I find it interesting that we need permission for certain things. We all carry within us a set of borders, a sense of boundaries, limits of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and a frontier, a terra incognita. The borders are for decorum, for social acceptance. The frontier - the wilderness, the open sea, the uncharted and unnamed - is for exploration, for artistic endeavor, for crossing our internal, cognitive borders and arriving in the open, in a mental domain where knowledge and reason are less empirical, less certain, less established and the aperture of our consciousness dilates to allow more exotic feelings and perceptions to illumine our nerves and open our eyes and ears. For me, that wilderness, that realm of the exotic, has always been poetry.
My first attempts to write poetry were hesitant and timid, tethered to a solid body of fixed ideas concerning the world, encompassing the parameters of reality, and adhering to what institutionally was considered admirable and good. This pertained especially to poetry. Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost were the literary giants on American shores at the time, the early 60s. But they didn’t interest me much. Their poetry was full of saws and precepts and the imagery was tame and rural, all about goats and apples and building stone walls and accruing wisdom. I did not want to accrue wisdom. I wanted a passport for places unknown. I wanted permission to leave the walls of the city and enter the forest of words with nothing but a song and a sandwich.
That permission came from Bob Dylan. He was primordial. He was my first exposure to the kind of wild imagery and weird associations that inspired my deep interest in writing to begin with. Bob Dylan, however, was a rock star. The medium of rock and the medium of the written word, be it poetry or prose, were two separate worlds. Separate, but not far apart. Evidence that the two worlds had conjoined, at least for a brief time, was found in Larry Keenan’s series of photographs of Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg and Robbie Robertson standing in front of the legendary City Lights bookstore. This fusion of pop music and poetry testified to a time when the audience for both - for the world of rock and the world of poetry - was far more literate than it is today. In the early days of Greenwich Village, the musicians were brought on stage to clear the room for the poets. It was the poets who were the real draw.
It would be a few years after I’d begun writing before I discovered Larry Keenan’s photographs. In the meantime, at about age 18, when I boarded a train for the University of North Dakota in the winter of 1966, poetry was a feeling for which I had not yet found the words.
Like most discoveries, my progress was slow. I didn’t know where to begin. Where would I find a correlative to Bob Dylan’s wild lyrics in books? I didn’t play a guitar. I didn’t play the drums. I had no musical talent whatever. I knew from a very early age (I began my first novel at age nine) that I wanted to be a writer. Deep down, I also knew what kind of writing appealed to me. I sensed a capacity in language for endless invention, for creating worlds of extraordinary dimension whose flora and fauna did not correlate with the so-called real world. There was great freedom there, great exhilaration. But I needed sanction. I needed permission. I had permission to visit these places, but if I brought back treasures, would the world recognize their value? Did that matter? Yes, absolutely. Recognition was as vital to me then as it is now.
Gertrude Stein simplified matters greatly when she said “I write for myself and strangers.” But I seemed to crave the kind of sanction that Miss Stein gleefully dismissed. Perhaps because I was young. Perhaps because I had hopes that my writing might earn an income. Whatever impediments, primarily social, inhibited my progress as an artist, craved the blessing of an established author. They didn’t need to be a stadium-filling name like T.S. Eliot. They didn’t need to be a white-haired dignitary reading their poetry at a presidential inauguration à la Robert Frost. They just needed to have one or two books out. Words in print. A spine and a title.
I envy poets who write purely for the joy of writing and for whom publication and recognition are of no importance. Bill Knotts, for instance, has stated (wisely, I think) that anyone looking for fame in poetry is crazy. It’s a waste of time, and not at all what poetry is all about.
Fame, recognition, acceptance, are all chimeras. They don’t exist. Poetry is entirely subjective. Language is universal. Poetry is universal. But everyone needs language. No one can function without language. Poetry, which is language on steroids, is utterly unnecessary. Who can say what the true value of any particular poem happens to be? If language is a living body, then poetry is the virus inhabiting that body and driving a fever that results in parables and ghosts.
Which means that the permission I was seeking was the permission to not require permission.
In the summer of 1966, I hit pay dirt. A friend took me to visit a professor at San José City College at his home. I’d taken one of his classes the previous spring, a composition course which he’d kicked off by playing Bob Dylan’s “Hey Tambourine Man” and the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby.” He was a graduate of Harvard and his knowledge of literature was extensive and global. He was the man to ask. I expressed my frustration at not being able to find poetry written in the manner of Dylan’s songs. Ginsberg’s “Howl” was as close as I’d come, and as much as I loved “Howl,” it remained heavily rooted in empirical reality. The imagery was sometimes wild, but referred to the recognizable squalor and ugly beauty of planet earth, its terrors and ecstasies, its dreary unemployment offices and hotel rooms full of steamheat and opium, people desperate and passionate and raw who enacted “suicidal dramas on the cliffbanks of the Hudson,” flashed “buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,” rocked “cunt and come eluding the last gyzm of consciousness,” “danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic 1930’s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the dirty toilet,” “or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of reality.” The poem is earthy, at times rapturous amid the madness and squalor, and unflinchingly honest, full of the wreckage and recreant agitations of an alienated world. There is a boundless exhilaration to its splenetic, exquisitely detailed representation of the bleakness of modern urban life. It came close to what I was looking for, but was not quite it. What I was looking for was an even greater intensity, a language so hot and molten it flamed new worlds into existence, bizarre hybrids of syllable and skin, clairvoyance and chrome.
