstellar-historical poetics may be off putting to some readers who will no doubt struggle for comfortable footing when dropped into such a bombastically argued exchange of ideas. Warren, however, is sincere and passionately engaged in his arguments. Many readers will find comments such as: “…given the wounds of the patriarchal age, Olson straddles the archetype of the bad daddy vatic priest who drops the O-Bomb of intuition from the heavens…” (419-20); or “Typologically speaking, Olson evokes epic scale brain warfare among poets whose neuronal activity and personal conviction about primordial fantasies produce mental imagery that serves the Homeric chain.” (417); along with “Any epic aspirations from Homer past Olson must sail the dangerous vertical axis toward the divine bluff of extra-sensory myth.” (419) not immediately appealing, or at least be challenged to necessarily find them as sounding dependably authoritative. Nonetheless, younger poets and critics alike would do well to consider the motivating forces driving Warren’s argument.

DuPlessis posits a useful warning that is also well worth taking note of in regards to the type of critical considerations central to her own as well as Warren’s perspective: “A critic cannot use psychoanalytic or mythic sex-gender terms as a one-dimensional discourse without understanding that the poets were also self-consciously engaged with some of these terms and at least semiseriously and knowingly using them as an explanatory mythology.” (182) In Warren’s case he’s writing as both a critic and poet when he makes remarks such as “a quasi-queer right brain bro-hood of intuitives bitch-slapped by Olson’s blazing sun” (420) (which has a definite ring of experience to it, even if it does come with a fair dose of hair-raising anecdotal energies).

Warren unarguably joins in part with the phenomenon Creeley recognized as a “religious contexting of Olson” (431), which he and not every poet-peer of Olson’s agreed or accepted with comfort. Warren writes how “Creeley felt alienated from Olson’s cult of the soul and the heavenly participation mystique that constellates from under-directed thinking and intuitive perception.” (431) And Creeley is a poet who moves through varying shades of areas which fall under both Warren’s attention as well as the critique of patriarchal poetics DuPlessis grapples with. DuPlessis points out, “In Creeley’s case, he grasped and struggled with some things that actually, literally happened to him and that—by acts of poetic desire and will and some bravery—he chose to face within his poetry.” (182) Creeley’s entire life in writing excellently serves as example of one poet’s progress through realms of imaginative engagement with the larger world of ideas, such as major shifts in cultural awareness regarding issues of gender/sexuality, bounding together strands of friendship and love with an abiding set of manners which he carries throughout. It’s an exemplar embrace of both poetry and life.

DuPlessis has certainly felt the far less than beneficial ramifications of the patriarchal poetics, which she addresses, and yet she remains an often sympathetic critic. Commenting on Creeley’s use of the term “Common”, she speaks to how it “offers a position beyond gender polarization but retaining some male privilege—or just the accrued privilege of being a rather important poet, which is a status itself achieved with some deploying of maleness” while going on to offer the supportive aside in closing “(and a lot of exquisite writing).” (174) She is strongly on the side of poets even as she clearly locates what’s found to be lacking or otherwise faulty positions held to and supported by their work and lives.

Warren too is a sympathetic critic. His take is always one that looks towards the human endeavor of the poet’s work under discussion. Seeking to place the life and work in context with one another.

The most continuous action in [Gregory] Corso’s poetry is the movement between the room and the street. This may be thought obvious enough according to Beat conventions, but the spiritual patterns in Corso’s poetry are released by the rising and falling actions that are central to both his Roman Catholic conditioning and his romantic quest. (181)

Warren does however remain clearly opposed to analytical ostracizing of the creative work from the person behind it. His lamentation in the face of Language Poetry brings his utter distaste for any whiff of such disengagement from living matters to the surface: “The Language Movement is a social fiction forged by a group of innumerable, unnamable, and anonymous poets exalting in their numbers and celebrating in their words the collapse of meaning in the information age.” (99) Or as he goes on to further clarify “The point is language-centered writing perpetuates a yearning for style rather than for subversion.” (102) Warren takes his stance to the extreme: “The discovery of the found sentence marks the death of poet as craftsman.” (104) Readers may not agree with the opinions Warren expresses but it is nice to have a critical disagreement voiced (and with gusto) in the face of popular trends—for instance, Warren’s comments are apropos in regards to the recent buzz surrounding Conceptual Writing.

As a student in the Poetics program at New College of California I had a federal work study position helping out in a small press poetry bookstore called Blue Books. Michael Price and Brandon Downing opened the store in the foyer of one of the Valencia Street buildings in the Mission district of San Francisco in or around 1999-2000. Working in the store during the brief period of its existence, one of a number of key publications I came across was Warren’s House Organ. In its pages appeared names I didn’t always recognize alongside heavier figures such as Duncan McNaughton, Tom Clark— Diane di Prima, or Vincent Ferrini. Many of these poets had ties to the Poetics program at that time or in its earlier manifestation under/around Robert Duncan in the early 1980s.

I remember sitting in Blue Books talking with a fellow Poetics student about her excited purchase of a recent selection of poems by Creeley, with her rather quixotic query: “So I should read Creeley, huh, he’s pretty good is he?” Never having read Creeley, here was a graduate student enrolled in a program founded in large part to provide Creeley’s peer Robert Duncan a place to teach. A program that was loosely, if ever so loosely, based off practices of instruction Duncan participated in at Black Mountain College in North Carolina when Charles Olson was rector and Robert Creeley likewise taught. A program to which Creeley had served as a visiting poet both formally and informally and whose current faculty at the time included Tom Clark, Olson’s biographer and a close, intimate of Creeley about whom he had also written a valuable critical biographical account. A program with many clear ties to Buffalo, where Creeley was still teaching at the time.

I wondered to myself what the student was doing studying in the Poetics program if she had no grasp whatsoever of the tradition(s) at play. I still do wonder. The Poetics program folded for the second (and final?) time with the rather abrupt but not surprising closure of New College of California. Yet its impulses continue. In an interview posted online at The Argotist, Juliana Spahr offers a vision of a 3 year study of poetry for the MFA degree (based off of an original version by Duncan’s biographer Lisa Jarnot). Not surprisingly, the Poetics Program provided a near identical program of study to Spahr’s suggested tract. Both Jarnot and Spahr would be ideal poets to continue the program where it left off. In the meantime, these texts of DuPlessis and Warren provide opportunity for current as well as future readers and students of poetics the means to catch up on much essential background discussion of what they should already be well aware of and are no doubt destined not to be.

Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry
By Rachel Blau DuPlessis
University of Iowa Press 2012 250 pages
ISBN: 978-1-60938-084-7

Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012
By Kenneth Warren
Blazevox 2012 469 pages
ISBN 978-1-60964-063-7



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