In 2001, in that small interim in time between the death of my father in late August and the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11th, my wife Roberta and I enjoyed a long conversation with Philip Lamantia at his apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach area. We talked a lot about Edgar Allan Poe. Philip and I were both fascinated by the dual phenomena of hypnopompic and hypnogogic consciousness, the twilight state of consciousness that occurs just before falling asleep and just as one is coming awake. Of the two, I’ve always had a strong preference for the later. For it is upon that emergence from unconsciousness that my mind is still easy and fluid and not yet caged in logic. Wonderful lines of poetry float through my mind, often strung together in a funny, pixilated syntax, marvelous and strange. I can never remember these wonderful lines, but am always trying to duplicate them, resorting to poetry to coax them into being. Not just any poetry, but the poetry of the weird and aberrant, the visionary and phantasmagoric, the kind of poetry Philip wrote, a work at once exotic and otherworldly and yet fiercely engaged with the world. Not flighty, but tough and marvelous.
The Poe essay Philip was eager to share with us is titled “Marginalia,” which first appeared in Graham’s Magazine, March, 1846. There are two paragraphs in particular that I would like to share with you:
How very commonly we hear it remarked, that such and such thoughts are beyond the compass of words! I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language. I fancy, rather, that where difficulty in expression is experienced, there is, in the intellect which experiences it, a want either of deliberateness or of method. For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it: as I have before observed, the thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.
There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquillity — when the bodily and mental health are in perfection — and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time — yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows;” and for absolute thought there is demanded time’s endurance.
This link to Edgar Allan Poe is significant for a variety of reasons, but I would put at the forefront the deep connection to France Poe enjoyed due to the zeal and translations of Charles Baudelaire. It is this self-same taste for the marvelous and strange, for perversity and eccentricities of all shape and color, that a few decades later would help feed the incandescent marvels and phantasmagoria that is French surrealism. And of all American poets, Philip Lamantia is certainly its most manifest example.
Lamantia’s connection with French surrealism began in the early 1940s at a Dali retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art when Philip was in his early teens. Lamantia describes his odyssey into surrealism in an interview with David Meltzer in San Francisco Beat (2001), in which he shares the following details:
I was turned on to Surrealism through a great Dali retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), followed by an equally marvelous exhibition of Miró. Within weeks I had read everything available on Surrealism that I could get from the public library. There wasn't much: David Gascoyne, the premier British Surrealist poet-whose Short Survey of Surrealism was superb-Julien Levy's Surrealism, Georges Lamaître's From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature(he was teaching at Stanford), and finally, the discovery of the luxurious New York Surrealist review, VVV-two issues edited by Breton and friends-which I found in the tiny but ample no-loan library at the museum. In almost no time I had a dozen poems ready for publication and sent some to View: A Magazine of the Arts, which was edited, in New York, by the only important American poet who was plausibly Surrealist, Charles Henri Ford. In Spring 1943 my poems were featured on one of View's large-format pages. On the cover was a photograph by Man Ray . . . It was just after this that I discovered VVV's whereabouts and sent other poems there to André Breton. He wrote, accepting three poems and requesting a letter from me "clarifying" my relation to Surrealism. Acceptance by the man I fervently believed the most important poet and mind of the century led to my decision to quit school and take off for New York. I arrived in April 1944 in Manhattan . . . (135)
Poetry for Philip was far more than artistry. It was alchemical. It was spiritual. It provided what André Breton termed “communicating vessels,” a means to transmute the leaden, soul-suffocating repressions and routines of everyday life into the thrill of the marvelous, the soul-fulfilling wine of the sublime.
In science, communicating vessels refers to a set of vessels of varying shape and size in which a homogeneous fluid will balance out to the same level. In André Breton’s application, communicating vessels refers to the correspondence between our walking life and the realm of dreams. Breton’s view was heavily influenced by Freud. He believed that the desires that are unable to be acted upon or fulfilled during our waking life may be enacted and satisfied in our dreams. I rarely remember my dreams, nor do I take much interest in them, but I very much like the general metaphor of two polarities connected by a transporting medium. According to this view, our waking life, which I take to be associated with humdrum necessity and the tedium of labor (albeit I find this to be a very narrow outlook), is visited by the shadows and chimeras of our unconscious and excite our minds to boundless wandering, what Breton called the “undirected play of thought.” It’s the side of our natures that keep us from becoming automatons, zombies going through all the motions of life without actually living. It’s the combination of dream and reality that results in a heightened awareness which Breton called “surreality.”
Philip remarks later in his interview with David Meltzer that “Poetry is the mean term between the physical basis for imagery and the metaphysical realm of being. This is what connects the affective to the cerebral, the heart to the sensual, and the mental vehicles of reception to the visible and invisible realms of being.”
