Robert Birnbaum
Drunken  Boat/Poetics
November 2007

So imagine yourself walking down the street eating a tuna fish sandwich and a voice speaks to you —“Read such and such  poems, think about them and then say something about poetics.” Which sums up the manner in which I have been called upon to fill up some of these pages. Read on at your own peril.

Having achieved a ripe (though not rotten) age without any coherent bundle of thoughts or theories about poetry — also having succeeded in never having read Aristotle’s Poetics (wherein, it is rumored, he argues for the superiority of Tragedy over Poetry) I find it enchanting to have an opportunity to spout off on something with which I have had a sporadic and unconscious and pleasing relationship for much of my adult life—poetry. No, wait that can’t be right. Better for me to say that at unexpected moments a couplet,   here, a stanza there ,even an entire poem has stopped me in my tracks --- on the other hand, I do wonder, when I hear of a new translation of the Iliad or Odyssey, how I have had no truck with these much admired and oft cited classics. Oh well. In any case, I might have the same reaction if I were asked to talk about baseball.

Were someone to ask me to comment and opine (pontificate?) on matters to do with literature and fiction I would have little pause and almost no restraint in offering my over valued two cents. In explaining many things the autobiographical is a convenient schema with which to exhibit one’s connection the world around us, especially those that fall under the rubric of ART. Growing up on the benign Eisenhowerian streets of Chicago (mostly the North Side) I don’t remember much that was consciously and explicitly poetic—in elementary school I think we were introduced to Joyce Kilmer’s Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,          5
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.   10

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

I wasn’t impressed, There was also, of course, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere's Ride whose distinction was the frequency with which we were reminded of it. Also not impressive. It is possible, even likely, that in my high school years, in the 1960’s at Stephen Tying Mather High School we were introduced 19th century heavyweights like Keats and his Grecian urn and Wadsworth and Shelley and their preoccupations. That I can’t recall one stanza or verse says much, I think, about the faint impression these masters made on my life.

Not unusually, my first serious face-to-face, viscera tightening non academic encounter with the power and resonance of poetry was hearing and seeing the various bards of the beat sensibility — and reading of Beatniks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, their antics and provocations. Certainly, the opportunity to observe and experience living poets was a potent path to a more vivid understanding of their scribblings and outbursts.  It goes without saying---though I am saying it ---that the Beat cadre so dominated the cultural horizon for me that I had no awareness of any other living poets.

The images from Ginsberg’s Howl or Ferlanghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind which contains “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”:

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
The people of the world
Exactly at the moment when
They first attained the title of
  ‘suffering humanity’

Which were rife with, the denunciations of mass society and ridicule of the current over arching conformity and grim reminders of living in the shadow of nuclear destruction via the bomb topped off by jibes at the anti intellectualism of the America--- all made sense to a prepubescent, immigrant Jew boy. This from that same tome:

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey


And then there was Ginsberg’s Howl with its powerful first line, which I read as a damning indictment of bourgeois America and perhaps I have never recovered from ( I don’t scoff , as I did in my youth at Plato’s disdain and fear of poets)

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene- ment roofs
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the
scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn- ing their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror
through the wall,

As an aside I should offer that though my influence by the Beats was environmental (that is, they were among other things, a prevailing, newsworthy cultural phenomenon)I could just as well come under the sway of German Romantics poets had I encountered a mentor who was enamored by Goethe and Schiller and such. Which is something that has rung true through out my life. Beginning with that brief moment which was my undergraduate life. My contact with poetry has always been serendipitous and ram-schackle off the cuff. Whereas, in the universe of prose and fiction I have practiced a more deliberate though ecumenical self-education.

Speaking of my undergraduate moments, in addition to a widening of my poetic horizon (and hopefully vision)I was, as many of my ilk, moved to attempt to write poems or at least to attempt to express myself in this compact and seemingly available form. Needless to say the unworthy products of that pretension have been lost and discarded beyond the recovery by any future classicists. Hopefully, landfills and other repositories of refuse are safe from relentlessly enquiring minds.

These were also the years  when I discovered Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and  Curtis Mayfield and non English speaking poets like, Chileans Gabriela Mistral and the People’s poet Pablo Neruda And the powerful fist –shaking- to- God, Peruvean Cesar Vallejo. Here from The Black Heralds

There are blows in life, so powerful … I don’t know!
Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,
the undertow of everything suffered
welled up in the soul … I don’t know!
They are few; but they are … They open dark trenches
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attillas;
or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

Of course there was in those years, the normal dosage of  TS Eliot and  WB Yeats and WH Auden and later Robert Lowell and the crazy Frenchmen Charles Baudelaure and Ranier Rilke and the usual canonical cohort. But as I waved good bye to the cloistered ivy walls  ( or my urban facsimile, at Roosevelt University in Chicago) I found that   while I was still receptive to the charms and power of poems I was less and less in contact with that world. Frank O Hara and his love poem To The Harbormaster was an exception :


I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

In fact it could be the case that the only book of poetry I purchased in for years was the Complete Poems of Frank Ohara Also, I was and am so enamored of O’ Hara that I read the only biography I have ever read of a poet (Brad Gooch’s On Ohara)

