From Black Mountain College to St. Mark's Church
The Cityscape Poetics of Blackburn, di Prima, and Oppenheimer
by Burt Kimmelman
The creation of history--as this activity has been commonly understood since the beginning of the twentieth century--is, at heart, beset by relativism; the past is what the historian makes it out to be. Nowhere is this dynamic more true than in literary history, inasmuch as the initial literary past, in other words its "facts," begins as documents, states of text that from the start are amenable to emendation or deletion. Looking back on literary Modernism, what anthology or literary history details the many verse magazines, besides, say, Poetry and The Dial, which were flourishing in the early 1900s? What is kept in memory and what is allowed to recede into the mists? To be sure, forming and reforming the literary canon has at times been a favorite blood sport of scholars and editors, and at times writers and poets. Like a veil, canonizing is a critical intrusion that can hang between readers and poems, softening their edges, hiding their idiosyncrasies and basic impulses. It is in this context that the historiography of the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project must be understood--a timely example of critical refashioning, indeed one that has given rise to an inaccurate understanding of what is now thought of as New York City's downtown poetics.
For 35 years, the Project has been the most important phenomenon in avant-garde poetry--since, notably, Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1957, and subsequently, since a vibrant artistic community arose in lower Manhattan. The Project has been a Mecca, the poems emanating from it widely hailed as later manifestations of the New York School represented primarily by Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. Indeed, St. Mark's Church became the epicenter of a new poetic genre, the postmodern urban poem. To contemplate this new genre, however, is to realize that the Project's story needs retelling. That downtown arts scene gave birth to the Project, and most of the writers involved in this eventual passing of the poetic mantle would not, today, be categorized as New York school. Rather, the benchmark of this new urban poem was the 1967 publication of The Cities, a collection by Paul Blackburn (a poet writing in the Black Mountain tradition) of poems that were originally disseminated and widely read in little magazines of the fifties and sixties.
Anne Waldman, who directed the Project for a number of years starting in 1968, barely recognizes the Black Mountain influence on the Project, in a number of interviews and memoirs. Yet, beginning in 1966, she worked under another Black Mountain poet, Joel Oppenheimer, who ran the Project and its first workshop in which she was a participant. The Project came into being once Blackburn had brought a popular reading series to the Church, which he maintained there, a series made up of a great many Black Mountain folk who were the Project's principle readers. Increasingly, the poetry heard and taught at the Project reflected an urbanity consistent with not only O'Hara, say, but also with Oppenheimer and Blackburn. Of course Beat writers, fellow participants in that downtown community, were also evoking a cityscape with growing intensity and also played a role in the Project's formation. The Project, in short, became the fount of a cosmopolitanism articulating post World War Two experience but peculiarly urban life and then again the life lived in New York City that, by the 1960s, had become the cultural and financial capital of the world. And, arguably, it was the Black Mountain poetics, holding imagery to be crucial to the successful poem, as in keeping with the precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, which fundamentally sponsored the various evocations of a cityscape that were emanating from the Project.
New York was, in Koch's words, a place "of dizzying anonymity, the feeling of freedom, the 'availability of experience', as Marianne Moore says in a poem about New York, the feeling of excitement and nervousness" (205). The city was a place of noise, chaos and intimacy where people were thrown together on crowded streets and public transportation. And it was ground zero for artists, musicians, dancers, actors and writers to find, see, talk with and read groundbreaking work still not sanctioned by society. Oppenheimer once recalled that, when he first arrived in New York from Black Mountain, what was most important to him was discovering "Gilbert Sorrentino, Hubert Selby, and LeRoi Jones, Baraka. And then, because we all four came out of different things, our group started to expand" (Marlatt 219). These people were not to be linked to the eponymous New York School painters. On the other hand, Oppenheimer said that there were two mentors in his life: Charles Olson and Franz Kline ("Interview with Joel Oppenheimer" 93). Robert Creeley, as well, always a welcome reader at the Project, has had a great deal to do with cutting-edge visual art both socially and aesthetically, throughout his career.
