Before Youtube, there was the odd documentary, like Ron Mann’s 1982 Poetry in Motion, but essentially, the stance and gestures of dead poets were lost to us. For some, especially those fanatics of the text, this was no great loss. The New Critics taught us that the text was sacred, but then cast out the hagiographies as apocryphal.
I am a poetry fetishist. I buy the books, read the interviews, visit the graves, and watch the videos. I have corny postcards of Shelley’s tombstone in the Non-Catholic cemetery in Rome, and check the paths of poets, to see if I’ve intersected them without noticing. I was stuck in a traffic jam in Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Mass, before I’d heard of him. I insisted on stopping by piazza Pound in Rapallo, which consisted of a hilarious fountain with four stone tortoises and five square feet of grass by the sea. You can like Pound’s poetry and delight in anything that would piss him off, there’s no paradox. Novelists leave behind houses, bars and hotels. Hemingway arguably created his own tourist trail of bars dedicated to him in Italy, Spain, Florida, Cuba. But poets leave behind very little except names and graves. And, sometimes, small fountains.
Ben Lerner, most recently author of Leaving the Atocha Station – in which a sad protagonist attempts to overcome his pretentiousness and attain a genuine connection with the poetry he obsesses over – describes poetry as the failed attempt to transform the virtual into the actual. That is to say, poetry works because it doesn’t work. Some readings fail precisely because of this, and others are able to transcend it, the failed gesture creating a new gesture. I will present you with a selection of filmed readings that span from the theatrical to the monotone, emphasise the visual aspects of the text or ignore them, endear us to the poet or the poem, and ultimately, ask us to keep up the search. Lets keep the joys critics are forced to discard, those guys can do penance for us.
In his later years, Charles Olson let go of that muffled tone of embarrassment that plagues so many poets, and took up his position as unofficial (and usually unacknowledged) prophet and headmaster of all who came after him. He’d been a professor at the Black Mountain School, and delighted in his role as big, ungainly father figure. His voice succumbed to the cigarettes and alcohol and became a big, gravelly landslide of a thing. Although he is still sometimes referred to as an ‘academic’ poet, he took the ideas and left the formality. In this excerpt from a documentary in the mid-60s, Olson is at his most comfortable, drinking, smoking, telling stories, making grand gestures to replace the visual aspects of his poetry. If you turned off the sound, a casual glance at the screen might suggest some German expressionist movie (the background) or a Laurel and Hardy show. Arms go everywhere, bottles are wrestled open, sweat abounds faces are pulled, eyebrows abound. Though the camera and sound crew are constantly trying to duck out of frame, Olson is always drawing them in, enveloping them. He points straight to the camera like a charismatic preacher. During his reading of ‘The Librarian,’ I think of Robert de Niro, Glengarry Glen Ross, classic movie monologues. What on the page might appear abstract is revealed out loud as highly rhetorical and commanding. Olson wanted everything in poetry, and mostly got it.
When Frank O’Hara reads the line “to find out what the poets in Ghana are doing these days,” from ‘The Day Lady Died,’ I gurgle with pleasure, as I always imagined him reading it exactly that way. A voice like Frank’s gets in your head immediately. He tricks you because you are never quite sure when he’s finished talking and started reading, he takes everything and gives it back. He is a burglar that steals poetry into houses that don’t want it. In my favourite part of the clip, he picks up the telephone while writing a screenplay, and ends up writing down the caller’s comments. It’s a reversal of the minor satori he mentions in ‘Personism: a Manifesto’:
While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.
Reading or listening or watching Frank O’Hara, I’m constantly wowed by the way he can harness the inherent ridiculousness of poetry and make it ring out clear and transformed. If his poetry is self-conscious, it isn’t out of anxiety, but laughing at its own daring. It is a stupidly simple fact that every time you start to write a poem, you could very easily not do so, and the world would not feel the worse for it. But committing this unnatural gesture, O’Hara is free to extend it further than the act itself, to copy his diary and telephone conversations and shopping lists and turn them into something less useful but more interesting. Sometimes O’Hara is described as being outside of the literary establishment, but really it’s hard to think of his being outside anywhere ever.
The poetry porn continues for me in observing the writers’ desks, and in particular their typewriters. Olson championed the typewriter as a tool for a new poetry, providing a framework at once more mechanical and more liberating. Owning a typewriter now is something of an embarrassment (I currently own two), a weak nostalgia for those who will not confront the demands of the present. But these machines, with their aural exuberance of clicks and rings, are also key to understanding those two poets. Writing poetry was a noisy business. Olson and O’Hara are great subjects for film because they live and work that noise so well.
Hard to think of Ezra Pound as human. In this interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini, frail old Pound fights both age and the Italian language in every sentence, but that only seems to make him even more distant than the terrifying howls of the early Cantos. The most shocking part of the clip is Pound referring to himself as ‘Old Ez.’ I present Pound as a counterargument to Olson and O’Hara, someone who clearly does not fit film. Perhaps granite would suit him better. I feel like a child watching this, ashamed at how scared I am of this old man, or the voice he once possessed. Pasolini makes the scene even sadder, reading Pound’s work back to Pound, in that strange, scholastic tone of his. It would take too long to describe all the transformations that occur in that reading, the words crumble into dust in Pasolini’s mouth. I wanted to end with this clip precisely because it exemplifies a true failure of reading aloud, the inability of certain words in certain bodies to take flight. And so we can be comforted that the lack of recordings of many major poets might turn out to be a blessing after all. Hard to think of Ezra Pound as human: in that video, I’m not sure we saw Ezra Pound at all.
Poetry on the screen never really took off, partly because many poets are very boring, partly because it feels dirty. But lets have a bit more dirt to sift through. And for god’s sake, someone get Patricia Lockwood, empress of Twitter, in on the action.