  A music collector and fellow jazz enthusiast once told me that saxophonist Joshua Redmon arranged his CD collection alphabetically by artist, genre and subcategories not withstanding. This is an approach that sings to me because my attraction to the things nominally called art has to do with narrative potency and storytelling effectiveness and very little to do with form. One reason I am drawn (as are many) to Charles Bukowski’s The Secret of My Endurance  

I still get letters in the mail, mostly from cracked-up
men in tiny rooms with factory jobs or no jobs who are
living with whores or no woman at all, no hope, just
booze and madness.
Most of their letters are on lined paper
written with an unsharpened pencil
or in ink
in tiny handwriting that slants to the

and the paper is often torn
usually halfway up the middle
and they say they like my stuff,
I've written from where it's at, and
they recognize that. truly, I've given them a second
chance, some recognition of where they're at. 

it's true, I was there, worse off than most
of them.
but I wonder if they realize where their letters
well, they are dropped into a box
behind a six-foot hedge with a long driveway leading
to a two car garage, rose garden, fruit trees,
animals, a beautiful woman, mortgage about half
paid after a year, a new car,
fireplace and a green rug two-inches thick
with a young boy to write my stuff now,
I keep him in a ten-foot cage with a
typewriter, feed him whiskey and raw whores,
belt him pretty good three or four times
a week.
I'm 59 years old now and the critics say
my stuff is getting better than ever.


And there  is Paul Zimmer’s “Zimmer Imagines Heaven” on  which  a recording I have heard Zimmer explains that “the poem is just a list as many poems are and that we were free to make our own list.”


I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

My lack of contact with poetry is hardly surprising (though my contact with the literary world is strong and persistent) as it would seem, as in many arts, there has been retreat to the academy and the other cloisters. I recall a few years ago a Wall Street Journal article offering the snide comment that more people wrote poetry than read poetry. Snide, but perhaps not far from the truth.  When some heiress (to a no doubt ill-gained fortune ) bequeathed 100 million dollars to Poetry magazine I found myself wondering if this was the realization of  an embarrassment of riches and what havoc such a lavish endowment would create.
Earlier this year Jim Harrison, one of my favorite writers (and poets), opined (and in so doing formed a kind of poetic message) on Karl Shapiro’s The Bourgeois Poet  Shapiro’s prose poems published in 1964 and concludes
Historically, of course, the scales are tipped in favor of the non-bourgeois poet. Yeats warned that the hearth was more dangerous for a poet than alcohol. Rilke said, "Only in the rat race of the arena, does a heart learn to beat." Well off the margins of the page in "The Bourgeois Poet" there's an invisible Greek chorus singing, "You've got to earn a living."
Ultimately for a poet the fence is so high the top is invisible, but it is what we are designed to reach for. Everything else is mere scaffolding. You will most likely get the back of the muse's hand whether you have a chair at Harvard or are pumping septic tanks in Missouri. I must say my sympathies are still with César Vallejo, a grander poet than anyone now living on our bruised earth. In Paris between the world wars Vallejo and his girlfriend would pick out the empty wine bottles in trash receptacles to earn their keep.
Speaking of Harrison here from Burning the Ditches,

OVER BETWEEN DILLON and Butte in the valley near Melrose they’re burning out the ditches on a moist, sad morning when my simpleminded heart aches for another life. Why can’t I make a living trout fishing? The same question I posed sixty years ago to my father. I got drunk last night, an act now limited to about twice a year. It was the olive-skinned barmaid Nicole who set me off as if the dead filaments of my hormones had begun to twitch and wiggle again. In the morning I walk a canyon two-track and hear a canyon wren for the first time outside of Arizona. Up the mountainside I see the long slender lines of the billowing smoke from the ditch fires, confused because the wren song is drawing me south to my winter life on the Mexican border. The ditches get choked with vegetation and they burn them out in the spring so the irrigation water can flow freely. I suddenly determine that the smell of spring is the smell of the rushing river plus the millions of buds on trees and bushes. Up in the home ground, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when the loggers went to town one day a month they called getting drunk “burning out the grease.” In 1958 a friend in San Francisco burned out his veins shooting up hot paregoric, a cheap high. It’s safer for me to continue smoldering just below the temperature of actual flame wondering if there’s a distant land where life freely flows like a river. Years ago in a high green pasture near timberline I watched a small black bear on its back rolling back and forth and shimmying to scratch its back, pawing the air with pleasure, not likely wanting to be anywhere or anyone else.

Okay if you have read this far you have not failed to note that I have made no mention of the gaggle of poems that my new friends at Drunken Boat have provided for commentary. Here’s the point---they seem to be competent and well articulated and some gave me pause to read a second time, but none rose to the level of demanding that I stay on the page , none seared their words, rhymes and rhythms and music on my soul. And for me that’s what the sub atomic particles of the poetry molecule must do. This is of course and I would argue necessarily, a subjective imperative. On an another day or time I might find a measure of ecstasy and relief from these fine poetic works. On another day I might be thinking of Joyce Kilmer or Lawrence Ferlinghetti---I think that works out just fine.