‘Thanks for that re-review’

Stephanie Burt

Lost and Found

I get dozens of books and chapbooks in the post, unsolicited, every month, singly or in sets. One set stood out even before I cut the pages: five slender, staple-bound items with off-white covers, instalments of Lost and Found: The City University of New York (CUNY) Poetics Document Initiative: hard-to-find essays, letters and other archival discoveries by and about American ‘experimental’ poets from the last half century, meticulously edited and lightly annotated by graduate students at CUNY, under the general editorship of Ammiel Alcalay.

They are a serious and worthy enterprise: sometimes the editors seem to take the texts more seriously than the writers themselves did – an inevitable consequence of academic treatment, and not necessarily a strike against it. One booklet transcribes, from audiotape, a lecture Robert Creeley gave in 1963: ‘I write always with a typewriter,’ he says.

I get very nervous about using a pen, because pens run out of ink in a way… Now equally, I never learned to type. So I mean my typing is a habit that’s developed, with two fingers.

This affects ‘how fast I can write’, and so controls the pace of his lines. Then Allen Ginsberg speaks up from the audience, and instead of a lecture about Creeley’s methods of writing we get a Q&A on familiar themes: ‘The very premise on which consciousness operates,’ Creeley says, ‘is undergoing modifications that none of us I think are capable of defining… all the terms of consciousness that I grew up with must disappear.’

If such declarations now seem dated, or vapid, the Lost and Found series has other rows to hoe: two booklets reprint letters between Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, sent in 1955-56. Koch had just received a bitterly unsympathetic review in Poetry magazine, to which O’Hara offered a riposte; the letters begin with Koch’s thanks for that ‘re-review’ and continue through the birth of Koch’s child, O’Hara’s efforts to place Koch’s poems in the right little magazines, O’Hara’s near miss at the 1955 Yale Younger Poets Prize (which W.H. Auden chose to give instead to John Ashbery), each young writer’s enthusiasms for the other’s work, and O’Hara’s witty, sometimes campy enthusiasms for almost anything:

And now WQXR is playing Galzunov’s [sic] THE SEASONS on their ballet hour. What is a poor emotion-ridden hag to do for a quiet hour these days? It bring back my youth (and I mean lost) when I used to think I was Pan. Now I think I am Pug. Tears, idle years, I have about as much vivacity these days as John Ruskin… But nevertheless there have been a number of stunning parties.

The letters are a sort of party themselves, a frenzy of proper nouns whose literary seriousness, and sadness, comes into view only slowly, in retrospect, and in that way, too, they resemble O’Hara’s poems.

It’s certainly a good thing that universities should sponsor works like these, and that graduate students should edit them, and people who care about these poets should read them. And yet the Lost and Found series has an irony about it too: what were once intended as ephemera, or as the most informal of documents, to be circulated in private or not at all, by poets who set themselves laughingly against the academy and its liking for monuments, are now little monuments themselves, with plain rectangles on their covers like old offprints, or like tombs.

If you want to see poetry as a living enterprise, one with a sense of unpredictable fun, the Lost and Found series might be both a help and a hindrance: you might turn from it to the chapbooks produced by the writers around the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery, writers indebted to (or who continue) the New York School of O’Hara and his friends. You might turn, say, to Goodnight Voice by Dana Ward (House Press, 2008), sent my way last year and now discovered, belatedly, in a pile of other chapbooks not quite as good. Here is part of Ward’s love poem ‘You’:

Invisible shroud by the ankles ridiculous yes
Though I’ll take the flowers I’m given
If those I invent are like death.

I wish they didn’t do that.
They do though.
The Faberge cream is everywhere, everything I made up
Tousled, delicate, wanting for love

& this formally crying out – care for me!
Formally being so dumb.
Crude & fragile like sewing a thumb on a marshmallow hammer
I have one, my grammar & meter.

It is meant to be ephemeral, courting ridicule, frivolous in its symbols (a marshmallow hammer!) and sweet, even earnest, in its emotional goals (care for me!), to be accomplished in an instant – without editorial planning, if not without thought.