In a letter to Olson, in which he complains about how Donald Allen was forming his now famous New American Poetry anthology, Oppenheimer writes, "the shit of it, sucking around don allen and the grove press, and i find, from him, I ain/t a new york poet, that/s o/hara and his boys. isn't that nice. i live here, work here, write here, and where will he get a label?" (Gilmore 124). The New York-based writers were not so clearly defined. Diane di Prima, a featured reader at the Project who was central to the formative downtown scene, is now thought of as a Beat writer although she continues to repudiate that classification (cf., e.g., di Prima "The Movement of the Mind) and recalls those early days in this interview: "[T]here was no such thing as Beat in the '50sŠ. What I felt was: Oh good, other people are writing in the vernacular that I knew. This was very interesting. It was very important, the language we were speaking. Š. We didn't think of ourselves as a movement. We were people writing" ("The Movement of the Mind"). A leader of the Poets Theater, she was instrumental in providing exposure for plays by O'Hara ("An Interview with Diane di Prima" 27), Oppenheimer and many others (Gilmore 124, 125). With LeRoi Jones she co-edited Floating Bear, a key mimeograph magazine that published virtually every poet who was to be grouped as New York, Beat or Black Mountain.
Di Prima later explained, "All my writing was completely predicated on getting the slang of N. Y. in the period in the early 50's, down on paper somehow or another" ("An Interview with Diane di Prima" 29). Here, for example, is one of her late fifties lyrics:
In case you put me down I put you down
I know the games you play.
In case you put me down I got it figured
how there are better mouths than yours
more swinging bodies
wilder scenes than this.
In case you put me down it won't help much.
("17," 1958, from Poems for Bret)
This is the language of jazz and communal living and it is most of all the proclamation of freedom in an alternative life style--all built into the word "swinging." This verse is melodic and democratic, echoing dissonances as well as agreements di Prima serendipitously encounters. These attributes get perpetuated. She, Oppenheimer and Blackburn could not have been avoided by a younger generation of Poetry Project writers like Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Lewis Warsh, Ron Padgett, and Bernadette Mayer. The ambience of city life, a crucial element in their writing, is also quite palpable in the title work of Oppenheimer's 1962 book The Love Bit:
the colors we depend on are,
red for raspberry jam, white
of the inside thigh, purple as
in deep, the blue of moods, green
cucumbers (cars), yellow stripes down
the pants, orange suns on ill-
omened days, and black as the
dirt in my fingernails.
also, brown, in the night,
appearing at its best when
the eyes turn inward, seeking
seeking, to dig everything but
our own. i.e. we make it crazy or
no, and sometimes in the afternoon.
Similar in diction to di Prima's, this poem names the details of the everyday--as will become typical of later Poetry Project writing in order to create an explicit list of odd juxtapositions concatenating into a welter of perceptions, so that the poem's voice becomes a vision of things, things usually not to be found on a horizon but instead on a street or out a window facing other windows and people.
It is odd, therefore, that Oppenheimer and Blackburn receive short shrift in Waldman's edition, Out of this World: An Anthology of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, whose poems were first published in The World, the Project's magazine. Consider the jazzy riffs in Quincy Troupe's poem, "Leon Thomas at the Tin Palace," from the collection, and his ability to alight on details evoking an edginess:
eye thought it was music when
in fact it was a blender
grindin down the ice
making stuffings for drinks, but then
you jumped right on in on the downbeat leon
strokin rhythm inside time
inside the bar, then
people flew deeper into themselves
became the very air sweeping language too crescendo
between feathers of touch looping chord changes
your voice blued down, blues cries, field hollas
mississippi river flooded gutteral
stitches through your space
images of collective recall, leon
your voicestrokes scattin octaves
ice grindin down still inside the blender
making stuffings for piña coladas then
you scooped up our feelings again
in the shovel of your john henry doowops, leon
jazzed through ellington count & yardbird
yodeling coltrane blues cries
the history of joe Williams
sewn into the eyes of our eardrums
transmitted to the space between
the eyes, where memory lies
your scattin licks brings us back dancing
in our seats, you kick swelling language inside
your lungs, leon, voice strokin colors painting
the Creator's Masterplan
as pharaoh explodes inside the tone blender of his horn
ice grinds down the bar jumps out of itself
scooped up in the shovel of your john henry doowops
blue as a mississippi gutteral river flooded
octaves kicking back black scattin
rhythms loop bustin your chops
feather stroking phrasing, leon Thomas
yodelling octaves, sewn back black
where they came from
Setting aside its tour of African-American culture, this poem uncannily summons O'Hara's perhaps most famous poem "The Day Lady Died." Troupe begins with a drinks blender at the bar of the night club, peripheral to onstage goings on, which does not so much distract the poem's speaker as teach him how what is off center, like counterpoint, is what is true--this is the surprise of be bop jazz--and continues with the line "people flew deeper into themselves," which subtly resonates O'Hara's final words in his poem, "and everyone and I stopped breathing." Yet in its attempt to recreate the sound of the music heard the night Troupe was seated, unprepared, in that magical night club (again like O'Hara's "leaning on the john door in the FIVE SPOT"), Troupe's poem might also remember Blackburn's lyric "Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot," which is obviously aware of O'Hara yet which moves toward Rollins' music in order to convey the thrill experienced by the poem's persona who, as he listens, approaches ineffability.
THERE WILL be many other nights like
be standing here with someone, some
there will be other songs
a-nother fall, another spring, but
there will never be a-noth, noth
Other lips that I may kiss,
but they won't thrill me like
thrill me like
dream a million dreams
but how can they come
--Paul Blackburn, "Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five-Spot"
Blackburn's diction and syntax, more casual and streetwise than O'Hara's, lays the groundwork for Troupe's opening pun "eye thought it was music."
Indeed, while Waldman's anthology--which, astonishingly, represents over two hundred writers--includes Blackburn, Oppenheimer and di Prima, it excludes a number of writers whose work appeared in The World magazine and who were a vital part of the first workshops at the Project, such as Michael Stephens, Tom Weatherly, and Jerrold Greenberg (three of many); they were, in fact, Oppenheimer's coterie. The book features a preface by Ginsberg, an introduction by Waldman, and a salutary epigraph by O'Hara. Such an anthology sets a model that others follow. Recently in the American Book Review, for instance, Oppenheimer's posthumous Collected Later Poems was treated in a casually derogatory manner by the poet Sparrow who provided no literary analysis to substantiate his posturing he characterized as "seventh-generation New York School" (23). There is one other significant review that needs mentioning, by Marjorie Perloff in 1988, on the occasion of the posthumous publication of Blackburn's Collected Poems. She took the opportunity to compare his work extensively with O'Hara's and to conclude about the volume: "I know of no better place to learn what the sixties in American poetry were all about. Not the sixties of our most prominent poets--that is by now familiar territory--but the sixties as represented by what is, so to speak, the second string of the orchestra" (213). Perloff's review-article is a programmatic repudiation of Black Mountain poetics (e.g., she questions the concept of "'composition by field'" and "the very notion of 'projective verse'" as having any enduring significance ), and equally a programmatic solidifying of a theoretical ground for what has continued to be (and I hasten to say it is admirable) her explication of the Language poets (perhaps incongruously, Charles Bernstein is cited by her)--a stunning irony, since the Language group claims the Objectivist poets as their forbears, poets who were retrieved from obscurity by Oppenheimer, Blackburn, Charles Olson, Creeley and other Black Mountain folk with whom the Objectivists professed their greatest affinity; moreover, they read at the Project due to Blackburn and Oppenheimer. Perloff is repulsed by Blackburn's sexual fetishism and generally a male sexism that Peter Baker has shown gets conveniently overlooked by her when discussing O'Hara (51). The poem she particularly takes aim at is Blackburn's "The Yawn" in which a roving eye in a subway car takes in the social dynamic of people gathered together by happenstance:
The black-haired girl
with the big
on the Queens train coming
in to work, so
opens her mouth so beautifully
in a ya-awn, that
two stops after she has left the train
I have only to think of her and I
--Paul Blackburn, "The Yawn"
Perloff notices the "sexual innuendo" in "the 'mouth' opening 'so beautifully / wide' to 'yawn' referring, of course, to that other 'mouth', the thought of whose opening is enough to make the poet-observer 'come' along with the Queens train," and so forth (202-203).
Yet Perloff misses several key points in her critique, such as Blackburn's spacings, spatial markings, favoring of nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs, and privileging of speech particles, all having come right out of William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" or some other like paradigmatic verse, all true to both Objectivist and Black Mountain praxis. Also ironic is her claim for O'Hara's "jaunty and absurd 'action poems' (in which the words become the actors)"; such a description surely fits Blackburn's Sonny Rollins poem, his subway poems and much else. Most of all, though, what separates Blackburn, and all of the Black Mountain lineage, from O'Hara, and perhaps the rest of the first generation New York School, is the latter's willingness to play with the subjunctive tense, a modus operandi that goes unmentioned by her. Perloff quotes extensively from O'Hara's "Poem (Kruschev is coming on the right day!)," which reads in part: "New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it would blow off / though it is cold and somewhat warms my neck" (205). She compares this with Blackburn's poem "Clickety Clack," a raunchy piece in which the speaker is reading on a train heading for Coney Island:
. . . when I reached the line : " the cock
of flesh at last cries out and has his glory
moment God "
some girl sitting opposite me with golden hair
fresh from the bottle began to stare dis-
approvingly and wiggle as tho she had ants
somewhere where it counted
Both poets exhibit, in James Breslin's words on O'Hara, the "[absorption] with a kind of evenly suspended attention that does not permit discrimination, emphasis, or even interpretation" (in Lowney 245-46). Both also typify what Perloff describes as the "process poem, charting the mental antics of the poet as he moves around the city" (206). The arrangement and emphases of words in Blackburn's poem are to my mind as much an "action poem" as anything in O'Hara. To be sure, while the subjunctive (i.e., "New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it [my tie] would blow off," my italics) gets put to brilliant use by O'Hara, it is avoided by Blackburn, Oppenheimer, di Prima, as well as, for that matter, by all of the Objectivist poets and Gertrude Stein (another proclaimed ancestor of the Language school), because it interrupts the active process of language-as-poem or what Williams called "the machine of words" in which linguistic particles enjoy great stature and are seen as beautiful. Thus, the materiality of language can be realized variously.
Taking into account Waldman's possibly unconscious editorial bias, it is remarkable how wide-ranging her anthology is. Still, there are common tendencies, traceable back to Berrigan, Warsh, and Waldman, most of all to Mayer who began running workshops in 1972 yet who was part of the Project's activities early on (see Libby Rifkin's "My Little World"). A likely forerunner of her work, though, is this poem by Greenberg, which was published in Cuchulain, a mimeo magazine containing work by Oppenheimer, Blackburn and others connected to Oppenheimer's workshop (there were more magazines of this sort, such as Noose edited by Sam Abrams, now forgotten).
bebop and butterflies
there's more to it than we have seen
more than just (days and nights)
bebop and butterflies
me lying above you
sometimes above me
there's more to it
we tell each other
my love lying nude
--Jerrold Greenberg, Cuchulain 1 (1967)
The ease of speech and the seemingly casual yet precise juxtaposing of the lovers' bodies to one another and to be bop jazz are grounded in di Prima, Oppenheimer and Blackburn, and reflected in Mayer. Here is Mayer's representation in the anthology, a poem whose roots in Blackburn are apparent in its repetitiveness and syntax, especially her penchant for anacolouthon:
No matter what the above
what comes before stands for
it means they
wont let me die
& as a piece in this frame
(I make that mistake over & over)
Again today when
I created your absence
today when I created your absence then
the whole tone of the day
was like the rest of a day
pick one any one that
any of the dead ones
To be simple: I was aware of that.
When colors come clean at the edges,
this is how mescalin works
But when they do when can you look? Aloud.
it's only when you cant look at them
& to remind you the tone
of a day
A day I was spectacularly reminded
of what you do & how you look
on a day any day
day any of the dead ones dies,
But not me.
--Bernadette Mayer, "After While"
Later in the poem we find the sort of visual gamesmanship Blackburn was famous for, here the use of graphics along with alphabetic text to create a visual "meaning."
Mayer is also represented in Ron Silliman's 1986 anthology In the American Tree, as is Robert Grenier whose poem, included by Waldman, seems a lot like a poem by Weatherly, also published in Cuchulain:
act of forgetting
unlocked the door
on purpose so as
to be able to go
back in through it
and to having forgotten
going back to around through
the upstairs with the chair
--Robert Grenier, "Fundamental"
The poem's wrenched syntax and foregrounding of prepositions is reminiscent of Weatherly's lyric:
to john wieners
these men i've kissed
and wrestled love from,
satisfied the spirit
of the act,
but not the drama of
weighing down weight
:the tension of fucking
--Tom Weatherly, first pub. in Cuchulain 1 (1967)
What the Black Mountain impulse (and here I add in di Prima who had completely digested Ezra Pound when she was still very young) contributed to the emerging poem of the city was a precision of imagery and a voice of utter candor. Both qualities can also be ascribed to O'Hara's work, but an insistence on the materiality of language, also an attribute of Black Mountain, and Objectivist, poetics, exists to such a degree that the very voice of the poem can manifest in the breakdown of statement, as particles of speech come to stand on their own much like, to borrow from Perloff, brush strokes do in an action painting (cf. above). Add to this complex a penchant for urban grittiness, typified by Oppenheimer's parenthetical "cars" and the black dirt under his persona's fingernails, and later by Troupe's poem "116th Street and Park Avenue," again from the anthology, which begins as follows.
116th street fish smells, pinpoint la marqueta
up under the park avenue, filigreed, viaduct
where graffitied trains run over language
there is a pandemonium of gumbo colors sitting up
spanish harlem, erupting
street vendors on timbale sidewalks
where the truth of things is what's happening now
--Quincy Troupe, "116th Street & Park Avenue" (Waldman 576)
This overcrowded, hot and perhaps grimy cityscape is realized by a plenitude of nouns--indeed the poem is Objectivist especially in its self-conscious reporting of "elevated trains track over language / run over syllables on elevated tracks, fuse words / together, (w)rap lyrical que pasas on the move."
It is no accident that the majority of the poems dated 1966-76, the second section of Waldman's anthology, makes reference to the city specifically and to cosmopolitanism generally--not counting a number of obviously urban poets whose poem or two selected for the collection just happen not to meet this criterion. To equate urban poetry with the New York School misses the point, in other words, even though its contributions to this genre are undeniable. There are wonderful pieces that are clearly "New York" such as Tony Towle's "Social Poem" containing lines like "I seem to want to talk about something, / but it is missing, / which makes it a personal remark / which I stop to listen to / as if the bells had stopped ringing / but I were persisting / as if the walls were further away / than just on the other side." Even so, there are other lines that could have been found in Blackburn: "And I still cross Houston Street / in the path of the many drivers from New Jersey / who I am sure all nice people / when they get back home; but in the meantime / they are after me" (Waldman 365, 366). Or here is one of Alice Notley's "Postcards":
Everyone thinks you're
the Goddess of Compassion
but I know you also have
piles & a scarcely controlled
urge to sing for a living.
So much for you. [Š]
I read this poem and recall seeing, decades ago, in a mimeographed magazine, Ted Berrigan's and Joe Brainard's "bugger poems." I also hear Blackburn again, and in Notley's easy challenge, "So much for you," I recall di Prima's "In case you put me down I put you down / already" or, from another piece in the same series, "I hope / you go thru hell / tonight / beloved. / I hope / you choke to death / on lumps of stars / and by your bed a window / with frost / and moon and frost and / you want to scream / and can't" (Dinners and Nightmares 118); these lines border on the subjunctive mood and at the same time patiently enumerate the nouns of the world (to echo George Oppen) as seen through a city window. It would be wrong to insist that this poem is not indebted to O'Hara whom di Prima read and was friendly with. In any case, I have not been trying to argue that the New York School should not hold a place of honor in the history of the Poetry Project; it's just that other poetries, and other persons who wrote them, should be equally honored. The status of the image afforded by Black Mountain poetics, as derived from Pound and Williams primarily, gave rise to an urban poetry of sensation and milieu that especially captured, moreover, New York City.
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