Essays & Articles

"To possess a telescope without its other essential half --
the microscope --
seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension.
The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope,
while the left eye peers into the microscope."
                                                                              Leonora Carrington, painter


"Keats/ and Light"
by Diane di Prima
pp 13-37, in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute:
Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics,
Volume One,
Edited by Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb
Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1978.)
Left:    poet Diane di Prima  
June 24, 1975, Boulder Colorado-- The actual stuff that poetry is made out of is light. There are poems where the light actually comes through the page, the same way that it comes through the canvas in certain Flemish paintings, so you're not seeing light reflected off the painting, but light that comes through, and I don't know the tricks that make this happen. But I know they're there and you can really tell when it's happening.and when it's not. So I've been rying to figure out what makes it happen.And I think it's not very different from the light of meditation. So that I'm beginning to suspect that what makes it happen is the way the sound moves in you, moving your spirit in a certainway to produce a certain effect which is like the effect of light.
And I want to read to you something about the way sound moves in you, the way the sound moves in the hearer. It's from the second book of   Natural and Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa in the 1400's. In the second volume of this three-volume work, Agrippa gets a lot into numbers. When he gets into numbers, he gets into music. When he gets into music, he gets at one point into the fact that vocal music is the most effective of all musics for moving the hearer. And what he has to say about vocal music. And what he has to say about vocal music is not that very different from the effects of a well-read, well-chanted poem:
Singing can do more than the sound of an instrument, inasmuch as it, arising  by an harmonial consent, from the conceit of the mind and by imperious affection of the fantasy and heart, easily penetrateth by motion, with the refracted and well-tempered Air, the Aerious spirit of the hearer, which is the bond of soul and body, and transferring the affection and mind of the Singer with it, it moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearer's fantasy by his fantasy, and mind by his mind, and striketh the mind, and striketh the heart, and pierceth even to the inwards of the soul, and by little and little, infuseth even dispositions;  moreover, it moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body . . .
He goes on to say that breath is, of course, spirit, and that what happens is that the spirit,  your spirit as a person singing or chanting or reading aloud, enters the ear and mingles in the body of the hearer, with his spirit, and so moves and changes the body's humors and dispositions. What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different than a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produce--or perceive--of light or other really high energy--meditative high--comes only out of changes in this physical instrument.
And so there is a way, to me, is that the most high aim of poetry is to create that sense of light. There are passages in the Cantos that do that. There are poems in every language that do it, and it's a question of some real subtle juxtapositions of vowels. Pound tried to track it down when he talked about the tone leading of vowels and harmonizing the different vowels, and Duncan is into that when he talks about assonance and "rhyme". Like picking up the same vowel over and over for a long time, and then changing it. Or paced--spaced--repetition of sound. Pound tried earlier to get at it when he wrote--in his critical essays-that we've always in recent centuries had a stressed beat in English verse, whereas the older, quantitative verse, where some syllables are more drawn out than others, gives more the sense of music. It also gives more the space for that phenomenon of light to occur.
One thing that I have just a glimmer, have a handle on, that I really think may be worth thinking about, is this phenomenon of light, in all, maybe in all arts. How it could suddenly burst into light in you body, if it does.
Another really separate thing that I wanted to do today is to share some passages of the letters of John Keats with you. Passages about the writing of poetry. They were maybe my earliest information on what poetry was about. Just like the most recent information I have is this of the breath and light, for me the earliest information was this that I want to read to you next. When I was a youngster, I had been reading a lot of Western philosophy and novels and came upon in a book, a novel by Somerset Maugham, a quotation from Keats. And then I pursued finding Keats and discovered there was poetry and wondered why anybody did it with philosophy when they could do it in a poem. And you can do it different in a poem every day, you can make a different construct. You can make a different reality every day instead of sticking to your system for the rest of your life, like poor Schopenhauer. So at that point I fell totally completely passionately endlessley eternally in love with John Keats. And mainly the information that was in his letters.
Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821 at the age of 26. These letters were written between 1817 and 1820, so Keats is in his early 20's, 23 or 24. This first quote gives you some sense of his sense of commitment to poetry:
April 17, 1817-- I find I cannot exist without Poetry--eternal Poetry--half the day will not do--the whole of it--I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan. I had become all in a Tremble from not having written anything of late--the Sonnet overleaf did me good. I slept the better las tnight for it--this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.
Less than a month later, he begins to really get into it--get led by the pursuit:
May 10, 1817--I've asked myself so often why I should be a poet more than other men, seeing how great a thing it is--how great things are to be gained by it--what a thing to be in the mouth of Fame--that at last the idea has grown . . . monstrously beyond my seeming power of attainment . . . Yet 'tis a disgrace to fail, even in a huge attempt; and at this moment I drive the thought from me . . . However I must think that difficulties nerve the Spirit of a man--they make our prime objects a refuge as well as a passion . . . the looking upon the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth and its contents, as materials to form greater things--that is to say, ethereal things . . .
At this point, he's climbing, in some sense, out--really climbing out of the matter universe, and there's a flicker, kind of a flicker, of a real gnostic consciousness: how we have to climb back through all the realms, all the concentric spheres of matter, like the planetary spheres, the zodiacal spheres, back into the immaterial. And one way to do that-- use it all up-- every minute. Let's go on. Here's a quote about the long poem.
October 8, 1817-- Why endeavor after a long poem? To which I should answer, do not the lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in, where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading: which may be food for a week's stroll in the Summer? . . . Besides, a long poem is a test of invention, which I take to be the Polar star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails--and Imagination the Rudder.
Diane di Prima & Amira Baraka (Leroi Jones)
Amira Baraka and Diane di Prima
I find myself very often when I'm reading something someone gives me, I find myself saying, "you sound like you're just getting started." You know, at the point where the poem finishes. Why not go on for twenty, fifty more pages? "Cause what we tend to kind of like to do is put our toe in?--or like  peek in through the door and stay on the threshold. And if you go past the point where you know what you're talking about and then thru all the blather that goes after that, you might come out in an inner chamber, you know? You just might. You might blather for the rest of your life--a lot of us do--but that's a chance you gotta take. Anyway . . .
Here's a take he did on genius, a take on what "a man of genius" is:
November 22, 1817 -- Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellet--abut they have not any individuality, any detrmined Characer--I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self  Men of Power . . . I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of Imagination.What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not,--flr I have teh same idea of all our passions as of  Love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty . . . The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream,--he awoke and found it truth:--I am more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning--and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his Goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! . . . I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness--I took not for it if it be not in the present hour,--nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part iin its existence and pick about the gravel.
This quote, for me, has three different nuggets. First, the thing he goes back to often and later about having--here he says the man of Genius and later he says the poetic character--having no individuality. Later, he goes into it in more detail and talks about partaking in the life of every creature. Really, what he's trying to get at, or describe, seems to be some kind of egoless state. There wasn't that kind of vocabulary in England, thank God, in 1817--thank God, because otherwise he might have said: "Hey man, I just reached a far-out ego-less state the other day, watching this sparrow," and we wouldn't have what we have got.
Then Keats' idea of the imagination, which is really not that different from Blake's--the imagination creates worlds. It brings into being whatever it can vividly and completely conceive. "The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream, he awoke and found it truth." Creative imagination: that idea keeps growing with him all through his life. Somebody, a little old lady in Phoenix--it was one of those question and answer periods after a reading--asked me what I thought the function of the poet was in this society. And I said that if you could imagine anything clearly enough, and tell it precisely enough, that you could bring it about. Anyway, the theory of imagination as creative principle keeps growing for Keats. It is for him--as for Blake--a cornerstone.
And the third thing here--for me, one of the guiding sentences of twenty years of my life, or maybe still, maybe always--is, "I am cerain of nothing baut the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination." That about says it.
Okay, this next is a paragraph that relly got Olsoon off, he quotes it a lot--it's the passage on negative capability. It's very interesting, and these things: imagination, genius as a kind of egolessness, are all part of it. There is a system here, if you wanted to sytemize it. There is a growing system of thought that Keats is evolving, but systemetizing it would be simplistic--it would do him an injustice.

As Keats said, "I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning." I want to just take the quotes and look at them--follow him chronologically through the process.
December 22, 1817--[The winter solstice, by the way.] The excellence of evry art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth . . . several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, , especialy in Literature, and which Shakespear possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
So, at this point what Keats is calling "a sense of beauty," what obliterates all consideration or all thinking process, is that same experience that we have whenever it all drops away. A kind of satori. My friend Katagiri Roshi, who's a Zen master in Minneapolis, gave six lectures once on the word WOW. WOW, as the complete American Zen experience. When it all drops away, when the sense of beauty obliterates all consideration, or the sense of the overwhelmingness of it, WOW, that's all we said for the lat three days, me and my two friends, as we drove here from California, through all this incredible country, and we kept saying . . . they were asleep one night and I'm driving, and saying WOW! WOW!
Negative capability. Now you see how that idea, first of the man of genius not partaking of any inidividual character, becomes a bigger ormore universal idea, which is that idea of negative cpability, of not pursuing any viewpoint. It's kind of a real Eastern idea. Except that it happened fresh from nothing at this point in this kid in some dumpy English suburb. "When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." And to get that state, clearly enough focused to make it the matter of poetry, so taht you don't try to "make sense," but become this receiving tube, become this focusing point.
I have been asked, "how does the artist function in society?"  I'm not saying that the high role of the artist is to function in society at all. But the way that your art does function socially is that when you can visualize clearly any possible human state, or social state for that matter, or universe, and focus it clearly and precisely enough, and then bring it into being either verbally in a poem, or in a painting--you bring that world into existence. And it's permanently here, it doesn't go away. Doesn't even go away when the book gets burned, look at Sappho. Those worlds don't go away.

Question: Do you see any contradiction between that and a statement by Picasso that one should have an idea of what one wants but not too precise an idea.
Oh, no! I don't see any contradiction. Because, you see, the idea of what you want, it's just your launching pad, just what you start off from, it has nothing to do with what you make. When you get through that threshold and you enter the chambeer, that's where you start to see clearly. If your idea is too precise, you might be at that door forever. You know, 'cause you might have the wrong combination for the lock. For example, I might say I know this next part of this poem has to have that feeling of line that they had in paintings in Sienna. I don't mean anything but that I have a feel of something about to happen there. That's a non-precise idea, and at that point, that's all you have. And then when you enter into the act of composing, at that point you have nothing--everything drops away, and you have only what you're receiving. Your whole purpose as an artist is to make yourself a fine enough organism to most precisely receive, and most precisely transmit. And at that point--total attentiion to total detail, total suspension of everything but that vision, whatever it is, and gain, at that point, no idea at all, no idea. The idea was just your first--the idea is what made you get up that morning and put your shoes on. And when you find yourself in an incredible grove, it's not because you had an idea you were gonna get there. But when you get to the grove, you damn well better open your eyes. It's two different parts of the process.  More Keats . . .
February 3, 1818. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does nt startle it or amaze it with itself--but with its subject . . . we need not be teased with grandeur and merit: when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.

Poet Diane di Prima

Note: more text of Diane di Prima's lecture
on Keats/Light and his notion of
"negative capability"
to be uploaded by maryclaire
this weekend . . .
I will do my best, it's a lot of typing.
March 7, 2003


The Alluvial Marshland: 
The Development of Imagination
and the Power of Memory

by Maryclaire Wellinger, March, 2003

The Tigris River . . .
Make a cup of your hands,
cradle its fragile body of water,
and let its tributaries flow through you fingers.
You are cradling the cradle of civilization.
On the Eve of War, here sitting at my computer in Marblehead, Massachusetts, I am meditating upon the vast alluvial Marshland at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a fragile ecoregion. This life-giving and life-sustaining marshland was damaged by the Gulf War, and its waters have been bled by Saddam Hussein for a decade.  For ecological information, read the four articles on:
This vast  alluvial marshland is the Glacier's gift to the birds-- pelicans, egrets, flamingos-- the greatest fly-over for all Eurasia. This place also has been the home of the Marsh Arabs for 3,000 years.  It is where you would go to collect papyrus reeds and to build yourself a sailing vessel, sound and seaworthy. The impending war, with its heartless bombs, depleted uranium, and killing spills of chemicals and oil , threatens the marshland's lifeblood, its waters,  to extinction.  This poet expresses her despair in the poem "Great Glacier -- Monumental Sculptor" --see 
One of the four articles on the NO MORE WAR page, explains the crisis in a scientific way:
 Environment Problem Type:  HABITAT LOSS.  Due to the marsh draining, there is a large bio-diversity problem.  FISH, BIRDS, and HUMANS are being displaced.  CROPS are also being destroyed, as well as the LAND and the marshes them-selves.  The salinization of the land is polluting formerly good agricultural areas, such as the land surrounding the `Amara Marsh.
But on the Eve of a War  which will reign an ordinance of bombs to a massively lethal degree and so will likely kill and wound many humans, families, students, mothers and children -- why concern myself with a  marshland?  You might wonder,  "of all the things to focus on".  Well, it's my way of connecting with the monumental nature of the war against Iraq -- it makes it real to me.  My friend Lisa Atkins, was talking about this problem with me on Monday. She is a mother of young children and she makes the war real by thinking of other young women like herself who are mothers, and how they must be frightened for themselves and their babies.
I also think of individual people -- a Gulf War veteran who has serious health problems because his body contains 100 times the safe dosage of depleted uranium. This substance was used by our troops in rifle bullets during the first Gulf War, and we have no way to treat our veterans who were harmed by that weapon. This makes it real to me. One person whose life has been severely impacted.
For me, the alluvial marshland is a place of mystery and beauty and the source of  life.  It is a place of great significance to me as a poet and artist because it is the place where I first learned how to live in my Imagination.

The Marshland was the Original Place Where I Learned to Live in my Imagination

Growing up in New England, I was introduced to the beauty and mystery of the marshland on Cape Cod during summer vacations when our family would rent a cottage.  Days and weeks to explore these coastal waters teaming with sea life, shore life-- birds, muskrats, fin-fish, and shellfish.  The marshland was the nurturing space for my imagination, my  psyche-soma teaming with images and connections-- colors and shapes that looked good and words and phrases that sounded good. The creatures who lived in the marsh had lyrical sounding names -- names like "hermit crabs" and "starfish." This was a place where I could go to-- literally-- as a child to live in my Imagination, think my own thoughts, meditate on my own dreams and create my own visions. 


"Memory, The Root of a Lily"
As an adult, I traveled with my ex-husband, Christopher Coulson, to England and was enthralled by the Saltcombe Estuary ecoregion and also the Romney Marshes near Cliffe and Rochester in Kent where Chris had lived before in England. Then in later years, we sailed through the landscape of East Anglia, along its system of tidal rivers, abandoned windmills, the stone foundations of  medieval hermitages, Roman bridges and flourishing farms that reached to the riverbanks and sheltered near the brick  corn exchange, still an active trading center. This was in the early  1980's. I wrote a poem, which you can read on my poem-paintings page, "Memory, the Root of a Lily"  which is about the nourishing food for growth our brain-heart memory gives to us -- it is about the positive aspects of how memory can sustain us. It might help to first read the poem  --  click on:

As a poet and painter in this present time and place, I still mostly live in my Imagination.  And it is this marshy sea and river place of my childhood  summers, wth its  forest of reeds, which sustains me now.  This is where I go to, and where the Life of My Imagination thrives-- this is the origin, the original place.   


The alluvial marshland's confluence of waters, its tidal comings and goings, is the place where I am creatively energized and artistically renewed. One moment, I am washed up, stranded on the mud, bleached out in the sun, open-mouthed,  agape--  gasping for air.  And then, I begin to feel a sensation, the lapping of water -- tidal waters are rushing in. I am renewed --  uplifted and buoyant  in salt-sea waters, to heights of fifteen feet or more to the tips of reeds.  I float on my back on a warm summer evening with moonlight reflecting softly on the surface of the water beyond my free- floating body, my skin caressed by the light summer airs of Massachusetts Bay. I hear the sound of an owl's wings whistle above, then a rustle of reeds, a sharp cry.  Using the stars scattered like marbles across the sky above me, I can imagine a mythical creature, trace its  profile and draw the outline of its fantastic shape with my eyes. No need for pen-and-ink.

Also, when I wrote the poem, I was beginning my practice as a psychotherapist with my then husband and partner, Christopher Coulson, and we had moved to Marblehead to be near our antique wooden sailboat we named "Memory,"  and to open our joint psychotherapy practice. As a psychotherapist I appreciated that one of the significant tools for our healing work was the client's memory of incidents and events which took place in their Family of Origin.  How we remembered early traumas and the language we found to describe them,  provided a key to their unfolding, and to realizing and expressing  feelings and thoughts dormant for a long time. And to eventual integration, a growing sense of strength and loveability for the client.  Memory was a significant tool.


The poem begins:

 "Memory illuminates our sleep,

gliding near silence through saltmarsh down the long river.

Memory swims through water like a boat,

a shark of cedar, its white beaminess

bearing down upon weathered bronze currents . . ."

In the poem, the metaphor of the sailing vessel as  our "Memory", refers to (1)  the discrete and finite memory of events experienced by one person-- that kind of memory, and (2) also the collective memory of our experience as a species remembering our true connection to Nature and its boundless circle. There are many layers to the poem , as there are to the organic process of  Memory itself. Because the name of our boat was "Memory" and the recurring dream I had which powers the poem was a striking visual image of that white-hulled wooden sailing vessel under sail on the horizon with mainsail and jib shining a brilliant white against the purple night-sky, under the white moon,

" the white moon, whose maternal station is kept

there-- beyond the tip of the pine tree's black spine,


the white moon-- the muskrat's lodestone on purple nights." 


In the dream and in the poem, the vessel Memory glides along the edge of the night-sky's horizon in a sea of pale golden marshreeds  in the foreground . Throughout the poem, Memory is described as  " . . . gliding near silence"  then   "humming near silence . . ". and lastly ". . . reaching near silence under her sail . . . "


Years later, after Chris and I had  divorced, after that sad parting-of-the-ways of our river-of-life together, one summer I would often visit with a friend who had inherited land on Cape Ann in Ipswich, Massachusetts -- the  miraculous marshland of my childhood resituated in time and place. We would swim at night in a tidal river  winding its way through the pine and birch trees, the perched boulders of his woods, preserved in its natural state in perpetuity through his family's land trust. 


Twice a day, the miles of  unwinding ribbon of muddy, exposed earth would fill up to the depth of ten feet, twelve feet, fifteen then twenty feet high to the tips of the saltmarsh reeds.  Seawater  would rush  in -- flooding, engulfing-- and our bodies would be uplifted, buoyant from salt-sea waters . The absence of  earth's gravity encouraged that floating, meditational, poetic way of being-- that sense of  "one--ing"  with all aspects of nature. Through my night-swimming in the Ipswich tidal estuary, I could revisit the original child-place where I had first learned to live in my Imagination-- the alluvial marshland, the gift of the Great Glacier, Nature's Monumental Sculptor.


This is why I feel an urgent need to petition the great Glacier to preserve the marshland she once created at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.  To spill ordinance of bombs, to spill oil or depleted uranium on these waters -- unspeakable horror created by human beings who are split off, disconnected, in denial from their true connection to Nature in all its aspects.  Oh, great glacier,  preserve this alluvial marshland, a fly-over for the birds of all Eurasia, a place of great personal affinity, a place where I first learned to live in my Imagination.


a scene from the film"Anna Karenina"
by Count Leo Tolstoy, 1878
writer/director Bernard Rose, Warner Brothers, 1997

"Anna Karenina" by Count Leo Tolstoy, 1876
Writer/director BERNARD ROSE, Warner Bros., 1997

Words of War

By AZAR NAFISI,  March 27, 2003
published in The New York Times

WASHINGTON These days I am often asked what I did in Tehran as bombs fell during the Iran-Iraq war. My interlocutors are invariably surprised, if not shocked, when I tell them that I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez. Yet it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world. Memoirs from concentration camps and the gulag attest to this. I keep returning to the words of Leon Staff, a Polish poet who lived in the Warsaw ghetto: "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all."

I think back to the eight-year war with Iraq, a time when days and nights seemed indistinguishable, and were reduced to the sound of the siren, warning us of the next air attack. I often reminded my students at Allameh Tabatabai University that while guns roared and the Winter Palace was stormed, Nabokov sat at his desk writing poetry.

My Tehran classroom at times overflowed with students who ignored the warnings about Iraq's chemical bombs so they could reckon with Tolstoy's ability to defamiliarize (a term coined by the Russian Formalist critics) everyday reality and offer it to us through new eyes. The excitement that came from discovering a hidden truth about "Anna Karenina" told me that Iraqi missiles had not succeeded in their mission. Indeed, the more Saddam Hussein wanted us to be defined by terror, the more we craved beauty.

If I felt compelled to keep rereading the classics, it was in order to see the light in the eyes of my students. I remember two young women, clad from head to toe in black chadors, looking as if nothing in the world mattered more than the idea that "Pride and Prejudice" was subversive because it taught us about our right to make our own choices.

Among my scribbled notes from those days, I found a quote from Saul Bellow about writers in the Soviet work camps. To my friends in the United States who are skeptical about the importance of imagination in times of war, let me share his words: "Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place the foreground."

And so a new war has begun, though this time it is my adopted country and not the country of my birth that is fighting Iraq. Nothing will replace the lives lost. Still, I will take some comfort now as I did then by opening a book.


Azar Nafisi,

a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."





"The Struggle"
an excerpt from her book  Between Lives by 
Dorothea Tanning

'Thus I have come one morning to the studio, into the litter and debris of last week and the day before. Tables hold fast under their load of tubes and brushes, cans and bottles interspersed with hair roller pins, that view of Delft, a stapler, a plastic tub of gypsum powder, a Polaroid of two dogs, green flashbulbs for eyes, a postcard picturing the retreating backs of six nudists on a eucalyptus-shaded path, a nibless pen, an episcope (an optical projector). On the floor or on the wall or on the easel, a new surface waits whitely.

 Dorothea Tanning


Battle green, blood geranium, rubbed bloody black, drop of old rain. The canvas lies under my liquid hand. Explosia, a new planet invented with its name. That's what we paint for, invention. Unheard-of news, flowers, or flesh. "Not a procedure," I say to the room. "Nothing to do with twenty-four hours: just an admixture for all five senses, the sixth one to be dealt with separately."

Because this is only the beginning. A long flashed life, as they say, before dying. I am a fish swimming upstream. At the very top I deposit my pictures; then I die as they ripen and hatch and swim down, very playfully, because they are young and full of big ideas. Down and down, and finally, among the people who like to fish pictures, they are caught and devoured by millions of eyes.

In this artist's dream-plot there are only artist-scales, iridescent though they may be. And the rest? For thirty-five years, life was love, a second skin. Authoritative, instinctual love. Now life is life, sybaritic, an absolutely polished structure of skeletal simplicity. Uninvolved, uncommitted, underworn, deeply and evenly breathed. Its second plot, not life but art, unfolds painty wings each day to try the air, pushing out perhaps reluctant visions, uninvolved, yes, unaware of their public category.

It is one of those days and it is time to reconsider. Time to turn inside out before the first gesture. You have drawn up a stool and sit gazing at the first whiteness, feeling suddenly vulnerable and panic-stricken before your light-hearted intention. What has happened, where is the euphoria, the confidence of five minutes ago? Why is certainty receding like distance, eluding you, paling out to leave the whiteness as no more than a pitiless color? Is a canvass defiant, sullen? Something must be done.

Ambivalent feelings, then, for the blank rectangle. On one hand the innocent space, possibilities at your mercy, a conspiracy shaping up. You and the canvass are in this together. Or are you? For, seen the other way, there is something queerly hostile, a void as full of resistance as the trackless sky, as mocking as heat lightning. If it invites to conspiracy it also coldly challenges to battle.

Quite mechanically during these first moments - hours? - the little bowl has been filled with things like turpentine and varnish; tubes of colour have been chosen, Like jewels on a tray, and squeezed, snaky blobs, onto a paper palette. The beautiful colors give heart. Soon they will explode. A shaft of cobalt violet. With echoes from alizarin and titanium and purple - which is really red. There is orange from Mars, mars orange. The sound of their names, like planets: cerulean and earthshadow, raw or burnt; ultramarine out of the sea, barite and monacal and vermillion. Siren sounds of cochineal and dragon's blood, and gamboge and the lake from blackthorn berries that draw you after them; they sing in your ear, promising that merely to dip a brush in their suavities will produce a miracle.

What does it matter that more often not the artist is dashed against the rocks and the miracle recedes, a dim phosphorescence? Something has remained: the picture that has taken possession of the cloth, the board, the wall. No longer a blind surface, it is an event, it will mark a day in a chaotic world and will become order. Calm in its commotion, clear in its purpose, voluptuous in its space.

Here it is, seduction taking the place of awe. After a quick decision - was it not planned in the middle of the night along with your subject and its thrust? - a thin brush is chosen, is dipped and dipped again - madder, violet, gold ocher. A last stare at the grim whiteness before taking the plunge, made at last with the abandon "of divers," said Henry James, speaking of birds, "not expecting to rise again." Now, after only seconds, blankness and nothingness are routed forever.

A hundred forms loom in charming mock dimensions to lure you from your subject, the one that demands to be painted; with each stroke (now there are five brushes in two hands) a thousand other pictures solicit permanence. Somewhere the buzzer buzzes faintly. Sounds from the street drift up, the drone of a plane drifts down. The phone may have rung. A lunchless lunch hour came and went.

The beleaguered canvass is on the floor. Colors are merging. Cobalt and chrome bridge a gap with their knowing nuances. Where is the cadmium red-orange? The tubes are in disorder, their caps lost, their labels smeared with wrong colours.

Oh, where is the red-orange, for it is at the moment the only color in the world and Dionysus the only deity.

Now there is no light at all in the studio. The day is packing up, but who cares? With a voice of its own the canvass hums a tune for the twilight hour, half heard, half seen. Outlines dance; sonic eyes bid you watch out for surprises that break all the rules: white on black making blue; space that deepens with clutter; best of all, the fierce, ambivalent human contour that catches sound and sight and makes me a slave. Ah, now the world will not be exactly as it was this morning! Intention has taken over and here in this room leans a picture that is at last in league with its painter, hostilities forgotten. For today.

As brushes are cleaned and windows opened to clear the turpentine air, the artist steals glances - do not look too long - at the living, breathing picture, for it is already a picture. Once again light-hearted, even light-headed, the mood is vaporous. There are blessed long hours before tomorrow...

Have I slept? Once again before the daubed canvas, which is now upright in the harsh morning light. I am aghast. How could anyone have found it good, even a good start.? Traitorous twilight, fostering those balloons of pride that had floated all over the studio! Yesterday ended in a festival, was positively buoyant. Syncopating with glances canvasward, brush-cleaning drudgery was a breeze (a hellish task after a failed day). Now you are bound. The canvas is to be reckoned with. It breathes, however feebly. It whispers a satanic suggestion for the fast, easy solution. "Others have done it, do it, why not you?" How to explain? There is no fast and easy for me.

Daily depths of depression, as familiar as a limp is to the war-wounded, are followed by momentary exhaltations, sometimes quiet certainties: Yeah, that's it... But if that is it, then the presence... on... the other side... all changed now, dark again... Must wait for tomorrow... Oh God... How awful...

Several days have left their gestural arabesques in the big room, adding up to clutter and despondency. Dust has been raised in the lens of the eye; intention has softened to vagary. Then an idea in the night brings its baggage to the morning. Welcome! Go ahead. Stare at the canvass already occupied by wrong paint, hangdog. But not for long. Not this time. Because you dive - with an intake of breath you dive, deep into your forest, your desert, your dream.

Now the doors are all open, the air is mother-of-pearl, and you know the way to tame a tiger. It will not elude you today, for you have grabbed a brush, you have dipped it almost at random, so high is you rage, into the amalgam of color, formless on a docile palette.

As you drag lines like ropes across one brink of reality after another, annihilating the world you made yesterday and hated today, a new world heaves into sight. Again the event progresses, without benefit of hours.

Before the emerging picture there is no longer panic to shake heart and hand, only a buzzing in your ears to mark rather unconvincingly the passage of time. You sit or stand, numb in either case, or step backward, bumping as often or not into forgotten objects dropped on the floor. You coax the picture out of its cage along with personae, essences, its fatidic suggestion, its insolence. Friend or enemy? Tinged with reference - alas, as outmoded these days as your easel - weighted as the drop of rain that slid on the window, it swims toward completion. Evening soaks in unnoticed until lengthening shadows have caressed every surface in the room, every hair on your head, and every shape in your painted picture.

The application of color to a support, something to talk about when it's all over, now hold you in thrall. The act is your accomplice. So are the tools, beakers, bottles, knives, glues, solubles, insolubles, tubes, plasters, cans; there is no end...

Time to sit down. Time to clean the brushes, now become a kindly interlude. Time to gaze and gaze; you can't get enough of it because you are now on the outside looking in. You are merely the visitor, grandly invited: "Step in."

"Oh, I accept." Even though the twilight has faded to black and blur, making sooty phantoms of your new companions, you accept. Feeling rather than seeing, you share exuberance. You are surprised and uneasy when you seem to hear the rather conspiratorial reminder that it was, after all, your hand, your will, your turmoil that has produced it all, this brand new event in a very old world. Thus, you may think:" "Have I brought a little order out of the chaos? Or have I merely added to the general confusion? Either way a mutation has taken place. You have not painted in a vacuum. You have been bold, working for change. To overturn values. The whirling thought: change the world. It directs the artist's daily act. Yes, modesty forbids saying it. But say it secretly. You risk nothing.'

--Excerpt from 'Between Lives'
by Dorothea Tanning, 2001, Norton.


In 1975, Tanning spent eleven months trying to cope with the stroke-smitten, powerless, angrily powerful Max Ernst. Her husband and soul-mate of so many years and so many homes survived a head wound in the Great War, survived the Nazi invasion of France, escaping Paris, then Marseilles by the skin of his teeth and in 1942 met the much younger Dorothea, a struggling illustrator, at her New York apartment. Seeing her painting, 'Birthday', seeing that she played chess, seeing her... he never left. 

"The Struggle" was written in her solitary state, returned to New York, refinding her own voice without her Max's dominating fame and presence. All her contemporaries were gone: the Belgian and Parisian Surrealists, free-spirited American women: Kay Sage, Lee Miller, great friends, John Cage, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Julien Levy, Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote... She continues to work at the age of 92.

below: "Birthday" by Dorothea Tanning, 1942


Maya Deren
 The Artist as God in H

  Sunday, September 28, 1947

I do not know whether I shall manage to set it all down on paper. The mood is strange. I am both tense and exhausted, balanced on a razor's edge between sleep and violent action and the tension between them so utterly consumes my energy that a kind of balance of paralysis is achieved. I neither sleep nor move. I say to myself: you must write down everything now, today, before it is forgotten or becomes unreal. Yet so much would I rather dream on it that to arrange sentences, to formulate precisions, seems an impossible effort of the will. My mind flows like a thick, slow-moving liquid in and out of all the crevices of last night. How can I ever record all the sounds, smells, movements, relationships, memories, desires, and those flashes of "seeing" in that ancient sense-that totality of any moment which completely involves one and thus involves all history.

Veve of Erzulie How reluctant my mind is to face its task! How it loiters about the edges and finds, suddenly, urgent interest in some tangential preoccupation. There are times when one must lash and leash it and lead it, as one would a reluctant beast, grasping first at one firm real object, and then another until there is no other way for it to go and one mounts the beast and rides it, perhaps fearfully.
Maya Deren

     Maya Deren in: "Meshes in the Afternoon" (1943)

An Impression about Voodoo Initiation from:
  The Forewords to Divine Horsemen


Maya Deren (1917-1961) a Mytho-Poetic Filmmaker and Creator of the Avant Garde Film

Maya Deren on Her Approach to Filmmaking:

"what i do in my films is very... i think very distinctively, i think they are the films of a woman, and i think that they're characteristic time quality, is the time quality of a woman.  i think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy.  they are a "now" creature.  and a woman has strength to wait.  'cause she's had to wait.  she has to wait 9 months of the concept of a child.  time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness.  and she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming.  she raises a child knowing not what it is at any moment but seeing always the person that it will become.  her whole life from her very beginning it's built into her a sense of becoming.  now in any time form, this is a very important sense.  i think that my films, putting as much stress as they do, upon the constant metamorphosis.  one image is always becoming another.  it is what is happening that is important in my films, not what is at any moment.  this is a woman's time sense and i think it happens more in my films than in almost anyone else's... 


With the advent of 16mm equipment came the birth of film as personal artistic expression, and Maya Deren led the revolution. The woman who was "her own avant-garde movement," had what can only be described as an eclectic set of interests. She immersed herself in political science, journalism, English literature, classical ballet, Taiwanese kickboxing, and Haitian religious rituals.

The epitome of Greenwich Village art house sensibility, Deren's film meditations featured such icons as Marcel Duchamp, Anais Nin, and John Cage in cameo appearances. Yet Deren realized that art film could be more than the citation of other art mediums or the manipulation of dancing shapes across the screen. She used her camera to explore questions of aesthetics from a place of inner, subjective reality. Derens first film, "Meshes in the Afternoon," signaled nothing less that the birth of American avant-garde filmmaking. Walking feet move from carpets to seashores to grass to pavement, suggesting visual connections normally relegated to the painters canvas.

Calling herself a "visual poet," Deren catalogued disparate images and explored their shared relationship to an emotion or symbolic meaning, the latter often left to the audience to ascertain. Her movies are haunting, lyrical, and breathtaking fusions of human and cinematic movement, where the actors dance with the camera. Though called a heretic by those who worked with her, she was the first person to receive a Guggenheim grant for filmmaking and the first woman to receive the Grand Prix Internationale in avant-garde film at the Cannes Film Festival.

Born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev during the Russian Revolution, Deren spent significant chunks of her adolescence in Europe, absorbing an experimental approach to art. To support herself in New York as she explored various mediums, she worked for the groundbreaking dancer/anthropologist/choreographer Katherine Dunham, who introduced her to Voudon (or Voodoo) and African mythology.

Her short films anticipated the work of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and other cinematic pathfinders even as her life, colored by enigma, confusion, and an increasing -- some said dangerous -- preoccupation with Voudoun ritual, became almost mythic. In recognition of her short, unsurpassed legacy, the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award in 1985 to honor the contribution and significance of independent film work.

A  biographical note


Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkowsky in 1917 in Kiev during the Russian Revolution. Her father, a psychiatrist, took the family to the United States to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine. She grew up in Syracuse, New York, and later attended the League of Nations International School in Switzerland, where she developed her interest in writing. She became interested in film while a student at Syracuse University, and later took a B.A. from New York University and an M.A. from Smith College. Always an activist, whether in politics or art, she served as the National Secretary of the Young People's Socialist League. Maya worked as a secretary and tour manager for Katherine Dunham, the black American anthropologist and dancer/choreographer who first exposed American audiences to authentic Caribbean music and dance. Dunham had visited Haiti (many years later she would become a Voudoun mambo) and if she did not actually suggest it, she certainly inspired Maya to apply for a Guggenheim grant to make a film on Haitian dance.


Maya had already established a reputation as an aesthetic theorist, photographer and maker of "personal" experimental movies - what she called "chamber films." These were high concept, low budget, technically innovative, artistically uncompromising, doggedly noncommercial and psychologically challenging when not outright disturbing.

Maya's concept was to make a comparative film study of trance dancing and children's games by montage editing of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead's Balinese trance dance footage and new Haitian dance footage she proposed to shoot. She received her Guggenheim grant - the first for creative filmmaking and the first awarded to a woman - and made her first trip to Haiti in the spring of 1947.

Campbell suggested that Maya write a book about her experiences, in part out of personal concern as she was completely engrossed in Voudoun but lacked the grounding effect a creative outlet like her abandoned film project would have afforded her. He later recalled the startling extent of Maya's immersion, and it would appear that she was carrying on - quite literally - like a woman possessed:

       Maya Deren in: "Meshes in the Afternoon" (1943)

"Maya was possessed herself by Erzulie, who is a sort of virgin seductress - the erotic principle in a delightful, gentle and at the same time ferocious way - and that's the deity who took Maya over. The book came about out of my suggestion. My work has to do with mythologies and whats normally thought of as anthropological material. I had never known anyone who was so filled with a totally alien experience as this sort of Voudoun, for a person living in this sort of modern metropolitan lifestyle and Maya was just full of this stuff. So I said to her one day, 'I think youve got to get this out or it will drive you crazy.'"

It was clear to Maya that she had to return to Haiti. She had learned enough during her first visit in 1947 to secure a book contract, but could scarcely have amassed the necessary data to write a book in three months. She was not a trained anthropologist - indeed, she voiced doubts about a strictly anthropological approach to other cultures. She approached her subject as an artist, with both subjective and objective viewpoints. She kept diaries in Haiti but these were personal, not field notes; she did not amass data in an organized way, much less conduct interviews there. In short, she did what is anathema in field anthropology: she "went native."


Campbell finally took her firmly in hand and nursed her through the writing process. He would later do this so frequently that his friends dubbed his informal literary services "Joe's Friendly Service," after a neighborhood gas station of the same name. He and Maya were neighbors, and would meet with her Webster wire recorder running. Joe helped her form a written outline of the book - to be titled Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti - and walked her through it point by point. They would backtrack when she introduced new material relevant to a section already covered, and they largely restructured the book in the process. He was in effect debriefing her on her Haitian experiences, helping her to find the words she needed by pushing her to conceptualize not only what she saw as an outsider, but what she felt and sensed as an insider, for Maya had been taken into the heart of the Voudoun religion as no white American ever had before.

Maya Deren began her creative life as a poet, and then turned her verbal images into visual ones as a filmmaker, and with the book Divine Horsemen broke through everyday life into the world of symbolism and myth. She died young, at age 44, but left an impressive body of work. She is celebrated for her pioneering work in Haitian studies - she filmed over nine hours of footage and recorded 48 hours of sound. Her film Divine Horsemen was completed posthumously by Teiji and Cherel Ito and her audio recordings are in distribution. She is best known today as the "mother of American avant-garde film."




Abrigded Quotes from the Editors' Introduction to
     Maya Deren & Joseph Campbell
     "Conversations on Voudoun"
     Edited, Annotated and Introduced by
     Cherel Ito and William Breeze, 1996.
     All rights reserved.

     For other bibliographical source material,
     please see the


Maya Deren
(American Studies, University of Texas)
Maya Deren (Experimental Films)
Maya Deren Homepage (Film History)
AFI Maya Deren Awards (Independent Film and Video Artists)
Maya Deren (Kiev 1917, New York 1962) (Italian)
Maya Deren (Artist, with an essay by Nicole Brady)

Maya Deren Work


At Land (1944) 15 min

The universe was once conceived as a vast preserve, landscaped for heroes, plotted to provide them withappropriate adventures. The rules were known and respected, the adversaries honorable, the oracles articulate . Today the rules are ambiguous, the adversary is concealed in aliases, the oracles broadcast a  babble of contradictions. One struggles to preserve, in the midst of such relentless metamorphosis, a constancy of personal identity.

(F) The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1947-1951, released 1977) 54 min
Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951) (unfinished)
Haiku film project (1959-1960) (unfinished)
(F) Meditation on Violence (1948) 13 min
Medusa (1949) (unfinished)

Meshes of the Afternoon
(1943) 14 min

The mind begins with the matter at hand - the incidental curve of a road or the accidental movement of a  passing figure. As it perceives these it possesses them as images, as the stuff of which it composes itsnight and day dreams in the forms of its desires and despairs. But the mind is not completely master of  these images; they are charged with the primal, indestructible energy of their origin - matter. And it may  thus occur that, of an afternoon, these restive captives of memory - refreshed by new contexts andreleased by the lax discipline of sleep - may triumphantly regain the province of actuality.

(F) Out-takes From A Study In Choreography for Camera (1943) 14 min
(F) The Private Life of a Cat (with Alexander Hammid), in Intercat '69 by Pola Chapelle

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) 14.5 min

A ritual is an action distinguished from all others in that it seeks realization of its purpose through the exercise of form. In this sense ritual is art; and even historically, all art derives from ritual. In ritual theform is the meaning. More specifically, the quality of movement itself is not a merely decorative factor ;it is the meaning itself of the movement. In this sense, this film is a dance.


A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) 2.5 min

The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With the turn of the foot, he makesneighbors of distant places. Being a film ritual, it is achieved not in spatial terms alone, but in terms of a Time created by the camera.


The Very Eye of Night (1952-1955, released 1959) 15 min

The laws of macrocosm and of microcosm are alike. Travel in the interior is as a voyage in outer space:  we must in each case burst past the circumference of our surface - our here-space and/or now-time - and,  cut loose from the anchorage of an absolute, fixed center, enter worlds where the relationship of parts is  the sole gravity. This is a ballet of night, entirely in the negative, in which the dancers are constellations  which orbit and revolve in the night sky.

(F) Witch's Cradle (1943) (unfinished) with Marcel Duchamp



Bringing La Bohème to Broadway

by Vanessa Conlin

Part I - Becoming Part of the Cast
My journey with the "Broadway Bohème," as it has come to be called by cast and crew, began in autumn of 2000. I was in my last year of graduate school as a voice major at Boston University. I saw an ad on a music department bulletin board that said something like, "Baz Luhrmann, Director of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Ballroom, is casting for a production of La Bohème, to be mounted on Broadway."

The ad caught my eye, but I was skeptical. I love Strictly Ballroom, a great movie, but La Bohème on Broadway? Would they perform the actual Puccini score, or would it, like the show Rent, be a new score loosely based on the same story, but having nothing at all to do with "opera" singing? Would the show be in Italian, like the opera? I blew off the ad. I thought it was an interesting idea, but would never get off the ground, so I forgot about it.

Fast forward to ten months later. I graduated with my Master's degree and moved to New York City. I was lucky enough to be signed with a manager right away, Martha Wade, who mentioned to me that the "Broadway Bohème" was still not cast, and that she could get me an audition. Several things piqued my interest. First of all, I discovered that this Bohème would indeed be the Puccini score, and that it would be in Italian. Also, since I had first seen the ad, the movie Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrmann, had been released. I thought it was incredible.

I went to my first audition full of trepidation. What on earth would these people be looking for? The other singers in the waiting room definitely did not look like the people I usually see at opera auditions. Opera singers, unlike actors, usually dress pretty conservatively, and aren't well, um... hip. Clearly the singers had seen Moulin Rouge and were trying to look as colorful as possible to impress Mr. Luhrmann! I guess I had the same motive, but I went about it in a different way. Instead of the simple but slightly sophisticated red dress I usually wear to auditions to make me look older and more experienced, I wore a little black dress that I wear to go out for cocktails with my friends. (Opera audiences, generally focusing on the voices rather than the acting, will accept singers who are much older than the characters they are playing, or even one who weighs in at 300 lbs. playing a pretty young thing, but Broadway audiences are much more visually oriented. I figured it couldn't hurt to show off the fact that I am young - about the same age as the bohemians in La Bohème!)

This first round of auditions (the first of many, but we'll get to that later) was judged by two women from the casting agency. I decided to sing the aria Quando m'en vo from Puccini's opera. I was in really good voice and gave what I thought was a persuasive dramatic interpretation, but once I finished, the women on the panel wanted to hear it again. This time they gave me some directions - "make eye contact with us, use the whole room," etc. I sang the whole aria again, and I heard the very next day that I had been called back!

Over the next ten months I was called back eight times! I sang for the producers. I sang for the musical director. I sang for Baz, but it seemed there was always another round to make it through. In February, 2002, I was in Tampa, Florida under contract to sing with the opera there. Word came that Baz was about to make his final selection, but I would have to be in New York City for just one more audition! Groan! After much negotiating, begging and pleading, the conductor agreed to release me from one day of rehearsal in Tampa so I could fly back to NYC. This meant waking up at 4 am, getting on a plane at 6:30 am, and singing for Baz at noon. This would be tough!

At my audition, Baz and his assistant followed me around with a hand-held video camera, sometimes putting it right up in my face while I was singing. In all my training no one had ever prepared me for anything like this audition! I also had my picture taken in all sorts of poses. "What was THAT??!!" I thought as I ran to catch my flight back to Tampa, where a message was waiting for me: I was in the original cast of La Bohème!

I have heard varying reports of how many singers were auditioned for this La Bohème, anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 from all over the world. It took over two years to assemble a cast of 50, which includes some singers who don't speak a word of English.
Part II - From Costume Fittings to California


After hearing I would be a member of the original cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, things seemed to start happening at lightning speed. The contract came in the mail, and I learned that the rehearsals would be occurring in San Francisco, California. We would also be doing six weeks of shows in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre, before moving to Broadway in November. Baz said he would attend every single performance in California (8 per week!) to make sure Bohème would be everything he dreamed it could be, before moving it to NYC where it will be scrutinized by critics from all around the world.

While in New York, I was instructed to go to a wig fitting at a loft apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood in downtown Manhattan. It was rainy, cold, and miserable, and I got lost trying to find the address. When I rang the buzzer, I was not in the best mood. What happened next was like magic. The door opened, and inside this unassuming and unmarked building was an enormous and blindingly colorful world of artists, designers, and craftsmen, all busily running around with sketches, model sets, and fabrics. The woman who answered the door was none other than Catherine Martin - Baz's wife and creative partner, and Academy Award winner for her costume designs in Baz's movie Moulin Rouge. Although I had never met her before, she greeted me by name. "Baz would love to say hello as well, but CBS is here interviewing him," she said.

I saw that there were pictures on the wall of all the cast members with sketches of costumes taped beside them. There were beautiful and intricate models of the sets for Bohème, and what seemed like a hundred people gathered around Catherine, or bent over desks with colored pencils. I saw Baz giving a tour to the news crew from CBS. He was speaking so excitedly about the work being done, and explaining to the crew that he and Catherine live in the back of the design studio. It was in their bedroom that I had my wig fitting! Two Italian men who also did the wigs for Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet, and Strictly Ballroom put a wig cap on me and traced the outline of my natural hair. This is so when the wig is made, it will match my real hairline so precisely that the audience won't be able to tell I'm not using my own hair.

On a later date I had a costume fitting with Catherine Martin and her incredible team. Catherine and Baz are Australian, as are most of their assistants. Five good-natured Australians pulled and pinned my costume until it met Catherine's approval. All costumes in Bohème were made from scratch to the exact measurements of the cast.

In the next few weeks I made plans to move to San Francisco for nine weeks - three weeks of rehearsal, and six weeks of performances. As I prepared to leave New York, the buzz about Bohème began to be palpable. There were articles in Time Out magazine and The New York Times, and the full-page color ads and commercials began to run daily. It dawned on me just how enormous and ambitious this project really is, and that's when the nerves set in!

The entire cast traveled together on September 8th. We met in front of the Broadway Theatre at 53rd street (where we will be performing), took chartered buses to JFK Airport, and flew on a Continental jet to San Francisco. I couldn't believe how friendly the other people were, and how darn good looking!

Once in California, we settled into our different residences and prepared to start rehearsals first thing the very next morning.

Part III - Rehearsing with Baz Luhrmann
The day after the cast of the Broadway Bohème descended on San Francisco, we all boarded vans and were taken to a section of town called the Presidio, where we would be rehearsing for the next two weeks in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Most Broadway-bound shows have their out-of-town trial runs in Peoria; how nice it is that ours is in San Francisco, one of America's great cities!)

That first day was a very exciting one, with so many new people to meet,

and a dramatic presentation by director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin about their vision for the project. Baz and Catherine are the brains and heart behind this Broadway Bohème. We got a sneak preview of the promotional ads that would be running on television, took a virtual tour of the stage sets still under construction, and marveled at the sketches of Catherine's gorgeous costumes.

Baz's plan is a simple but courageous one. He wants to bring opera back to the masses (Wasn't Giacomo Puccini the Stephen Sondheim of the Nineteenth Century, and even more popular, at least in Europe, than his 20th-Century colleague?), but not by watering it down. This Bohème is completely intact musically, just as Puccini wrote it, and will be performed in Italian. Baz says he wants to bring back the excitement and feeling of spontaneity that traditional opera often lacks. He wants every moment to be believable. What a concept!

Rehearsals were run with this idea in mind. All of us were given direction from Baz, but were encouraged to fill in the details of the lives of our characters with our own creative visions. We imagined what a street on Christmas Eve in Paris in 1957 would look and feel like, and we made it a reality. We spent days and days on what seemed like the smallest of adjustments, put those changes into our Parisian street, and the results were magical. A detailed and individual journey exists for every single person onstage, not just the principal characters as is almost always the case in opera.

After a couple of weeks in our temporary rehearsal space in the Presidio, we moved into the Curran Theatre just off Union Square. At the first viewing of the stage set, the cast was speechless. It is a breathtaking work of art. The setting itself, predictably, was applauded by our audience every night. But once we started rehearsing on it, we felt like we were starting our staging all over again. Nothing happened the way we had rehearsed it, and people were running into each other and tripping over platforms and other pieces of the scenery. It took another week to work out the kinks and get the show running smoothly. How quickly that week in the theater raced by! And how the enthusiasm was growing in all of us!

Now it was time for the first invited audience to savor the show. We had two weeks of previews in San Francisco. (Previews are presented prior to the official Press Opening. No reviews can be written at these performances.) I was very nervous. Would they love it? Would they boo us off the stage? The preview audiences, I am pleased to report, loved the production! Every time the curtain fell we got cheers and standing ovations. However, even with the adulation of the audience, the two weeks of previews were very stressful. Baz was still changing details of staging right up to moments before we went onstage. We tried new things every night in front of a live audience, and continued to make changes until Opening Night.

Opening Night in San Francisco was a star-studded affair, with many celebrities in attendance. From the stage I spotted Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Andy Garcia and George Lucas. The cast tried to go about its predetermined stage business, but we were all secretly trying to get glimpses of the stars in the audience. After the performance the entire cast was invited to a bash at the famous Ruby Skye nightclub. The celebrities were all there congratulating Baz, Catherine and the singers. It was an extravagant feast with mountains of food. All of us danced until the sun came up!

There was still one more test: what would the San Francisco critics say? I dashed to the store the next morning to pick up the local newspapers, which I shredded in my exuberance to find the critiques. Aha! The headlines said it all: "Simply Sensational - Luhrmann's Broadway-style 'Boheme' sets a new standard for musical theater," according to the Chronicle, and The Examiner said "Brilliant Bohème - Baz Luhrmann's take on the Puccini classic, at the Curran Theatre, perfectly balances tradition and innovation."

That we were really a hit was apparent as I walked past the theater later that afternoon and observed the box office line wrapped all the way around the block! Within days every ticket to the six-week run in San Francisco was gone. Friends from high school and college called me desparately in need of tickets, but there was nothing I could do. There wasn't a single ticket available.

On the date this article was written, there were two more weeks of performances in San Francisco still to go. On November 11th the cast flies back to New York City for a week of rest before beginning another sequence of rehearsals with Baz in the Broadway Theatre at Broadway and 53rd Street.

Will this spectacular and moving operatic production be a success on the Great White Way? If so, history will be made and the risk will have been worth taking. There have been other operas on Broadway, but nothing like Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème.

Part IV - Back in New York


On November 11th, the very next day after our last performance in San Francisco, the cast of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème boarded buses at 6:00 am, drove to the airport, and flew home to New York City. We had spent nine weeks in San Francisco rehearsing and performing La Bohème eight times a week to critical acclaim. The cast and crew had worked incredibly hard on the show under Baz's direction. We were rewarded with six weeks of sold-out performances and reviews so good they could have been written by Baz's mother. I felt so proud to be a part of the show. I was also completely exhausted!

While I enjoyed being on the West Coast, I was definitely ready to get back to my own apartment in New York, and very much looking forward to our week off. The week flew by in a blur of unpacking and catching up with friends, and before I knew it, I was walking into the Ford Center at 43rd and Broadway where La Bohème was rehearsing. Even though the week off passed quickly, I felt as though I hadn't seen my friends in the cast for months. We became so close in San Francisco that we are now one big family. It is amazing to me that any group of performers can get along so beautifully, but we truly do. It is a very special group of people onstage at The Broadway Theatre every night!

Rehearsals at the Ford Center lasted for only one week. There was still work being done on the sets and lights at our real home, the Broadway Theatre, at 53rd and Broadway, that made it impossible to conduct rehearsals on the actual stage. Our rehearsals were spent on intensive detail work. I was impressed with the new ideas Baz had formed since we had last seen him. He refined, cut, polished and obsessed over every moment onstage. I am continually amazed at how many things he has running around in his head at any given moment, and how he can keep them all straight.

There were many new challenges in New York. The Broadway Theatre is much larger than the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Baz insists on only "true life" onstage, meaning no excess gesturing or "indicating." We worked hard for many days to figure out how to play to a much larger audience without losing the intimacy and the reality. Another challenge was that we have a new set of kids in the cast. The children in San Francisco were all local kids, so we started from scratch staging the New York kids into the opera.

After a week at the Ford Center, we moved into the Broadway Theatre to rehearse on the set. We had less than a week to rehearse before the first preview performance on November 29th.

Although we were received far better than our wildest dreams in San Francisco, New York audiences are much tougher. I felt excited because it was my first performance on Broadway, but very nervous about the audience reaction. At all of the preview performances, Baz talks to the audience from the stage before the start of the opera. Before he even started talking, the audience went crazy - screaming his name, cheering, and applauding. Backstage we looked at one another with huge smiles on our faces. Clearly this audience would be open to Baz's big risk - opera on Broadway.

The audience responded enthusiastically all night and gave us a raucous standing ovation at the conclusion. We got the same positive reaction at all of the preview performances. Does this mean we will be a hit?

The official opening night is December 3rd. Until then we are still called to rehearsals even if we have a performance on that day.

Part V - Opening Night in New York


Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème on Broadway officially opened on December 8th. The show had already been in previews for two weeks at the Broadway Theatre on 53rd Street. The audiences during previews seemed to love the show. We received standing ovations at every preview, but no one can predict how the New York critics will respond, so the cast was on pins and needles.

Ben Davis as Marcello and Chlöe Wright as Musetta
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

On December 8th, the Broadway Theatre could easily have been mistaken for a ritzy Hollywood award show. There was a red carpet surrounded by paparazzi with flashbulbs going off right and left. The list of celebrities in attendance was incredible - Leonardo Di Caprio, Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Cameron Diaz, James Gandolfini, Katie Couric, and Regis Philbin, just to name a few. Baz was there with his wife and artistic partner, Catherine Martin, who looked incredible!

The first two acts of the show, which are performed with just a short pause in between, went beautifully, so the cast was already feeling pretty good, but nothing could have prepared us for the news we received at intermission. Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times, had seen La Bohème during previews and written a rave review which would be in the paper the next day!

After the show, the producers threw a huge bash for the cast, audience and invited guests at the luxurious Hudson Hotel on 58th Street. It was a beautiful party, but so crowded that it was hard to find any other cast members. There were news crews circling the party, trying to get quotes from the celebrities. I went home very late, but woke up early to read the New York Times review.

In the New York Times, Mr. Brantley wrote, "Baz Luhrmann's rapturous reimagining of Puccini's opera of love in a garret turns out to be the coolest and warmest show in town, and enchanted mixture of self-conscious artistry and emotional richness......Opera critics should know that this production is no slice of wise-guy revisionism. What Mr. Luhrmann and his extraordinary production designer, Catherine Martin, have done is find the visual equivalent for the sensual beauty and vigor of the score."

The day that Ben Brantley's review appeared in the paper, La Bohème did one million dollars in ticket sales. Later in the week, that number would grow to four million.

One of the really fun perks that comes with being in La Bohème is seeing and sometimes meeting celebrities who come to see the show. Since Opening Night, the list of stars in attendance has included Michelle Pfeiffer, David E. Kelley, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Drew Barrymore, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

La Bohème is currently taking ticket orders through June 2003. The next big event to look forward to is the Tony Awards. We are hoping to be nominated in many different categories and hoping to perform in the ceremony which occurs every year during the first week of June.

Part VI - Behind the Scenes

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how hard it would be to perform the same show eight times a week for an entire year. Although La Bohème is an exciting and fun show, sometimes it is difficult to find enthusiasm in performing the same action and music over and over.

My pre-show activities are always the same. I am required to sign in at the theater at one half hour before the curtain time, at the latest. After I sign in, I walk upstairs to the ladies' dressing room, where I have a portion of the room reserved for me. My costume is waiting there for me, courtesy of the Wardrobe Department. On the way upstairs I pick up my microphone, which is tiny and on a long cord attached to a small transmitter. The transmitter goes in a special pocket hidden inside my costume, and the microphone will get hidden in my wig by the Hair and Makeup Department. In La Bohème we do our own makeup. We were given the makeup and instructed on how to apply it. Doing my makeup usually takes about twenty or thirty minutes. I am not in the first act, so my hair appointment is at the "places" call, which means at eight o'clock pm for an evening show, or two pm for a matinee. I go to the hair and makeup room wearing a bathrobe and have my wig pinned to my head. After that I go back to the dressing room, put on my costume, and wait for the stage managers to call the ensemble to the stage. When I hear the stage managers call "places" over the backstage loudspeaker, I go downstairs to the stage.

Jessica Comeau as Musetta with the Company
in Act II of Baz Luhrmanns production of Puccinis La Bohème.
Photo by Sue Adler. Image courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

When the show is over, I give my microphone back to the Sound Department, have my wig taken off, and take off my own costume and makeup. As I exit the stage door, there is usually a big crowd waiting to get autographs from the stars of the show.

If I am running late getting to the theater, I have to call the stage managers and tell them the situation. The stage managers have to keep track of the cast, because if somebody is absent, they must have a cover or "swing" go onstage instead. A "swing" is a person who knows many different roles in the show, who may have to step in at a moment's notice. The stage managers understand, and take into account that sometimes people are unavoidably late, through no fault of their own. However, a cast member who is consistently late runs the risk of getting fired.

Flu season in New York has caused many cast members to miss performances. There has barely been a single performance since December with the entire original cast present. Members of the ensemble accrue one sick day for every month of work. If we miss more than one performance a month, we have one-eighth of our weekly pay deducted from our paycheck. I was sick and unable to come to work on a Wednesday, which means I used two sick days because we have two performances on Wednesdays.

As an ensemble member, I cannot take a vacation for the first six months. After six months we each can take a week off, but it is on a first-come, first-served basis for requesting time off, as only one woman and one man can be away at the same time. If I don't take my vacation week, at the end of my contract in September, I will get an extra check.

The mood of the audience always makes a difference in the energy of the performers. When we can tell that an audience is enthusiastic, it makes us more energetic and excited. When an audience is quiet, we still give them our best, but it is much harder work and much less fun. Sometimes an audience will surprise us by being very subdued during the show, and then giving us a huge ovation at the curtain call.

Part VII - Intermission

The backstage of the Broadway Theatre goes straight up and down. The women's dressing room is on the fourth floor. In the course of one show I have to go to the stage and back to the dressing room several times, which means I probably climb about 30 flights every show! On two-show days I feel like I have been on the Stairmaster. The cast has all been commenting that after all those flights of stairs, we look pretty good from behind!

On Wednesdays and Saturdays we have a matinee and an evening show. Most of the principals are double- or triple-cast, so they never have to do more than one show a day. The exceptions are Daniel Webb, who plays Colline, and Daniel Okulitch, who plays Schaunard. Those two guys do all eight shows a week, unless by chance they are sick. Daniel Webb did over one hundred performances before he finally caught the "Bohème Bug," and was too sick to perform. The "Bohème Bug" is a twenty-four hour stomach flu that has struck the majority of the cast at some point over the last month. Just when we think we have finally beaten the Bug, somebody else comes down with it and has to stay home from the show.

It is always a dilemma how to spend the three hours between shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I am lucky that I live on the Upper West Side, so I can go home and make dinner or even take a nap, but some of the cast commutes in from New Jersey or Upstate New York, and have to find a way to fill the time. Many people have a leisurely dinner in the Theater District, go to the gym, shop, or lie down on the floor in the dressing room to try and get a little sleep.

Almost everyone in the cast has some free time backstage while the performance is in progress. I like to read or study some music that I am working on at my voice lessons, although sometimes it is fun just to gossip with the other women in the dressing room. Many people catch up on calls on their cell phones, and there is usually a fierce card game in the hallway. Sometimes on Saturday afternoons we listen to the radio in the men's dressing room if there is a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera.

We do not have the luxury of a lot of space backstage. There isn't really a Green Room. What we call the Green Room is just a table with some folding chairs in the basement. In spite of the small space, the cast keeps the "Green Room" stocked with chocolate and fruit. Usually around once a week someone will bake some cookies to share. It is forbidden to eat while we are in costume, although a cookie now and then sometimes slips by unnoticed!

On any given night there are usually a handful of Bohème cast members who go out together for a beer or margarita. Sometimes there is a large group if someone is celebrating a birthday. Recently, some of us went salsa dancing down in the East Village to celebrate the birthday of the assistant director, Heidi Marshall, but mostly we stay in the Theater District. After attending a Sunday matinee in January, movie star Jim Carrey came backstage to meet the cast and then came out for beers with us!

Every once in a while there is a Question and Answer session with the audience after the show. February 4th was Kids Night at La Bohème, complete with an autograph signing for the children and an early curtain time. In general, the cast is very generous about donating their time to special events. Many of us have participated in benefit concerts for various organizations on our own time, and as a cast, we performed a benefit for the Robin Hood Foundation. Sometime in the next few months we will do an extra performance to benefit The Actors' Fund. I recently attended The Actors' Fund performance of Hairspray. It was a fantastic performance, with an especially enthusiastic audience, as many of us watching are members of other Broadway shows.

January was a particularly tough month for Broadway. The months following Christmas are always difficult because tourism is down after the holidays and many Broadway shows are forced to close. Even though Bohème is surviving the audience slowdown, there are nights when we have several empty rows of seats in the balcony. One would be surprised how easy it is to get a seat this time of year at any of the hit shows. In February, on a Wednesday matinee or a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it is possible to walk up to the box office and immediately buy a ticket. This won't be the case for much longer, however! Tourism picks up in the spring, and with the Tony Awards coming up, I predict it will be nearly impossible to get a ticket for La Bohème until at least September 2003.


About the Author:

Vanessa Conlin can be heard singing her audition piece, Quando m'en vo, in the Newsletter's Artist Pages at

La Bohème ran at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco from 1 October 2002 through 10 November 2002. Previews in New York began on 29 November 2002, and the official opening night was 8 December 2002 at the Broadway Theatre. For more information about Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway, check out and


Les Femmes Surrealistes
A paper by Julie Byrd
presented at the Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Conference 
University of Illinois on March 3, 1995.
Sincere thanks to Ms. Byrd for her work


Leonora Carrington was a revolutionary before she ever encountered the Surrealists. Born into an upper class family in Lancashire, England, Leonora learned at a very early age the injustice of society. Since her parents were both very strict Catholics, they sent her away from convent to convent and then to boarding school. Finally after many rebellious acts and expulsions from school, she succeeded in convincing her parents to let her study art at the Amédée Ozenfant Academy in London. There she lived on a modest pension from her family and established herself as a painter and a writer.

In 1937, Carrington met Max Ernst in London. He left his wife for Carrington, his "Bride of the Wind". The couple lived together until the outbreak of W.W.II when Ernst was taken prisoner as an enemy alien. Carrington's work during this period moves from themes of childhood filled with magical birds and animals, to a mature art based on Celtic mythology and alchemical transformation. It is an art of sensibility rather than hallucination, one in which animal guides lead the way out of a world of men who don't know magic, fear the night, and have no mental powers except intellect.

One can clearly see this in Leonora Carrington's self-portrait where animals reveal themselves to be forces of nature.

"The source of Carringtion's magical white horse lies not in Freud's use of the horse as a symbol of male power but in the Celtic legends that nourished her childhood...the horse is sacred to the ancient tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan...the hyena belongs to the fertile world of night; the horse becomes an image of rebirth into the light of day and the world beyond the looking glass. As symbolic intermediaries between the unconscious and the natural world, they replace male Surrealists' reliance on the image of woman as the mediating link between man and the "marvelous" and suggest the powerful role played by Nature as a source of creative power for the woman artist (Chadwick, p. 79)."

Thus Carrington suggests a redefines the image of the femme-enfant - the child who plays the role of innocence, seduction and dependence on man, and transforms this woman into a being who, through childhood worlds of fantasy and magic, is capable of creative transformation through intellectual power rather than sexual power.

During the years of World War II, Carrington suffered enormously due to her lover Max Ernst's imprisonment in a concentration camp. In fact she had several mental breakdowns. On one occasion she was institutionalized (by the intervention of her family in England) and given cardiazol, a powerful shock inducing drug. This drug was administered to many female patients from what doctors diagnosed or rather coined the term "hysteria". In an article she wrote in 1944 published in Down Below, Carrington describes her experiences of having a mental breakdown and the rupture of the world around her:

I begin therefore when Max was taken away to a concentration camp...I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house, where for 24 hours, I indulged in voluntary vomiting induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be allayed by those violent spasms which tore my stomach apart like so many earthquakes...I had realized that injustice of society...My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth. It was...the mirror of the earth, the reflection of which is just as real as the person reflected. (Chadwick, p. 84).

In 1940, Carrington was reunited with Max Ernst, but he was now in the company of Peggy Guggenheim. Alas the loss of a loved one, and the reverberations of these events, left an indelible mark on Carrington's work between 1940-1944.

Carrington lived in New York after the war, and then moved to Mexico. It was in Mexico that she developed a mature body of work heavily influenced by magic, alchemy, and a lot more of the Celtic tradition. Her female protagonists are like the Sibyls, sorceresses, and priestesses of some ancient religion: their journeys are mythic voyages that unravel like fairy tales. But in life as well as art Carrington grounded her pursuit of the arcane and the hermetic in images of woman's everyday life: cooking, knitting, and tending children.

In 1946, she married Chiqui Weisz, a Hungarian immigrant. Her paintings Night Nursery Everything, Kitchen Garden of the Eyot, and Amor que move il sole e l'altra stella, celebrate the birth of her son and contain references to a female creative spirit.

Leonora Carrington has written a myriad of articles, novels, essays, and poems. She has produced thousands of paintings, sculptures, collages, and a number of tapestries. She has also made many public appearances. On in particular, was the women's movement in the early 1970's, where she spoke about women's legendary powers and the need for women to take back the rights that belonged to them all along. Carrington, just as Kahlo and Fini, is truly a remarkable human being and artist.

My Interior Vita *
by Will Alexander, Poet & Essayist

*From Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat (unpublished). Reprinted by permission of the author.

I was born under Leo, under its sign post of heat, and what has evolved from such colouration is a verbal momentum always magnetized to the uranic. A verbal rhythm prone to the upper hamlets of starlight, my predilection being instinctively honed to the fluidic motion of the sidereal. This is not to say that the protean aspects of earth cease to amaze me, or cease to enthrall me with its natural magic. The winds, the bays, the deserts, ceaseless in my mind like a teeming field of Flamingo flowers, or a sun charged clepsydra. Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writings of Damas.

Because of this purview I have never been drawn to provincial description, or to the quiescent chemistry of a condensed domestic horizon. I've always been prone to exploring the larger scope of predominant mental criteria as exhibited by the influential civilizations over the span of time which we name as history. For instance, within the Roman or American criteria I see the active involvement of what is called the left brain and its natural gravitation towards separating life by means of active fragmentation. Yet at a more ancient remove there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelation of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise. So when various knowledges fuse in my writings, insights occur, revealing an inward light whose source is simultaneous with the riveting connection between flashes of lightning.

For me, language, by its very operation is alchemical, mesmeric, totalic in the way that it condenses and at the same time proves capable of leaping the boundaries of genre. Be it the drama, the poem, the essay, the novel, language operates at a level of concentration modulated by the necessity of the character or the circumstance which is speaking. My feeling is that language is capable of creating shifts in the human neural field, capable of transmuting behaviours and judgments. Humans conduct themselves through language, and, when the latter transmutes, the human transmutes. The advertisers know this linkage, but to a superficial degree, so when language is mined at a more seminal depth of poetic strata, chance can take on a more lasting significance. And I do not mean in a didactic manner, but in the way that osmosis transpires, allowing one to see areas of reality that here-to-fore had remained elided or obscured. I'm speaking here of an organic imaginal level which rises far [End Page 371] beyond the narrow perspective of up and down, or left side and right side, which is the mind working in the service of mechanical reaction. Rather, I am thinking of magnetic savor, allowing the mind to live at a pitch far beyond the garish modes of the quotidian. One's life then begins to expand into the quality of nuance naturally superseding a bleak statistical diorama.

I was always drawn to realms outside the normal reaches of comment even at an early age. I would sustain imaginary dialogues with myself by continuously creating imaginal characters very specific in their cryptic ability to spur continuous inward rotation. Imaginal kings, warriors, athletes, angels, always igniting my mind with their ability to overcome limits, to sustain themselves beyond the confines of normal fatigue. And it was during this period that I had my first confrontation with a spector. It spoke to me in the dead of night, commanding me to rise from my bed and follow its presence into I know not where. I remained frozen as it spoke to me, and as I vividly recall I could utter no sound. I knew I was not dreaming, because as I stared into the darkness its strange niveous image formed in my vision, and took on for those unbelievable moments a staggering animation. Of course I was not believed the next day when I reported my contact to my mother. And years later she could never recall me recording the incident or my reaction to the incident, something totally out of character for her. Nevertheless it confirmed for me the activity of the supra-physical world which has remained with me in all my subsequent moments. Thus the rational world has never been able to annul my alacrity for what the mechanically sighted call the invisible.

This reality was further strengthened when first hearing the recordings of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. It was during my early teens and listening to the music was absolutely electric. It made me feel that I had allies, that there were others who knew that the material world was completely permeable, and that none of the rationally stated boundaries could contain the imaginal. Of course all of this happened before I knew anything of poetry. Yet I was already in the poetic, the music already opening me up to creativity linked as it is to the inner and outer plane. The inner burst of creative power and its circulation in the world on an international scale. Eric Dolphy in Berlin, John Coltrane in Antibes, Cecil Taylor at Moosham Castle in Austria, Duke Ellington in Dakar. So by the time I read a book on Rimbaud some seven years later I felt a definite relation between his inner experience and my own. Close to finishing the book I found myself writing my first poem, and I immediately felt a great liberty transpire within me, a liberty which suddenly flashed to creative fruition.

And I've found over time that this liberty continuously burns, and is capable of transmuting all that it touches. I've found no discipline which is foreign to it. Architecture, politics, mathematics, mysticism, all prone to a higher verbal kindling, to a different archery of usage. This is not to say that poetry serves as a didactic device, no, but as a magical instrument with the prowess to overcome the mortality of the temporal. It is fiesta outside the limits of the measured diurnal regime where the constraints of the conscious mind vanish without trace. So by the time I discovered Surrealism and the writings of Artaud, Césaire, Breton, Lamantia, and Bob Kaufman, I felt ripe for exploring the subconscious levels of the mind. Then connecting the power of such writing with Sri Aurobindo's supra-conscious mind, the Tibetan Book [End Page 372] of the Dead, and the Egyptian connective between visible and invisible domains, I was able to develop within an instinctive motif of linguistic arousal. And as was for Césaire earlier, the Surrealism opened me up to animate use of language not unlike the ancient African atmosphere of consciousness. Life being an unbroken motion of consciousness, poetry is for me the celebration of that unbrokenness.

Creativity being an on-going praxis, is a continuous trance, in which one deals with the unification of worlds, rather than fostering inclement fragments. Insights, worlds within worlds, which include not only scintillations of the conscious mind, but more importantly, its ability to both elevate and descend, thereby traversing the triple levels of the mind, the conscious, the supra-conscious, and the sub-conscious minds, creating in the process a concert of worlds.

Will Alexander is the author of six books, including Asia & Haiti, The Stratospheric Canticles, and Towards the Primeval Lightning Field. Asia & Haiti was a PEN finalist in 1996. His more recent work has been published in Orpheus Grid, XCP, Fence, Chain, and Hambone.


Joanne Kyger -- The Poet and Her Poetics:  Two Essays from "Jacket", Issue #11

Two essays on the work of poet Joanne Kyger follow. To read more about this poet, please click here to go to the "JACKET #11" journal website and to this issue entirely devoted to Joanne Kyger's poetry.

Stephen Vincent

Testing the Sublime - The Work of Joanne Kyger


CALIFORNIA is an Asian, Latin, African and European inhabited diaspora, and Northern California, particularly Joanne Kyger's home in Bolinas - the small farming/fishing village/bird refuge on the Pacific north of San Francisco (an hour or so) overlooked by Mount Tamalpais - is a particular manifestation (deceptively appearing pastoral) in which much of the Indian population (not more than a hundred years ago) if not slaughtered was variously displaced leaving the geography a habitat of indigenous ghosts, ones that speak in her work through mostly cracked artifacts: dirty mortars, unexpected breezes in bushes and trees, and the fresh release of characters in recovered local Miwok Indian fables. Ironically there is the also unspoken ghost of Sir Francis Drake (the early Anglo-Euro Imperial scout) who, 1593, harbored north in a Point Reyes Estuary - a half-hour to the North - the same époque Shakespeare (an initial Modern) was writing and directing plays at The Globe(!) Theater.

She, a careful student of Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese religious art and practice. A close friend of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, and married for a time to Gary Snyder, denizens of 1940's Reed College in Portland, Oregon in the Northwest; students of Lloyd Reynolds, a seminal calligrapher and student of Zen and later, friends and readers of Kenneth Rexroth, each a mentor with firm affections for the sublime revealed in natural landscapes, and a discomfort in Cities.

But Joanne is more complex than these associations. Though she will have associations with and influence from the visits of those talky, cranked-up New Yorkers (Ginsberg and Kerouac), her friendships and apprenticeships are equally, if not more close to the Berkeley Renaissance poets (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robin Blazer, George Stanley): Renaissance particularly in their apprenticeship to Greek classical myth and neo-classical English interpretations. These men - well-educated, intellectually combative, urban, gay, non-institutional, fiercely independent - undoubtedly provided model: a sense of heroic quest: an anarchism in standing outside institutions and making poetry for an independent state, a community of shared sensibility, a vanguard of consciousness. In addition, one must throw in the weight and force of Black Mountain, particularly the presence of Creeley and the mentorship of Olson: Bolinas, for a while in the early seventies, a Gloucester "on out" for many a soul from Olson's training in Buffalo.


Kyger - cover of All This Every Day

Joanne first arrives in San Francisco in the mid-fifties, then considered (I understand) stunning, a fashion model with a theatrical sense of presence, initially shy as an apprentice, a bridge figure, a bride of sorts among them - she who will take ("marry") urban smarts with mythic intrigue and re-negotiate a stand on, within and among this Pacific space. One (with her poet partners) that will separate from the diasporic colonizing Euro/Yankee western agenda.

Were there others - that is women who precede Joanne in this space, or what defines it? There were certain California women at the turn of the Century, particularly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake who arose within and around the Northern California versions of the Arts and Crafts movement. Among them Isadora Duncan, Annie Brigman, Juanita Miller, and Julia Morgan, who emerged in Berkeley and Oakland and framed their personae as creatures of Pan - without the wit or irony of Joanne, but certainly similar in her love, her reverence for and compliance with the shapes, spirits and movements of what is natural, what is sublime.

Isadora strove to have her body move as if it were shaped by the winds through the California pines; Juanita Miller (daughter of Joaquin Miller, the poet), starring in a film in Virginia City, refused to come down from the top of a tree at noon until she experienced (she told them) full intercourse with the sun; Annie Brigman, pictorialist and photographer making images of men and women in Greek attire in natural settings; architect Julia Morgan designing U.C. Berkeley's Greek theater and Hearst Castle, among many other Arcadian influenced shapes. This was a whole new (non-paranoid, non-Christian, non-materialist) pantheist way of looking at life on the western frontier, a view which must also include Theosophy - Madame Blavatsky, and, later, Robert Duncan's interest in H.D. and Jung - particularly the presence and interface, the unveiling ritual offered in one's dreams and seances, as in Spicer's practice of the Tarot and his fascination with the template of the quest in The Faerie Queen.

In Joanne Kyger, all these elements shape a poetry that's distinguished by a distinctive line, a sense of pitch and a content whose implicit form seduces eye and ear into a robust, most often illuminated, ecstatic space: a place in which beings (formerly flat, merely nominal) emerge, take shape to either perform fertile actions or inflict demonic damage. What makes these poems contemporary, rather than histrionic: they are nervous, publicly anxious, not always sure, and yet committed in a way that proposes a generosity of humor and spirit, a mischievousness (if not an outright love of the pleasures of foolishness); and a constant surprise, in a voice that is right at home with echoes of Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan. Simultaneously, the work possesses an unflinching sense of appropriate behavior backed by a spit-fire awareness of counter-ecstatic, bad company. Though not self-righteous; when deserved, inputting the pathos of her occasional own "awful self."

July 20

                     You left
    your heart behind, over there, back there
Sleepy slow Buddha, you catch up to me, ok?
                     Well I'm doing it now, yes this
                     is the time I'm in, just this time
                             to lighten it up
                  staying home.

                                    Part II

                                      Raw nervous consciousness
                     All right, Joanne, get a firm
                                 grip on yourself - it's not so bad
            Inside while the world cavorts happily
            in the sunshine of yet another amazing
            Bolinas day...
                        But I can do it, I can
                                       falling forward
                        into one foot after another
            Day dreams and fancies
                                                Creamy Female

        from The Wonderful Focus of You (1979)
In making praise of a poet or poem's intention, it's probably all too common to confuse praise for intention with actual accomplishment. To create a theater set without presenting the play. What happens to shift her work away from a monotonous attention to formal desire and/or a readership that expects the same? Kyger's work (clearly various in its directions) delivers a formality constantly disrupted by a variety of scrims that move/slide into and off stage. The incomplete sentence that splices then unsplices from the overlap of one scrim and then another. Occasionally there is a view singular and apparently whole that is just as quickly broken with an uncanny will to re-impart a shifting, syntactical weave. The interface of dream, inherited myth, and immediate natural facts and folks within the community provide a source of attention, continual challenge and play. Language is the activity of a totally open consciousness; its form and delight usher in from the play of close focus; perhaps Keatsian, the negative capability of attention, keeps turning the tables - the unveiling - providing the poem as a "rush," a surprise, indeed an alchemy. Yet, within this rolling and unrolling fusion, there remains a presence, someone called Joanne who calls attention to a moral dilemma (something out of whack) which requires attention.  Even when things get very wacky - Pan displaced by "panic" - there remains a fiber in the language, a sense of the correct; her "darkened shores" will provoke a counter-active grace (preferably golden), a joy in which voice and space, that Orphic duo, are one.


Kyger - cover of The Wonderful Focus of You



      The grasses are light brown
      and ocean comes in
      long shimmering lines
      under the frost last night
      which dozes now in the early morning

Here and there horses graze
      on somebody's acreage
            Strangely, it was not my desire

that bade me speak in church to be re released
      but memory of the way it used to be in
careless and exotic play

            when characters were promises
      then recognitions. The world of transformation
a real and not real but trusting.

                  Enough of these lessons? I mean
didactic phrases to take you in and out of
love's mysterious bonds?

      Well I myself am not myself.
      and which power of survival I speak
for is not made of houses.

      It is inner luxury, of golden figures
that breathe like mountains do
      and whose skin is made dusky by the stars

                  from All This Every Day (1975)
Needless to say - though she has published several books and courts an attentive local audience - Joanne's life and practice appears mostly at odds with what accounts these days for making poetry a conscious career path. Though she would be wonderful to see read on a major stage - as Helen Adam once was - her personality has never seemed one driven to sacrifice the work (or quality of life) for contemporary renown. That's probably a personal blessing, but a public loss. With the republication of her Japan and India Journals forthcoming from North Atlantic Books and a selected poems forthcoming from Penguin Books in 2002, gradually, it now seems, a larger corner will appear in the world with Joanne Kyger's name on it.

Stephen Vincent ( lives in San Francisco.
His most recent poetry book is Walking from Junction Press.

Photo Credits: The cover of All This Every Day - Francesco Pellizzi (Chiapas, Mexico) (Big Sky, 1975)
The Wonderful Focus of You - Nancy Whitefield Breedlove (Z Press, 1980)


Andrew Schelling

Joanne Kyger's Portable Poetics


28 July 1997; Patzcuaro

In the dream Donald and Joanne show up. We're delighted they've joined us in Patzcuaro. But inside a bar-room full of local handcrafted objects we find a cabinet of colorful Michoacan shelves loaded with science fiction body-snatcher pods. The pods are intricately lacquered with blue and white Indian designs. Seems they've been put here to replace humanity. An apocalyptic mood settles over the room.

Joanne departs for the mercado to buy ceramic cups - "cupitos" she calls them - leaving me and Donald to figure out the immense complicated coffee machine while Anne keeps vigil over the pods. Someone's put the machine together wrong. When I throw a switch it steams dangerously and coffee drizzles from many unpredictable valves.

Joanne Kyger over the past ten years in various temporary lodgings here in Boulder, and recently down in Mexico's Michoacan mountains. It was in January, in Patzcuaro, that I asked about her principles for packing - how she gets it together to travel - and she told me she learnt a great deal in the sixties watching Gary Snyder pack his rucksack for the woods.

Joanne moves into her quarters with modest duffel bag and backpack, and from it produces all manner of practical items, ritual objects, and writing tools. Up goes a portable Buddhist altar, small thanka painting tacked to the wall, and various select bandanas come unrolled. (She seems to have made a study of the many designs available, both north and south of the border, commenting on new patterns she encounters. I was unaccountably pleased recently when she asked me to teach her the knot I use for tying bandanas around the throat cowboy style ­ able to give back some bit of practical learning to one who has made a deep study of these things.)

I was unaccountably pleased recently when she asked me to teach her the knot I use for tying bandanas around the throat cowboy style, able to give her back some bit of practical learning.) On and around the variety of bandanas go plates, spoons, knives; fruit from the local market, a flower or two, and a little larder of food chosen for quality and inexpensiveness. Tequila or beer; and tiny drinking cups, the "cupitos" that made it into the dream, she has pickedup for pennies in Patzcuaro's Friday open air ceramic market.

These details are not meant to be merely personal or anecdotal. I put them down because I've maybe learnt about how she writes as much from watching her travel habits as querying her poems on the page. Joanne Kyger is after all the preeminent living poet of the journal or notebook ­ an old nearly underground tradition I like to trace back to Japan, where the nikki ("day book") has survived as a durable genre for over a thousand years. A genre that seems to have been designed for the traveler.

The fine early journal practitioners in Japan were women of the Heian court (tenth and eleventh century). While the cultivated men were distracting themselves writing poems in classical Chinese, and remained dependent on large nonportable libraries, the courtesans were forging a peerless literary tradition based on the diary form. Direct observation and colloquial recording of events, people, places visited; conversations overheard; accounts of poetry competitions; as well as enough solid ethnography & natural history to make the period utterly vivid. After Arthur Waley's partial translation of Sei Shonagon, and then Ivan Morris's full version of The Pillow Book into English, the twentieth century had to hand a splendid up-to-date model for list poems of everything from trees and birds to "despicable things" and harsh sounding words. Other good diaries from the period are those of Murasaki Shikibu, the poet Izumi Shikibu, Lady Sarashina, the anonymous author of The Gossamer Years, and that of Lady Nijjo.

In the spirit of Basho who wrote "the journey itself is home", Joanne once told me: Traveling, the journal is your home away from home, the place you live. The little book is your casa. And she continued with what everyone knows but needs to hear again, repeatedly ­ how in that book, in the domestic space of that casa, one ought to give things the dignity of their names. Such a practice in our planetary house of course implies a great scholarly interest directed towards the world. Go out and learn it all: birds, trees, landscapes, people, languages, customs, food, the prices travelers pay and the prices for locals. Get these things down while they are close to hand.

It is in her very important Japan & India Journals that Joanne Kyger most fully (in terms of number of pages and timespans and regions covered) shows herself a terrifically disciplined yet sprightly & loosely omnivorous journal writer. Of the lessons one learns or somehow picks up over the years, for life & for poetry, only a handful really stand out. It was she who passed on to me one of the most serviceable: that the journal as a regular writing practice shifts the focus of writing from that old Occidental head trip "who are you" ­ to "when" and "where" are you. These questions it turns out are more interesting points for writing and living to proceed from.

Patzcuaro for instance is a where. A when might take note: winter, the dry season, vegetation a little withered by drought; six years after Mexico's Zapatista insurgency put the PRI (government party) on notice and delivered around Mexico and into Michoacan a certain long-supressed pride for the indigenos. Four hundred fifty years after the Jesuits constructed the first Western Hemisphere college (it's up on the hill near the Basilica, today used as a museum of regional folk life). Over at Plaza Chiquito is bronze statue of revolutionary hero Gertrudis Bocanegra baring her breasts to the firing squad: who's revolution and when? what was the legacy? why alongside Patzcuaro's open air mercado and across from the biblioteca?

Joanne Kyger

And so, you always enter the date, the time, and the location at the top of your entry. Notice how Kyger's poetry of recent decades follows suit, bringing this information to the bottom of the page, making of it a frame for the poem. There is something ceremonial in heading your page with where and when: it anchors what follows, if only a single word or thought. Not surprisingly, this is the advice found in bird-watch journals, back country notebooks, and has been used by most travelers of the hundred literary epochs. Anyone who goes on a journey, or takes an interest in ecology, bioregionalism, or that enormous journey of everything around us termed natural history, can't do with a better teaching.

The writer's mindstream is freed on the instant, and can assume a relaxed and ironic removal from the inward junk of fluctuating mood intricacies; attention relocates on an out-there world: history, geopolitical observations, bioregional specifics like flora & fauna & weather currents, other peoples' customs, foreign vocabularies, and the indelible impact of capital on the twenty-first century.

Possibly Kyger's low-impact lifestyle and the way she packs and travels should go into some future handbook of how as a human being to dwell on our planet: lightly and with good bright humor. Beware enterprises requiring new clothes. But always put in your rucksack a clean notebook.


J A C K E T  # 11

Kimberly Akimbo Review From NY1

David Lindsay Abaire is an up and coming playwright known for dark comedies like "Fuddy Meers" and "Wonder of the World." His latest quirky creation is KIMBERLY AKIMBO, a piece about a girl who's 16 going on 70. NY1's Roma Torre filed this review.

KIMBERLY AKIMBO is one weird show, but I was bowled over by the singular theatricality of David Lindsay Abaire's new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The way this harrowing and hilarious work continuously shifts from satire to black comedy to realism could never work anywhere else but the stage. And blessed with a first-rate production featuring an exceptional acting ensemble, it is theatre at its most original.

Kimberly Levaco is about to turn 16. She's met her first boyfriend, and is soon to experience her first kiss. Though her dad worries about the boyfriend's intentions, there's no fear of accidental pregnancy. That's because Kimberly went through menopause four years ago.

Kimberly was born with a degenerative disease that causes her to age four and a half times the normal rate. Betrayed by her body, she's staring squarely at her own mortality, with a life expectancy that's just about up.

But Kimberly, as played and written, is no maudlin, self-obsessed teen. In fact, she's the normal one. And we discover she's suffering something even worse than her terminal illness - her family.

The family includes a pregnant, uncaring hypochondriac mother. Bandaged from carpal tunnel surgery, she's convinced that she's the one who's about to die. Her father is a spineless alcoholic with brief flashes of affection, and Jake Webber is outstanding in the part.

Both parents, in a chronic state of denial, manage to forget Kimberly's birthday, which statistically should be her last.

There's also her reckless aunt - a vulgar ex-con who ironically seems to have more feeling for Kimberly than her own parents.

It's a tricky play to produce because it requires the perfect balance between quirky and sincere. And this company, expertly directed by David Petrarca, pulls it off with exceptional flair.

Then there's Marylouise Burke. This 62-year-old actress' convincing performance as a teenager is a revelation. She's so believable that at one point, when she dresses like an elderly woman, the startling image takes your breath away. She provides the heartbreaking sanity to Lindsay Abaire's nightmarish world, where family dysfunction thrives amid a cultural wasteland. It's exaggerated to be sure, but rooted in reality just enough to make us all squirm from recognition.

The play's power comes from its ability to comment on so many profound issues in our lives: family neglect, aging, morality, love and innocence. It's painful to watch, but also enlightening. And if you stick with it, you may find yourself laughing through tears. Now that's theatre.

- Roma Torre

Manhattan Theatre Club's production of KIMBERLY AKIMBO, by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by David Petrarca, is playing at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). The performance schedule is: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Sunday evening performances are at 7 PM. Tickets are $60 and can be reserved by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212. Group and student rates are available. For group ticket information, call (212) 399-3000 X 132. $20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification). Call (212) 581-1212 for further information. MTC at City Center is accessible to people with disabilities and is equipped with a hearing augmentation system.



What is generally called free verse is now more than a century old. It was in 1886 that Gustave Kahn's Paris La Vogue published Rimbaud's "Marine" and "Mouvement" (both written in the early 1870s), translations of some of Whitman's Leaves of Grass by Jules Laforgue, ten of Laforgue's own free-verse poems, and further experiments by Jean Moréas, Paul Adam, and Gustave Kahn himself. On the other side of the Channel, vers libre was soon picked up by the Imagists: in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, Pound put forward his famous Imagist manifesto, whose third principle was "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."

Even as he made this pronouncement, however, Pound remarked that "vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. . . . The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shovelled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound" (LEEP 3). And his friend T. S. Eliot, who was to declare in "The Music of Poetry" (1942) that "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job," observed in his 1917 "Reflections on Vers Libre," that "there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos." How to avoid the latter? "The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse." And in a formulation that was to become a kind of First Rule in poetry manuals, Eliot declares, "the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation."

Eliot's formulation, which was, of course, based on his own practice, still governs most discussions of free verse. As recently as 1993, in a book called The Ghost of Meter, Annie Finch treats contemporary free verse as essentially a fruitful quarrel with meter, especially iambic pentameter, and tries to show how in the lyric of poets as diverse as Charles Wright and Audre Lorde, "anger at the pentameter and exhileration at claiming its authority engender much poetic energy." Derek Attridge's Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (1995) characterizes free verse by citing poems like Adrienne Rich's "Night Watch," which "derives its rhythmic quality from its existence on the borders of regular verse." And in recent years the New Formalists have gone further, arguing that "free verse" has been no more than a temporary aberration, given that, in the words of Timothy Steele, "poetry was always, before the modern period, associated with meter." Indeed, in a 1996 review of the Library of America's newly edited Collected Poems of Robert Frost, Helen Vendler cites approvingly Frost's dismissal of free verse ("Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form"), and remarks:

There used to be a critical orthodoxy (still prevalent in a few backwaters) that anyone practicing rhymed and metered verse was a reactionary and no Modernist; we now understand, having seen many later writers (Merrill, Lowell) alternating metered and free verse, that both forms and free verse are neutrally available to all.

The implication of this claim for "neutral availability" is that verse forms, whether free or otherwise, are independent of history as well as of national and cultural context and that metrical choice is a question of individual predilection. And further: that free verse is some kind of end point, an instance of writing degree zero from which the only reasonable "advance" can be, as Steele suggests, a return to "normal" metrical forms. At the risk of allying myself with those "backwater" forces Vendler refers to so dismissively, I shall want to argue here that there are indeed other possibilities and that verse, like the materials used in any art medium, and like the clothes we wear and the furnishings in our houses, is subject to historical change as well as cultural and political constraint. But before I consider the large-scale transformations "free verse" is now undergoing in America (and, for that matter, in the poetry of most other nations as well), some definitions and clarifications are in order.

What is free verse anyway? However varied its definitions, there is general agreement on two points: (1) the sine qua non of free verse is lineation. When the lines run all the way to the right margin, the result is prose, however "poetic." The basic unit of free verse is thus the line. But (2), unlike metrical or strong-stress or syllabic or quantitative verse, free verse is, in Donald Wesling's words, "distinguished . . . by the lack of a structuring grid based on counting of linguistic units and/or position of linguistic features" (EPP 425). As Derek Attridge explains:

Free verse is the introduction into the continuous flow of prose language, which has breaks determined entirely by syntax and sense, of another kind of break, shown on the page by the start of a new line, and often indicated in a reading of the poem by a slight pause. When we read prose, we ignore the fact that every now and then the line ends, and we have to shift our eyes to the beginning of the next line. We know that if the same text were printed in a different typeface, the sentences would be broken up differently with no alteration in the meaning. But in free verse, the line on the page has an integrity and function of its own. This has important consequences for the movement and hence the meaning of the words.
(DA 5, my emphasis).

The implication of free-verse writing, Attridge adds sensibly, is that poetry "need not be based on the production of controlled numbers of beats by the disposition of stressed and unstressed syllables." A more accurate name, Attridge suggests , would be "nonmetrical verse, which, as a negative definition, has the advantage of implying that this kind of verse does not have a fixed identity of its own, whereas 'free verse' misleadingly suggests a single type of poetry" (DA 167-68). But the adjective "nonmetrical" is somewhat misleading, given that the item counted may be the number of primary stresses (no matter how many syllables per line), as in Old English and much of Middle English poetry, the number of syllables per line, regardless of the number of stresses, as in the syllabics of Marianne Moore, or the number of long vowels per line, as in classical quantitative verse, and so on. Charles O. Hartman's definition is thus more accurate: "the prosody of free verse is rhythmic organization by other than numerical modes." Free verse retains the linear turn inherent in the etymology of the word verse (Latin, versus), but there is no regularly recurring counted entity.

Once we try to go beyond these basics, there is little unanimity as to the features of free verse. For Donald Wesling, free verse has its roots in the oral forms of ancient cultures--Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Sanskrit, and Hebrew--none of which have meter (EPP 425). The speech-base of free verse is also accepted by Northrop Frye, who defines it as "the associative rhythm"--that is the rhythm of ordinary speech, with its short, repetitive, irregular, often asyntactic phrasal units-- "strongly influenced by verse," which is to say by by lineation. And Robert Pinsky observes that "the line in contemporary practice seems to fall roughly into two overlapping kinds: a rhetorical indicator for the inflections of speech . . . and a formal principle varyingly intersecting the inflection of speech."

But "inflection of speech" doesn't in fact distinguish free verse from its metrical counterparts. On the one hand, there are those like Derek Attridge who argue that all verse is speech-based; on the other, those who hold that free verse is distinguished primarily by its visual form, its typographical layout, and that indeed the line break creates verbal and phrasal units quite unlike those of speech. But the link between free verse and visual formation is by no means essential. For the majority of free-verse poems--say those one finds in any issue of Poetry or American Poetry Review--retain the justified left margin, some form of stanzaic structure, and lines of similar length, so as to produce visual columns not all that different from their metrical counterparts.

If, then, free verse cannot be definitively distinguished, whether aurally, visually (or, for that matter, syntactically), from, say, blank verse, this is not to say that there isn't what we might call a free-verse culture that occupies a particular place in twentieth-century literary history. In Critique du rythme (1982), Henri Meschonnic works from the premise that "the aim [of prosodic theory] is not to produce a conceptual synthesis of rhythm, an abstract, universal category, an a priori form. Rather, an organized understanding of historical subjects." As he explains:

It is not a question of opposing form to an absence of form. Because the informe [formless] is still form. If we want to provide a proper base for the critique of rhythm, we must pass from imperious abstractions to the historicity of language. Where freedom is no more a choice than it is an absence of constraint, but the search of its own historicity.

In this sense the poet is not free. He is not free in confronting the alexandrine, any more than in confronting free verse. Not free of being ventriloquized by a tradition. . . . One doesn't choose what one writes, nor to write. No more than one chooses to be born into one's language, there and then.

The so-called freedom of free verse must be understood in this context. When Pound declares in Canto 81, "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave," he is speaking to a particular situation in late-Victorian "genteel" verse, when meter stood for a particular collective attitude, a social and cultural restriction on the "freedom" of the subject. Vladimir Mayakovsky, coming out of an entirely different tradition, but in the same time period, makes a similar gesture when he declares in 1926, "Trochees and iambs have never been necessary to me. I don't know them and don't want to know them. Iambs impede the forward movement of poetry" (cited in HMC 528).

Such statements, Meschonnic points out, are neither true nor untrue; rather, they must be understood as part of the drive toward rupture characteristic of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. And the form Pound's own prosody took--the "ideogrammizing of Western verse," in Meschonnic's words-- had everything to do with the revolution in mass print culture, a revolution that bred what Meschonnic calls the "theatre of the page." "If we were to talk about practices rather than intentions," he says, "every page of poetry would represent a conception of poetry" (HMC 303). Blank spaces, for example, would become just as important as the words themselves in composing a particular construct (HMC 304-305). Thus, the structuralist argument that lineation in and of itself guarantees that a text will be read and interpreted as a poem is based on two misconceptions. First, it ignores the active role that white space (silence) plays in the visual and aural reception of the poem: the line, after all, is anchored in a larger visual field, a field by no means invariable. Second, and more important, the response to lineation must itself be historicized. In a contemporary context of one-liners on the television screen and the computer monitor, as well as lineated ads, greeting-cards, and catalog entries, the reader/viewer has become quite accustomed to reading "in lines." Indeed, surfing the Internet is largely a scanning process in which the line is rapidly replacing the paragraph as the unit to be accessed.

How lineation as device signifies thus depends on many factors, historical, cultural, and national. The history of free verse in English remains to be written: when it is, it will be clear that the dominant example has been, not that of Ezra Pound, whose ideographic page has only recently become a model for poets, but that of William Carlos Williams, whose verse signature is still a powerful presence. But since my concern in this essay is with the current situation in poetry, I shall confine myself to the postwar era, using as my example two representative anthologies, both of them cutting-edge at their respective postwar moments. The first is Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey for Bobbs Merrill in 1969 (but including poems from the early fifties on); the second, Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK, edited by Maggie O'Sullivan for Reality Street Studios in London in 1996.

"An Echo Repeating No Sound"

In their Foreword to Naked Poetry, Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey tell us that they had a hard time finding "a satisfactory name for the kinds of poetry we were gathering and talking about":

Some people said 'Free Verse' and others said 'Organic Poetry' . . . and we finally came up with Open Forms, which isn't bad but isn't all that good either. And we took a phrase from Jiménez for a title which expresses what we feel about the qualities of this poetry as no technical label could do. But what does it matter what you call it? Here is a book of nineteen American poets whose poems don't rhyme (usually) and don't move on feet of more or less equal duration (usually). (NAK xi, my emphasis)

The assumption here is that there is an "it," alternately known as free verse, organic poetry, open form, or whatever, but that this "it" cannot be defined "technically," which is to say, materially. And indeed the editors quickly go on to add that "Everything we thought to ask about [the poets'] formal qualities has come to seem more and more irrelevant, and we find we are much more interested in what they say, in their dreams, visions, and prophecies. Their poems take shape from the shapes of their emotions, the shapes their minds make in thought, and certainly don't need interpreters" (NAK xi). Not "form," then, but "content" is what matters. Still, the choice of free verse is central because "We began with the firm conviction that the strongest and most alive poetry in America had abandoned or at least broken the grip of traditional meters and had set out, once again, into 'the wilderness of unopened life'" (NAK xi).

This is a perfectly representative sixties statement about poetry. It takes off from Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" (1950), with its strong dismissal of "closed" verse and concomitant adoption of the line as coming "from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes." It is the "LINE" that speaks for the "HEART," even as the syllable does for the "HEAD": "the LINE that's the baby that gets, as the poem is getting made, the attention." Interestingly, Berg and Mezey, who were by no means disciples of Olson, here give a curious twist to the famous Olson credo that "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN THE EXTENSION OF CONTENT." Whereas Olson demanded that form take its cue from the semantic structure of a given poem, Berg and Mezey take the aphorism one step further, dismissing "formal qualities" as more or less "irrelevant," entirely secondary to "what [the poets] say, in their dreams, visions, and prophecies." Indeed, if poems "take shape from the shapes of their emotions," from "the wilderness of unopened life," then "free verse" is effective insofar as it tracks the actual movement of thought and feeling, refusing to interfere with its free flow, to inhibit its natural motion. Or so, at least, the poem must appear to be doing, no matter how much "craft" has gone into it.

Naked Poetry includes nineteen American poets, born between 1905 and 1935, the largest cluster of them born between 1926 and 1930. In chronological order, they are: Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Patchen, William Stafford, Weldon Kees, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Stephen Berg, and Robert Mezey. Despite the paucity of women (two out of the nineteen) and the absence (characteristic for 1969) of minority poets as well as poets writing outside theUnited States., the editors have clearly made an effort to transcend schools and regional affiliations by including representatives of Beat (Ginsberg, Snyder), Black Mountain (Creeley, Levertov), Deep Image (Bly, Kinnell, Wright), Northwest (Roethke, Stafford), and East Coast Establishment (Lowell, Berryman, Merwin, Plath) poetry.

So what do the poems in this anthology look and sound like? Consider the following five poems (or parts of poems), for which I have supplied scansions:

/ / || / >

(1) A headless squirrel, some blood

/ \ / \ >

oozing from the unevenly

/ /\ /

chewed-off neck

/ / /\ /

lies in rainsweet grass

/ / /\ /

near the woodshed door.

/ / /\

Down the driveway

/ / \ >

the first irises

/ /\ /

have opened since dawn,

/ || / >

ethereal, their mauve

/ /\ \ / /

almost a transparent gray,

/ /

their dark veins

/ /


(Denise Levertov, "A Day Begins," NAK 140)

(2) / / / /\ /

The sun sets in the cold without friends

/ / / / \

Without reproaches after all it has done for us

/ / / /

It goes down believing in nothing

/ / / / / / \

When it has gone I hear the stream running after it

\ / / ||\ / /

It has brought its flute it is a long way

(W. S. Merwin, "Dusk in Winter," NAK 255)

(3) / / /\ / \

In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal

/ / / / || / / || /

sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky waiting for

/\ / \ / /

the Los Angeles Express to depart

/ / \ / / /\ / / /\

worrying about eternity over the Post Office roof in the night-time

/ / /\ /

red downtown heaven,

/ / /\ / / \ /

staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering these thoughts

/ / \ || / / \ / || / \

were not eternity, nor the poverty of our lives, irritable

/ /

baggage clerks,

/ / / / \ / / /

nor the millions of weeping relatives surrounding the buses waving

/\ /


/ / / / / / / /

nor other millions of the poor rushing around from city to city to

/ / /\

see their loved ones. . . .

(from Allen Ginsberg, "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound" NAK 194-95)

(4) / / / /\

Down valley a smoke haze

/ /\ / / / /\ /

Three days heat, after five days rain

/ / /\ / /\

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

/ / / /\

Across rocks and meadows

/ / /

Swarms of new flies.

/ / / / /

I cannot remember things I once read

/ / / /

A few friends, but they are in cities.

/ / / /\ / /

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

/ / /

Looking down for miles

/ / /

Through high still air.

(Gary Snyder, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," NAK 330)

(5) / /\ / /\ / /

The ice ticks seaward like a clock.

/ / >

A Negro toasts

/ /\ / / /\ >

wheat-seeds over the coke-fumes

/ /

of a punctured barrel.

/ / >

Chemical air

/\ / /\ /

sweeps in from New Jersey,

/ /

and smells of coffee.

/ /

Across the river,

/ / \ / / \ / >

ledges of suburban factories tan

/ /\ / / >

in the sulphur-yellow sun

/ /\ / / /\

of the unforgivable landscape.

(from Robert Lowell, "The Mouth of the Hudson,"NAK 110-111)

The five poets cited are by no means alike: the conventional wisdom would be to oppose the "raw" Allen Ginsberg to the "cooked" Robert Lowell, or the Black Mountain-based Denise Levertov to the more mainstream New Yorker favorite, W. S. Merwin, and so on. Indeed, there are real prosodic differences in the above examples. Certainly Ginsberg's strophes, made up of two or more lines, characterized by their emphatic, predominantly trochaic and dactylic rhythm, each strophe emphatically end-stopped, are a far cry from Levertov's minimal, lightly stressed (two or three stresses per line), frequently enjambed lines, arranged in open tercets. For Ginsberg, repetition, whether clausal or phrasal, is the central sonic and syntactic device; for Levertov, whose poem charts minute differences of perception, repetition is studiously avoided. Again, Levertov's "A Day Begins" differs from Snyder's "Mid-August," whose two five-line stanzas are notable for their monosyllabic base (seven of the poem's fifty-seven words are monosyllables), which ensures strong stress on almost every word in a loosely trochaic sequence. Unlike Levertov, Snyder does not run on his lines; neither, for that matter, does Merwin, whose lines are evenly paced to the point of intentional monotony, the avoidance of secondary and tertiary stresses heightening the epiphany of the final line in which two sentences are unexpectedly run together, culminating in the pyrrhic-spondee pattern of "it is (a) lóng wáy." And finally in Lowell, whose free verse most closely follows Eliot's prescription that the ghost of meter must lurk behind the arras, the frequent enjambment (as if to say, look, I am writing free verse, using open form!) is offset by the underlying iambic rhythm, as in "The íce tîcks séawârd líke a clóck" and "A négro toásts," as well as by the repetition of identical stress contours, as in the two-stress lines "and smélls of cóffee," "Acróss the ríver."

But despite all these differences--and who would mistake the sound and look of a Ginsberg poem for that of a Lowell or Levertov one?-- there is a period style, a dominant rhythmic-visual contour that distinguishes

the lyric of Naked Poetry from that of a recent anthology like Out of Everywhere. Consider the following features:

(1) The free verse, in its variability (both of stress and of syllable count) and its avoidance of obtrusive patterns of recurrence, tracks the speaking voice (in conjunction with the moving eye) of a perceptive, feeling subject, trying to come to terms with what seems to be an alien, or at least incomprehensible, world. Thus Levertov's "A Day Begins" follows the motion of the eye, taking in the frightening sight of the bloody headless squirrel, its location being specified only in the second tercet and in turn juxtaposed to the next thing seen, "the first irises" {that] "have opened since dawn," the poem moving, in the final line, to the "bruise-blue" conjunction between these seeming dissimilars. The same temporal tracking characterizes Merwin's "Dusk in Winter": in line 1, the sun is seen setting, in lines 2-3, the poet responds to the resulting "cold"; in lines 4-5, the sense of loss gives way to renewal as the stream is metaphorically perceived as "running after" the sun, its sound like flute song. In Ginsberg's "In the Baggage Room," the first line sets the scene "in the depths of the Greyhound Terminal," and each subsequent strophe adds an element of perception or cognition. In Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," the patient description of the valley in the first stanza triggers the step-by-step withdrawal into the self in the second. And Lowell's eleven-line conclusion to "The Mouth of the Hudson" focuses on the bleakest and ugliest items in sight as representation of the interior "unforgivable landscape" that is the poet's own.

(2) Free verse is organized by the power of the image, by a construct of images as concrete and specific as possible, that serve as objective correlative for inner states of mind. Surely it is not coincidental that the origins of free verse coincide with French symbolisme and Anglo-American Imagism. From William Carlos Williams's "Good Night" (see Essay #5) and "As the cat. . ." to Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" and Levertov's "A Day Begins," the free-verse line presents what are often unmediated images, as they appear in the mind's eye of the poet: "A headless squirrel, some blood / oozing from the unevenly / chewed-off neck" (Levertov) "The sun sets in the cold without friend" (Merwin), "In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal / sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky" (Ginsberg) "Down valley a smoke haze" (Snyder) "The ice ticks seaward like a clock" (Lowell). Perception, discovery, reaction: free-verse is the form par excellence that strives toward mimesis of individual feeling, as that feeling is generated by sights, sounds, smells, and memories.

(3) Although free verse is speech-based, although it tracks the movement of the breath itself, syntax is regulated, which is to say that the free-verse "I" generally speaks in complete sentences: "the first irises / have opened since dawn," "When it has gone I hear the stream running after it," "staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering these thoughts were not eternity," "I cannot remember things I once read," "Chemical air / sweeps in from New Jersey, / and smells of coffee." If, these poems seem to say, there is no metrical recurrence, no rhyme or stanzaic structure, syntax must act as clarifier and binder, bringing units together and establishing their relationships.

(4) A corollary of regulated syntax is that the free-verse poem flows; it is, in more ways than one, linear. Again, the stage for this linear movement was already set in a poem like Williams's "As the Cat," which moves, slowly but surely, "into the pit / of the empty / flowerpot." Even Ginsberg's complicated patterns of repetition (of word, phrase, clause) move toward the closure of "Farewell ye Greyhound where I suffered so much, / hurt my knee and scraped my hand and built my pectoral muscles big as vagina." In Levertov's "A Day Begins" the perception of death (the view of the blood-soaked squirrel) modulates into one of renewal (the opening irises), the epiphany coming in the final line with the compound "bruise-blue," tying the two together. In Merwin's "Dusk in Winter" moves from its quiet, anapestic opening, "The sún séts in the cóld withoût friénds," to the markedly divided final line with its two "it" clauses ("It has," "It is") and concluding spondee, "lóng wáy." In Lowell's "The Mouth of the Hudson" every image from the ticking ice to the "sulphur-yellow sun" sets the stage for the reference to the "unforgivable landscape" of the last line. And even Snyder's "Mid-August," which does not push toward such neat closure, moves fluidly from line to line, culminating in the three strong stresses of "hígh stíll aír."

(5) As a corollary of (4), the rhythm of continuity of which I have been speaking depends upon the unobtrusiveness of sound structure in free verse, as if to say that what is said must not be obscured by the actual saying. In this sense, free verse is the antithesis of such of its precursors as Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythm, with its highly figured lines like "I caught this morning morning's minion, king- / dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding." Not that the free-verse passages cited above aren't very much "worked," organized as they are by internal sound patterning, repetition of stress groups, and the counterpoint that arises from the isolation-by-line of units that otherwise form part of a larger sequence. In Levertov's poem, for example, "oozing from the unevenly / chewed-off neck," produces a sonic disturbance by means of the "uneven" line break and the jagged rhythm (only two full stresses in eight syllables) of the line "oózing from the unévenly." Or again, end stopping and strong stressing on monosyllabic units produces special effects as in Snyder's "Pitch glóws ôn the fír-cônes," where "cones" picks up the long o sound of "glows" and has an eye-rhyme with "on." At the same time, Snyder is wary of the sound taking over: hence the casual quiet lines like "I cannot remember things I once read."

(6) Finally--and this accords with the unobtrusiveness of sound--the free-verse lyric of the fifties and sixties subordinates the visual to the semantic. Levertov's open tercets, Snyder's five-line stanzas, Ginsberg's strophes, Merwin's minimal linear units, and Lowell's loose verse paragraphs--none of these does much to exploit the white space of the page or to utilize the material aspects of typography. Except for Ginsberg's Whitmanesque long lines, all the examples above have columns of verse centered on the page, with justified left margins, and only minimally jagged right margins, line lengths being variable only within limits. The look of the poem is thus neither more nor less prominent than in metrical verse.

Interestingly, the six features I have discussed here, all of them, of course, closely related, turn up in the poets' own statements of poetics included in Naked Poetry. "The responsibility of the writer," says William Stafford, "is not restricted to intermittent requirements of sound repetition or variation: the writer or speaker enters a constant, never-ending flow and variation of gloriously seething changes of sound" (NAK 82). "Page arrangement," Ginsberg observes of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," "notates the thought-stops, breath-stops, runs of inspiration, changes of mind, startings and stoppings of the car" (NAK 222). "Organic poetry," writes Levertov in her well known "Some Notes on Organic Form," "is a method of apperception": "first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him [sic] their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech" (NAK141). And Merwin seems to speak for all the poets in the anthology when he says:

In an age when time and technique encroach hourly, or appear to, on the source itself of poetry, it seems as though what is needed for any particular nebulous unwritten hope that may become a poem is not a manipulable, more or less predictably recurring pattern, but an unduplicatable resonance, something that would be like an echo except that it is repeating no sound. Something that always belonged to it: its sense and its information before it entered words. (NAK 270-271, my emphasis)

An unduplicatable resonance: from its inception, this is what most free verse has striven to be. "For me," says Snyder, "every poem is unique. . . . A scary chaos fills the heart as 'spir'itual breath--in'spir'ation; and is breathed out into the thing-world as a poem" (NAK 357).

But there is one (and I think only one) exception to this poetics in the Mezey-Berg anthology, and it marks a useful transition to the poetry in Out of Everywhere. That exception is the poetry of Robert Creeley. Although Creeley's own "Notes apropos 'Free Verse'" make much of Olson's field composition and the use of breath, it also contains the following statement:

I am myself hopeful that linguistic studies will bring to contemporary criticism a vocabulary and method more sensitive to the basic activity of poetry . . . . Too, I would like to see a more viable attention paid to syntactic environment, to what I can call crudely "grammartology." (NAK 185)

And he talks about his own interest in "a balance of four, a four-square circumstance, be it walls of a room or legs of a table. . . . an intensive variation on "foursquare" patterns such as [Charlie Parker's] "I've Got Rhythm" (NAK 186-87).

The "foursquare" jazz-based pattern Creeley talks of here may turn up as a four-line stanza (e.g., "A Form of Women," "A Sight") but also as the number of words per line, as in Part 4 of the sequence called "Anger":

Face me, >

in the dark,

my face. See me.

It is the cry >

I hear all >

my life, my own >

voice, my >

eye locked in >

self sight, not >

the world what >

ever it is

but the close >

breathing beside >

me I reach out >

for, feel as >

warmth in >

my hands then >

returned. The rage >

is what I >

want, what >

I cannot give >

to myself, of >

myself, in >

the world.

(NAK 182-83)

To call such poetry "free verse" is not quite accurate, for something is certainly being counted in these little block-like stanzas, even if it is neither stress nor syllable but word. The pattern is 2-3-4, 4-3-4, 2-3-3, 3-3-3, 4-4-3, 2-3-4, 3-2-4, 4-3-2, the final stanza reversing the word count of the first. So short are the line units and so heavily enjambed (twenty of twenty-four lines) as well as broken by caesuras (see lines 3, 18), so basic the vocabulary, made up as it is of prepositions, pronouns, and function words, that each word takes on its own aura and receives its own stress, as in:

/ /

voice, my

/ / /

eye locked in

/ / /

self sight, not

And the stresses are further emphasized by the internal rhyme ("my / eye", also echoing "cry" "my" in the preceding tercet), overriding the line break, and the pulling of "sight" in two directions: one toward "self" via alliteration and and the second toward "not" via consonance.

Indeed, although Creeley's tercets superficially resemble Levertov's, the features of free verse I listed above hardly apply. This poem does not present us with a mimesis of speech, tracking the process of perception. The first-person pronoun ("I" / "my" / "me" "myself") is used twelve times in the space of seventy-five words, and yet that "I" is less speaking voice than a particle that passively submits to external manipulation:

is what I

want, what

I cannot give

where "want" and 'what," separated by a single phoneme, occlude the "I's" halting presence. Again, monosyllabic lines like "is what I" refer neither to sun and stream, as in Merwin's poem or to rocks and meadows, as in Snyder's. There is no image complex to control the flow of speech; indeed the shift from line to line is by no means linear: "See me," does not follow from "Face me." The normal syntagmatic chain is broken, the first tercet, for example, calling attention to the play of signifiers in "face me" / "my face" rather than to that which is signified. And when we come to line 4, "It is the cry," the normal flow of free verse is impeded because the unspecified pronoun "It" returns us to the previous tercet as we try to make out what "it" might refer to. Or again, in line 7, "voice, my" means differently within the line than in the larger structure of "my own / voice, my eye locked in / self sight."

The syntactic ambiguity of lines like "for, feel as" and "want, what," coupled with the insistent word-stress, produces a rhythm of extreme weight and fragmentation--a kind of aphasic stutter--that is both heard and seen on the page. Each word, to cite Gertrude Stein, is as important as every other word. Sound becomes obtrusive ("me I reach out") as does the creation of paragrams, formed by cutting up complete sentences or clauses. Thus, although at first glance, the look of Creeley's poem on the page is not all that different from, say, the Snyder counterpart, the consistent detachment of words from their larger phrasal or clausal environment--a practice that goes way beyond what is known as enjambment-- creates a very different physical image.

Post-Linears and "Multi-Mentionals"

If the unit of free verse is, as all theorists agree, the line, then the unit of Creeley's poem might more properly be described as what the Russian Futurists called "the word as such." Indeed, just as early free-verse poets called metrical form into question ("To break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), what is now being called into question is the line itself . As Bruce Andrews puts it in his and Charles Bernstein's symposium "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines":

1. Lines linear outline, clear boundaries' effect, notice the package from its perimeter, consistency, evenness, seemingly internal contours which end up packaging the insides so that they can react or point or be subordinated to a homogenized unit, to what's outside. . . . Boundary as dividing--'you step over that line & you're asking for trouble'. . . . Territorial markers and confinements, ghost towns, congested metropolis on a grid. . . . .

3. Better, constant crease & flux, a radical discontinuity as a lack, jeopardizes before & after, stop & start, a dynamic in fragments, suggesting an unmappable space, no coordinates, troubling us to locate ourselves in formal terms. (LIP 177)

Who would have thought that less than forty years after Olson celebrated the "LINE" as the embodiment of the breath, the signifier of the heart, the line would be perceived as a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging? "When making a line," writes Bernstein in the mock-romantic blank verse poem "Of Time and the Line" that concludes the symposium, "better be double sure / what you're lining in & what you're lining / out & which side of the line you're on" (LIP 216). Similarly, Johanna Drucker talks of "Refusing to stay 'in line,' creating instead, a visual field in which all lines are tangential to the whole" (LIP 181). Peter Inman refers to Olson's sense of the line as unit of poet's breath "too anthropomorphized." "The general organizational push to my stuff," says Inman, "becomes page-specific I tend to write in pages . . . not in stories or poems" (204). And Susan Howe remarks that in The Liberties, she wanted to "abstract" the "ghosts" of Stella and Cordelia from 'masculine' linguistic configuration." "First," says Howe, "I was a painter, so for me, words shimmer. Each has an aura" (LIP 209). And as an example of a "splintered sketch of sound," Howe produces a page from The Liberties (LIP 210).

Howe's own long verbal-visual sequence Eikon Basilike (see figure 6.1), which is the opening selection in Maggie O'Sullivan's new anthology Out of Everywhere, forms an interesting bridge to what Wendy Mulford calls, in her "After. Word," the "multi- and non-linear" writing of younger women poets in the U.S., UK, and Canada. Howe's use of cut-ups and found text (or invention of a found text, since her version of the Bibliography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike is a complex refiguring of the ostensible forgery of Charles I's own writings) come out of the Concrete Poetry movement, but her typographical devices (mirror images of lines, overprints, broken fonts) are designed to question the authority of the historical document, even as she selects certain passages and, so to speak, overstresses them, as in the lineated text "ENGELANDTS MEMORIAEL," where every word has the "aura" Howe speaks of in her statement on the line:

/ / / / /\

Laud Charles I Fairfax

in which even the number "I" (as in Charles the First) is given a full stress.

According to conventional criteria, the material forms used by the thirty poets in Out of Everywhere can be classified as "verse" (e.g., Rae Armantrout, Nicole Brossard, Wendy Mulford, Melanie Neilson, Marjorie Welish) "prose" (e.g., Tina Darragh, Carla Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop), or some variant on concrete poetry (e.g., Paula Claire, Kathleen Fraser, Susan Howe, Maggie O'Sullivan, Joan Retallack, Diane Ward). The collection also contains short plays or scenes by Lyn Hejinian, Caroline Bergvall, and Fiona Templeton. But such classifications obscure what is also a common impulse.

In Rational Geomancy, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol remind us that in standard prose as well as in the "visually continuous poem (Milton's Paradise Lost for instance) the page has no optical significance. . . . Being to a large extent a working out of information through duration, prose structures tend to be temporal rather than visual. . . . In extended prose or poetry the page becomes an obstacle to be overcome. [Whereas in poetry] the left-hand margin is always a starting point, the right-hand margin a terminal, neither of which is determined by the randomness of page size but rather by the inner necessity of the compositional process. (RGEO 61).

It is this "inner necessity" that may be noted in the four examples above. Whether ostensibly "prose" (Rosmarie Waldrop) or "verse" (Karen Mac Cormack), these poems are first and foremost page-based: they are designed for the eye rather than merely reproduced and reproducable, as I found when I tried to type them up leaving the original spacing and layout intact. In these visual constructs, the flow of the line as the individual's breath as well as of the simulation of the eye's movement from image to image, observation to observation, is inhibited by any number of "Stop" signs. This is the case even in Waldrop's prose passage, which opens with the sentence: "Although you are thin you always seemed to be in front of my eyes, putting back in the body the roads my thoughts might have taken." Syntactically, this sentence is normal enough, but the reader/listener must stop to consider what the conditional clause can possibly mean here. What does being "thin" have to do with inhibiting one's partner's "thoughts," except that the two words alliterate? And does one really "put" those "thoughts" back into the body, as if one is stuffing an envelope? Robert Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken," which is alluded to in Waldrop's sentence, moralizes its landscape, turning the two divergent, but quite similar, roads into emblems of the futility of the choice-making process. But in Waldrop's Lawn of the Excluded Middle, paysage moralisé gives way to a curious collapsing of the distinctions between mind and body, space and time, inside and outside. On this new "stage," "only space would age" (notice the rhyme) and "exaggeration . . . took the place of explanation." What looks like prose is in fact highly figured: take the "increase of entropy and unemployment" which characterizes these proceedings. Denotatively, the words are unrelated, although both refer to states of negativity. But visually and aurally, the second is almost an anagram of the first, the only unshared letters being r, u, and m. The dancer's "leap toward inside turning out" of the last line thus enacts the verbal play we have been witnessing--a play in which "you" and "I," "juggl[ing] the details of our feelings," find momentary rest as the voiced stop (t) culminates in the silence of the blank space.

If Waldrop's "sentences" are thus more properly "non-sentences," the lines in Karen Mac Cormack's "Multi-Mentional" open like an accordion and close down again, putting pressure on isolated centered words like "preen," "renew," and "telepathy." The relation of space to time, which is central to Waldrop's text, is intricately reconceived here. "Multi-Mentional" signifies "multi-dimensional" but also the "multi" things "mentioned" or worth mentioning in discourse about space-time. On the one hand, we have the "line's running-board basics," those reliable "straight-line" ledges beneath the car door that help the passengers to "get out." What with "perfect timing," "maximum syncopation," and "pieces of time at regular intervals," linear motion should not be impeded. But the "line's running-board basics" are countered by a motion that is "sidereal on all fours." Does planetary influence control our ordinary moves and why are they on "all fours"? And why are the statistics we should rely on "mongrel"? No use, in any case "preen[ing" in this situation, a situation in which tantrums are ominously "temperature tantrums" (is something going to explode?) even as being "up in arms," gives way to a case of "Head up in arms," which sounds like a military or calisthenic routine. How, Mac Cormack asks, delimit word meanings? "If the ring fits answer the phone," initially sounds absurd only because we are looking for a finger, but the adage actually makes good sense. If the ring fits (if you recognize the ring as being that of your phone), answer it. Or has the caller already been recognized by "telepathy"? In Mac Cormack's "multi-mentional" world, "patience" is "soft" (which implies there's a hard patience as well), landslides "float," and the location of birds in flight can never be "pinpoint[ed]," any more than "similes" (a is like b) can measure the "multi-mentional."

The progress from line to line here is thus reversed and spatialized (another "multi-mentional"): "renew," for example, points back to "preen," which has all its letters except the w. The heavily endstopped "témperature tántrums cléver yés" jumps ahead to "telepathy." Indeed, going into reverse seems to be the mode of operation in Mac Cormack's poem. Secondary stressing, so central to the poetry of Ginsberg or Snyder (e.g., "Pítch glóws ón the fír-cônes"), as the representation of an actual voice contour, the flow of speech, is avoided as is ellision so that each morpheme receives attention, as in the guttural "Thát líne's rúnning-bóard's básics," which is almost a tongue-twister. Sounds cannot coalesce into rhythmic units, as they do in Snyder's "Sourdough Mountain," for then their "Multi-Mentional" quality would be lost. Which is to say that in the ear as on the page, the language act becomes central. "Word order = world order" (RGEO 99).

Maggie O'Sullivan's medievalizing moral tale "A Lesson from a Cockerel" performs similar operations on the catalogue poem. From Pound to Zukofsky to Ginsberg, cataloging has been a popular poetic device, but here the list is so to speak blown apart by spatial design: the first three lines in capital letters are followed by a rectangular box containing, in a row, the words "CRIMINAL" and "CONSTITUENTS", with a word column along the right margin, and the line "SKEWERED SKULL INULA" (reminiscent of Pound's "Spring / Too long / Gongula"), placed beneath the bottom border. The catalogued items, many of them archaic or obscure, like "boldo" and "inula," both of them bitter alkaloid plant extracts used as drugs, and the many neologisms like "JULCE" and "SHOOKER," are part of an elaborate roll-call of exotic narcotics, a kind of postmodern "Ode on Melancholy," in which the address to the "POPPY THANE" or opium lord becomes a drumcall heightened by its Anglo-Saxon and pseudo-Anglo-Saxon ("SAXA ANGLAISE") word particles--"pendle dust," 'wrist drip," "neaptide common peaks," "SWIFT PULLERY.TWAIL." Lines like "GIVE GINGER,|| GIVE INK,|| SMUDGE JEEDELA LEAVINGS" exploit the rhythm, alliteration, and assonance of the football cheer or political chant, but the captions inside the empty box marks all this chanting as "CRIMINAL / CONSTITUENTS," and label the "frame" as so much "SKEWERED "SKULL"

Is "A Lesson from the Cockerel" free verse? Yes, if we mean by free verse the absence of meter, stress, syllable count, or quantity. But, strictly speaking, O'Sullivan's verse units are closer to the Old English alliterative line, as in

/ / || / /


or to such Poundian variations on that line as "líons lóggy || with Círce's tísane" (Canto XXXIX), than to non-numerical linear verse, and, in any case, the visual layout calls attention to itself as what looks like a computer printout, a set of headlines, a sheet of advertising copy coming through the fax machine. As in Mac Cormack's poem, secondary sound features (rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration) take precedence over the recurrence of stresses. Phrases like "UDDER DIADEMS INTERLUCE" or "CRAB RATTLES ON THE LUTE" perform at a sonic level before their semantics are fully grasped. The visual/vocal dimension of the words is more prominent than their actual referents. And this too is a time-honored tradition in poetry, however far free-verse poetry, the poetry of the voice and the Image, has gotten away from it.

Not images, but "afterrimages," as Joan Retallack's sequence by that title makes clear. "We tend to think," says Retallack in the frontispiece of her book, "of afterimages as aberrations. In fact all images are after. That is the terror they hold for us." "I do not know which to prefer," writes Wallace Stevens in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / the blackbird whistling / or just after." In Retallack's scheme of things, this becomes "After whistling or just ______": in our fin-de-siècle world, every image, event, speech, or citation can be construed as an "afterthought" or "aftershock" of something that has always already occurred.

One form of "afterrimage" Retallack uses is found text: the poem before us draws on Chaucer (the opening of "The Wife of Bath's Tale") and Swift (book 3 of Gulliver's Travels) among other "literary" sources; it begins in medias res with someone's advice that there is a "need to give latitude which is often silence," followed by the typographical convention of "and/or." In keeping with this choice, no given line follows from the preceding one, at least not in any normal sequence, the text incorporating reportage, question, number, iambic pentameter citation (lines 4-6), and narrative fragment. The last six lines recall Creeley's strategy of counting words rather than feet, stresses, or syllables. The pattern is 4 (at center), 2-2 (left and lowered right), and then a 2-2-2 tercet. And now, come the "afterrimages," chosen, Retallack tells us, by chance operation: thirteen characters or spaces from line 8, six from line 10, two from line 12. These tiny morphemic particles are living proof of what a difference a single letter can make. The ellipsis preceding "all this I see" becomes the mere stutter of all th; "point" loses its p, only to regain it from the capital P of "Paul" that follows; the loss opens up the text so that we think of "joint" or "anoint," the latter certainly being appropriate for St. Paul. And the afterimage of "sunbeams," the meaningless vocalization nb, is a witty comment on the activities of Swift's Laputa. Not only, the poem implies, can sunbeams not be extracted from cucumbers, the word "sunbeams" doesn't break down neatly into sun + beams or even into neatly arranged vowels and consonants, but into the difficult-to-pronounce nb, followed by an exhalation of breath, or visual blank which is so to speak, "silence and/or." The final stop (b) is the voiced equivalent of the preceding p. Retallack's is thus an artifactual, wholly composed meditation on what can and cannot be "extracted from" language.

Susan Howe, I noted above, has referred to her typographical experiments as "abstractions" from "masculine linguistic formations," and many of the poets in Out of Everywhere would concur that such deconstruction has been central to their work. But it is also the case that their poems have many counterparts in the work of Clark Coolidge and Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews and Christian Bök, and my own sense is that the transformation that has taken place in verse may well be more generational than it is gendered. We have, in any case, a poetics of non-linearity or post-linearity that marks, not a return to the "old forms," because there is never a complete return, no matter how strongly one period style looks back to another, but a kind of "afterrimage" of earlier soundings, whether Anglo-Saxon keenings, formally balanced eighteenth-century prose, or Wittgensteinian aphoristic fragment. The new poems are, in most cases, as visual as they are verbal; they must be seen as well as heard, which means that at poetry readings, their scores must be performed, activated. Poetry, in this scheme of things, becomes what McCaffery has called "an experience in language rather than a representation by it."

I have no name for this new form of sounding and perhaps its namelessness goes with the territory: the new exploratory poetry (which is, after all, frequently "prose") does not want to be labelled or categorized. What can be said, however, is that the "free verse" aesthetic, which has dominated our century, is no longer operative Take a seemingly minor feature of free verse like enjambment. To run over a line means that the line is a limit, even as the caesura can only exist within line-limits. To do away with that limit is to reorganize sound configurations according to different principles. I conclude with a passage from Caroline Bergvall's "Of Boundaries and Emblems"

By Evening We're Inconsolable. Having Reached This Far, Bent

Over Tables Of Effervescence Within The Claustrophobic Bounds

Of The Yellow Foreground: Art Has Kept Us High And Separate,

Hard In Pointed Isolation, Forever Moved By The Gestures Of Its

Positions And The Looseness Of Even That: Now Vexed And

Irritated, Still Plotting Endless Similitudes: We Trip Over Things:

Strain To Extricate Ourselves From Closing Borders: (OOE 206)

Is this prose or some kind of kind of alphabet game, using majuscules and justified margins? The question is falsely posed: whether "verse" or "prose," Bergvall's is first and foremost a performance, an activation, both visual and aural, of a verbal text, whose every stress, "Hard in Pointed Isolation," seems to reverberate. No wonder those "Closing Borders" in the last line above are followed by a colon: a signature, as it were, of things to come. | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage


1 See the entry on "Vers Libre" by Clive Scott, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 1344-45. This book is subsequently cited in the text as EPP.

2 Ezra Pound, "A Few Don'ts," Poetry 1, no. 6 (March 1913); rpt. in "A Retrospect," Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p. 3. Subsequently cited as LEEP. See also the entries on "Free Verse" by Donald Wesling and Eniko Bollobás and on Imagism by Stanley F. Coffman in EPP.

3 T. S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry" (1942), On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1957), p. 31.

4 Eliot, "Reflections on 'Vers Libre' (1917), To Criticize the Critic and other Writings (New York: Farrar Straus, 1965), pp. 183-89. The citations are from pp. 189, 185, 187 respectively but the whole essay should be read carefully.

5 Annie Finch, The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 139. For Wright, Finch maintains, "the connotations of iambic pentameter remain positive" (p. 134); for Lorde, "both iambic pentameter and dactylic rhythms carry abundant stores of wordless energy" (p. 135).

6 Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 172. Subsequently cited as DA.

7 Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Fayetteville, Arkansas and London: The University of Arkansas Press, 1990), p. 10.

8 9 Vendler, London Review of Books (4 July 1996): 6.

10 Charles O. Hartman, Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 24-25. Subsequently cited in the text as COH. I discuss this definition of free verse in relation to "prose" in Essay #5.

11 In Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine, the Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-1982 (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1982), Steve McCaffery and bpNichol have this entry on "Verse & Prose":

12 verse--from the Indo-European root 'wert": to turn, from this root derives the medieval Latin "versus" literally to turn a furrow, in subsequent usage the furrow became the written line by analogy. . . .

13 prose--deriving from the same Indo-European root--is a contraction of the Latin "proversus" contracted thru "prorsus" to "prosus": literally the term forward, as adjectivally in "prosa oratio"--a speech going straight ahead without turns (p. 106). Subsequently cited in the text as RGEO.

14 Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1963), p. 21. Cf. Frye, "Verse and Prose," EPP 885.

15 Robert Pinsky, Commentary, in Rory Holscher and Robert Schultz (eds.), "Symposium on the Line," Epoch 29 (Winter 1980), p. 212. The symposium is subsequently cited as EPOCH.

16 Derek Attridge, for example, defines rhythm as "the continuous motion that pushes spoken language forward in more or less regular waves, as the musculature of the speech organs tightens and relaxes, as energy pulsates through the words we speak and hear, as the brain marshals multiple stimuli into ordered patterns." (DA 1)

17 A classic account of this position is Eleonor Berry's in "Visual Form in Free Verse," Visible Language 23, 1 (Winter 1989): 89-111. I have discussed the visual form of Williams's and Oppen's lyric in The Dance of the Intellect (1985; rpt. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), Chapters 4 and 5. For statements by poets who stress the visual component, see for example, Margaret Atwood, EPOCH 172: "The line, then, is a visual indication of an aural unit and serves to mark the cadence of the poem." Cf. Allen Ginsberg, EPOCH 189, George MacBeth 203, Josephine Miles 207. In their Introduction to their collection The Line in Poetry (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1988), Robert Frank and Henry Sayre state that "the line--its status as a 'unit of measure,' what determines its length, the effects which can be achieved at its 'turn'--has come to be the focus of . . . concern" (p. ix). But the portfolio called "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines," edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, that concludes The Line in Poetry (see pp. 177-216) actually calls this statement into question, as does my essay #5 here, "Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms: Metrical Choice and Historical Formation." I shall come back to the "Language" essays below. The Frank-Sayre collection is subsequently cited as LIP.

18 See COH, Chapters 7 and 8 passim; Donald Wesling, "Sprung Rhythm and the Figure of Grammar," The New Poetries: Poetic Form Since Coleridge and Wordsworth (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1985), pp. 113-144; Jonathan Holden, "The Free Verse Line," LIP 1-12. "The most fundamental rhythmical unit in verse," writes Holden, "is not the line but the syntactical unit" LIP 6).

19 Henri Meschonnic, Critique du rythme: anthropologie historique du langage (Paris: Verdier, 1982), p. 21. All translations are mine. Subsequently cited as HMC.

20 HMC 593, 595, my emphasis. A similar argument is made by Anthony Easthope in Poetry as

Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983). For Easthope, all verse forms--from the feudal medieval ballad to the courtly sonnet to the transparency of the "ordered" eighteenth-century heroic couplet --are ideologically charged.: blank verse , for instance, has to serve as the bourgeois subjective verse form for the Romantic period, a form that gives way to free verse when the transcendental ego is replaced by the dispersal of the subject and the dominance of signifier over signified. Easthope's analysis is overly schematic and he seems to accept the common wisdom that free verse is the end point of prosody. But his basic premise--that verse forms are not just arbitrary or "neutrally available" to everyone at any time-- is important.

21 See, on this point, Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 161-64. Culler borrows from Gerard Genette the example of a lineated version of "banal journalistic prose" ("Yesterday / on the A 7/ an automobile / travelling at sixty miles per hour / crashed into a plane tree. / It's four occupants were / killed") to show that lineation transforms reader expectation and interpretation.

22 Consider, for example, the airline menu on "easy SABRE" that gives commands like "Return to the first line." Or again, consider the following protest poem by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, the so-called Gravy Poet of the San Joaquin Valley, cited in an article by Peter H. King in the Los Angeles Times (11 August 1996, p. A1): "You can put your trust in gravy / the way it stretches out / the sausage / the way it stretches out / the dreams." Earlier in the century, such versifying would have demanded meter and rhyme; now even polemic jingles are as likely as not to be in free verse.

23 I discuss Williams as a representative "free verse" poet in Essay #5. Pound's "visualized" page, especially in those Cantos that make frequent use of Chinese and other ideograms, has been a key source for Concrete and post-Concrete poetry and contemporary experiments with visual poetics.

24 Naked Poetry (New York and Indanapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1969) is subsequently cited in the text as NAK. Out of Everywhere (London: Reality Street Studios, 1996), which has an Afterword by Wendy Mulford, is subsequently cited in the text as OOE.

25 Charles Olson, "Projective Verse," Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), pp. 18-19. Subsequently cited as COSW. Donald Allen, who reprints "Projective Verse" in his The New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1960) obviously has Olson's rejection of "closed verse" in mind when he writes that the poets in his anthology "have shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse" (p. xi), the most obvious of those "qualities" being, of course, metrical form.

26 COSW 16. Here and elsewhere, Olson attributes this aphorism to Robert Creeley, and the attribution has stuck, although Creeley never gave a systematic account of the proposition.

27 The editors do claim that they had wanted to include LeRoi Jones, and Michael Harper but were constrained "because of cost and space" (xii). As for the U.S. focus, "We decided to keep it American because we knew nothing much new has happened in English poetry since Lawrence laid down his pen and died" (xii). It is true that English and American poetics were probably furthest apart in the 50s and 60s, when "The Movement" dominated in Britain. But note that it never even occurs to the editors to include Canadian poets or poets of other English-speaking countries; their chauvinism is characteristic of the U.S.-centered imperialist ethos of the 60s.

28 The notation used here is the standard one adopted by George Trager and Henry Lee Smith Jr. in An Outline of English Structure (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned Societies, 1957). Trager and Smith identify four degrees of stress in English: primary (/), secondary (/\) as in a compound noun like "bláck-bîrd," tertiary (\), as in the first syllable of "èlevátor"; and weak or unstressed ( ), as in the second syllable of "elevator." A double bar (||)is used to indicate a caesura, and I use a right arrow (>) to indicate that the line is run-over.

29 In this regard, it differs from its free-verse precursors: in Williams's lyric, as we have seen in Essay #5, line break was brilliantly used for visual effect.

31 The count of syllables per line here is: Levertov: 2-8, Merwin, 9-13, Snyder: 4-10, Lowell: 3-10. Ginsberg's strophes are visually even more unified because of the dropped indented lines.

32 Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines," LIP 177-216.

33 See Susan Howe, "Making the Ghost Walk About Again and Again," A Bibliography of The King's Book or Eikon Basilike (Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 1989), unpaginated. This preface is reproduced in Susan Howe The Nonconformist's Manual (New York: New Directions, 1993), pp. 47-50. The poetic sequence itself follows (pp. 51-82) but the page design is not quite that of the original, largely because of page size.

34 In Poetic Rhythm (p. 171), Derek Attridge describes an extract from Howe's Pythagorean Silence, Part 3, as follows:

35 Susan Howe's poetry illustrates the potential that free verse possesses to fragment and dislocate the normal sequentiality of language, beyond even the techniques deployed by Pound and Williams. This extract . . . uses the disposition of words on the page in combination with disruptions of syntax to suggest bursts of utterance interspersed with silences. The morsels of language demand maximal attention. . . . [These lines] indicate something of the resonating power phrases can have when the connectivity provided by syntax, phrasing, rhythm, and visual linearity is partly--though only partly--broken.

36 It is interesting that although Attridge puts his finger on exactly what makes Howe's verse quite unlike the earlier model, he still categorizes it as "free verse," as if there could be no other name for Howe's obviously very "different" page layout.

37 They are in order of appearance (but not chronology or nationality) Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, Paula Claire, Diane Ward, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Maggie O'Sullivan, Meilanie Neilson, Denise Riley, Rae Armantrout, Catriona Strang, Nicole Brossard, Wendy Mulford, Rosmarie Waldrop, Deanna Ferguson, Hannah Weiner, Carlyle Reedy, Geraldine Monk, Karen Mac Cormack, Kathleen Fraser, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish, Barbara Guest, Grace Lake, Caroline Bergvall, Fiona Templeton, Fanny Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino.

38 Ezra Pound, "Papyrus," Personae: The Shorter Poems, A Revised Edition, ed. Lea Baechler & A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), p. 115.

39 Steve McCaffery, "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader," North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986 (New York: Roof Books, 1986), p. 21. McCaffery's discussion of the Klein worm (pp. 20-21) as emblem of a poetry "without walls," in which "milieu and constellation replace syntax" is also very helpful.


Legal Challenges to Artistic Expression

by Donna M. Hart

At the symposium on "Arts Legal Challenge," presented by The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School on 6 November 2002, the presenters illustrated how the courts in the US have become the new "salons" for discussion of the arts and aesthetics. Judges at the state and federal level have the power to distinguish expressions of artistic merit (speech that is protected by the First Amendment) from obscenity (speech that is not protected by the Constitution). The panelists question whether courts are the appropriate venue for defining art and whether lawyers and judges are adequately equipped with the intellectual capacity to make such determinations. The definition of art has traditionally been discussed in the art community and marketplace. One intellectually accurate definition of art is "whatever people call art," and this definition, among others, is currently at odds with the legal definition of art.

The recent ban on nude images in public places illustrates the conservative climate. Earlier this year, for instance, the Department of Justice hung drapes to cover a semi-nude art deco statute of "Spirit of Justice" that has stood in the Great Hall since the 1930's. The Department reported that the blue curtain was a better backdrop for Attorney General John Ashcroft when he delivered speeches on camera.

Censorship laws have controlled artistic expression for the last century, particularly in the area of sexual and religious content. Violations of these laws have resulted in bans on art exhibits or public funding, fines or imprisonment. The following paragraphs highlight some noteworthy developments discussed at the symposium.

In 1921, a motion picture commission was established in New York and was directed to deny exhibition licenses to any film it considered "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or of such character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or incite to crime." Under this law, The Miracle was banned in the US in 1951. This short film by Roberto Rossellini is a religious parable featuring a peasant woman who was seduced by a vagabond whom she mistakes in her drunken stupor for St. Joseph. She discovers she is pregnant and decides it is an immaculate conception, a "miracle."

Although criticized in Italy for its objectionable religious viewpoint, the Vatican declined to ban the film. Pointing to "scenes of undoubted screen value," the Vatican concluded, "we still believe in Rossellinis art." Yet in New York, public officials were not so broadminded. The City License Commissioner Edward McCaffrey announced that he found The Miracle "officially and personally blasphemous" and ordered the movie theater to stop showing it. The next day, the Catholic Churchs Legion of Decency called The Miracle a "blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth," and McCaffrey suspended the theaters license. The film distributor, Joseph Burstyn, filed a lawsuit to challenge McCaffrey, and at a preliminary hearing, the judge questioned McCaffreys power to censor movies. Film censorship was well entrenched in New York City, but it was vested in the state Board of Regents, not the municipal license commissioner. McCaffey backed off and lifted his ban.

After controversy erupted, including picketing, in New York City, the Board of Regents convened and declared the film "sacrilegious" and ruled that it violated the thirty-year-old film censorship law, but in 1952, the Supreme Court declared in Burstyn v. Wilson that "sacrilege" was far too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. Justice Tom Clark opined that trying to decide what qualifies as sacrilege sets the censor "adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies." He added, "it is not the business of governmentto suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."

Almost forty years later, in 1989, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was severely criticized for funding a museum that displayed Andres Serranos photograph Piss Christ in a show of contemporary art. Serranos work was referred to as "shocking, abhorrent, and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever" by a group of senators who then called for a review of the NEAs procedures used in allocating grants to artists. Similarly, members of Congress criticized NEA support for the Robert Maplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, organized by the institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Funds appropriated by the NEA for the Arts or Humanities were banned from being used to support "materials which in the judgment of the NEAmay be considered obscene," including depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or of individuals engaged in sex acts which taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." In 1990 a federal court invalidated that appropriations amendment, saying it was unconstitutionally vague and chilled the exercise of First Amendment rights.

In that same year, Congress passed an amendment requiring that all NEA grants take into account, "general standards of decency and respect of the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." In 1998, in NEA v. Finley, the US Supreme Court upheld the "decency" standard for federal grants to the arts. The majority decision holds that the "decency" standard cannot be used to mandate the censorship of controversial art or ideas, but this decision is tenuous because it turned on the fact that the standard is not mandatory; it is merely advisory.

Congressional threats to de-fund the NEA combined with new legislation requiring the agency to consider "respect for the diverse beliefs of the American people" in awarding grants, forced changes that now make it unlikely that any work, artist, or show that uses religious imagery in ways likely to offend religious authorities will receive support. As the Supreme Court said in Burstyn, government "has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them." Arts funding decisions that are driven by fear of offending religious beliefs not only violate this principle but also inevitably squelch expression disapproved by the dominant hierarchies of the dominant religion.

In 1957, in Roth v. US, Supreme Court Justice Brennan narrowed the definition of obscenity and held that material had to have "no redeeming social importance" for it to be considered obscene and thus unprotected by the First Amendment. Under this compromise standard, it would be up to the court to determine the meaning of "redeeming social importance."

Under the current standard of obscenity as established in Miller v. California, the court applies a three-part test: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

In the case of Skyywalker Records, Broward County, Florida, banned the sale of 2 Live Crew's musical recording "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." Applying the Miller test, a federal judge deemed the music obscene because it appealed to the prurient interest and was patently offensive where lyrics and titles of songs were replete with references to genitalia, excretion, oral-anal contact, fellatio, group sex, sadomasochism, other sexual activities and sounds of moaning, and commercial exploitation of the work was done in a manner calculated to make a salacious appeal. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court's ruling for violating the First Amendment.

Only "serious" art is considered "good" art worthy of constitutional protection and it is up to the courts to decide what "serious" art is. In reaction to this legal determination, some works of modern and post-modern art are self-critical and question the distinction between art and non-art, as in the display of pornography in art galleries. In Jeff Koons sculpture of a porn star hugging a pink panther and the depiction of a porn star as a member of Parliament in another work, Koons trashes "serious" art and accentuates the line between art and obscenity.

Billy Boggs, an internationally acclaimed artist who creates images of money, appeared as one of the guest speakers. He recounted some of the travails he encountered after he released drawings that resembled $1,000 bills into the stream of commerce. Even though it would be unlikely to mistake the drawings as real currency because the reverse side of the drawing are blank, and real $1,000 bills are rare and have been out of print since the 1930s, and even though the drawings are worth more than the $1,000 face value, Boggs was investigated for allegedly violating counterfeit laws. Secret service agents raided his home, seized over 1,300 items and threatened him with arrest. A comparison of art and currency were explored at a hearing, and although Boggs prevailed in the legal dispute, his confiscated works were never returned.

This writer left the symposium able only to conclude that it is virtually impossible to protect both art and censorship laws simultaneously, as freedom of artistic expression and the censorship laws are at odds with one another. In the end, artists will continue to create art regardless of these roadblocks.

About the Author:

Donna M. Hart is a regular contributor to the Newsletter. Other articles by her can be found in the Newsletter's complete Archives.


For an article on the ban of nudity in public buildings, see "No nudes is good nudes: The great Federal coverup," Washington Post, October 24, 2002, by Nicole Miller at

For a discussion of the controversy surrounding The Miracle and a history of film censorship, read "The Miracle: Film Censorship and the Entanglement of Church and State, University of Virginia Forum for Contemporary Thought," Oct. 28, 2002, by Marjorie Heins at

For a timeline of censorship, see "A Selective Timeline of Censorship in the U.S.A." prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship at

Court cases:

Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952)

NEA v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998)

Roth v. US, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)

Skyywalker Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 739 F. Supp. 578, 58 USLW 2744 (S.D. Fla. 1990); reversed by Luke Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 960 F. 2d 134, 60 USLW 2724 (11th Cir. 1992); Cert. denied by Navarro v. Luke Records, Inc., 506 U.S. 1022, 113 S. Ct. 659 (1992).

The url for this Memo from the World is:


 Farewell to Koch and Rivers

by Liam Wilkinson

Fans of the New York School of Poets will no doubt be saddened by news of further losses to its body of icons recently.

Kenneth Koch, who along with John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler founded the 1950s movement that had its roots in the Big Apple, becomes the third of the bunch to pass away. He died at the age of 77, after a long struggle with leukaemia, in July of this year.

Koch became an important figure of twentieth
century poetry, writing over thirty volumes of poetry and plays whilst keeping in close contact with his friends, the poets of the New York School. John Ashbery, who survives his fellow New York Poets, met Koch in the mid-1940s, from where their friendship and literary careers began to flourish. Koch, whose name is pronounced 'coke', was said by David Lehman, biographer of the New York School and fellow poet, to want his work to be 'as fizzy as soda', adding emphasis to the apt pronunciation of his name. Indeed, his poems are light, sparkling and often bubbling at the brim with sardonic wit. However, it was a mark of the New York School of Poets that this witty, often anti-literary poetry was tinged with a profound seriousness - a quality that has given the poetry of Koch, Ashbery, O'Hara and Schuyler a lasting prominence as well as an invaluable impression on aspiring poets.

The New York School of Poets adopted their name from their contemporaries, the artists of the New York School. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning are just three members of the movement that had such a massive impact on modern art, primarily within the field of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, it was said that the poets were Abstract Expressionists in words. Frank O'Hara famously wrote 'I am not a painter, I am a poet. / Why? I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.', himself a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and critic for 'Art News'. Certainly, the painters and poets would mix in their own palette, the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, exchanging ideas and often punches over drinks.

Here, Larry Rivers, the New York artist who died on August 14th, would discuss the philosophy of art with his friends, O'Hara, Koch and the rest. Frank O'Hara dedicated many poems to Rivers, stating in one 'you do what I can only name', continuing to express his unease at the fact that he is not a painter.

Rivers became a leading figure of the period of art history between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, jumping between the two in order to create his definitive style. His famous works include Washington Crossing the Delaware and The Greatest Homosexual, a spoof of Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon in His Study. He was also a Jazz musician who, until recently, could be found playing Saxophone on New York's Jazz scene.

With their loose, unfinished quality, the often humorous paintings of Larry Rivers could well be seen as New York poetry in paint. Indeed, the one time lover of Frank O'Hara went on to become a writer and eventually settled with the poet, Jeni Olin.

Larry Rivers died after battling with Liver Cancer since his diagnosis in the Spring of this year. He was 78. David Lehman's book, The Last Avant-Garde, provides an extensive background to and analysis of the New York School of Poets. Written before the deaths of Koch and Rivers, the book traces the history, the success and the lasting impact of the poets and artists related to the movement.

The autobiography of Larry Rivers, What Did I Do?, written with Arnold Weinstein, paints an insightful and powerfully revealing portrait of Rivers and the poets and painters that surrounded him.

The best of Kenneth Koch's poetry can be found in such volumes as The Pleasures of Peace and New Addresses. A teacher of poetry, Koch also wrote a handful of guides to reading poetry, often aimed at children.

About the Author

Liam Wilkinson is a poet from Scarborough, in England. He has been published by Forward/Triumph House press and by various internet magazines (including AIA Poetry). You can read more of his work at: