Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Poetry Centennial

Oh how I waited for the University of Chicago Press to send me a review copy of their 100 choices from their century of publishing, so I could enthuse about the magazine’s centennial. What a letdown! Thirty-four I had never even heard of, and only one turned me on: Jacob Saenz (b.1982), a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, who now works in their library.

Sweeping the States
They move in swift on the Swift
Plants in six states & sift
Through the faces to separate
The dark from the light

Like meat & seat them in
The back of the vans packed tight
Like the product they pack
& who’s to pick up the slack

The black & white can’t cut it
So the beef stacks sell
To feed the pack the flock
Who block passes & clog

The cogs of the machine the process
Not so swift to give & grant a wish
Of a place a stake in the land
Handling the steaks for the rest

To take to sate the mouths
Of the stock who have stock
In the business of beef & beef
With the brown that ground them (p.161)
November 2007

The speed and inhumaneness of the meatpacking industry makes you feel for the “human” beings who keep this process in motion. Probably, the” brown” (Hispanics?) who do the messy jobs regular Americans won’t stoop to. The ampersands reminds us of the speed and bluntness of this industrial process.

It reminded me too of the pleasure of remembering the juvenile joy I had reading the first T. S. Eliot poem that I understood, ”The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (p. 33, June 1915). Written twelve years before I was born! And at 22, not stumbling at love like Prufrock! I also resent now as I did then at his six sentence epigraph in Italian! What implicit contempt for the “ignorant” 99 and 44/100ths of his putative audience whose Italian wad limited to the word for “hello”. That copy cat arrogance in the classroom corrupted the first 100 years of our “Poetry”. So many of these poems are Mystiphysics—reaching for a seriousness that isn’t there. A bad habit Eliot spread like a disease.

LeRoi Jones’ poem “Valery as Dictator” (p.25, December, 1963) reminded me of my first ploy as an English Dept. chair at Arcadia University in 1962. I had him give a talk to the whole student body on the place of poetry in the civil rights dispute then spreading across America. (He would soon rename himself Amiri Baraka.) I must say most of the English Department questioned my judgment that day! 

A very bright Jewish girl (and a promising actress) asked him why he had a Jewish girl friend if he felt the way he had just talked. No answer. A few hours later we treated Jones to a splendid production of “Dutchman” (which won an Obie in 1964). Starring that same Jewish skeptic! Halfway into the play his pal whispered “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Leroi, bless his soul, answered tartly: “No! No! She’s got it just right!”

Another thing that bugged me about the editors’ selections was the absence of the poets who turned me on to contemporary verse, such as Phillip Booth, Karl Shapiro, Tom McGrath and especially Daniel Hoffman, whose “On Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge” explores wittishly the irony of the Camden locals naming everything Walt This, Walt That—but hardly anybody was reading his work! 

Now it happens that Dan went to Columbia with Allen Ginsberg. Fate would have it that The Walt Whitman Cultural Center asked me to introduce a Ginsberg reading and serve as his “gofer” for the day. Before his reading he asked me nastily, “Are you gay, Hazard?” I replied, “No, Allen, God hasn’t blessed me yet!” “Then how can you teach Whitman?” I replied, “Twenty years of teaching him helps!”

Then we walked across the street to his mother’s house where Walt came in 1873 after he had a stroke. I showed Allen all the minutiae that we Walt freaks love, and told him how my girl and I after we had celebrated her 23rd birthday in Cape May, N.J. decided at the last minute (just before crossing the W W Bridge into Philly) to examine his 1890 mausoleum (based on a design by William Blake). Damn! It was falling down! By what we American Lit folks call a providential event, the NCTE was having its annual convention in Philly. They gave me permission to wear advertising boards (Front: SAVE WALT’S VAULT! Back :A BUCK FOR THE BARD’S BONES!) 

When I added the $100 check from Buckminster Fuller to the English teacher’s pocket money we had nearly a grand to repair his grave. And in 1974 we invited all to a Graveyard he poets in the Delaware Valley to a Graveyard Party, where we read poems to and by Walt while we quaffed nine(for the Muse!) bottles of Great Western Champagne (no tacky French stuff for our hero) and Carmen Gasparri played his guitar suite “Perhaps Luckier” (which is what Walt dubbed Death in “Leaves of Grass”9. National Public Radio carried it live! Our only goof: the lilac bush we planted in honor of Walt’s salute to Abraham Lincoln’s sad death died—because of the ceremonial champagne we poured on it during its planting! The faithful keep alive the custom. I moved to Weimar, Germany in 1999.

Other poets in this collection were not so kind to me. Reuel Denney, my colleague at the East West Center in Honolulu, refused to discuss his poems on my weekly Sunday TV series “Coffee Break”. (I think he didn’t relish having so young a boss!) And in 1960, at the Daedalus conference in the Poconos on MASS CULTURE, Randall Jarrell closed the conference—I was the last lecturer- by waggling his Isaiah beard at me at intoning to the audience of savants, “Mr. Hazard, you’re the Man of the Future, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there!”

Alas, he committed suicide a few years later. And I am, grumbling with a smile, 42 years later. It saddened me because I loved teaching his poem about the B-17 belly shooter. And I must praise you for including Seamus Heaney who is to me what we in Germany call “Mein Liebsling Dichter—my favorite poet. The poem here is not my favorite, however. That’s “Digging”! The highlight of my drab life was spending a week showing him Northeast America, ending at the NCTE convention which that year was in Atlanta. I was proud to introduce him as a third generation Irish American. Heh, don’t miss this book. Nobody gave me a Nobel Prize for Pickety-Pickety.

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