Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2890 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The 97,000-Mile-a-Minute Poetry Machine

Steve Kowit

It was in Stanley Kunitz’s YMHA poetry workshop in the early 60s that my friend Jack Marshall and I met the young poet Kathy Fraser. She was a stunning young voluptuary with flaming red hair and country-milk flesh. A knockout. She was a junior editor at Mademoiselle and dressed the part. Still somewhat star-struck by New York, she gave the appearance of a wide-eyed farm-girl from the heartland tho in fact she was a good deal cannier than she let on. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she hid her feisty spirit behind the saccharin facade demanded of a small-town minister’s daughter Kathy had an enthusiasm for poetry equal to Jack’s, but, far more convivial, she had a more sophisticated and ambitious eye for the New York culture scene. By mid-semester they had discovered each other. They sizzled around more or less incommunicado for several months and then surfaced, still breathing heavily and somewhat gleefully embarrassed, at Kathy’s place on the Lower East Side.

Now and again I’d subway down to see them, but it was awkward and I was clearly something of an intruder. Jack and I would go out for one of our long walks—the kind we used to take in the old days around Sheepshead Bay. Kathy didn’t entirely approve of me, and I have no doubt that had I been a female friend she would have gladly ripped my face off for looking at Jack admiringly. Beside which, she heartily disapproved my affection for marijuana. She was terrified that I was going to turn Jack into one of those degraded addicts holding up liquor stores and nodding out in back alleys in the reefer-madness mode of movies made to terrify high school students in the Midwest.

On the other hand, given the impressive number of acid freaks who eventually flew out windows, junkies who O.D.’d in their bathtubs, the legion who in the decade to come were to bur themselves out behind a chemical bliss of one stripe or another, Kathy’s instincts weren’t so far off the mark. Be that as it may, there was a decided tension between us and I came around less and less frequently. But on several of those occasions when I did hazard a visit, they mentioned with a good deal of enthusiasm the poetry readings at the 10th Street Coffee House. One evening when I had nothing better to do—the Thalia movie house up where I was living was probably running something I’d already seen twice—I decided to check the place out. It was a cozy little hideaway, clean and well-kept, with a dozen mahogany tables and a counter with an espresso machine: probably the only coffee house in the city without bullfight posters on the walls. An open reading was under way, a fellow named C.V.J. Anderson presiding. I put my name on the waiting list, sat down and ordered a hot chocolate. A dozen or so people were sitting around the room waiting for their turn at the stage, mostly scurvy looking kids in their twenties, like me. A sorrier collection of neophyte poets would be hard to imagine. They whispered their poems with a nervous, solipsistic intensity, or declaimed them with shrill bravado, or managed to do a little of both. Verses full of distant faerie realms and coal-dark abysses of the soul. The sort of hyperventilated, angst-ridden verse one would expect. I don’t remember what I read when my turn came but I don’t imagine it was very much better.

When the reading was over, C.V.J. came over and introduced himself. Chester was a fast-talking baby-faced veteran of the American poetry underground with a kind of breathless hysteria indigenous to speed-freaks and chain-smokers. There was a seductive lilt to his voice that permeated not only his conversation and his poetry, but the way he moved. He was of that feline breed that bounces up and down on the balls of his feet, his heels never quite touching the ground. With his rapid-fire delivery, you always had the impression that Chester had just said something particularly witty that you hadn’t quite understood. I’d generally catch the drift but rarely the details. He let it be known that he had some kind of rare disease and had been assured that he had no more than seven years to live. He was a good writer and a fine musician, something of a virtuoso on the soprano recorder. I heard him play some Bach once in his cavernous apartment and it was an impressive affair. Among the tasks he had planned for those last seven years of his life was whipping an international baroque chamber group into shape. The other plan, as I recall, was winning the Pulitzer.

After I’d been reading at the 10th Streetfor a couple of months, Chester and Mickey Ruskin, the owner, decided that it was time for me to do a solo reading. It was the first one I’d ever done and I remember almost nothing about it except that Bob Kelly, that enormous globe of a poet, sat in the front row walking a book of paper matches from knuckle to knuckle of his right hand—to let everyone know he was bored to distraction. No doubt with good reason. Mickey paid me ten bucks for the reading and treated my girlfriend Rozzie and me to a meal. Everyone knew Mickey later when he owned Les Deux Megots, The Ninth Circle, and Max’s Kansas City, but back then he was just getting started—a skinny, soft-spoken chap with a law degree, a fondness for poets and artists, and a quiet, good-natured civility. In those days Diane Wakoski was Poetry Queen of The Tenth Street. Hardly yet published and certainly not known beyond the circle of young New York poets, she already had a devoted underground following. It was clear to everyone that she was a real talent—obsessive, idiosyncratic and totally committed. An original. In those early days Diane was of the school of disassociative surrealism—that great leap backwards in American poetry—a bit of Stevens and a bit of Apollinaire—her poems full of magenta hats and erotic avocado pits. She wrote long, epiphanic dream-epics and symbolist psychodramas and seemed to have at least one new powerhouse of a poem every week. Her stuff never failed to bring down the house.

One evening Diane showed up for the open reading accompanied by a large and rather peculiar-looking entourage of people in funny hats, all of whom had the aura of being folks one ought to know. About the only one I vaguely recognized was her boyfriend LaMonte Young, a fallen-away classical pianist who’d become an hermetic composer of the most mystical and minimalist stripe. I’d recently caught a concert of his at a downtown loft which consisted of one note played at two and a half-minute intervals. The piece was followed by the work of a beautiful Japanese dada composer named Yoko Ono. That one, as I recall, consisted of two notes on the flute. LaMonte Young was dressed heroically in a maroon cape. As I recall, both Julian Beck and Judith Malina were there too, but I didn’t recognize them. Among the others in her party was Jackson Mac Low, a poet few of us had heard of. A small, neatly-dressed, somber-looking fellow, he reminded me of certain heavy-souled rabbinical students I’d had the misfortune of knowing in my student days. When his turn came, Mac Low read an interminable piece that seemed utterly disembodied and pointless—even more pointless than the earnest poetry of the ordinary avant-garde. Not so much utterly as emphatically pointless. The pointlessness seemed, if anything, to be the point.

The house rules were that every poet had five minutes—since there was always a pack of hungry geniuses waiting in the wings. After Mac Low had been up there a good fifteen minutes and the poem, if that’s what it was, showed no signs of winding toward a conclusion—or toward anything at all for that matter, a wave of grumbling spread through the audience. It was only a matter of minutes before somebody whistled. Right on its heels were a couple of catcalls and Bronx cheers. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody jumped out of his seat to tell Mac Low to get the fuck off the stage before he kicked his lights out. Though there wasn’t any verbal assent to the proposition, there weren’t any protests either. Mac Low, finishing up quickly, picked up his manuscript and returned to his table in a dignified huff. A minute later, after a quick huddle, Jackson, Diane, LaMonte and the rest of their party of underground celebrities paraded out of the place looking neither right nor left—all grandly offended. It was a notable exit and—as it turned out—a watershed event in the subterranean history of American avant-garde poetry.

The moment they were out the door the screaming began. Though a lot of us felt we’d had every right to give him the hook, still and all we’d offended a lot of star attractions. A short story writer named Hank Bauer—an old friend of Jack Marshall’s—made a lengthy speech to the effect that life on the planet Earth was undeservedly and brutally short and by his calculation we had lost a good twenty-seven minutes of our irrecoverable orgone energy listening to that insufferable and idiotic crap. He proposed that we pass a resolution barring the fellow from ever being permitted back into Les Deux Megots on any pretext, even to use the bathroom, and went so far as to suggest a public petition barring him from all Lower East Side and Greenwich Village coffee houses that held or were contemplating at some time in the future the possibility of holding poetry readings.

At this point Howard Ant stepped to the front of the assembled poets and guided the clamjamfry in an altogether different direction. Howard was a good friend of Diane’s and told us forthrightly that he thought we’d been boorish in the extreme and that we had every reason to be ashamed of what had just occurred. Our clear obligation was to invite the fellow back with our apologies and ask him to do a solo reading for us—perhaps as soon as the following week. Howard’s Harvard Law School training in rhetoric, argumentation and dignified cajolery and coercion, plus the fact that everyone liked and respected him—he was a man of good heart and good common sense—ended up winning the day. There were a few boos and go-fuck-your-mothers—but in the end the group was agreeable to the idea. Yes, let’s by all means have the fellow back to give a solo reading! If he could bore us to hysteria in fifteen minutes, imagine what he could do to us in sixty! The truth is, for all our trigger-happy anarchy, we were a pretty malleable and insouciant bunch and amenable to just about anything that looked like it had the possibility of being even marginally entertaining.

So Jackson came back the next week and gave his solo reading. This time there were five or six interminable poems, one as pointlessly random as the next. When someone walked in in the middle of one of his pieces, letting a cold blast of winter into the coffee house, Jackson said “Please shut the door,” but in so much the same voice and without missing a beat that it was a moment or two before it dawned on me, on any of us, that the phrase wasn’t in the poem—or rather hadn’t been in the poem—until he’d uttered it. The perimeters of the poem had simply shifted to include that chance remark. A Mac Low poem, it suddenly became clear, wasn’t a closed system. The process and content were interconnected in some mysterious and intriguing way. A Mac Low poem was, in fact, something entirely different from the sort of thing I was used to.

