12 Essential Books: for Poet’s Bookshelf, Volume Two

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 3:59 AM
THE INVITATION

1) Please list 5-10 books that have been most “essential” to you, as a poet.

2) Please write some comments about your list. You may want to single out specific poems or passages from the books, discuss how you made your decisions or provide thoughts about the importance of these books in your life. Feel free to write as much as you would like.

THE RESPONSE

Federico García Lorca, The Poet in New York
Roger Caillois and Jean-Clarence Lambert, Tresor de la poésie universelle
Robert Motherwell, Dada Painters and Poets
Donald Allen, The New American Poetry
André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism
Tristan Tzara, Oeuvres complètes
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
Ezra Pound, Cathay
Louis Zukofsky, Catullus
Jackson Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak
John Cage, Silence

It’s an impossible task – for me at least – & I find myself bewildered in the face of it. The books & the poets & writers that they represent come at me in rapid succession, each one a memory of some point in my life when they first appeared to me. I can account for only a small portion of that in the space allotted, & I’ll try to do it in terms of what have long been my overriding concerns as a poet. Some of it will take me back to a point when I was hardly anything special as a reader & when my ideas of poetry were all in the future.

1. My first introduction to a poet outside the American orbit was to Lorca, in particular to an early translation by Rolfe Humphries of Poet in New York. I was fifteen or sixteen years old, & Tom Riggs, a college instructor of my brother’s at NYU, had seen some of what I was then writing & had taken it on himself to advise & educate me. By then I had already had glimpses of modernist poets like cummings & Stein, maybe Joyce as well, & others like these who both puzzled & tempted me. Riggs, who was still a young man, died a few years later in a swimming accident, but what he opened for me (not only Lorca but others as well) was unprecedented. There is no book of poems from that time – the actual tactile feel & the rush of images coming off its pages – which I remember as vividly.

2. At about the same time I caught my first glimpse of traditional American Indian poetry in the concluding pages of Mark Van Doren’s 1928 Anthology of World Poetry. I wouldn’t present this as a key book for me, except as an early revelation of a poetry outside the boundaries of where I expected poetry to be. A much later book by Margot Astrov, The Winged Serpent: American Indian Prose and Poetry, came closer to what would be an overriding concern of mine, & on a still larger, even global scale, a French anthology, Tresor de la Poésie Universelle, co-edited in 1958 by Roger Caillois & Jean-Clarence Lambert, who later became a good friend of mine. I had that one clearly in mind when I began to work on Technicians of the Sacred, so would have to list it here as clearly transformative – an indication of the possibilities of poetry in the area of what I later came to speak of as an ethnopoetics.

3. The other two anthologies that led me toward making assemblages of my own were Robert Motherwell’s Dada Painters & Poets (1951) & Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. Before Motherwell’s book came along I had only a dim presentiment of what the old Dada poets had unleashed, & however excited I was by what Motherwell showed there. what I found largely missing among the book’s memoirs & manifestos were actual examples of works of poetry. That set my mind toward the creation of a new Dada book in which poetry & near-poetry (most of it in translation) would play the central role. I announced it for publication by my press of that time, circa 1960, as That Dada Strain, but didn’t carry through on it. Later I would use the title for a book of my own poems, & Pierre Joris & I would create the missing Dada anthology as the Dada section of Poems for the Millennium.

4. The New American Poetry had a two-fold meaning for me, both for its presentation of a poetry in the process of becoming & as a model of what an anthology might be. In 1960 I already had ideas of my own & companions in poetry who were my de facto collaborators. Most of us were just outside the orbit of the Donald Allen book, but speaking for myself, I can say that it instigated me with an actual content that greatly enhanced my sense of the range of poetry & poetics that was coming open for all of us. That may have been more useful in the long run, but for me it opened the idea of the anthology-as-manifesto – an amalgam of poems & statements/commentaries by the editor/assembler & by the other poets present in its pages. I was later included in the revised edition of Allen’s book, but the important thing for me had happened earlier: the idea of what a book like this was & what it might still become.

5. Other books fed my appetite for a new poetry & a related new poetics. (I have a tendency to be retrospective, to look backward, as David Antin said of me, while hopefully pushing forward.) With others around me I shared a regard for Williams & Pound in the generation before us – the discourse as much as the poetry – & I was drawn after a time to how Olson & Duncan (Zukofsky as well) were cobbling a new poetics from what Pound & Williams had earlier set in motion. But even more I was drawn to build on the poetics & polemics of radical avant-gardists like Breton, Tzara, & Artaud (many others as well), for whom there were then few texts in English. The first big book from Breton that served my purposes (I had already found him through other sources) was the Manifestos of Surrealism translated by Helen Lane & Richard Seaver, circa 1970 -- a persistent point of reference even now. With Tzara I clawed my way through the Oeuvres Complètes in Tzara’s own text, & with Artaud the big volume of Selected Writings edited by Susan Sontag suited me fine, though Eshleman’s & Hirschman’s books added to it later – & Artaud’s own voice, played over & over again, in the great postwar recording of Jugement de Dieu, topped it off. In all instances the poetics was & remains linked to the poetry – as it should be.

6. The importance for me of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is embedded in the title of Technicians of the Sacred, my first attempt at a gathering of works that I would later put forward as a twentieth-century version of an ethnopoetics. The book came to me in the early 1960s, along with the English translation of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism a few years before, another book that shaped & informed an aspect of a work that I was then beginning. Whatever its shortcomings may have been, Eliade’s book was for me a schatzkammer of how pervasive language & performance & dream have been in all human cultures & how fully developed & complex they were where we might least have expected to find them. It was just a small push beyond what he presented to take the shamans of his book as proto-poets, with the caveat, in my case at least, that what we were looking for wasn’t shamanism so much as poetry – no matter if the two (shamanism & poetry) coalesced or not. With Scholem, whom Robert Duncan brought to my attention at the same time (1959) that I brought Paul Celan to his, the revelation was no less clear. I had been smitten already by Isaac Singer’s mystics, madmen, & thieves as they appeared in his Satan in Goray, & what Singer & Scholem led me to, ensemble, provided some of the underpinnings for Poland/1931 & for A Big Jewish Book. With Celan, whom I mentioned just before, it was different – a close contemporary whom I was the first to bring into English, & like other contemporaries a force to reckon with.

7. Speaking of translation, then, which has had a special place for me throughout my life, I take Pound’s Cathay, not surprisingly, as the preeminent book of the last century, to show translation as an important way of making poetry, & Zukofsky’s Catullus as still another likely touchstone. Taking that as a base I began to think of what I called “othering” as running from translation as such to processes like collage & various forms of chance operations & appropriative techniques that I began to explore on my own but with a welcome push from books like Jackson Mac Low’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak & John Cage’s Silence & the series of books that followed for both of them. These also added to my sense of poetry as a great collective & collaborative enterprise – like language itself. In that sense too the enumeration of books that have shaped me/us through my/our art could go on for many more pages & into many more domains, but then, as Blake (another shaper & shaker) said, “Enough! or Too much.”

[First published in Poet’s Bookshelf, Volume 2, edited by Peter Davis and Thomas Koontz, Barnwood Press, Indiana, 2007.]

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