Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Minimal (Compleat) Maximum

One Man Working

Watch’d with some prevaricant itchiness Ron Silliman’s self-orchestrated hoopla—here and here and here and apparently to be continued in a sort of Horatio Alger dime novel of poetic adversity’s makeover into opportunity—(compleat with self-justificatory nods to becloud the irony of ’s participating in one of “Official Verse Culture”’s own most cherish’d and empty annual ceremonies) in advance of the Poetry Society of America’s granting of the Silliman-select’d William Carlos Williams Award to Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems (Ugly Duckling, 2007). And subsequently read with some astonishment the Silliman-script’d “citation” for the book with its fraught lineage constructs and misappropriations of history:
The world was not ready when William Carlos Williams first published Kora in Hell in 1920 and the complete version of Spring & All three years later. Those books had a profound impact on American writing, even though they languished out of print for decades until they were brought back by City Lights in 1957 and Frontier Press in 1970. Aram Saroyan’s minimal poems were even more of a scandal when they first appeared in the 1960s, foretelling not one, but several of the directions that American poetry would take in their wake . . .
A “scandal”? Aram Saroyan’s first book, titled Aram Saroyan, released by Random House, a major New York trade outfit, in 1968, a “scandal”? Maybe (to those canny responsibles) a novelty item—hardly a scandal. Follow’d immediately the next year (1969)—cashing in, milking whatever stir—though it’s hard to figure who exactly bought the thing—I recall reading it in its meagre entirety upstairs in the old Marshall’s bookstore in Ann Arbor, standing next to its rows of semi-lurid paperbacks (made lurid probably more by the rumor that the gray-paint’d brick building with its creaking wooden sag floors ’d housed a brothel in some bygone, presumably simpler, year)—by Saroyan’s Pages. The books just the sort of thing semi-“literary” high school kids of the “era”—potheads, smart, terminally bored, fetching about for anything with a whiff of nosethumbing the “establishment” to it—’d glom to. I recall how, in a Pioneer High literary magazine call’d Overtones, that year I print’d a piece that went something like:
A man stands
On his head.

Then he sits down.

All different.
That’s how I recall it. I did a little India ink sketch, man standing, man sitting, to accompany it. Submit’d, if I recall rightly, by Ken Burns’s older brother, the red-head. When we’d accept’d it, he’d ask’d that we print it under the name of Dharma Juhdi, or Dharma Jhudi. Too late I read the Saroyan version:
a man stands
on his
head one

then he
down all
We print’d another little story by Dharma Juhdi (or Dharma Jhudi) in the issue, something about a man trying to bury an elephant in the backyard. That one turn’d out to’ve migrated whole out of Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn. The scandalous Mr. Brautigan.

What Silliman attempts to argue by making the re-publication of Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems akin to that of Williams’s Kora in Hell and Spring & All is that each of the works define a kind of “originary moment” (a funny thing for a partisan of the “social text” to admit), each, Silliman says, is “foretelling.” I’ve made the argument before—ironically, then, using Saroyan’s work—amongst others—to put the kibosh to Silliman’s overly extravagant claims for ’s pal Robert Grenier’s work (“great works that would eventually make up Sentences . . . one of the crowning achievements of 20th century poetry”). Opportune extravagances and exaggerations—or, as princely Steve Katz says (another 1968 book), “exagggerations”—or why do I suddenly recall Silliman’s self-mythologizing story of reading all of Ketjak in Hallidie Plaza in 1978? Because the “tint” of the current tale is similar—heroic (“I spend the next several weeks reading, reading, reading”), interminable (“I dragged another small bookcase down to my office and shelved the books from the other two stacks there (with the exception of those where I already owned copies, which I put instead into a separate pile from which I donate periodically to Kelly Writers House)”), full of nudge-provocations (“the Poetry Society of America has not lived up to the stewardship of this award”), marvelously full of the torchbearer’s high import, the apostle’s impartiality (“two or three of the books represented a kind of poetry that I’m not certain William Carlos Williams would have approved of, were he still alive”).


I went off
by myself and
so did she.


Cadged a
smoke off
a codger
run amok.


Odd do for a ralpher.


Implacable ticket scalper’s rad tech kit offer.


High William’s skivvies in the gaillardias.


Rent. Rent.


Senility’s lens unleash


Door bang-
ing in
wind, rude.

One Man Working
(Ron Silliman Reading “Ketjak,” Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco, September 16, 1978)