Joanne Kyger on Counterpoetics and Oppositional Action

Joanne Kyger – photo by Allen Ginsberg –  courtesy Stanford University Libraries/Allen Ginsberg Estate

Continuing from yesterday, Anne Waldman introduces Joanne Kyger, on a 1992 Naropa panel on “Counterpoetics & Oppositional Action”

AW:    First, Joanne Kyger, who comes to us from Bolinas, California, which for many years has been an alternative community of poets, artists, activists, and they.. I don’t know how many times they’ve taken down the “Bolinas” sign but you don’t.. you don’t see the sign on the highway, there’s always so much counter and subversive activity. that they don’t want to be overloaded with..
JK: Believe it!
AW: …tourists and weekend guests. So
JK: We used to have a parking problem, that’s all!
AW: That’s our problem here.  Okay Joanne Kyger, welcome!

JK: When I first got this little card in the mail from Anne saying the topic for the panel was going to be “Counterpoetics & Oppositional Action”, I thought, “oh god, “counterpoetics”, one of those new buzz words I really don’t know too much about”. My first instinct about it, what “counterpoetics” was, I read the cover of the Point Reyes Light, from May, and I saw this sign that said “ARSONIST DESTROYS MIWOK DANCE HALL””, and I thought, “that’s a very counter-poetical activity”. I’ll just read a little bit from this:

“Arrested on charges of setting two fires a day, apart, was a former seasonal employee of the Parks Service, Johnny Lopez, 23 of West Marin, whose job ended last September. Burned along with the brush and the Crystal Lake fire was a Buick that had illegally been driven on a hiking trail seven miles into the heart of the national seashore, not far from the ocean. A day later a Miwok dance hall was torched just off Limantour Road near the Valley Center. The fire was discovered by county paramedics who were en route to attend to a disoriented man near Park headquarters who turned out to be Lopez. Lopez was seen wandering around as if confused, said Park Superintendent, John Sansing . Lopez later told park rangers that he had taken some codeine. The dance hall was used for traditional Indian ceremonies like that of a church..”

I thought this was a counter-poetical.. counterpoetic, counter to the heart of where poetry comes from, counter to the heartbeat -to burn down the Miwok center.  So that was my  original take on it as an oppositional action. Going further into “counter” – to see what it was, I looked it up in the dictionary  –  counter – in the wrong way, contrary to the right course, opposite, contrary, the act of giving a blow when receiving or parrying one (as in boxing), counter-accusation, counter-charge, counter-demonstration, counter-offer, counter-suggestion, counter-suit, counter-poetics, counter-intelligence (designed to block the enemy’s sources of information by concealment, camoflage, codes and cyphers, censorship and other measures and to deceive the enemy by ruses and misinformation and the like) –  counter, a table or board on which many is counted and over which business is transacted, goods are handled, etc – the counter..

So I did a little more reading to get this new buzzword (which it seems to me) straight, and I used essentially The Politics of Poetic Form by Charles Bernstein (which you might be familiar with from two weeks ago when the quote  “Language Poets” were here), I found that Ron Sillimans essay on such was useful. He talks Counterpoetics” as “opposition to a received tradition of Eurocentric closed verse form”.
“And this.. (this trait), comprises most of what is called the New American Poetry (1945-1960). At the time of its publication, 1960, Don Allen’s now-classic anthology presented poets that for all the diversity of location showed one common characteristic – a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse. Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and W.C.Williams, it built on their achievements and went on to create new conceptions of the poem. These poets had already created their own tradition, their own press and public, small magazines, broadsheets, pamphlets, limited editions, and poetry readings which took on a new and dynamic life in coffee-houses, jazz clubs and homes. This poetry written since World War II has been characterized as the experimental side of American poetry. Their preference is formal freedom or openness as opposed to academic formalistic strictly lined and metered verse. They have been called Projective, Objectivist, the Underground, the New York School, the Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain Poets. They were published in such magazines as Origin, The Black Mountain Review, the early Evergreen Reviews, Yugen, Kulchur, Floating Bear, C, Fuck You- Magazine of the Arts, Caterpillar, The World, and by such small presses as Jargon, City Lights, White Rabbit, TotemCorinth, Auerhahn, Four Seasons, Black Sparrow and Grey Fox” – All this is from an introduction to The Postmoderns – The New American Poetry Revised“. which postulates Modernism coming to an end with the detonation of the A-bomb in 1945 and we’re now onto “Post-Modernism”, a term which (Charles) Olson first uses, which he defines as “an instant by instant engagement with reality” – So we have Postmodernism, which was anti-academic then, becoming, in definition, “counterpoetics”. There are thirty four poets in the original New American Poetry anthology and nine more were added that were in step with this direction. Thirty years later, of these experimental poets many have published extensively, won Pulitzer Prizes and have become household words”  – (Allen Ginsberg) –  “Many have been the subject of full-length studies, articles and scholarly dissertations. These works have been translated into  many languages and most appear in the standard biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias of literary history. However canonized these new American poets may be, however, universities, which provide the context in which many and perhaps most poetry readers are first introduced to the writing of our times, still teach the orthodoxy of the conventional academic poem and its received Eurocentric tradition. Only a few schools during the past thirty years have taught this asa main tradition of American poetry (Black Mountain College being the prototype of the alternative education, which closed 1956 – And then in the past fifteen years, New College, San Francisco and Naropa Institute are among the few. There should be a strategy for the institution”, Ron Silliman suggests, “that would include at least one, and preferably several specialists of the period 1945-70, the time of the New American Poetry and all. Get teachers and poets who teach this now-established experimental writing under the staff of the University, the institution. When and if this becomes the case, being academic will not mean much more than that the poet has a job in an institution of learning.

