Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Notebook (Edwin Denby, Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge, &c.)

Edwin Denby, 1903–1983

Edwin Denby, out of the 1957 essay “The Thirties” (collected in Dance Writings and Poetry), talking about Willem de Kooning:
He was likely to join in the talk by vehemently embracing a suggestion or vehemently rejecting it. Right off he imagined what it would be like to act on it and go on acting on it. He didn’t, like a wit, imitate the appearance of acting on it; he committed himself full force to what he was imagining. As he went on, characteristic situations in his life or those of friends came back to him as vividly as if they had just happened. He invented others. Objections he accepted, or circumvented, or shouted his opposition to. He kept heading for the image in which a spontaneous action had the force of the general ideas involved. And there he found the energy of contradictory actions. The laugh wasn’t ridiculousness, but the fun of being committed to the contrary. He was just as interested in the contrary energy. Self protection bored him.
      In the talk then about painting, no doctrine of style was settled at Bill’s. He belligerently brought out the mysterious paradoxes left over. In any style he kept watching the action of the visual paradoxes of painting—the opposition of interchangeable centers, or a volume continued as a space, a value balancing a color. He seemed to consider in them a craft by which the picture seen as an image unpredictably came loose, moved forward and spread. On the other hand, his working idea at the time was to master the plainest problems of painting. I often heard him say that he was beating his brains out about connecting a figure and a background. The basic connection he meant seemed to me a motion from inside them that they interchanged and that continued throughout. He insisted on it during those years stroke by stroke and gained a virtuoso’s eye and hand. But he wanted everything in the picture out of equilibrium except spontaneously all of it. That to him was one objective professional standard. That was form the way the standard masterpieces had form—a miraculous force and weight of presence moving from all over the canvas at once.
      Later, I saw in some Greek temples contradictory forces operating publicly at full speed. Reading the Iliad, the poem at the height of reason presented the irrational and subjective, self-contradictory sweep of action under inspiration. I had missed the point in the talks in 22nd Street. The question Bill was keeping open with an enduring impatience had been that of professional responsibility toward the force of inspiration. That force or scale is there every day here where everybody is. Whose responsibility is it, if not your own? What he said, was “All an artist has left to work with is his self-consciousness.”
      From such a point of view the Marxist talk of the thirties was one-track. The generous feeling in it was stopped by a rigid perspective, a single center of action, and by jokes with only one side to them. If one overlooked that, what was interesting was the peremptoriness and the paranoia of Marxism as a ferment or method of rhetoric. But artists who looked at painting were used to a brilliance in such a method on the part of the Paris surrealists and to a surrealist humor that the political talk did not have. Politically everybody downtown was anti-fascist, and the talk went on peacefully. Then when friends who had fought in Spain returned, their silence made an impression so direct that the subject was dropped. Against everybody’s intention it had become shameless.
      In the presence of New York at the end of the thirties, the paranoia of surrealism looked parlor-sized or arch. But during the war Bill told me he had been walking uptown one afternoon and at the corner of 53rd and 7th he had noticed a man across the street who was making peculiar gestures in front of his face. It was Breton and he was fighting off a butterfly. A butterfly had attacked the Parisian poet in the middle of New York. So hospitable nature is to a man of genius.
Astounding is Denby’s rendering of a poetics of “the energy of contradictory actions”: “everything in the picture out of equilibrium except spontaneously all of it.” How pertinent the necessary reminder (countering the lofty and distant “Greek temples” with their “contradictory forces operating publicly at full speed”) that such “force or scale is there every day here where everybody is.” I went looking for the story of André Breton and the butterfly, a thing Clark Coolidge and Ted Berrigan banter about in a 1970 interview (Talking in Tranquility):
CC:   Did you see that thing, it was up on my desk but probably illegible because it’s in my handwriting, where I was rewriting “Tambourine Life?”

TB:   You told me about part of it, yeah. But, you know that part you rewrote about the man attacked by a butterfly?

CC:   Oh, the other thing, yeah.

TB:   Well, isn’t that from “Tambourine Life?”

CC:   Yes, both of those things are.

TB:   Well, I had an idea that the next time I published “Tambourine Life” that I would put those two things in as just parts of “Tambourine Life.”

CC:   Terrific.

TB:   Because they would fit in there beautifully, and add something to it in a way that I wasn’t doing.

CC:   Right. Did you get that from Edwin Denby? Who got it from . . . I dunno. I remember one of Edwin Denby’s prose pieces talks about Breton being . . .

TB:   No. I got it from . . .

CC:   I know it’s been around.

TB:   I just got it from some . . . I got it out of my head, and I read it somewhere a long time ago.

CC:   Because somebody asked me, when they saw that. They said, Did you get that from Edwin Denby? And I said, No.

TB:   I read just about everthing that’s been written in English about the surrealists and the dadaists, and so . . .

CC:   So it’s all in there somewhere.

TB:   So it’s all in there, yeah. And it may be from Edwin. I dunno. I mean, I get everything wherever I can.
“I get everything wherever I can.” And isn’t “Tambourine Life” a terrific and unparalleled example of the everyday’s “contradictory forces operating publicly at full speed”? Though I find no evidence of the Breton story therein. Only:

Only a monkey would read this

                                        THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FLIES
                                                                      over 250 flies
                                in living color

These 250 flies were tied “up”
by hand
                                Not my hand

                                                                                          The Little Sisters


                                            There are no flies on me, New York City

And, under number 41: “That Spring of ’65 / that was / That was my best year // that was also a good year for // Dancers / Buildings and / People in the Street . . .” Referencing the 1965 Denby book of essays, it, too, reprinting “The Thirties.” No sign of the butterfly story in what little of Coolidge’s I can examine. No sign of a Coolidge rewrite of “Tambourine Life.” (Later in the interview Coolidge talks of the rewriting in terms of “just using the words that were there”: “I wasn’t putting any new words in. But I discovered that most of the time it was the same feeling . . . Regardless of what I did with it. And that’s what interested me, that there could be these two arrangements of these words that would have the same feeling, nearly. I mean, they might say slightly different things but there you would have that double take, you know, the two parts.”)
* Jim Carroll, out of Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973, talking about Edwin Denby:
      I saw him the other night at one of Anne Waldman’s gatherings and asked him about the story concerning the time he and Willem de Kooning were attacked by a butterfly in broad daylight on the streets of New York City. He explained that yes, the attack had in fact taken place. He had even written about it in one of his books. It seems this disoriented rogue butterfly, a rather large one, kept nipping at de Kooning’s eyes. It was on Seventh Avenue and 20th Street, right across from the building where Edwin and de Kooning were neighbors in adjacent lofts.
      “It would have been a strange ending to de Kooning’s career,” I said, sort of giggling, “being blinded by a vicious butterfly.”
      “It would have been a horrible tragedy!” Edwin spoke solemnly in his slightly clipped European accent. It was obvious he loved de Kooning as a painter and a friend. “Such a great painter as he. But let me tell you something, it was not so unexplainable an occurrence. You see, there are certain species of butterflies which thrive on saline. It is to them a great delicacy, as caviar to a man, or honey to a bear. And where is there saline? In the eye, be it human or animal. In South America, there is a species of crocodile known as the Cayman. Perhaps you have heard of the Cayman Islands? Well, wherever there are Caymans basking in the sun, on the bank of a river or swamp, there are invariably hordes of butterflies flitting about the beasts’ eyes attempting to suck up the salty fluid. Sometimes the Caymans are so dazed by the sun that they are oblivious, and the butterflies feast. Others move back into the water, where they are still pursued by their winged parasites because they must keep their eyes and snout above the waterline. Eventually they are driven, these huge monsters which man so fears, into their only sanctuary, the reeds and eel grass growing out of the water. So you see, if these butterflies can take on a crocodile, then why not a poor poet and a painter on Seventh Avenue?”
Evidence of the contrary ways story works: it, too, liable to “unpredictably come loose, move, and spread.”