NEW DIRECTIONS: an older crowd
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
Watch the readings from New Directions‘ 75th Anniversary celebration, and find out more information, here.
Has the poetry “fallen short” of the now? No. It is the now that has shifted, recombined and mutated over the decades. Many a tide has sloshed and turned, pushing these aging vessels away from us, to find mooring in some fabled harbor of fond memories and barnacled glory that we make scant time to visit today.
It is far away, after all, a drab journey across ancient Greek seas. And when you arrive, disembark and speak to the locals, you will find them soft and cozy in their doddering ways, blathering their outmoded ornate lingo, more interested in moth-ridden memorabilia than the vibrant immediacy of the last and next five minutes.
It would be a fool’s errand to take this trip with a mind to catch fresh new words and bring them back, still-lively, to glimmer with meaning in the short now. It will earn you nothing but dismay and the mockery of fellow navigators. The crusty wordsmiths of New Directions Cove, long retired to lulling private lives, have nothing to offer to your Zeitgeist, or your Viracocha.
Yet they once were you, and you will soon enough be them. Such is the mischievous symmetry of time, turning yesterday’s pirates into today’s decorated captains, for a new gang of swashbucklers to stare at and wonder what all the fuss could ever have been about, mesmerized by the reflections and blind to the mirror. Always the same ocean, always the same day. We tire so quickly of our future selves, embodied in the vacillating octogenarian bulk of our forebears.
So if you visit that moldering old port, don’t do it to find new directions. Rather seek out the hoariest taverns, sit listening to the captains’ tales of lost rogue youth, and be sure to buy them a pint when they’re dry. See if you can’t discern, in all that maundering about pathbreaking now grown dull, the trace of something changeless: a trade route we all follow, no matter when, no matter what words we use to write of it. Then, after all, you may find a point to journeying so far, and your reward will no longer be crumbling phrases and empty praise for their erstwhile eloquence, but a wordless awareness of the past, a knowledge of the future, a lenghtening of Now.