Tag Archives: Kate Braverman

W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The word of W.S. Merwin’s death, at age 91, spread rapidly Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, at least among poets and artists, especially those over the age of 50. While there may be a significant number of young poets who admire Merwin’s poetry, I am not sure there are many under the age of 30 who have read more than one of his books all the way through. That may well change in another decade or two, for I suspect that Merwin’s poetry will gain many new adherents as the anthology wars of the past century firm up the boundaries of their domains within the canon, and let the current anthology wars map out new entanglements.

I mention Merwin’s presence in anthologies in part because there are far too many assumptions about the “anthology wars” between 1957 and 1977. If Merwin had an enormous influence on young poets in the 1970s, it was in part because his poetry reflected a radical shift in poetics in the years between the publication of the first edition of “New Poets of England and America” and “Naked Poetry.” In the latter anthology, Merwin somehow managed to encompass a meditative state of consciousness, ecology, and the fragility of life itself, with a vulnerable lyricism. He subdued any tendency towards sentimentality, and yet his thoughts brimmed with effusively wistful yearning.

Only a few of the poets who were in the first edition of “Naked Poetry” are still alive. Robert Bly and Gary Snyder are probably the most prominent of the survivors. Perhaps, in fact, the only two survivors. (Kenneth Patchen, Theodore Roethke, Weldon Kees, and Sylvia Plath were already dead. Berryman and Lowell would both be dead before not much more than another half-dozen years. Then an interlude before Ginsberg, Creeley, Levertov, Kinnell and Levine passed. And now Merwin, the other poet in addition to Levine to become national poet laureate.

Both Levine and Merwin were superb readers, and rather than comment on Merwin’s poetry as a way of observing his passing, I have decided to share my memories of two readings. The first time I saw Merwin read was at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center at UCLA, a structure that no longer exists. The reading series that took place there has, in fact, moved to the Hammer Museum, and been renamed in honor of Doris Curran, the long-time advocate of the original project. After a glowing introduction, Merwin stood behind the lectern and said to the assembled crowd. “I don’t have any of my books with me. Does anyone have copies?”

Within a half-minute, a hefty retinue of paperback and hardcover volumes had made their way to rest in front of him, and he proceeded to pick his way through them with the same familiarity that a rock star might churn through a set list of his or her most famous songs. Kate Braverman and I had both found ourselves sitting next to each other at the reading, and afterwards we had a bit of a laugh. No matter how famous someone might be, should they really show up without bringing any of their books?

I had come prepared to walk away with renewed admiration for his work. I had first read “The Lice” when I was a student at UCLA, and have a distinct memory of sitting in the library with that volume; and Merwin was a significant part of the first conversation I had with a clerk named William (“Koki”) Iwamoto at Papa Bach Bookstore in the late summer of 1971. Koki showed me several of his poems, which reflected Merwin’s influence, though they had at their core a voice distinct enough to push away any presumption of mere imitation. It was mainly because of Koki that I became the first poetry editor of BACHY magazine, and without his recommendation and the start it gave me, probably none of the work I have done on behalf of Los Angeles poets would have come to pass.

It was one particular poem by Merwin, however, that irritated both Kate and me. It was his quartet about the “chambers of the heart,” and its numerical predictability left both of us mimicking in a mutual sarcastic whisper the obvious opening of the final segment. “In the fourth chamber of the heart” …. We almost laughed at ourselves for our insolence. The restless impetuosity of our youthful logic had frighteningly little patience.

In the late 1990s, or thereabouts, I remember another UCLA sponsored reading that featured Merwin. He read with majestic aplomb. It was one of those pure hours of solemn, ecstatic adoration of poetry that one remembers and reabsorbs as often as possible.

The anniversary of his death is now known, and I hope it is properly honored.

Mike Sonksen’s review of “CROSS-STROKES”

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lana Turner, issue number 9
“A Reunion Party of Sorts,” by Mike Sonksen – January 16, 2017

Lana Turner Journal has just published Mike Sonksen’s comprehensive review of Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the anthology which Neeli Cherkovski and I devoted half a decade to co-editing. Sonksen meticulously acknowledges every contributor to the anthology and provides representative sample of their poems. In a way that I am sure he is not aware of, he has followed the instructions on the permissions form that we had to negotiate with New Directions. No poet was to get a larger billing in any advertisement we would take out. This is to say that we were not allowed to promote the book by putting Kenneth Rexroth’s and Nate Mackey’s names in big type and Kevin Opstedal and Sharon Doubiago in small type. Not that Neeli and I would have ever done otherwise!

The next reviewer should have a much easier task, should she or he be willing to “collaborate” with Mike the Poet, as Sonksen is also known as. This is to say that a follow-up review might well benefit from focusing on a comparison of Cross-Strokes with other “regional” anthologies, including those that do not acknowledge themselves as such. It always amuses me to see anthologies that assume they present a national survey of American poetry, but have far less than ten percent of their contributors based in California.

Here is the link to Mike Sonksen’s review:
http://www.lanaturnerjournal.com/blog/a-reunion-party-of-poets

One very gratifying aspect of the roster of poets Cherkovski and I were able to assemble was their compatibility. If one were to try to put together a chronological anthology, the task might prove to be overwhelming. Consider trying to assemble a volume of poets born in the 1940s, a project that would probably fracture almost at the onset as poets or their executors point-blank rebuffed being associated by juxtaposition with figures inimical to their hopes for the art. Such an anthology, however, is probably needed if one is to understand how “post-modernism” pushed away from the massive influence of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry. Maybe the most important part of this potential anthology would be not the poems, but essays at the end in which the poets address their “generation(s)” within that decade’s outset. The time to begin requesting these essays is the next four years, while the surviving remnant of American poets born in the 1940s will still be fairly substantial. This will not hold up indefinitely; after all, we were forced to pause and consider the inexorable attrition of our ranks this past year with the deaths of two poets, Ted Greenwald and Ray DiPalma, who first appeared together in an anthology back in 1985. In many ways, that year marked a turning point in American poetry. Three major anthologies appeared in 1985: In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman; “Poetry Loves Poetry,” edited by Bill Mohr; and The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by David Bottoms and David Smith. The Morrow Anthology represented the first indication of the rapid growth of MFA programs in the United States since 1980, while Silliman’s and my anthologies presented a case for writing that centered itself on other questions of poetry’s social value other than academic legitimacy.

I did not ever meet Ray DiPalma, though I certainly remember the first anthology in which I saw his work: Quickly Aging Here, edited by Geoff Hewitt. DiPalma appeared frequently in Invisible City magazine, edited by Paul Vangelisti and John McBride, and continued to be published by Vangelisti throughout the rest of his life. One of DiPalma’s other long-time supporters and allies was Michael Lally, who has posted his recollections on his blog, “Lally’s Alley.” According to Lally, there will be a memorial for DiPalma on Wednesday, February 15, at the School of Visual Arts Gallery from 6 – 8 p.m. (601 West 26th Street).
http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2016/12/ray-dipalma-rip-by-michael-lally.html

I heard Ted Greenwald read several times over the decades. The first time was at a bookstore called Intellectuals & Liars, which was located near the corner of 11th Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. It was an odd pairing: he read with Kate Braverman, who left the reading grumbling about Greenwald’s lack of personal narrative. Although I had published Kate’s first book, Milk Run, a couple of years earlier and was very pleased that she went to become a successful novelist, I was more impressed and intrigued that night with Greenwald’s work, and I was excited when he read in Los Angeles again, at Beyond Baroque, shortly after Dennis Cooper took over the reading series. It was a quarter century before I saw read again, at St. Mark’s with Lyn Hejinian. He was as on key as ever, and his “voice” (which almost always seems like an illusory concept to me) was as pitch-perfect to his vision as it had been when I first heard it.

That I am hardly alone in my profound admiration for Greenwald’s poetry was reflected in the line-up of poets who spoke at his memorial service at St. Mark’s Poetry Project back on September 16, which included Alan Bernheimer, Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies, John Godfrey, Erica Hunt, Michael Lally, Ron Padgett, Kit Robinson, Patricia Spears Jones, Stacy Szymaszek, Chris Tysh, Lewis Warsh, Barrett Watten, and Terence Winch