In honor of National Poetry Month, poet Michael Friedman highlights ten ‘under-the-radar’ poetry classics, which break all the rules of verse (and that is a good thing)
Don’t might be there
―Ted Greenwald, Jumping the Line
What is the deal with poetry? Why do we read it? It’s been said that innovation in writing typically happens first in poetry and only later in fiction because, by and large, poetry exists completely outside the marketplace. That has the ring of truth to it.
I don’t know about you, but if I begin to read something that seems like poetry, my eyes immediately glaze over, and I just can’t be bothered. When it comes to poetry or prose, I want to be surprised, and there is nothing I like more than the sensation I get when I think, I’ve never read anything quite like this before. So, give me poetry that doesn’t seem “literary” and breaks all the rules―with style, authority and wit―and you’ve got my attention. The normative model for the lyric poem is essentially the Romantic model: the speaker recalls a significant event from his or her personal life; there is a linear, logical progression; the diction is elevated and features figures of speech; and the poem closes with a heightened moment of intense feeling or epiphany. For my money, the poets who have been doing the most exciting, innovative work have found inventive, unexpected ways to torque that model or turn it on its head.
The first five books in this list are bona fide cult classics and have long been out of print. (If you’ve read them all, my hat goes off to you!). The next five are so good, I’m not sure why they haven’t received more attention or why they seem to have dropped off the map. All are by poets born before 1950. Several of the poets are associated with the New York School (Mathews, Berkson, Fagin, Godfrey, Brainard), and a few are typically grouped with Language poets (Greenwald, Benson, Rodefer). Six of the authors (Greenwald, Berkson, Fagin, Rodefer, Mathews and Ricard) died in the past few years, some within just the last eighteen months or so, so the time seemed particularly right to revisit their work.
1. Practicing by Jamie MacInnis (Tombouctou, 1980)
“Perfectly good words / without any meaning at all / can be written in the sky / by airplanes full of meaning.” In her twenties, MacInnis was one of the talented young poets among Jack Spicer’s circle in San Francisco during the sixties. Her gifts are impressive. The lyric poems in Practicing are delicate, witty, affecting. The subjects range from skywriting to love to Charlie Chan movies. There is an almost childlike simplicity to the work―the conversational language is unadorned. But while the poems may at first glance seem effortless or offhand, they are, in fact, remarkably spare and tightly constructed and display a genuine authority.
The publisher, Michael Wolfe’s Tombouctou based in Bolinas, California, also brought out books by Joanne Kyger, Jim Carroll, Lucia Berlin, Tom Clark, Duncan McNaughton, Leslie Scalapino and Clark Coolidge, among others. Practicing was preceded by Hand Shadows, a mimeo book by MacInnis from Larry Fagin’s storied East Village small press, Adventures in Poetry, in 1974. And, in 1978, Fagin devoted an issue of his mimeo newsletter, Un Poco Loco, to MacInnis’s work. I’m not aware of any other MacInnis publications, and, except for four poems in Hand Shadows (“I love the New Yorker,” “I like poetry better,” “Heaven” and “It’s funny how faggots and tout le monde”), all of the poems in Hand Shadows and the issue of Un Poco Loco appear in Practicing. Her output was sadly, then, not great before she largely disappeared from the scene as she reportedly struggled with substance abuse. Some fascinating, tantalizing passages about MacInnis and her (privileged San Francisco) background appear in Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan, 1998) by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian.
2. Where the Weather Suits My Clothes by John Godfrey (Z Press, 1984)
The discursive, elliptical, reflective, funny, conversational, assured prose poems in this chapbook (from Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press) are among Godfrey’s best, and he is a master of the form. No one has a better ear. An earlier, full-length collection, Dabble (1982), had been released by Full Court Press (also publisher of Joe Brainard’s I Remember; Ron Padgett and Anne Waldman were two of the editors). A couple of books from Geoffrey Young’s seminal small press, The Figures (Midnight on Your Left, 1988, and Push the Mule, 2001), and a book from Adventures in Poetry, Private Lemonade (2003), followed. More recently, Wave Books has taken up the mantle. My favorite poem title in this collection: “The Blessed Virgin is a ‘10’.” Here’s an excerpt from the title poem:
They don’t call it “hockey” in this bar, they call it “honkey.” Uh-oh. You take the guy on the left, I’ll take the guy on the right. Hey. HEY! Where you going?
3. Villon by Stephen Rodefer, under the pseudonym Jean Callais (The Pick Pocket Series, 1981)
Everyone loves Rodefer’s dazzling, non-linear masterpiece, Four Lectures (The Figures, 1982). If you are a poet and have not read it, then I suggest that you consider getting a real job (either that or immediately find a copy of it or his Selected from English publisher Carcanet or one of his many other books from The Figures (such as Mon Canard) or Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck, and make up for lost time). His Villon is not nearly as well-known. It consists of wonderfully sly, loose translations and updates of the wry, plaintive poems of the great fifteenth-century French poet-petty criminal Francois Villon. Part of the magic of the book is the way in which the Villon texts provide such a perfect conduit for Rodefer, who was himself considered a mercurial figure among his many friends. (All those who knew him have a story!) While he lived in the Bay Area for many years, Rodefer decamped to Paris in the nineties, after a teaching gig had brought him to Cambridge University (he developed a particularly devoted following in England, something which continues to this day). He is buried in Pre Lachaise Cemetery.
In “Mes Trois Povres Orphelins” the poet muses about his children:
They can go as far as they please,
but I forbid them to go farther.
I hope they don’t get involved with any gurus,
―that’s too heavy for young people nowadays.
I would sacrifice an arm and a leg
just to keep them happy,
with a skateboard, say, or a cherry tart,
‘cause that’s what they’re really into.
4. 1979-1980 by Rene Ricard (DIA, 1979)
“I was born / to live for him / to die for him // now I could kill him.” Thus begins the marvelous “attack” poem that is the centerpiece of this funny, confessional, ballsy, over-the-top book from Ricard, also an astute art critic (credited with putting Basquiat on the map in his celebrated 1981 piece “The Radiant Child” in Artforum) and before that a fixture in Warhol’s Factory and actor in several Warhol films. “I was born” is a hilarious/harrowing, lengthy bill of particulars cataloging (in graphic detail) an ex-lover’s misdeeds. Is it too much to compare it to Catullus? (For a description of Ricard’s infamous reading of this poem at The Poetry Project while the subject, poet Steven Hall, and his Scottish mother, no less, sit stoically in the front row, see Eileen Myles’s Inferno.) The book was edited for DIA by Gerard Malanga, a fellow Factory alum and poet. Another, much shorter (untitled) poem reads: “Yesterday I saw a man / In front of a hotel / Calling, ‘Dick, Dick.’ // How many times have I / Wanted to stand / On a street corner / And yell for dick?”
5. Selected Declarations of Dependence by Harry Mathews (Z Press, 1977)
Mathews is best known as a cult novelist and the author of singular confections like The Conversions (1962), Tlooth, (1966) and My Life in CIA (2005). He is also celebrated for having been for many years the only American member of the French group the Oulipo (whose members have included Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau). And he is held in esteem by the cognoscenti for having co-founded the elegant, ahead-of-its-time journal Locus Solus with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler in the early sixties. But he was also a terrific poet.
This book is comprised of a variety of texts written using Oulipian-type constraints. There is a story containing only the vocabulary of proverbs. The heart of the book is a series of uproarious “list” poems consisting simply of surprising and inventive recombinations of proverbs. A few of my favorite lines follow. “The early bird gets the things which are Caesar’s.” “Early bird, unlucky in love.” “When in Rome, do as the gift horses do.” “When in Rome, sailor’s delight.”
6. Jumping the Line by Ted Greenwald (Roof Books, 1999)
“Don’t might be there / Be there.” For me, these lines perfectly capture the immediacy, deadpan humor, insouciance and casual brilliance of Greenwald’s oeuvre. He often composed his poems in quatrains or tercets. In short spare stanzas, Greenwald works his magic, creating tightly crafted, continually surprising combinations and permutations (including minute variations and repetitions), typically from snippets of found or overheard conversation, expressions, idioms and clichés. He wrote constantly. I think of him as a conceptual artist as much as a writer, and Greenwald had a longstanding connection to the art world extending back to his years as a dealer in the eighties when he ran his own eponymous gallery on Mott Street in NYC’s Chinatown. His body of work―in books too numerous to list―reflects a single-minded pursuit of his distinctive vision and represents an impressive accomplishment.
Jumping the Line was published by James Sherry’s venerable Roof Books. In recent years, Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press released several excellent books by Greenwald, including Two Wrongs and 3. His last collection, The Age of Reasons, edited by Miles Champion, gathered previously unpublished work and was brought out by Wesleyan University Press in 2016.
7. Open Clothes by Steve Benson (Atelos, 2005)
“[C]an you hear my shirt when it rustles?” “Were the bubbles bursting fast or slow, by the time you walked into the room?” The long pieces in this book, consisting of exact transcriptions of improvisational performances given by Benson in the aughts (including at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC and Kelly Writers’ House in Philadelphia), are real showstoppers. Each is comprised exclusively of a lengthy series of questions. The actual performances were electric high-wire acts in which Benson’s tone was hard to pin down due to his deadpan delivery. Moments of sly humor are occasionally punctuated by what might or might not be unexpectedly candid or poignant moments of self-reflection. The written texts are just as exciting and funny―and like no other poetry you’ve read. Benson’s other books include the large Blue Book (The Figures, 1988). Open Clothes was brought out by Lyn Hejinian and Traviz Ortiz’s Atelos. (How is it that Atelos with regularity published so many fine books, including Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, Kit Robinson’s The Crave and Clark Coolidge’s Alien Tatters?)
8. Complete Fragments by Larry Fagin (Cuneiform Press, 2012)
“That’s Helga, the chick who shares my pad.” “Don’t worry, I’ve never done this before.” “Let go of my leg.” Complete Fragments collects many of Fagin’s virtuosic disjunctive, playful, erudite, surprising prose poems, which have been something of a well-kept secret and will be a revelation to those not familiar with them. These prose works represent much of his output from the past thirty years, and marked a departure from his earlier, more linear work. Other Fagin books include I’ll Be Seeing You: Poems 1962-1976 (Full Court Press, 1978) and Rhymes of Jerk (Kulchur Foundation, 1974), as well as a variety of early mimeo books from Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh’s Angel Hair and limited edition artist books with visual artists Trevor Winkfield, George Schneeman and Richard Tuttle. He edited Adventures in Poetry mimeo books and magazines in the sixties and seventies, which he revived in 2000 (with Chris Mattison) as a publisher of an estimable series of perfect-bound books (by Jacqueline Waters, Merrill Gilfillan, Charles North, Jean Day, Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer and John Ashbery, among others). As a young poet in San Francisco in the sixties, Fagin was a member of Jack Spicer’s circle, where he was particularly close to the poet George Stanley. (In fact, if you go to City Lights Bookstore and take a look at the sixties-era oversize black and white group photo of Bay Area poets in the in the window, you can find a young (cute!) Fagin sitting front and center.) Clark Coolidge and Fagin had a strong friendship going back decades, and Coolidge’s Selected Poems: 1962-1985, which Fagin edited (a project many years in the making) was released by Station Hill shortly before Fagin’s death last year.
9. Lush Lifeby Bill Berkson (Z Press, 1984)
They don’t make them (poets) like Bill Berkson anymore: charming, a Manhattan society kid, movie-star handsome, talent to spare, a great raconteur. A student of Kenneth Koch’s in the late fifties and early sixties at The New School, he was asked by Koch to take over his class in the mid-sixties, where Berkson’s students included Bernadette Mayer, Charles North, Michael Brownstein and Patti Smith. Lush Life is my favorite of Berkson’s many books, in which his signature élan, sparkling wit and light touch shine bright. Frank O’Hara was a big Berkson fan (they did a number of collaborations together), and the affinities between them are clear. Berkson was the editor of the small press Big Sky in the seventies, taught for many years at the San Francisco Art Institute, and was a well-known art critic. He moved from NYC to Bolinas (I think it was Tom Clark who dubbed it the “psychedelic Peyton Place”) in the seventies before eventually settling in San Francisco. Readers of Jim Carroll’s Forced Entries will recall “Billy” Berkson as one of the author’s heroes.
It is a very long walk
over hill and dale
and through the entertainment capitals of the world
to the dump
10. Nothing to Write Home About by Joe Brainard (Little Caesar Press, 1981)
If you are a fan of Brainard’s I Remember (who isn’t?) (Full Court Press, 1975), then this book is for you. Paul Auster was instrumental in having Penguin reissue I Remember in 1995 (a year after the author’s death). Brainard’s main gig was as a successful neo-Pop artist. In his writing, he was an exemplar of a highly appealing bad-taste esthetic and mastered a faux-dumb deadpan prose. Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press published a series of terrific books of poetry in the late seventies and early eighties, and this is one of the best. I love the pieces (each one sentence long, many with one-word titles) in the sequence “Twenty-Three Mini-Essays.” They are hilarious and even better than those in Brainard’s earlier booklet Twenty-Nine Mini-Essays (Z Press, 1978). Another great out-of-print Brainard gem, if you can find it, is the oversize (pink) Selected Writings (Kulchur Foundation, 1971).