WHEN I WAS A CLOWN

David Meltzer in his day

T.S. Eliot painted his face green, had a nervous breakdown, and imprisoned his wife, but he took poetry seriously.

John Berryman was a stinking drunk, but he taught Shakespeare.

When did poets start disliking poetry?

When did poets start being ashamed of poetry, so that all of a sudden poets were not talking about poetry anymore, but themselves and the scene?

Just take this piece by Garrett Caples from Blog Harriet, “The Maestro: David Meltzer, Part I” 5/24/2011.  It is brief enough that we may quote it in full:

Michael McClure invited Andrew Joron and me to a reading in the Berkeley Hills, as we wanted to consult him in the course of editing the (forthcoming) Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Contact was made, a meeting was set up, and McClure would provide much valuable information regarding Lamantia’s activities in the late ’50s. His devotion to Philip is both inspiring and moving.

But something else would also happen that evening in the hills. Reading with McClure was David Meltzer, whom I’d previously met once when he read at City Lights with Andrew and Micah Ballard. Meltzer had done the cover collage for Ballard’s book Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions, 2009), so it seemed fitting to add him to the bill, and he read a new poem called “When I Was a Poet.” A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers
to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low-key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

Ferlinghetti was out of town when Meltzer read at City Lights. But when I arrived at the reading in the hills, there was Lawrence! I say “!” because I’ve never just bumped into him at a reading before, in Berkeley to boot. At the time, besides editing for City Lights, I was also working as his assistant, so naturally I never knew where he’d be. The reading was actually an opening for a sculpture show by Amy Evans McClure, in a small art gallery attached to a large
house whose owners are Lawrence’s friends, so he decided to make the scene. Clearly some stars aligned that night. Meltzer again ended his set with “When I Was a Poet,” wowing the packed audience. After the reading, I made my way over to Lawrence. He seemed excited.

“What’d you think?” I asked.

“That was an extraordinary poem!” Lawrence said with decision. “We should publish it!” He paused a moment, then almost sheepishly added: “Ask him if it’s available.” Though Meltzer was only a few yards away, Lawrence is actually a little shy—back in 1955, when he caught the first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, he sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day asking to see the MS—so his reticence here was hardly surprising. As I slipped through the crowd
over to Meltzer, two thoughts occupied me: 1) This is so fucking cool—it’s like “Howl”; 2) A big shot like Meltzer must have books in the works, so someone’s probably already claimed the poem. As it turned out, however, Meltzer and his poem were both available, and pleased to be asked. As it also turned out, the most recent volume in the Pocket Poets series was #59. Wouldn’t Meltzer make a good #60?

“Yes,” said Lawrence.

Yes!

The scene is everything—we get people’s names, addresses, books, presses—and the poem, raved about, is not even worth quoting.  Not a line of the poem, but there’s time for a cool reference to a long Blonde On Blonde song and a jazz artist. (It’s Lennie, not Lenny, Tristano, by the way.)

“A short long poem—the best kind” it seems, but the “best,” how short, or long, is it?  A car alarm is always too “long,” so if we were to say a “short long car alarm—the best kind,” it would have no meaning.  Since we haven’t the faintest idea of how good the poem is, the reader has no appreciation of “short long,” unless we mean Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” but that work of Poe’s considered a famous poem, “The Raven.”  “When I Was A Poet” is unquoted and unknown.  Beat culture has that tendency to have no real poems,  short, long, or short long; the Beats’ most famous poem, “Howl” is boring half-the-way-through, (can anyone quote the last two-thirds of that poem?) but no matter, the scene around the poem is all we need.  The 1955 Gallery Six reading—which of course gets a nod by Caples—a handful of drunks nodding off in a little room—is now mythic, even though an obscenity trial and Look magazine put “Howl” on the map, not any actual utterance of its inanities in public.  But the subject of Caples’ piece is a poetry reading and the discovery of a “short long poem,” not Main Street v. Obscenity—so rose-colored Gallery Six it is.

Caples’ ecstatic “Yes!” at the end of his piece reminds me of John Lennon climbing the ladder of Yoko Ono’s art exhibit in London, before they were a couple, and finding the tiny word ‘Yes’ written on the ceiling.  A 1960s icon died at that moment.  Had only the ceiling said, “No.” Then the 1960s might not have turned back into an even more stupid 1950s, disguised as the 1970s.  From the moment John was inspired by that “Yes,” it was only a matter of months before the song-writing Beatle genius with wife and son and twenty-five number one hits, would transform into the self-pitying junky of the Plastic Ono band, with one number one hit left in him, a song performed with Elton John.

Yes. 

After landing John, Yoko, the artist, would surround herself with yes-men; sadly for all mankind, one of her yes-men turned out to be John himself—as it began with a yes, continued with heroin, and fizzled into May Pang and LA benders, finally dying in the mawkishness of “Starting Over.”  Starting over?  In a self-imposed prison with Yoko?

Caples positively revels in the positive, yes yes yes “so fucking cool” vibe of the hipster clique—the rule is: ‘yes, yes, and always yes, while sitting in the circle of the clique.’  Everything revolves around good vibes and friends, all poets, and every poem written and read is magic.

Here, again, is the description of the Beat poet, the Beat Maestro, the Beat WCW, the Beat Dylan, and the Beat poem with lines that “feel almost unwritten:”

A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

And now, without further ado, we quote the first portion of the poem itself:

When I Was A Poet

When I was a Poet
I had no doubt
knew the Ins & Outs of
All & Everything
lettered
in-worded
each syllable
seed stuck to
a letter
formed a word
a world

When I was a Poet
the World was
a cluster of Words
splattered upon white space

When I was a Poet
I knew even what I didn’t
I thought I knew the Game
whereas the Game knew me
played me like an ocarina

When I was a Poet
I was an Acrobat
a Tightrope Walker
keeping balance
in my slippers
on a wire above
Grand Canyon
Inferno
Vertigo

Oh I did prance
the death-defying dance
whereas now
death defines each second
of awaking

When I was a Poet
everyone I knew
were Poets too
& we’d gather at spots
Poets & Others
met at & yes
questions yes
w/out pause
w/ no Answer

Ultimates
certainly
Absolutes
absolutely
but otherwise
Nada
Zilch
great Empty
blank page
blank stare
into the core of it All

When I was a Poet
Willie Nelson
was back to back w/
Paul Celan
side by side
on the Trail of Tears

—from David Meltzer’s “When I Was A Poet,” published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

This poem, with its childish platitudes and hammy beats, was a showstopper?

I guess you had to be there.

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