I arrived at City Lights with a full moon overhead. All the chairs were taken and people were standing in the back, but I went to the front and found some little stools with a friend on one of them so we sat together about three feet from the mic. I was ready to catch any of the readers in case they fell over. That is not meant to be disrespectful, just to say the average age of the poets was pushing 80 and they were understandably a bit frail and speaking softly for the most part.
My friend is a writer, and both of us have a lot of respect for the people on the program. When it was over, however, we had the feeling the poetry had fallen short of what we’re used to. I was thinking I get more out of an evening at Poetry Mission at Viracocha, where very few of the poets are New Testament and Gnostic scholars, translators of Ancient Greek, authors of ten books, anthropologists, or famous and well off. While I view the older crowd as living time capsules, and like to hear their stories, the poems were of a vintage I don’t hear very often—generally quiet, not very political, kind of static—a poetry that comes from words in exile on the page. “The space of the page is taken as a site in itself….” (Michael Palmer).
That said, Ferlinghetti made an appearance, and at 92 (he was born in 1919) he still has his wits about him. He talked about the importance of New Directions (founded in 1936 by James Laughlin), and how it was a role model when he and Peter Martin started City Lights in 1953. Some of the writers published by New Directions over the years: Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Celine, Andre Gide, Apollinaire, Rilke, Kafka, Octavio Paz, Lorca, and Nabokov. Later he returned to the mic and recited from memory a short poem from Coney Island of the Mind—which someone noted has sold over a million copies, unheard of for a book of poems. While New Directions was selling 3 or 7 copies a month of other poetry books, Coney Island of the Mind was selling hundreds.
Willis Barnstone read from his memoir of the Beats, where Kerouac climbed Mt. Tam and claimed to find enlightenment, and Corso took him down a few pegs, saying “bullshit.” He also read a piece with some religious references. When Michael McClure went to the mic, he said “Mine’s not very Biblical, unless Wichita is purgatory.” I wonder if he gets tired of being introduced as having been at the famous reading at Six Gallery in 1955. He has done so much since then, and he’s still going. Donald Yates knew Borges for 15 years and read “Borges and I,” which the author dictated to his mother when he was old and blind.
Also speaking were Declan Spring, vice president and senior editor at New Directions Publishing, Michael Palmer (who wrote “Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988″), Katherine Silver (translator of César Aira), Denise Newman (translator of Inger Christensen, the “foremost Danish poetic experimentalist of her generation” (1935-2009)), and a few others.
I’ll close with an excerpt from “alphabet” by Inger Christensen. It is based on a mathematical sequence. I am more familiar with a pathological sequence, but that’s my problem.
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death