The unloved nerd in poetry is a tradition that only began recently: the Greek and Roman boasts, the Italian loves, the English ballad-making, poetry of wars and romances and images…love may have been crippled or mad in old poems, but T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock may have been the first to manifest what is now commonplace: the poet so estranged and miserable they create new aesthetics.

The nerd’s self-torture is an endless field for poetic creation.

The alienation of Leslie Scalapino’s narrator obviously shapes the writing:

that they were at the beach (excerpt)

Playing ball— so it’s like paradise, not because it’s in the past, we’re on a field;
we are creamed by the girls who get together on the other team.
They’re nubile, but in age they’re thirteen or so—so they’re strong.

(No one knows each other, aligning according to race as it happens, the
color of the girls, and our being creamed in the foreground—as part of
it’s being that—the net is behind us)

A microcosm, but it’s of girls—who were far down on the field, in another
situation of playing ball—so it was an instance of the main world though
they’re nubile but are in age thirteen or so.

My being creamed in the foreground—so it’s outside of that—by a girl
who runs into me, I returned to the gym.

—Leslie Scalapino

The adolescent team-sports setting is classic nerd territory: this is where we typically first comprehend that we are nerds.

The narrator lacks confidence—the vision is recorded not with clarity or gusto—but obsessively, with frequent repetition,desperately and passively: passive not only in terms of the narrator’s actions, but in the syntax itself: “my being creamed,” etc.

One gets the idea these are not aesthetic choices by Scalapino, but psychological ones.

Psychology eclipses art: this may be the key to modern art and the nerd artist.

Like pleasant melancholy discords in music, Scalapino’s poetry is deliciously self-wounding. There is something organic and cinematic about Scalapino’s work; an experiment in making poetry come alive, albeit on a fragmented, deranged, fearful, and obsessive level.

Art is not considered ill by society as it once was; brute life has been tamed by civilization and schools and art; but art, to succeed, has lost its ability to surprise, to radically differentiate itself from itself; the psychological ‘sees through’ art and life tamed by art, and the psychological vision returns life (and art) to scary sensation, to the elements of the primitive, the crazy, the longing, the way art must have seemed to the ancients when it emerged as tragedy.

Jack Spicer’s poem is nerd literature as well, from the title to the end:

A Poem Without A Single Bird In It

What can I say to you, darling,
When you ask me for help?
I do not know the future
Or even what poetry
We are going to write.
Commit suicide. Go mad. Better people
Than either of us have tried it.
I loved you once but
I do not know the future.
I only know that I love strength in my friends
And greatness
And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
And are eaten by images.
The fun’s over. The picnic’s over.
Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left
After you die or go mad
But the calmness of poetry.

–Jack Spicer

With “I don’t know the future,” Spicer invokes the first Great Nerd Poem, Prufrock’s “am no prophet.”

“Go mad. Better people than either of us have tried it” is nerdy defeatism.

MARLA MUSE: I find the Scalapino more interesting, though the Spicer has a certain Baudelaire Lite quality I like.

Scalapino is a force, and she easily defeats Spicer, creaming him, 91-66.



A few years ago, San Francisco Renaissance poet Landis Everson was yanked out of obscurity in California by an ambitious young poet and editor from Cambridge, MA: Ben Mazer.  Ben’s not an intellectual, but he’s ambitious and he’s got a nose for the scene and writes poems as good as anyone alive today and he’s also a musician and eccentric and personally intense;  he’ll write the most famous poets in the world and get them to blurb his work.  Thanks to Ben Mazer, who writes for the defunct-while-it-waits-for-more-funding Fulcrum, Landis Everson of Jack Spicer’s circle came back to us for awhile.

I knew a gay Boston poet, Antonio Giarraputo, who went to Harvard with Frank O’ Hara, knew Robin Blaser, when Blaser worked at Harvard’s Widener library and Jack Spicer, when Spicer worked at the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and John Wieners from around town, because Tony moved in his circles.  Tony had lots of stories about them.

I rented a room in his Coolidge Corner, rare-book-african-art stuffed apartment during the last decade of his life and made some tapes of his reminicences, which I have somewhere.  Tony spoke his mind.  To John Ciardi, when John said he was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know Italian!”  Tony did, and several other languages fluently besides; he also sang opera, and once John Wieners told Tony he wasn’t wanted by his circle by writing Giarraputo a note: “Renaissance Man, go home!”  Tony was too blunt, too classical, too ‘old school,’ for the ‘revolutionaries’ of the San Francisco Renaissance.   Tony was put off by O’ Hara cruising the men’s room at Widener.  Tony was a proud Harvard graduate, a Fulbright scholar, and he fought in World War II, at D-day.

When I knew Tony, in the last years of his life, he was an overweight diabetic who lolled about watching his favorite TV show, “All in the Family,” passionately hating on Archie Bunker (Tony was a die-hard Democrat) the tough Irishman who represented the bullies who picked on Tony when he was a sensitive kid of Sicilian immigrants from the slums with a bricklayer father who hated the fact his son wrote poetry.  Tony used to boast that he was a bigot: “I hate everybody.”  He was a erudite bigot: he could tell you what was wrong with the Florentines, and what was wrong with the Venetians.  But Tony walked the walk.  He wasn’t a professor, or a poet who won prizes; his career was teaching black kids in the Boston public schools, and he started local poetry clubs to which every street urchin was welcome: and they all came, and eventually the mayor of Boston proclaimed an Antonio Giarraputo Day.

I wasn’t wild about Tony’s poetry in English; most of it was too ‘modern-zen’ for my taste: he returned the favor by ridiculing my love of Poe.  I once came upon some exquisite lyrics in Italian (metrical, rhymed) he wrote.  “Tony, these are beautiful!”  Tony just waved his hand, “Oh, those…”

It was rare that Tony went to a party, but when he did, he was the life of it.  He was sad most of all in his last days because he mourned how the gay lifestyle was unkind to the old and the ugly.  He did not remember O’Hara, Blaser, Spicer, and Wieners kindly; personally he couldn’t stand them.  I can still hear the way he spat out their names.  Did Tony give into bitterness and self-pity to a certain extent?  He was traumatized by his war experience; I didn’t know him when he was young, so it’s hard to say where he was coming from.  Maybe he was jealous.  I don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why Tony is forgotten and no poem of his can be found on the web, except the one below, which I happen to have, and am keeping alive.

Tony always meant to write a book on Cambridge and Boston’s poetry bohemia of the 40s and 50s.  Tony, however, was a gregarious lyric poet, not a meticulous scholar, and he burned-out teaching public school in Roxbury, where they “pelt you with rocks and bury you,” as Tony would say. The book was never written (though there must be notes somewhere) and a lot of history was lost forever.   Tony predicted that when he died, the “vultures will descend.”   They did, scooping up his rare books and art collection and his personal papers.  I had moved out, by then, and sadly remember how his writing life just disappeared.

Epitaph for an Unknown Soldier
(St. Lo, Normandy, 7/17/1944)

First of the fallen angels I have known,
I came upon you in obscurity
and found your arms embracing all the sky
as life escaped you.  In the midst of dull,
engulfing battle, thunder and black flame,
this peace is terrible.  Your eyes are glacial lakes;
your lips are dry: you are still beautiful.

I twist my helmeted neck to meet your gaze,
but stand dark, unreflected in those lakes
now frozen by an age which has no end.
I bow and hover, too afraid to touch,
unable to breathe life on wrinkling lips,
to see them tremble–and return to pain.
I bend to drink your death, and numbly wish
to halve my useless living and to share
what I have too much of, if you have none.

Antonio Alfredo Giarraputo

%d bloggers like this: