This may be my favorite anecdote, by far, about the arts in Buffalo among any I’ve read in the past five years. You’ll find it in Max Wickert’s hopelessly rollicking introduction to An Outriders Poetry Anthology: Poetry in Buffalo 1969-1979 and After (Outriders Poetry Project, 241 pages, $30 paper, $45 hardcover).
“It is around midnight on a Saturday in 1971 in Jack Clarke’s apartment on Buffalo’s West Side – a drab, cavernous, nearly unfurnished den, not a book in sight but crammed with people.” Poets are thick and furious, academic and otherwise. Poets’ girlfriends. Their unsuspecting husbands. “Various local hippies, actors, painters, druggies and cultural sightseers. Much drinking and/or inhaling, with Robert Creeley at the center of it all.”
Wickert, recently busted in a protest action in Hayes Hall at the University at Buffalo Main Street campus “piles in” with his “idol” poet John Logan. Wickert admits he is “very out of it, pickled and riding high on weed.” At the same time, Wickert – now 74 – was “sweating tenure” at UB. At that moment, his “marriage kaput, I’m having my very first quarrel in my first affair.”
He has an epiphany at Clarke’s party about Logan “flabby and plump and benign” and nodding off in his chair and “right next to him, wide-awake, one-eyed Creeley, very hard and skinny, straddles a chair in a peculiarly rigid position. The two of them are haloed in a greenish light: a Halloween pumpkin perched next to a stalactite. Irreconcilable opposites. Twin archetypes of the New American Poetry.”
Let’s just call Wickert’s whole introduction to his anthology one of the best pieces ever written about Bohemian and cultural life in Buffalo and, in its way, as informative a piece about the lives of poets in Buffalo as I’ve ever read (I never knew before that Carl Dennis “was initially hired [in the UB English Department] as a specialist in Sir Philip Sidney; nobody dreamt that a few decades later he would be identified as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.”)
And while we’re at it, let’s not stop there with his superlative anthology of poems by the poets who traveled all over town and elsewhere reading from their work in his Outriders Poetry Series of the ’70s, later publishing work in his Outrider publishing series. I think Wickert’s anthology now takes a crucial place in the Buffalo Book Shelf that has been expanding so propitiously (and so indispensably) in the past decade. As if all of its gorgeous and revealing documentation of Buffalo’s poetic vitality weren’t enough, the book ends with capsule biographies of the poets and the finest chronology of “Literature & The Arts 1960-1980” that I know of. Truth to be told, it puts the excellent recent catalog to the Albright-Knox Gallery’s Exhibition “Wish You Were Here” to shame, I think.
There is always something giddy about April as National Poetry Month. In the world of high-minded book marketing, National Poetry Month is always infinitely more fun than those undeniably worthy months devoted to books of African-American and women’s histories and cultures. You find in National Poetry Month whole days devoted to people crowding into Westminster Church to read the complete poetry of Emily Dickinson.
And, between covers, you get, in book form, wonderful representatives of poetry’s perennially bipolar life in America that a high Max Wickert hallucinated one night in Jack Clarke’s cavernous den as “a Halloween pumpkin perched next to a stalactite.” (Wickert’s anecdote has a hilarious payoff when a doorknob falls off and he finds himself accidentally locked in a room alone with Creeley “and suddenly his one eye shimmers with panic. He starts dashing about; he actually scurries from wall to wall, utterly frantic. I think he thinks he’s been locked up forever with a groupie and no exit.” It gets even funnier, but I’ll leave it to readers of the book.)
In poetry’s merry dialogue between fellow travelers of decorum and academicism on one side and those of disorder, disrepute and disputation on the other, April becomes a kind of monthlong party between covers. The word “celebration” is, at last, no hyperbole.
In the wide world of decorum and respectability, we have – above all perhaps – a splendid new translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Liveright, 527 pages, $29.95) by the great critic and polymath Clive James. That James takes liberties and has his own way of translating Dante is immediately obvious from his translation of Dante’s third book “Paradiso” as “Heaven” rather than “Paradise.” His basic stanza isn’t Dante’s terza rima but the quatrain, and he admits that among his chief difficulties was the fact that “for an Italian poet, it’s NOT rhyming that’s hard” (all those word-ending vowels).
I don’t know that James’ translation will come close to supplanting those considered standard, but in a truly astonishing literary life, this translation by the woefully ailing 73-year-old Australian-born critic isn’t merely something of a magnum opus, it’s a magnificent annihilation of all the narrow specialists who might insist that no single figure could possibly be a great Dante translator, a great literary critic (see the Norton Paperback “Cultural Cohesion,” 619 pages, $21.95) and one of the wittiest TV critics and TV presences alive (Princess Diana, said James, “was interested in everything and knew almost nothing … There are various things she could have been. She could have been a dancer. … But starting with a privileged background is not the way to become a ballerina. Studying until your feet ache is the way to become a ballerina.”)
James has been all of those and more and his triumph as a Dante translator is as good an opportunity to celebrate him in toto as any.
A. Van Jordan’s The Cineaste (Norton, 133 pages, $26.95) actually puts poetry and film together in an arresting way with a brilliant centerpiece in “The Homesteader,” about the great black filmmaking pioneer Oscar Micheaux, the trial of Leo Frank and the genius of D.W. Griffith whose “Birth of a Nation” gave us both an epic and a grammar of film at the same time as a horror of unmitigated racism.
Within the bulging cabinet of other films Jordan seizes on for inspiration are everything from Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and Michael Campus’ 1973 “blaxploitation” movie “The Mask.”
Brad Leithauser’s superb The Oldest Word for Dawn: New and Selected Poetry (Knopf, 234 pages, $27.95) collects the work of a witty and powerful poet, novelist and critic, now 60, who defines his reader thusly: “Someone who shares my love of animals, including weird prosodic animals; who senses poetry in numbers; who sees no reason why even an emotionally complicated human story might not naturally enfold in verse.”
May Swenson (1913-1989) was a great poetic original who, quite splendidly, gets the full Library of America treatment for National Poetry Month in its edition of her Collected Poems (Library of America, 759 pages, $40) including a large pile of previously uncollected work. Cid Corman, editor of Origin, once told her “May, your language points to itself. You have a tendency toward pleasure in language for its own sake,” which is undoubtedly sinful somewhere, somehow although I’ll be damned if I know why. She once wrote that her poems “are prayers to a god to come into being.” She supported herself for a while, among other ways, reading manuscripts and sending rejection letters for James Laughlin’s New Directions. She ended up winning most of the finer prizes – Bollingen Prize, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” (out of which she gave her seven siblings each “Swenson Fellowships” of $3,000”).
On the opposite end of poetry’s giddily bipolar life in America, we have the second edition of Paul Hoover’s mammoth Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (Norton, 982 pages, $39.95 paperback) which is how universities now teach the subject. And that’s more than a little comic considering that it begins with Charles Olson, who seems to have invented the term “postmodern” in a 1951 letter to Creeley (no more “trash of discourse & gods”) and was, in his time at UB, a fount of academic revolt against “the private-soul-at-any-public-wall.” And it ends with the poetics of Flarf which, we’re told began when poet Gary Sullivan, to avenge a grandfather “scammed by a poetry contest,” set out “to write the worst poem possible.” His friends were inspired to collect random Google phrases and, said Rich Snyder, “the poems were so bad, they were good. A terrible beauty was born.” Call it Flarf.
Or, as Drew Gardner delineates the difference between Flarf and a predecessor conceptualism: “Flarf wants you/ Conceptualism wants to put you in a state where you want to be put out of your misery. … Flarf maintains a super collider attitude toward the world-at-large/ Conceptualism wants you to know it has read Lacan.”
Pumpkin or stalactite. Take your pick.
Jeff Simon is The News’ arts and books editor.