But this is not the case now, as there is still a gap between the theory and practice of poetry, something upon which the conventional English Department is founded and which caused Jack Spicer to use the term “English Department” as a curse, The counterpoetics of Jack Spicer was counter to the counterpoetics of the time. He saw the Beat poets as self-aggrandizing personalities, after publicity and responsible for cluttering up the streets of North Beach (1957-60) with tour buses looking for “beatniks” and disturbing the equanimity of his academy (his academy, in the true sense of the word  being a group small enough to fit under a tree, near a bar of choice), where a group of young writers who met in his literal  haunts, The Place, Gino & Carlo’s, Miss Smith’s Tearoom, to rhapsodize over pinball and baseball scores and the heart of poetry. Against the counterpoetics publications of the time, he founded his own small press, White Rabbit, run by Joe Dunn and the AM Multilith at the Greyhound Bus lines in San Francisco, which produced flyers and schedules, etc. (except that Joe Dunn published small booklets when the press was at rest on weekends and at night). Though not fine-printing they were of an artistically high standard with covers and illustrations by Robert Duncan and Jess (counter-counterpoetic adherences at the time). From November of 1957 to September of 1958, he surreptitously produced ten titles – Steve Jonas, Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Ebbe Beauregard, George Stanley, Robert Duncan, Harold Dull, Richard Brautigan‘s first book, Helen Adam, and Charles Olson. Spicer was an anti-bookstore, anti-City Lights (which took a percentage of the price) which he boycotted. He was his own walk-in counter, over which twenty-five cents was exchanged for the price of the book – (a grand bargain in retrospect, although a mug of beer was then twenty-five cents then too). “Poetry should be free and not sold”, he said (except for twenty-five cents, of course!)
At the counter counter he was absolutely reticent about the personal, and in Don Allen’s New American Poetry he writes – “Jack Spicer does not like his life written down. He is currently offering a pro-seminar into the West Martian dialect” – (And his statement, “Poetry is only for poets” is about as counter-counter-counter as you can get!)

Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, Halloween, 1954 – photo: Robert Berg

“The tradition of small-press publications and magazines has continued from then, as with the example say.. the exception say, of New Directions and Grove Press.  In the past, big publishers are not interested in books that do not make large bucks. So, as modest as the means of production might be, they are still, now, in the hands of the producer-writer, and as such can deliver the message, (if indeed there is a message to be found in American poetry) As the instant sound-byte snaps at the ears, the page has become somewhat retro. Although this is not to say that tons of poetry isn’t being written  with recent tendencies to use technical language to talk about language, to isolate the reader from the truth of the experience of the poem, to take away inherited meaning from the word and to invite the reader to add their own meaning, asking the reader to lend their personal meaning and “do all the work”, as it were.  The counterculture of the “Sixties  and early “Seventies did take poetry off the page and into music, with Bob Dylan and Neil Young, etc, becoming the main focus for the word, then oppositional words that needed to be articulated.”

So this preceding, somewhat of a historical summary, (which may or may not be familiar to you today – and it is today that I’m curious about in terms of counterpoetics). Does it continue the legacy of the New American poets?  or is it counter to that status quo?  Non academic poetry is a more diverse field of writing these days. There is a heritage to be sure, but there is much literary forgetfulness.  And I quote from Ron Silliman, from his essay, “New Hope For The Disappeared”. He speaks about the poetry of Lew Welch. “Today the erasure of his influence in American verse appears almost complete. Only one of his books is still in print (1992 – sic – but this is no longer the case) and the place where we are most apt to come across the name “Lew Welch” now is in music magazines as a footnote in the background pieces about the step-son who he helped raise, Huey Lewis. Yet instances of literary forgetfulness such as this” –  (“and I could speak for some time”, he says) – ” indicates that poetry, particularly in the United States is a profoundly amnesiac discourse” – (away from Naropa, of course!) – “The shelf-life of a good poet may be something less than the half-life of a styrofoam cup. The public disappearance of the work of a decent poet is not so terribly different from the extinction of a species in the wild. Thus it is obviously not enough if what remans is merely a trace or a record, some last remnant housed in a zoo, a museum, or a library.”  So, what action or publication brings these poets back to9 the memory-bank of the readers of American poetry?

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately ten minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-three-and-a-half minutes in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *