Dove sta memoria
Robin reached a point in the poem that I remember as “the voice of the 26 letters thunders in the alphabet and the diaphanous heart is at the door” – and wham! both doors burst open, and the wind or winds die down, and that’s it. The curtains stop swaying, the wind’s all done with. Then the end of the poem. Then the bluebird song, played twice, and the end of the night.
After all that I walked on stage and in the audience buzz of the aftermath told Robin what happened, and he had no idea. “Both doors?” he asked me. “Well, that would be Robert and Jack!! Oh, how I love to conjure spirits when I read.”
— Steve Dickison, “Visitation by Divination: A Ghost Story”
The above epigraph is drawn from a piece that readily demonstrates San Francisco State Poetry Center Director and poet Steve Dickison’s reverence for poet Robin Blaser’s profoundly recognizant awareness of his role in the three-way of poetry which proved central to Blaser’s own life. It is a reverence I deeply share.
Blaser’s presence in American Poetry often gets overlooked amongst his contemporaries of the divergent “schools” popularly celebrated in Don Allen’s now widely-recognized-as-seminal anthology New American Poetry: 1945-60. Like so many others, his work straddles the arbitrary divisions Allen sets up in his Introduction. Working as a librarian at San Francisco State, Blaser was a key member of the inner circle within the San Francisco Renaissance. Although much of this “school” is usually eclipsed by the inclusion of the San Francisco Beats, with the starring event being Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1955 reading of Howl, it was in fact predated and manifestly informed by the earlier Berkeley Renaissance in the late 1940s during Blaser’s student years alongside the likes of poets Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and William Everson under the semi-led direction of the unofficial grand impresario of the Bay Area poetry scene Kenneth Rexroth.
Despite Blaser’s strong ties to San Francisco he also formed deeply lasting connections with the work of poet Charles Olson, the arch-patriarch of the poetics associated with Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In addition, Blaser spent significant time in Boston during the 1950s, a period of fertile development in what has sometimes been referred to as the Boston Occult School of Poetry. Other poets sharing similar crossover between San Francisco, Black Mountain, and Boston at the same time include Joe Dunn, John Wieners and Jack Spicer. In Boston, the poet with whom they formed a lasting nexus was Stephen Jonas. This 1950s era Boston gathering, again with deep ties to Olson who was for significant stretches of time living in nearby Gloucester, has proved endlessly influential upon the work of poets such as Gerrit Lansing, Joseph Torra, and Ammiel Alcalay.
After Boston, Blaser returned to San Francisco and later permanently decamped northward to Vancouver in the 1960s taking up a teaching position at Simon Fraser University. However, his place as an American poet is forever sealed by his early experiences in the milieu of these various poetry scenes, particularly in Berkeley and San Francisco where the friendship he shared with Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan is an integral aspect of his lifelong commitment to poetry as an Order of Craft where one’s life is one with one’s art. Blaser’s steadfast loyalty to his poet-friends and the practice of poetry shared between them couldn’t provide starker contrast to today’s ever burgeoning dependence upon digital social frameworks for clear instruction of who’s in and who’s out. As poet Steven Manuel, editor of from a Compos’t , recently kvetched in an email to me regarding one of the latest bits of poetry world small-time controversies: “The elitist fame-whores vs. the moralizing institution-concerned petitioners. People spend their time doing this instead of reading Plotinus and Robin Blaser.” I can’t help but feel similarly entrenched alongside Manuel against these abysmal dustups, amazed by the apparently heedless embrace of so many with the muck of our present time, caught up by the latest spiel scrolling down their screens.
Blaser has been on own my mind of late while I’ve been busily gathering together disparate pieces of my critical writing from the last few years into a manuscript about Robert Duncan, a manuscript I have entitled The Duncan Era: One Poet’s Cosmology. This title is equally fitting for each poet of the triumvirate crew forming the actual heart of the San Francisco Renaissance: Blaser, Spicer, and Duncan. Three poetiqueers whose mythic association brought such envious yearning into my youthful ideas of the Orders of Imagination, The Poet, and Poetry that I have willingly wagered my own personal relationships on a scale against the example thereby set.
One shouldn’t live by one’s reading. It is dangerous business to do so, as I have repeatedly learned. Yet nevertheless I pay little heed. For years measuring my own loves, be they personal, poetic, familiar or distant, on a vast stage whereon played out all the loves I admired from the literary works I turned to in my reading, enchanted. In the same spirit, I have always assumed everybody else of interest likewise reads and lives in similar manner. That quite naturally at some future point in time there would be this supernal company I’d find myself amongst as a fellow member, we all equally understandingly appreciating where each one of us stood. Just like it was with Blaser, Duncan, and Spicer …isn’t that how it was for them? …isn’t that how poetry works? Turns out, no, it’s not. Not with any purity anyway. This world doesn’t recognize any such thing. Nonetheless, I’ve found a slightly naïve belief in such grand company has been more than enough to carry me through a number of years of self-willed apprenticeship.
Duncan at this point remains the principal abiding concern of my manuscript. I do, however, open with an extensive consideration of Spicer via two recent critical publications concerning his work. Although Blaser as of now is left silently in the wings, I could not be more aware of his influence impacting every opinion I offer on both Duncan and Spicer. In any conversation concerning this triumvirate of poets, Blaser should never be forgotten. His work exudes a controlled nuance of effectual displayed poetics placing him between the multi-variable groups within which praise for Duncan and Spicer has found predominant voice. It is delightfully nothing but a pleasure to see that The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends, edited by Miriam Nichols, is slated for publication by the University of Alabama Press in the fall of 2015. These tapes offer a thorough immersion into the complex idiosyncratic personal nature of poetics practice.
For any practicing poet, there’s much to learn from the Blaser-Duncan-Spicer friendship. I know from the case of my own writings how inextricably enmeshed the many hours of conversation with innumerable friends and associates form the primary nexus to which I hold myself accountable. My participation in this rich conversation began in the fall of 1998 when I enrolled in the Poetics Program at the now defunct New College of California in San Francisco. It has never been lost on me that the Poetics program was in many ways originally established to give Duncan a place to teach. In my experience, his Spirit never left the program. My ongoing work, of which this book manuscript is of course a central part, is in a large way a tribute to the subsequent abundant years of generous walks drinks & talks which all began there.
Dickison notes in the closing of his Blaser remembrance, “I keep misreading / misremembering that line of Robert Duncan’s as ‘an eternal conversation folded in all thought’ – that ‘pasture’ that is ‘a meadow’ and ‘the field.’” How remarkable a notation, for it is only within “conversation” alone that the work of Place is found wherein each poet arrives in a manner which uniquely suits the work itself. All of my writing is my own effort to join in celebrating such characteristic engagement between one’s life and art. I also hope to perhaps introduce other poets and readers to the abiding importance of what I’ve found in my own reading. Above all, I heartily encourage that one’s writing be one with one’s reading, as too one’s living, each to each, spurring the other on. I am ever intent on providing example of my strident faith in such practice. I don’t believe there’s any other path towards poetry.