Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Najibe’s Stories

These stories were collected from Najibe who was at the time a street boy/hustler in the fabulous city of Fes. I describe him in a posting for February of 2010. I have many pages of these. They vary from old jokes to folk motifs to careless obscenity. I imagine I was influenced by Paul Bowles who gathered such fine narratives from similar informants.

The Moroccan Visits Paris
One time a Moroccan man went to Paris and there he spent all that he had for a suit of clothes and he went to see the rich people and he convinced them he is the rich man of Morocco. He found the richest man there and he borrowed five million francs from him. He said, “Come to visit me in Fes, and I will pay you back. My name is Sidi Monarfft.” [?] Now what that means is “I don’t know.” So then the next week, the rich Frenchman went to Morocco and he saw a big building, seventeen stories high and he asked the man in front of it who owns it and the man says “Monarfft.” [“I don’t know.”] He strolled into the market and saw a huge rug shop with many salesman, and he asked a passerby whose shop it is and he was told again “Monarfft.” He thought his friend must be indeed wealthy, perhaps even wealthier than himself. Then he passed by a home decked out in mourning. He asked who had died and was told “Monarfft.” “Oh, no,” he thought, “now he’s dead! My money’s gone!”

Zh’hah is Caught Pickpocketing
One day Zh’hah go pickpocketing – he’s caught and brought before the king and the king sentenced him to three hundred lashes. “Oh, king,” he begged, “please permit me first to go and inform my aged mother of my disgrace. I promise to return promptly.” The king gave him permission, but he did not go to his mother’s house. He went instead to the market where he began calling out, “Three hundred clubs for sale. Three hundred strong ones. My price is not high.” And he found a customer and brought the man before the king and said that he had purchased the punishment.

The Fat Man and the Baby
There was once this man who was very fat and he was feeling he should do something so he went to see a doctor and asked if he could become thinner. Now this doctor, he had one woman who makes love for money and she had a baby that she did not want. So he told her to put that baby in his laboratory and he made that fat man go to sleep and when he woke up he gave him baby and said, “Look what I found inside of you!” And the man said, “I don’t seem thinner yet,” and the doctor said, “Don’t worry. Take these pills and you will be” and he sent him out the door with the baby. And the man went to his driver who was waiting by the car and he said, “Look what you do! You joke around with me and so now we have baby!”

The European, the Jew and the Muslim
Some guys were walking along, three of them, a European and a Muslim and Jew and they saw a girl and they went, you know, to speak with her, and she said, “No it’s late now. Tomorrow come see me.” And the first one to come to visit her was the European and he asked her, “What is your name?” and she said “Life.” And then she asked him what he wanted most and he could get it right away. He said, “I want to study” for in Europe everyone is a student. “Give me a book to read,” he said. Now the next to come is the Jew and he said, “Give me good business and intelligent men to help.” Now the third to come was the Muslim who said, “I just want to fuck.”

The Moslem and his Jewish Neighbor
There was a Jew and a Moslem who lived next door to each other in Fes and the Moslem noticed that the Jew went to his Jewish mosque every day. One day the Moslem go first to that place, very early, in disguise and he hid in the attic and later the Jew came in to say prayers and the Moslem called out from the attic, “I am you god, what you want?” The Jew say, “What I want is big money business” and the Moslem in the attic say, “That is easy. Just give ten dirham to your neighbor the Moslem who live on the same street and soon your wish will be granted.” He say, “Okay,” and the Moslem from above say “Then go get all your Jewish friends to come and see god too” and each of them he told to give five dirham, and that’s how one Moslem got to be rich as Jew.

Where Silver Comes From
The teacher in school ask where silver comes from, and one boy says, “That is easy. I know the answer,” and the teacher ask “Where?” and the boy say, “When I need coins for market, I ask, and the silver comes from my mother.”

The Telephone
One man had a telephone that didn’t work and he looked out the window and saw someone coming, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone in person – he just wanted to be able to use the telephone. So he stood right in his front window and pretended to be talking on the telephone. He said, “No, I can’t see you, I am too busy. I don’t care how important your business is. I can’t see anyone.” And the man who had come walking up knocked on the door and the man look out the window and said, “You cannot come – I am too busy. You must have heard me telling this other one.” And the visitor said, “I have come to fix your broken phone.”

The Kief Smokers
One day two fellows are sitting smoking kief, you know, just like us, and one fellow he sees a fly on the ceiling and he says “Is King Fly,” and the other says “If is King Fly you need a motorcycle.”

A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance

The conclusion to the medieval English romance of Sir Orfeo [1] is one of the most conspicuously conventional passages of a highly conventional poem.

Thus com Sir Orfeo out of his care.
God graunt ous alle wele to fare.

The same parallel comment on the hero’s fate and to the hopes of the audience occurs in many poems, but the essential aspect of the formula is neither of these parts, but the idea of positive fate in any form. The wish for the salvation of the listeners may appear without reference to a similarly happy end for the hero, or his eventual victory may be restated without explicitly asking the same for others. In King Horn the entire ensemble is present in the C-text while the L and 0 versions do not mention the listeners, but only the characters of the poem.

Similar lines conclude many other Middle English romances (sometimes using a couplet rhyming “king” and “blessing,” as in Octavian and Isumbras). Gowther, Amadace, and Emare are among the romances which use the convention but which adopt slightly different phrases to express it.) Texts using altogether different wording but which likewise turn the implication outward at the end in some form of a wish for the reader's good luck include the Pearl and the A-text of Piers Plowman.

The fact that this convention is so common in English romances must not lead the reader to think that it is an invariable concomitant of the genre. In fact, going back one historical step, one notes that Marie de France never ends with such a statement. Rather she regularly glances backward in the last words to the written piece itself, as though for her the emergence from the text requires a confirmation of its existence, its veracity, and its immortality. An example is the conclusion of Bisclavret.

L'aventure k'avez oie
Veraie fu, n'en dutez mie:
De Bisclavret fut fet li lais
Pur remembrance a tut dis mais.

[The adventure you have heard really happened, do not doubt it. This lay was made about Bisclavret to be remembered forever.]

In the form in which it appears in Sir Orfeo, one might at first regard this convention of closure in the first instance as equivalent to the final shot of a film: The End. It is, however, more ambitious. The phrase affirms Orfeo’s experience and links it to the reader’s in an emphatic signifier that these words have power both to encapsulate experience and to shape reality. Immediately after confirming the truth of the story, the poet speaks of the reader in the optative mood. The poem is well set off from ordinary experience by a frame which honors it, which constructs a halo of “blessedness” about the entire narrative. On a social level the convention indicates politeness in the form of a pious compassion for the souls of the listeners. Perhaps, too, it banishes any sense of wrong-doing from the literary experience, often considered dubious once sacred and profane art parted ways. Finally, however, the convention seems most potent viewed as a form of sympathetic magic with little specifically Christian content. By linking hero and reader and by imagining them prosperous or saved or both, the text attempts to fulfill a therapeutic role by causing the banishing in reality the sort of obstacles which it tells of the hero's overcoming in fantasy. Every child is better prepared for the inevitable blows of life after hearing of resourceful and courageous heroes who vanquish villains in fairy tales, and Christians are taught that Christ’s victory over death enables their own.

1. The same matter survived to become Child’s ballad 19.

An Appreciation of Theodore Roethke

Poet Will Nixon (author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges) invited me to write a piece for his blog (http://willnixon.com/blog/) explaining my fondness for a poem. I am posting it here as well but suggest that readers have a look at his site which includes plenty of his own writing as well as other guest contributions.

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proferred hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

When I first began to read poetry (poetry, that is, other than the lyrics of Walter R. Brooks’ Freddy the Pig, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and Robert Service), it was the late fifties and, like a great many others of my cohort, I was excited by the Beats. From my suburban home, I studied the Donald Allen anthology and wrote to most of the small presses listed in the back. At the same time, however, I leaped into the ocean of words, trying to read everything: oral and written; ancient, medieval, and modern; American and Chinese and African and Indian. In spite of my particular affection (or weakness) for the hip writers, I was also taken by a number of quite different contemporary American authors, among them Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. The two poets were sometimes associated due to their psychiatric diagnoses or their escape from the formal mold of the fifties (which each had practiced so expertly), but to me their appeal was as craftsmen.
Roethke’s well-known lyric “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,” is as perfect as a troubadour song or an Elizabethan sonnet. If the poem breaks no new ground for the language, it is nonetheless a rare achievement. Using erotic energy, one of the most traditional poetic dynamos, Roethke manages to devise new locutions to express the oldest and simplest themes.
What may seem mannered and exaggerated adoration of the female is nothing more than a realistic portrayal of ardent desire, constrained, in the interests of art and civility, into a dance of meter and rhyme with rhetorical grace-notes and flourishes at every turn. Detailed formal analysis could not, however, demonstrate excellence. In any event, when one catches one’s breath in awe, proof seems beside the point.
As with the sonneteers the very polish of the verse takes a seductive role. Yet, the reader notes that the love-object is entirely unspecified. She could be anyone. The praise is a pure display of the poet’s imagination. Loveliness in the bones is not visible, nor is the beloved likely literally to sigh at small birds in passing. These images are for the mind alone and not the eye; they are distinguished by the extravagance of their claims rather than by any descriptive power.
The humor toward the first stanza’s end recalls Donne, at once witty and ever so earnest. The “English poets who grew up on Greek” (and fewer they are with every passing year) appear as an afterthought but then spawn the absurd image of the chorus line, more Rockettes than Aeschylus, which nonetheless prepares the way for the playful use of Turn and Counterturn to follow. The mere capitalization of “Touch” assigns it the burning urgency of desire, and the entire stanza is filled with sexual implication without the slightest explicit word. The agricultural metaphors for sexuality are universal indeed – the curious can have a peek into The Golden Bough or a reference book on vulgar slang – but Roethke lightens his version of this archaic figure with the play on “rake” and the casual word “pretty” before presenting his powerful and enthusiastic image of “prodigious mowing.” Highly physical implications continue through the third stanza: whatever it may mean that she could make “one hip quiver with a mobile nose,” it certainly sounds sexy.
The final stanza opens with almost Biblical grandeur: “Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay,” followed, with fine alliteration, by the martyr/motion line, and then a classic statement of the love as spiritual training. In what might have been a quite Platonic formula were the beloved male, the poet adores eternity in his lady. The white shadow is an excellent figure for the wonder that is love. Time collapses, and the poet concludes with a fine metaphysical crescendo, though clinging to the physical with the words “wanton” and “sways.”
Though Roethke did not feel licensed to wander freely in his backbrain for entire poems at a stretch until perhaps I Am! Says The Lamb (1961) or The Far Field (1964), he had declared as early as his “Open Letter” in 1950 an intention to “fish, patiently, in that dark pond, the unconscious, [to] dive in, with or without pants on, to come up festooned with dead cats, weeds, tin cans, and other fascinating debris.” Roethke not only did that; he proceeded to make objects of surpassing beauty with what he brought to the surface.

Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, Whalen]

Herman Melville Redburn

Redburn is clearly shallow, all the more when juxtaposed to a huge metaphorical construction like Moby Dick or a subtle metaphysical mystery like The Confidence Man. Figures pregnant with symbolic weight such as the mysterious Harry Bolton and the sinister and fated Jackson never ripen into meaning. The book is in fact filled with such false starts: the wholly fantastic trip to a London pleasure palace, for instance, or the use of the outdated Liverpool guidebook. Melville feels free to include divigations on whatever comes to mind without tying these remarks to the rest of the text. (The discussion of immigration in Chapter 58 and the passage at the end of Chapter 29 questioning whether sailors can ever “be lifted wholly out of the mire” are examples.) His several lapses into common piety (such as the conclusion of the same chapter: “God is the true Father of all”) likewise play purely to received ideas in a way the later Melville avoided. Redburn is part self-portrait, part unconvincing artifice (his ingenuousness is forced when, for example in Chapter 42 he wanders into a private club and expresses surprise at his expulsion).

The biographers tell us that Melville was writing speedily for money when he produced what he called “a little nursery tale,” “beggarly Redburn,” “calculated merely to please the general reader, & not provoke attack.” In spite of his announced ambition to write “those sort of books which are said to ‘fail,’” economic pressure led him to write Redburn in less than ten weeks. He wrote in his journal “I, the author, know [Redburn] to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with.”

Its strengths include the simple inclusion of the details of sea life which he knew so well: rigging, slang, the social order on board. One finds excellent paragraphs throughout such as the one in Chapter 24 describing Redburn’s learning to work aloft, comparing his sense of mastery over the canvas to Richard II’s satisfaction as quashing the Peasant’s Rebellion.

Robert Greene Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Robert Greene’s name is most commonly recalled as the author of A Groats-Worth of Wit, itself remembered only because the pamphlet satirizes Shakespeare, but he also wrote a number of romances and plays, including Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Though educated at Oxford, he acquired a reputation as a demimondaine and his leaflets display considerable knowledge of the libertines and confidence men of his era. He is rightly associated with Marlowe, not merely because this play includes devil-conjuring like Faustus but also because the author was reputed to live loosely and cultivate scandalous conduct as well as opinions. Greene’s “celebrity” image, if such a term can be used of a sixteenth century man, was that of a daring immoralist, and his readers and listeners must feel a bit of the savor of safely second-hand license.

The play is lively and entertaining enough, as it drifts from romantic reverie to slapstick to melodrama, ending in marriages. Bacon’s unregenerate servant Miles is carried off by a devil, scapegoat for all the darker psychic contents churned up by the story. After all, viewers have witnessed Lacy’s abrupt and cruel testing of his beloved, the senseless deaths not only of Serlsby and Lambert but of their sons as well, in addition to a considerable dose of Satanic conjuring, which may have seemed worst of all.

The verse is agile and imaginative, lit with the ornaments of an age that enjoyed language, but it lacks powerful image systems. Green’s word-play entertains, no mean achievement if not the highest praise.

There was surely plenty of spectacle (a theatrical quality that seems to dominate Broadway and a good number of today’s movies). Thematically, in the primary plot of the victory of Friar Bacon’s better self, Greene works the basic gambit of warning spectators against immoral conduct by exhibiting it for their edification. Of course, his reformation is caused not by enlightenment but by the most mundane of failures, simple fatigue and his servant’s irresponsibility. The love story of Lacy and the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, complicated by Edward’s lust as well as by Lacy’s strange misleading of his beloved, ends as satisfactorily as it would have in a ‘thirties film. The four deaths are tossed with very little reason other than to keep the pot boiling.

Philip Whalen Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head

I have often lamented the fact that the hip people of my own generation recorded so little of their experience. In contrast to the passionate authors of the fifties, many of whom were intellectual as well as adventurous, many rank-and-file bohemians of the next wave, ten years later, took their principal art to be rock and roll. In this and in his other novel You Didn’t Even Try, Philip Whalen, the “Warren Coughlin” of Dharma Bums, records life among his Berkeley friends. Written in the sixties while he was living in Kyoto, practicing zazen, and teaching English, the title of the novel derives from Robert Greene’s play and its origin is more than coincidental, for it shines a spotlight of the learning cultivated by Whalen and the people of his circle. Though it may not be a novel of the highest standard, Imaginary Speeches reminds us that the hip scene was never limited to Kerouac and Cassady, and the discourse in the counter-culture of the time was not necessarily dominated by “goofing.” Though they do violate taboos (smoking a bit of dope and hanging out with gay people was much more edgy half a century ago), Whalen’s characters also pursue “elite” high culture: they prepare elaborate European meals and play string quartets with their friends. One of the principal figures in the book is a poet of somewhat irregular habits, but another is a linguistics professor at Berkeley who seems fully to participate in academic hustling. The reader is best advised to first go through Whalen’s poetry, some of which is first-rate, but the novels have for me a casual charm of their own.

Poetry on the Loose

This is my first gesture toward setting down an account of Poetry on the Loose which has presented hundreds of programs since its first show in 1993. Those who recall other information that ought to be included are welcome to contact me.

A week after I moved from Brooklyn to Orange County, New York, in December of 1991, I was pleased to see a notice for a reading featuring Mikhail Horowitz and Edward Sanders at the local community college. The English Department there was also at the time advertising for an English professor. Temporarily convinced of the wisdom of residing in the exurbs, I later found that poetry events were few and far between (and I didn’t get the job). Having spent my life in big cities and university towns, I missed the density of cultural life that is sustainable in America only in those environments.

Patricia was working in a psychiatric inpatient unit and came home one day with a leaflet for a new gallery a psychotic artist had given her. Before the universality of personal computers, this document was typed and pasted up and looked tossed together, full of messiness, misspellings, and extravagant artistic claims. The place seemed, in short, ideal for a poetry series. I contacted the gallery operator, Steve Clair, to propose doing poetry and found him receptive. Clair was an active, imaginative fellow with energetic eyes who worked in some dismal factory during the day and devoted himself to art the rest of the time.

During this era, Middletown, New York had been convinced that they could rejuvenate the city by attracting artists. The city offered to subsidize the rental of the many abandoned factories in town for tenants who wanted to establish studios or galleries, even advertising in The Village Voice. Clair had secured a huge old furniture factory for a few hundred dollars a month and named it Zukabee. The place was vast, a grand wandering brick Leviathan where hall led on to hall with surprising bits of debris around every corner and great quantities of unused furniture – more upholstered chairs and sofas than we could use. A magnificent spot, it had a clandestine ambiance and the industrial chic was undeniably authentic.

I posted notices of the first show which featured me (in fact, the only talent of which I was then aware) in December of 1993 on telephone poles and trees. Fifty-four people attended, virtually none of whom I had known before. I booked the next three or four shows that evening. Poetry on the Loose was under way.

Though oddly magnificent, one drawback of the space was its lack of a working heating system. I believe some sort of furnace existed somewhere on the premises, but it functioned only marginally. When there was no heat at all, the tenants were obliged to do without water as well to avoid freezing the pipes. As it happened, Clair had rented some of his space – he had plenty – to an acquaintance of irregular habits. I believe his tenant had turned on the water with the modest hope of flushing a toilet, but then had never turned it off, and the pipes, never slow in administering retributive justice, burst. There was now no running water at all.

Those who attended the poetry were discomfited, perhaps, by the lack of an operating bathroom, but Clair and his roommate had to actually live there. During this frozen period of the series, while male art-lovers had to piss in the parking lot snow and the females did I know not what, we decided to try to warm the atmosphere by lighting a pot-belly stove in a room next door to the performance space. It seemed to be more or less intact and was visibly vented to the wall. We had been collecting firewood for some time, not always simple in the middle of town, but had a sufficient stockpile, we thought, to provide significant warmth. When the audience was assembled, we set it alight only to discover that the stovepipe must have been blocked as black smoke billowed into the room. We hung a curtain to try to contain the noxious gases and, throughout the entire evening, now and then a draft or wayward gust would move the curtain aside and send a fresh effusion into the crowd. It was like the special effects of a grandstand heavy metal show.

Clair eventually suspended industrial space heaters resembling jet engines that sent forth great tongues of flame and made everything toasty. How he obtained them I cannot imagine. His art was on the very edge of the American scene, itself marginalized. Finding his gallery on the other end of the block of a Salvation Army drop-box that was invariably overflowing with largely valueless donations, he did a good deal of work with found materials.

For his Disgust-o-tronic show, in May of that year, the gallery was filled with works constructed from found materials, each cleverly outfitted with little motors and pumps so that every work of art could be set in motion by the viewer. It would have been every child’s favorite exhibition. One piece, titled “Skinny Boy” represented a typical American living room with a television in place of honor, snacks stacked about a figure resting in an easy chair, a figure made by wiring together the bones of a deer skeleton the artist had found. When the button was pushed, the television would crackle with threat and the skinny boy would, rattling, lift his soda can to his lips.

For the gala opening, Clair eschewed the customary white wine, cheese, and crackers of countless openings, offering instead chitterlings, chicken gizzards, and pigs' feet. I believe very little was consumed.

Clair later moved his gallery to a downtown storefront. Here we were visible from the street and enjoyed good and unpredictable crowds. The gallery, of course, was not self-sustaining and eventually Clair moved on to other scenes. After one event in Middletown’s skyscraper (is it 26 North Street?) and series of four in the Art Center building, we made an agreement with the Unitarian Universalist Church and, between 1995 and 2008, this was the Poetry on the Loose venue. What had once been the Universalist Church is a fine old building from the turn of the twentieth century, including Tiffany windows and a very staid layout, remarkably High Church for a Unitarian hall, though the wall did bear colored felt symbols of the religions of the world. In February of 2008, the series moved to Warwick, in Steve Calitri’s old brick building by the Wawayanda where, a year or so later, Calitri led the establishment of the College of Poetry which was incorporated as the Northeast Poetry Center.
I chose the name Poetry on the Loose because my idea was to stress performance. I was thinking of Dada as well as the happenings, Cloud House events, and other manifestations in galleries and public spaces with which I had been involved. We have featured slam performers [1], numerous bands [2], aleatory and collective compositions [3], and such performance events as a mock funeral complete with coffin and prayer cards and a site-specific reading in a tepee. We have arranged social galas such as the Beaux Arts Ball and the Skull Beneath the Skin Ball. Themed events have included readings for the Dog Days and Valentine’s Day. Several programs of “spirit voices” featured recordings of poets of the past. Readers have included the broadest spectrum of the population from high school age to a Holocaust survivor in his nineties, drop-outs to university professors, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, gay and straight. Many readers have been local, but some have come from Texas, Hawaii, California, Colorado, Nepal, and the United Kingdom. [4]

A few readers have gone on too long; one dropped his pants on stage; one saw her jealous ex-boyfriend invade the space from the rear and begin challenging the view of their history the reader was presenting. Dozens have enacted their visions and neuroses. The slogan was always, “The door is open wide.”

1. The national slam winners from Austin, Texas and the second-place team from NYC both performed the same evening.
78. August 12, 1995, open reading featuring August 17, 1996 reading in a tepee

2. These include Rick Pernod’s House of Pernod and James Antonie’s Utopian Direction Band. Among the artists who used music have been the July Church (with Manuel Ayala’s guitar), Oliver Grech, Word of Mouth Burning Art Theatre (Liz Gottlieb and Joe Karpienia), Ramesh Laihiri and his ensemble, Clint Partridge, Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, and violinist T. G. Vanini.

3. Experiments like the Pomomat Collective Composition event and the pas de deux flyting.

4. Long-time attenders will remember Tim Wells and Salena Saliva from London. More recently, Yuyutsu Ram Dass Sharma from Kathmandu read.