William Heyen


[Spring 4 (1995): 14-19]

Hello. I’m glad to be here. I’d like to thank Norman Friedman, especially, for getting us all together.

I’ve been to the New School twice before—to visit Pearl London’s classes on "Works in Progress." Well, my works that were in progress at the time got done. And now, by way of our gentle directive for this occasion, I’ve been thinking about Cummings and just where he was/has been within me as I’ve been writing.

About 30 years ago, at SUNY Cortland between stints in graduate school, I taught my first class in modem American poetry. I used Cummings’ long-lived Grove Press 100 Selected Poems (1959), and have adopted that book several times since. Way back then, a particular poem lodged itself in me.

I doubt a single week has gone by in my life since then that I haven’t said this poem to myself. I guess I’ll say it now.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other:then
laugh,leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

(Complete 291)

[end page 14]

So, what I was thinking of doing for this brief presentation was trying to trace the various elusive ways in which this poem, by way of rhythms, images, themes, diction, and so on, might have surfaced in me. "since feeling is first" has probably never occurred to me consciously while I’ve been in the semi-trance of writing, but how could a poem that has existed inside me for so long, as early memory, as mnemonic rhythm, not be part of the weave of my own lyrics?.. . I thought hard about this for awhile, but got tired of trying to explain and x-ray. (I also realized that I know dozens of poems by other poets by heart, and this was a complication I couldn’t simplify or untangle; I also realized that I’ve never enjoyed, or even much believed in, studies of influence.) And you know another Cummings poem, too, that makes us laugh about all these things: mr youse needn’t be so spry
concernin questions arty

each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party

gimme the he-man’s solid bliss
for youse ideas i’ll match youse

a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues (245)

In any case, and "since feeling is first," I feel like slanting it in a different way, and maybe even having a little fun.

Early this semester, in a graduate seminar, we were talking about what might be some of the aims and assumptions behind some John Ashbery poems, the aesthetics of Atocha, so to speak. We were talking about language unfolding itself in the present, about a poetics that resists closure, about the moral beauty of indeterminacy. I remember reading to the class Carolyn Forché’s note on her own book The Angel of History: "The first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration." I also quoted from Paul Hoover’s preface to his recent anthology Postmodern American Poetry: "Through circuitousness and obliqueness, Ashbery alludes to things in the process of avoiding them; in saying nothing, he says everything." Hoover quotes Ashbery: "religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing." And I remember photocopying for the class passages from a review by Donald Revell in the Ohio Review of a book of selected poetry by Edmond Jabes. The reviewer says, "History has exposed [end page 15] the incorrigible criminality of language. True speech must therefore incline in one direction only: towards the unindicted future." Again, here, arose the idea that after the horrific brutality of man’s history, we are all, with this current language of ours, beyond redemption and must, somehow, somewhere else, get beyond words and their assumptions, their baggage of forgetfulness and aberration.

In short, I was admiring and understanding and jiving, the class was jumping, we were being fancy and smart and even occasionally sincere about how, as we read toward the purity and freedom that postmodem incoherencies awaken in us, traditional intelligibility and accessibility are outmoded irrelevancies at best, dangerous precedents to holocaust at worst.

And then, all at once—since feeling will sometimes insist on being first and since I seem to feel several ways about anything at the same time—I grew nauseated, sick of it all, all my cleverness and the poems’ deflections, deft discursivenesses, brilliant glides and flutings and leaps, the not-takinghoidness, the effortless stunning resources of the Atocha poet who was probably one of those Archibald MacLeish was thinking of when in a letter he spoke of poets who hold up to the young models of "withering heartlessness." It goes without saying, of course, that Ashbery is not heartless, but "Atocha" poetry is passionate beauty thrice removed, mirrors and refractions, hubless spokes, rootless trees, starshine from primal heavenly bodies long burnt out.

Lately I’d been reading, too, the poetry of some very direct and angry writers including Eliott Richman, perhaps the most powerful poet of the Vietnam War, whose most recent book is Trooper, Walk On, and Adrian C. Louis, a Native American whose address is Pine Ridge and whose Blood Thirsty Savages had just appeared. These poets hit hard and fast. They don’t spend much time feinting and jabbing. They slash. They aren’t worried about decorum or balance. If poetry is heightened speech, their speech is heightened by anger and disgust in the way that our own everyday speech, when we are passionate, takes on insistent, heavily accented, sometimes staccato rhythms. They still believe that with available words one human being can sway another toward outrage and moral action.

I’ve edited two anthologies of contemporary American poets, American Poets in 1976 and The Generation of 2000. Now, poets such as Richman and Louis make me think about editing another. I’d call it, maybe, Kick-Ass Poets. "Kick-ass" is sort of a vulgar term, of course. Before George Bush used it on the campaign trail, I think I first heard it from athletes. It smacks of piling on bodies and points, of good old-fashioned violence on the edge of the rules. Heard as verb and object, as directive, or heard with a hyphen as adjective, the spondee has already ousted the weak iambic or strong iambic that Frost [end page 16] said were poetry’s two rhythms. The phrase is used by one athlete to encourage his teammates, by another to intimidate his opponents. Whoever uses the phrase is clear about his or her objective: to win, and to win decisively, without ambiguity, to overwhelm the enemy. No taking of prisoners. In your face. Kick-ass hears the street, is closer to rap than rapture.

As I think about this poetry, I know that Whitman is less a kick-ass poet than Dickinson. Stevens is not one; Williams often is. Eliot is not, but Robinson Jeffers sometimes is;the Frost of "Fire and Ice" is close. Marianne Moore is not, but Adrienne Rich and Levertov of the next generation sometimes are. Robert Bly, no—even "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" has heavily romantic rhythms and undertones. Roethke, never, but Phil Levine, yes. James Wright, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver—no, no, no. Joyce Carol Oates, C. K. Williams—yes. Carruth, sometimes (and who’d like to be a kick-ass poet more than sometimes?). Barbed wire wrapped around our heads. Howard, Hecht, Merrill, no. Well, I could go on with my feelings/opinions for a longtime, and I probably will, if I work on that anthology and if I write a preface. Barbra Streisand, not; Tanya Tucker, yes. The Dave Clark Five, no; the Stones, yes. In the kingdom of kick-ass, Charles Bukowski may be furthest to the left, thematically at least.

If I write a preface, Cummings will come in as an early progenitor of this school. I don’t find many whole poems in this mode—very often, as Norman Friedman has phrased it, Cummings’ poems are "a compound of voices and tones" (In the 100 Selected Poems, maybe "pity this busy monster,manunkind, // not" is 80 percent there.) But listen to a few snatches from other poems for that unmistakable sound I’m talking about.

         (first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments—     (340)
This is of course about Olaf who said "I will not kiss your fucking flag" and "there is some shit I will not eat."

And here’s an execution, kick-ass style:

squads right impatiently replied
two billion pubic lice inside
one pair of trousers(which had died)     (473)

[end page 17]

More E. E.: i say to hell with that
that doesn’t matter     (475)
And one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite poems: "jack spoke to joe / ‘s left crashed" and "give it him good" (496). And the famous "it took / a nipponized bit of / the old sixth // avenue el;in the top of his head:to tell // him" (553). I haven’t spent much time tracing this Cummings through the Complete Poems, but listen to the beginning of this piece of rough life from Tulips & Chimneys (1922) that I’d have included in the 100 Selected Poems, if I’d been Cummings: it started when Bill’s chip let on to
the bulls he’d bumped a bloke back in fifteen. (127)
Setting and subject are of course important. I once heard Cary Grant defend himself against charges that he was making too many movies of elegant fluff, of silk and crystal, by himself asking, "Is a garbage can any more real than Buckingham Palace?" Well, for kick-ass poets, it is, but I’m not just pointing to what we’ve always thought of as Cummings’ tough-guy poems, but to a certain quality of vernacular voice and rhythm: "to hell with that! that doesn’t matter"; "jack spoke to joe! ‘s left crashed"; "give it him good"— torqued and heavily accented phrases sometimes seeming to be ground out or spit out. Cummings is plunging to the bottom of the page here, giving it all he’s got, not pacing himself. There’s a kick-ass velocity here, such poems not worried about modulation. (And an anthology of all such poems, of course, might suffer from sameness of pitch.) In an essay years ago I described Cummings as emotionally and intellectually a Transcendentalist, and believe this still, and it’s hard for a Transcendentalist to be a kick-ass poet—no matter how outraged the writer may be, faithful romantic under-currents (witness Ginsberg) take us elsewhere, as in my own case, certainly. But Cummings’ wicked genius to push voice relentlessly—M. L. Rosenthal uses the phrase "sharp and poisonous" to describe some early Cummings— surely lodged in me early, and stayed.

In my own case I know that kick-ass Cummings will be present in me on certain occasions as he was, for example, I now realize, while I was writing my book-length sequence Ribbons: The Gulf War 1991. I’d like to read you two of the poem’s 41 sections. [end page 18]

2. (The Reich)
At first during Vietnam, I didn’t know squat.
Wipe the gooks out, I said to my TV set,
which seemed to listen & disgorge body counts.
But I wised up fast, & marched, & wrote, but
nothing much good: naive passion alone.

The best of these poems, maybe, was in The Nation,
"Good Money After Bad," about swelling troop deployments
to expand the operation & replace the poor dead bastards
leaving the jungle in body bags. "Coin of the realm,"
I called the drafted victims, & this was mild compared

to the "dogs" & "lumps of dirt" in that manual
& apogee of resistance, the "Essay on Civil Disobedience."
By the long time enough protesters’ balls & breasts
clogged the war machine, there were 50,000 names
in the bank for that black marble mirror memorial in D.C.

But I was moving toward the Third Reich by then
by reason of family & reading & ambiguous dreams
in which I ran from Nazis, but with them,
slept in haystacks, but knifed them,
torched a synagogue, but died with Torah in my arms.

13. (Conventions)
"This might be an oxymoron," says (I swear) a Pentagon spokesman
beginning to whine, "but why can’t we have a civilized war?"
Meaning, I suppose, that when an American airman
bombs your neighborhood, killing maybe a few dozen
& maiming maybe a hundred in body & maybe a thousand in mind,
& he’s one of the few planes hit & he has to eject,
& after you’ve done the best you could to drag
victims out from under debris & you’ve washed the blood
out of your eyes as best you could & you’ve captured the bastard,
you should treat him according to the Geneva Conventions,
as gentleman prisoner of war, a name & rank & service number
who deserves a shower & clean clothes. You must not,
as I would, as you should, I swear, if such a technician
killed your wife & children, you must not drive steel
splinters into his eyes until they reach his civilized brain. —SUNY College at Brockport [end page 19]