Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thoughts Inspired by reading Anselm Berrigan’s “& What Does “Need” Mean? For the Parish Hall/ At St Mark’s Church”

Anselm Berrigan’s most recent book, Something for Everybody, concludes with a “Post-Crypt” called “What does ‘need’ mean?” written to be read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project the night after what Carla Harryman calls “the arrogance of the contemporary” reared its ugly head in the 2016 Presidential election. Against this backdrop, the St. Marks Poetry Project stands like a kind of fortress, or what today would be called a safe space. In the spirit of full-disclosure, I feel I must mention my love of, and nostalgia for, the presence of this venerable institution---from my first visit to see the late Lorri Jackson read for Richard Hell on my birthday in 1989 to my trans-continental flight there in 2005 for my last poetry reading in New York (a reading curated by Anselm by the way), and I’ve always associated Anselm with the spirit of what’s best about the Poetry Project: after all, he attended readings there as an infant.

That being said, this final piece is not merely a tribute to the Poetry Project, but asks such questions as: “Do you feel as if form has/ collapsed? If so, you can’t be a/ pigeon, alas, as I imagine….” Form, I suppose. could mean poetic form, but also the-life-we-took-for-granted form, to name but two. And somehow the spectacle of Berrigan, standing at the podium at St. Mark’s Church, on a night of collective trauma in which I’m sure much of the audience was reeling in a kind of desperation about what’s happening to, or by, America (and maybe tempted to take out their frustration by kicking a pigeon around) , and asking his audience for permission to imagine (“I can imagine, can’t I?”) seems to take on a mythic importance, as he reassures his audience “You do still/ get to say, even the day after election day, peace.”

He goes on to tease the reader with a distinction between “need” and “care,” but demurs to instead speak of privacy and listening. And listening to him, insofar as reading a book in privacy imagines listening at a public performance (and vice versa, like the black dot on the white side, on a flat representation of a globe) invites various sexy question-marks: Does one need privacy to be able to listen? Is listening care, and privacy need? Do I need to care or care to need, or why not both? And how does this relate to the question of form? I suspect that for Berrigan, this crisis of lost form may have something to do with the loss of privacy, or to put it positively, the privacy is what can give poetry form (for instance, Berrigan does not generally put his particular family or professional relationships into the poems in this book, although he will write collaborations withhis daughter)—but so can the listening (or the listening synergetically complements privacy by freeing us from form):

 “I need to be doing it, to practice/ listening, to get better at it and/ get at getting it better in the fucked/ up constellation that is your head/ becoming poetry, & to be encouraged/ by the mess… find out why in poems/ space is not an illusion” (97). Form is social, communal privacy; ethos is aesthetics, formal formlessness. Listening may be a way to protect one’s privacy, or at least to widen and occupy that ‘weekend void.’ It’s hard to tell if I’m drawn to lines that express the need to “let language get so disconnected/ from reality all you’re stuck with/ is definition as another emblem/ of fear---“ because of their wisdom or because of their phrasing. Can I say both?  There’s a healing permission to meet in fear, to let ourselves be strong enough to be proudly afraid, and not fear “fear itself” as if it can actually rescue us, so we may embrace the loss of form as potentially a new beginning….

I am well-acquainted with the fear of such letting go, not that it always prevented me from doing it, and I can also understand the clinging to conventions & definitions, but I like the way he doesn’t simply oppose conventions with the easy “outsider” alternative of the unbearable lightness of a “drunken boat” or “free radical,” but rather rhymes it with the word “companions” as if, indeed, conventions can get in the way of companions, or perhaps dance harmoniously together in a conversation during a smoke break at the Poetry Project in 1998 where “you wonder who’s going/ to challenge you to adapt,” and companions can create their own (overlapping) conventions……as if “from the bottom up” (like two pigeons taking off from a steamgrate?)….

If one can use the discourse of the sublime (purposeful purposelessness) in a non-pejorative way, in a world in which “being serious’s just one of many/ ordinary facts of commitment/ & not some dolled-up badge of complexity” (101), I doth could claim a smack of the high romantic subline (or non-western breath therapy, or eco-poetry) in “lives/ go where there’s no forms.”
Is it really that simple?

“Here, like anywhere that’s fought
however knowingly & unknowingly
for the right to be itself, on its own
terms, which only means letting
the folks who care enough to really
come through figure out how to
do that too, without much
interference, here has to be able to
freak out on itself out of loyalty
to itself, itself not being made
of any singular thingation.”

Does the poetry project become a form for formlessnesses? Or a formlessness for forms? Is it the “something for everybody” of the book’s title? Does describing something you love inevitably become a better self-description than if one were to immodestly list one’s virtues?
Anselm’s psycho-soul-scape of St. Mark’s as a sacred place adhering to certain conventions for the sake of companionship is not glamourized, but nevertheless glamourous as any moshpit utopian. How many poems has this place authored? Why do the poets who invoke the term polis often sound pretentious to me? (just coz I was almost going to say: The Poetry Project is a Polis!)

Yes, this can bring me back to those debates of the 90s in the shadows of those St. Marks’ spires (the doors were red, right?), as some of the 20/30 something “new breed” constantly being asked to “define ourselves” in relation to older poets’ divisions, lamented the fact that, in contrast to the older generation--say, the heroic generation of ’26ish who allegedly were more able to create a scene seemingly from the grassroots bottom up, or Ted & Alice’s days for whom the Poetry Project was a neighborhood nexus--in the 90s, hardly any of the younger poets could even afford to live in Manhattan (yet alone what developers were starting to call “the east village”). Some wondered (though sometimes I guess it’d be seen as arguing) about history: “why couldn’t we at least promulgate the myth of some kind of clean break with past ‘stuffiness’ (as Koch theatricalized in “Fresh Air” Koch)?” Perhaps because many of the so-called X (mostly white) generation poets I knew, met through the mediation of older companions and/or institutions like St. Mark’s or The Seque Space.  That whole youth “anxiety of influence” or “Michel’s iron-law of oligarchy” question---did the institution become as stuffy as what it rebelled against? And, if so, did it have a negative impact on our own development as writers and as a community? What is “poetic autonomy?”

Of course, we never got to the bottom of it. I tried to look to a broader common enemy---the property developers who were pushing us out, and then using us to push others out, etc…. I probably enjoyed much more standing near the back at poetry readings—near the book table---swaying my head, and even my hips (and often Meg Arthurs was nearby doing it so, and letting me feel like less of a freak) as I listened to poetry, always secretly (or maybe sometimes polemically) wishing there were more drums, and wanting to get home so I could read the book which of course I couldn’t really hear too well (for feeling-reasons similar to what Anselm talks about in this piece). And there were also nights that had more music; I even tried out the piano once or twice…

Anyway, reading Anselm’s piece makes me want to say to some of those “St. Marks haters” (and I won’t name names), it’s easy to blame an institution, or a convention, for not allowing you to do something you never asked for permission to do, and it’s too easy to take something for granted before realizing how many cities and small towns (where people can still walk to work or play) could benefit from something like the Poetry Project, (memories come back---the Newsletter often injected some serious fun into the poetry wars between L-A-N-G poetry, and New York School, for instance, and may have even played an important role in helping their ridiculous divisiveness to subside). I don’t know if it gave me a sense of “form,” but it gave me a sense of home that seemed more capacious than the niches of the poetry wars. What’s it like now? So many dead, but if Anselm is still fueled by it, I’m sure it’s great. Longing is weird…

In the above passage, I should underscore that the word “care” (which he had teased us with earlier) reappears, & now I’m really interested in how care and need relate to each other, for Anselm, &/or for me. But, instead of offering an essayistic conclusion to this question, he ends his talk, and his book, with a poem by his step-father Douglas Oliver that begins, “kindness acts idly or unnaturally, /leads you into fear. Act in kind.” And I wonder if need bound up with care can equal kindness, at least as a “beginner’s math” starting point to be put on trial…..but the idea feeling that kindness “leads you into fear” resonates deeply, and recalls his earlier line about “definition as an emblem of fear.” In any event, since part of the point of this lyrical essay was to make room for the need to listen, it’s only fitting that the book would leave us, with Anselm listening to (and passing on) Oliver’s words…(which means it’s time for me to stop trying to paraphrase, summarize, or analyze Berrigan’s words, so I can better listen….)

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