It knocked me over. I’d never heard anything like it. In one fell swoop, Jackson Mac Low had laid waste several centuries of prohibitions and had shifted the boundaries of poetry for me—and no doubt for many others. It was a wonderful reading, boring as hell and utterly exhilarating. Immediately, everyone took to writing Jackson Mac Low poems: aleatropic concoctions based on chance operations. We wrote dictionary poems, poems based on intricate mathematical systems and formulas. We cut in phrases from the Kabala, the Mahabharata, the Sunday comics, the Congressional Record. It was all grist for the mill. We’d choose fourteen words at random from the OED, count the number of letters and if there were 63, let’s say, we’d simply turn to page 63 of The Secret of the Golden Flower, copy down the first seven words in the first 37 lines and use six of those words in one line, three in the next, and so on. The whole business was great fun. I don’t imagine it generated much in the way of immortal poetry but it had the virtue of being a cut, slash and burn operation on the sequential and conventionally rational—an incendiary device to stick under the language so we could watch it explode—words and phrases flying like shrapnel all the hell over the place. Now that the sonnet and villanelle were safely buried in university lit departments, this new pipe-bomb formalism was just what we needed to take up the slack. Mac Low—a student, friend and disciple of John Cage—was liberating us as radically as Ginsberg had with Howl and Burroughs had with his cut-up concoctions in The Naked Lunch.

A few months later Mickey closed the Tenth Street and opened Le Deux Megots. It was four times the size and the place caught on almost at once—the loyal following from the old Tenth Street being joined by scores of new poets and poetry groupies. The weekly open readings became a New York literary institution. On the evenings of those open readings there’d be a formidable mob haunting the place. They’d be outside lounging around on parked cars, smoking and bullshitting, making dope deals and pickups: an assortment of hustlers, hoodlums, deadbeats, artists, students, bongo players, hipsters and out-and-out sociopaths—the greasy, zit-ridden habitués of late-night donut shops and 24-hour cafeterias. A fair proportion of the demimonde young women could be relied upon to show up in black leather, one taut face paler than the next. There were cadaverous poets of both sexes and several in between. The one thing they all had in common was a secret back-pocket manuscript or tattered spring binder filled with language. Notebooks full of rage, alienation and despair: They were waiting their turn, sprawled against parked cars biding their time before the open reading began: lumpen-nihilists working themselves up for their five-minute rant against cosmological betrayal and the tumescent vagina of beatitude’s marmoreal lips.

Donald Allen’s provocatively anti-mainstream anthology The New American Poetry had not been published yet—as I remember—but the careful craftsmen and new traditionalists were on showcase in that little Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology, The New Poets of England and America. Those post-Auden poets, albeit bone-dry and middle class to a fault, were an impressive lot. Lowell in Boston, Larkin in England, and several dozen others were writing in a mid-twentieth century idiom that was elegant, ironic, passionate, formal and beautifully wrought. One evening, sipping my hot chocolate, I overheard Bob Kelly lecturing some of his coterie on the unpleasantness of that anthology. He was predictably disdainful. He intimated there wasn’t a poem in the whole collection that was worth reading. All that rear-guard formalism, those deadly iambs! There was truth, of course in what he was saying. Still and all there were real beauties in that book that weren’t so easy to dismiss. Poems that anyone could see were splendid pieces of work. I’d been carrying my copy around for the past couple of months, poring over it with the most intense interest.

I pulled my well-thumbed copy out of my satchel, opened it to Snodgrass’s “April Inventory,” walked over to Kelly’s table and said “Here, read this!” A somewhat impulsive gesture considering that I hardly knew the fellow. In fact I regretted it the moment I’d done it. Kelly examined the poem silently. You could see by the tilt of his eyebrow that he wasn’t pleased. I might just as well have stuck a piece of chewed bubblegum into his hand. When he was done he handed the piece of dead gum back to me without a word—Imperially—and returned to his cruller. Kelly was a formidable presence, and not simply because of his astonishing girth. Already teaching at Bard, he had taken on the manner of a literary savant, a kind of poor man’s Edmund Wilson—though he probably imagined it was Pound whose mantle he had inherited. Kelly was co-editing Trobar with Jerry Rothenberg, who was an utterly unpretentious and likeable fellow, and writing hermetic little “deep-image” couplets, poems of an admirably polished surface and the post-modern predilection for impenetrability. Anyone who doesn’t think there are armed camps in American poetry doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

—From Light Years: An Anthology on Sociocultural Happenings (Multimedia in the East Village, 1960-1966); Edited by Carol Bergé; Spuyten Duyvil, Small Press Distribution, Berkeley (May 2010)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury