Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keeping Up with LeRoi Jones

If one wanted a pocket history of late-fifties American avant-garde poetry that was under fifty pages and all by one author, one could do worse than to read LeRoi Jones' 1961 Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. A teasing little note at the beginning of the book states that "these poems cover a period from 1957 until 1960 … I have arranged the book in as strict a chronological order as I could manage … for reasons best known to other young (?) poets" (parenthetical question mark Jones's). What this refers to I'm not entirely clear, but it's certainly true that Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, more even than most books of poetry so arranged, is clarified enormously by proceeding chronologically. Jones covered a lot of distance in those three years, ending up, on the surface at least, at almost the diametrically opposite point to where he began.

The early poems have a casualness and humor that brings to mind the Beats and Frank O'Hara (all of whom were personal friends of Jones, and published by his Totem Press and Yugen magazine), as well as bearing plenty of traces of E.E. Cummings' easygoing satire. "Hymn for Lanie Poo," the second poem in the book, is a good example: a record of a black man's experiences in white urban bohemia, it features a provocative epigraph from Rimbaud ("Vous etes de faux Négres") and has references to John Coltrane, offhand travesties of academic "high" culture ("Read Garmanda's book, '14 Tribes of / Ambiguity,' didn't like it") and a generally breezy tone. Except for the heightened racial consciousness and occasional dips into a more Gothic register ("Beware the evil sun… / turn you black // crawl your eyeballs // rot your teeth"), this could be a late-fifties poem by O'Hara.

But Jones (like O'Hara himself, in fact) eventually becomes interested not just in expressing his personality but in critiquing it, a process which begins with the (great) sixth poem, "Look For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today." It begins: "Part of my charm: / envious blues feeling / separation of church & state / grim calls from drunk debutantes," the beginning of a poem-long anatomy of Jones' personality and lifestyle which is intricately bound up, not just with his status as a black man in a mostly white subculture, but with his role as literary editor as well:

terrible poems come in the mail. Descriptions of celibate parties
torn trousers: Great Poets dying
with their strophes on. & me
incapable of a simple straightforward

It's so diffuse
being alive. (15)

From there, Jones goes on to muse O'Hara-ishly about not being a painter, quote O'Hara himself on the value of quietism, contra Kerouac ("Frank walked off the stage, singing / 'My silence is as important as Jack's incessant yatter'"), associate his thoughts with Baudelaire's ("All these thots / are Flowers Of Evil"), get lost in a nostalgic reverie ("What has happened to box tops?"), and finally imagine his own death ("F. Scott Charon / will soon be glad-handing me / like a legionaire / My silver bullets all gone / My black mask trampled in the dust"). Thus the interior movement of this one poem anticipates the movement of Jones' development on the level of oeuvre.

What happens there is unexpected. As I read it, it entails a move away from O'Hara towards an engagement with the canonical texts of High Modernism: in particular, with exactly the quality of Modernism that poets like O'Hara, Ginsberg, Ashbery and Koch were most concerned to protest, its thoroughgoing depressiveness. Two poems in the middle of the book, "Way Out West" and "The Bridge," initiate a new phase in Jones' poetry by imitating and investigating what I'm going to call here the mode of "FUBAR Modernism," the sense of an entire environment gone to pot that in Eliot expresses itself elegiacally and, often through the use of the affective fallacy, lyrically as well. This return to Eliot, who Koch would later call "the Great Dictator / Of literature" (and not even exactly a return: let's keep in mind that Eliot was still alive in 1961, and if he was out of fashion with the avant-garde he was, in many ways, at the peak of his cultural power in the literary mainstream), is pretty surprising in a fellow-traveler of the Beats, Black Mountain and New York School, none of whom had much use for Eliot, preferring Pound and Williams if they had to have Modernist forebears at all.

I feel I could make a case for Eliot's pervasiveness throughout the whole second half of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, but for simplicity's sake I'll stick to the two poems aforementioned. Here's "Way Out West" in its entirety:

As simple an act
as opening the eyes. Merely
coming into things by degrees.

Morning: some tear is broken
on the wooden stairs
of my lady's eyes. Profusions
of green. The leaves. Their
constant prehensions. Like old
junkies on Sheridan Square, eyes
cold and round. There is a song
Nat Cole sings … This city
& the intricate disorder
of the seasons.

Unable to mention
something as abstract as time.

Even so, (bowing low in thick
smoke from cheap incense; all
kinds questions filling the mouth,
till you suffocate & fall dead
to opulent carpet.) Even so,

shadows will creep over your flesh
& hide your disorder, your lies.

There are unattractive wild ferns
outside the window
where the cats hide. They yowl
from there at nights. In heat
& bleeding on my tulips.

Steel bells, like the evil
unwashed Sphinx, towing in the twilight.
Childless old murderers, for centuries
with musty eyes.

I am distressed. Thinking
of the seasons, how they pass,
how I pass, my very youth, the
ripe sweet of my life; drained off…

Like giant rhesus monkeys;
picking their skulls,
with ingenious cruelty
sucking out the brains.

No use for beauty
collapsed, with moldy breath
done in. Insidious weight
of cankered dreams. Tiresias'
weathered cock.

Walking into the sea, shells
caught in the hair. Coarse
waves tearing the tongue.

Closing the eyes. As
simple an act. You float (24)

That the poem describes the contemplation of suicide should be obvious (even if Jones' book title didn't nudge us toward that reading). But it also narrates the passing of a day, beginning with "opening the eyes" and ending with "closing" them, though both are understood as "simple … act[s]" that contain within them the possibility of death, which is just as easy to bring on as wakefulness or sleep. As in Eliot, there is a constant toggling between dramatic or autobiographical details and purer image-making. There is also a tension between lyric and jeremiad, if we take the former to be the questioning of the self and the latter to be the questioning of the world. The textbook lyrical move of describing his "lady's eyes" leads him first to the natural world ("The / leaves. Their constant prehensions") and then to a corruption of it, as those eyes are in turn compared to "old / junkies on Sheridan Square" in a way that gives a wider characterization of the urban landscape in which our narrator dwells, a landscape which, as in Eliot, undermines the lyric impulse while paradoxically strengthening its effects (cf. Kant on disgust). The speaker, thrown once again into this sordid world, thinks of but does not quote from one of its more pleasant manifestations, a "Nat [King] Cole" song (an obvious update of the music hall numbers Eliot inserted into The Waste Land), and then free-associates across an ellipsis about "[t]his city / & the intricate disorder / of the seasons": an intricate disorder which recalls that which "breeds lilacs out of the dead land," the "stony rubbish" of "The Burial of the Dead." (I take it as significant that there is natural growth in Eliot's poem: it just appears as perverse, unnatural.) Writing a poem in what he sees as a waste land, but after Eliot, and after the avant-garde reaction against Eliot, Jones feels unentitled to the later Eliot's devices for coping with such misery: he is "[u]nable to mention / something as abstract as time" as in the redemptive Four Quartets (though of course Jones, in asserting this, has just mentioned it). Moving a little faster, we find "creep[ing]" "shadows," a personal "intricate disorder" ("your disorder") to match that of the city's, a dip into the rhetoric of pastoral elegy ("Thinking / of the seasons, how they pass, / how I pass, my very youth, the / ripe sweet of my life; drained off…"), horrible visceral images of the kind Eliot's early poetry is full of ("Childless old murderers," "giant rhesus monkeys") and then a final double echo, first of The Waste Land ("No use for beauty / collapsed … Tiresias' / weathered cock") and then, climactically, of "Prufrock" ("Walking into the sea, shells / caught in the hair. Coarse / waves tearing the tongue"): walk, sea, hair, drowning.

The next poem in the book, "The Bridge," takes up a different High Modernist author, one less eminent and influential than Eliot but perhaps even better as a symbol of the FUBAR aesthetic, since he actually killed himself: Hart Crane. The poem is not formally much like Crane, but it pays him unmistakable homage in its title and in its imagery.

I have forgotten the head
of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2
bars, down the street, seeming
to wrap themselves around my fingers, the day,
screams in me: pitiful like a little girl
you sense will be dead before the winter
is over.

I can't see the bridge now, I've past
it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out
along the cold insensitive roads to what
we wanted to call "ourselves."
"How does the bridge go?"

Here the bridge is also a musical bridge, and the poem can be understood as written from the perspective of a jazz musician. This realization renders the first strophe almost Metaphysical in its playfulness, with existential confusion figured as losing one's way in a song ("I have forgotten the head / of where I am") and "bars" meaning both measures of time in music and places where you drink alcohol, both of which are felt as mysteriously constricting ("seeming to wrap themselves around my fingers"). But music really appeals to Jones as a symbol of the unfreezable flow of time, a forward-rushing movement that cannot be seized at any one moment without losing its integrity: "The changes are difficult, when / you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords // of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises." The obvious play is on "changes" as both chord changes and historical changes, both of which are "difficult" in the sense of jarring but which are felt as corresponding to some innate and inchoate need of the self, "your disorder" as opposed to "your would be disguises." My claim, a little bit of a stretch maybe, is that it's not just free jazz — and the postwar, postmodern moment associated with it — that Jones is talking about here, but also Crane's The Bridge, and Modernism. This has been left behind for what is already, by the late 50s, observable on the horizon as the coming of Confessionalism, which Jones presciently sees as abandoning monumental expression to travel down "the cold insensitive roads to what / we wanted to call 'ourselves.'"

The second half of the poem starts: "(Late feeling)," indicating a kind of postscript I suppose, the morning after the jazz performance maybe, but also continuing the theme of time, and of belatedness. It continues:

Way down till it barely, after that rush of
wind & odor reflected from hills you have forgotten the color
when you touch the water, & it closes, slowly, around your head.

Another image of immersion, death by water, suicide. But:

The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place,
you feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the
bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you,

(when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through
unmentionable black. (26)

"The bridge will be behind you": literally in time (because the performance is over) but also figuratively in memory (because the forward-looking avant-garde is leaving The Bridge behind, and The Waste Land, or so they think). I read the passage, then, as expressing a certain melancholy for the moment of 20s/30s Modernism — a time when, arguably, jazz and avant-garde writing were more closely socially associated; in any case, a monumental timelessness ("the bridge will stand") placed in opposition to contemporary triviality, "all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand" (the pop cultural detritus celebrated in O'Hara's work, and in Preface's first six poems). Without the fixity and permanence of "the bridge" (a bridge between white and black experience? a testament to the potential of communal, human making?), the speaker of the poem is doomed to slide into solipsism, to racial and social isolation, "unmentionable black."

I guess what interests me most about this reading of Jones (which could be totally off the mark: I should admit I don't know almost any of his later, more militant work) is that it really fucks with the historical narrative that sees postwar poets, particularly ones with political leanings, rebelling against the High Modernist aesthetic of Eliot, Pound, Crane, etc. I'd argue that this is truer of essentially apolitical poets like Robert Lowell and (gulp) John Ashbery, who refuse High Modernism for affective reasons — it's not the mood, the tone they want to project — rather than because they see it is ideologically or communicatively faulty. This doesn't have to be a question of competing metaphysics, or its objectification ("poetics"), it's just rhetoric: the language of and
The Waste Land and The Bridge is more "political" — i.e. more strident, stirring, closer to agitprop and soapbox speeches — than the language of Life Studies and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even if "the personal is the political," the persons involved have to speak to and convince each other: as Eliot puts it in Sweeney Agonistes, "I gotta use words when I talk to you."

For the trajectory of influence in
Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note is so clearly from O'Hara to Eliot, and not the other way around: that is, from personality to impersonality. And it is exactly personality, in O'Hara's sense, which is rejected by Jones as hegemonic, pedagogical, and totalizing ("all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand"). The mode of Eliot (and the example of Crane), on the other hand, offer him a different kind of expression.