My literary satori was a boat, not a taxicab. My professor friend handed me a heavy Norton anthology of world poetry with the book open at Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre,” “The Drunken Boat.” This was it: the answer to my question. Here was a poem that had it all: passion, ecstasy, wild phantasmagoric imagery, attitude, scorn, delirium.
The poem begins on a violent note: the haulers of barges, men who labored hard to pull barges of coal and lumber up and down the rivers, are tied to poles by North American Indians and shot full of arrows. What Europe knew of the Native Americans in 1871 was the stereotype of savages utterly misconceived and presented on TV in the 50s and 60s. Rimbaud uses this violence as a symbol for ruptured daily reality. After the haulers are savagely murdered, the narrator, who is aboard the barge freighted with Flemish wheat and English cotton (a symbol for European industrialism), is abruptly set loose from the asphyxiating workaday world in which people are numbed by fatigue and boredom and set adrift on the open sea, where the poet is awakened by tempest. “Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves / That one calls eternal rollers of victims / Ten nights, without regretting the stupid eye of the lanterns!”
The quotidian becomes delirium. Delirium frees the poet of the restraints of logic and permits excesses of all variety, a taste of the ineffable, experiences that cannot be tagged or named or catalogued. Language, which is a naming machine, is disrupted and goes haywire. The imagery becomes gloriously chaotic:
Plus douce qu’aux enfants la chair des pommes sures,
L’eau verte pénétra ma coque de sapin
Et des taches de vins bleus et des vomissures
Me lava, dispersant gourvernail et grappin.
Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
De la Mer, infuse d’astres, et lactescent,
Dévorant les azurs verts; où, flottaison blême
Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend;
Où, teignant tout à coup les bleuités, délires
Et rhythmes lents sous les rutilements du jour,
Plus fortes que l’alcool, plus vastes que nos lyres,
Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l’amour!
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Sweeter than the bitter flesh of apples to children,
The green water penetrated my hull of pine
And blue wine stains and vomitings
Washed over me, dispersing rudder and grappling hook.
And from then on, I was bathed in The Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars, and lactescent,
All-consuming greenish azures; where, pale with buoyancy
And enraptured, a pensive drowned man descends;
Where, staining all at once the bluishnesses, delirous
And slowly rhythmic under the resplendence of the day,
Stronger than alcohol, more vast than our lyres,
Ferment the bitter freckles of love!
The power of “The Drunken Boat” carried me further out to sea. It gave me permission to write as crazily, as nuttily, as eccentrically as I wanted. There was a precedent. I had license. I had my papers. I was now a first class seaman.
Of course, no one really requires permission to write however and whatever they want. A poem, irresponsibly set loose on the world, is not going to injure anyone. But deep down, admit it or not, we all want recognition. We all want validation. And if “The Drunken Boat” had found its way into a Norton anthology, than there was the possibility of acceptance among the institutions that conferred degrees and awards and respect.
When Rimbaud first read his poem publically at a little café on La Rue Férou, near Saint Sulpice, he set literary Paris on fire. He rose meteorically among the ranks of serious writers and, still an adolescent, acquired legendary status as a rebellious, swashbuckling delinquent. And, still in his early twenties, disillusioned by the corruptions and vanities of the literary world, he would stop writing altogether and find himself working for an import/export company in Ethiopia and Yemen. He experimented with photography briefly, but for the most part, wrote letters home complaining about the miserable conditions he had to endure, and requesting books on metallurgy and candle-making and mining. Still intellectually restless, he craved books, so long as there was nothing remotely literary about them. And he craved acceptance by the world, by the standards, such as they existed, in nineteenth century Europe. Ironically, that would not happen. His fame would rest entirely on his success as a flamboyant, outlaw poet. He would become an icon for artists such as Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, and Jim Morrison.
All one hundred lines of his poem “Le Bateau ivre” now encompass the entire wall on La rue Férou. I would pass it on my way to go running in Le Jardin du Luxembourg, “Le bateau ivre” towering over me in the Paris morning air like a continuing sanction, a final permission to live as fully as possible.