What drew the three of us so powerfully to the eloquence of Poe’s essay in Philip’s North Beach apartment that summer afternoon in 2001 was Poe’s description of an intermediary state between the poles of conscious and unconscious life, a state in which poetry would emerge with the naturalness of breathing. Problems arise, however, when we attempt to employ a medium that is based almost entirely on rules, on a mutually recognized system that - while not always completely logical - is not unlike the cogs and gears of a machine. Paint is gooey and smears; dance is physical, the play of our bodies in gravity and space; music is unbound by reference to the real world; theatre is masks and illusion; sculpture is rock and clay in three dimensional form, but still and lifeless. Poetry is a panther pacing back and forth in a cage.
“Isn’t this what all poets have aspired to,” Philip remarked in his interview with David Meltzer, “seemingly failing in the attempt but finally achieving a miracle in words.”
Indeed. Listen to it. Immerse your ears in it. Immerse your eyes in it. Bathe your neurons in it. Feel your blood warm with its pulse. Winter birches sway in invisible agitations of air. Words quicken into colloidal living substance. Ink sags with the imagery of passage. Vermilion camaraderies unfold fists of sandstone abstraction. The mind secures a place in heaven. And down it rains in sparkling subtleties of primal warmth.
Remember geometry class? Remember carrying a sharp metal object called a compass? If not, there’s a marvelous painting of one by William Blake called “The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth,” rendered in 1794. God is hunched over, long blonde hair and beard blowing to the side, leaning out of the sun holding a compass with a huge, muscular arm. The arm, which parallels his massive, powerful leg, guides the compass with ferocious firmness and precision. The meaning of the painting is blunt: science controls. Technology holds existence in balance. Watch out that it doesn’t get too disproportionately ascendant.
The twilight states between sleeping and waking, or descending into sleep from a state of wakefulness, will have a peculiar effect on the instruments of geometry and science. Imagine Dali’s melting watches, or the jubilant chaos that is Max Ernst’s “L’Ange du Foyer,” (“The Angel of the Home”) and you’ll have an approximation of the enlightening distortions and odd lucidities of unbridled reverie.
Poe was confident that language could be reconfigured and formulated to accommodate these chimeras, that its inherent malleability and charms were sufficient to induce a trance-like frame of mind in which marvels and oddities could be brought to life, envisioned, embodied, ushered onto a sheet of paper. “Now, so entire is my faith in the power of words,” he proclaims, “that, at times, I have believed it possible to embody even the evanescence of fancies such as I have attempted to describe.”
I agree. But first it’s necessary to come to terms with the mechanisms that make language work.
Language is bound by rules. Break the rules, and you cease to make sense. Sense, that is, in the conventional sense. It’s in the nature of the mind to find meaning whenever and wherever it can. A lack of conventionality can excite a remarkable inventiveness, provided that one’s sensibilities are in any way receptive to new experience.
When grammar is torqued and twisted, the words assume a character that is both strange and palpable. Palpable because they’ve ceased being the conveyors of information and occupying a utilitarian function that is virtually invisible and transparent. They’ve become something else: they’ve become objects, startling and strange. What the Russians call ostrenenie: defamiliarization, the artistic technique of presenting common, everyday things in a way that makes them unfamiliar or strange, thereby enhancing the perception of the familiar.
How cool is that?
Earlier in his essay, Poe remarked quite optimistically that “I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language.”
For those of us who might be a little wary to resort to drugs or enter a hypnotic state each time we felt the urge to write, this is good news.
That said, I don’t mean to dismiss drugs altogether. I have memories. I’ve heard stories. I’ve read books. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays, Henri Michaux’s The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and Some Minor Ones.” Drugs are, in their own way, illuminating. When drugs meet language, the result can be as energizing as the Beatles or Little Richard playing rock ‘n roll in Hamburg’s red light district circa 1962. Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom! There’s nothing like a Benzedrine buzz to thwack thwack thwack clickety click click click begin slapping words down in a state of exhilarated immediacy so that life and writing fuse into a bubbling mass of bop spontaneity. Normal syntax, the glue of the ordinary, the mortar of stiff collared Atlantic Monthly rhetoric, the stuff that makes sense, the syntax of ordinary mass and transparent point-making prose, starts doing back-flips and handstands and explodes into protoplasmic bliss. This is language with a pulse.
But that’s Benzedrine. What Poe is talking about bears a much stronger resemblance to opium. I’ve never had opium, just the occasional prescription for codeine or Vicodin, so I can’t speak with any real authority on how these medications influence writing. I know that these pharmaceuticals make me a lot more relaxed and patient and forgiving toward people and the thousand accidents and fucked-upedness of life as it is being lived and shins bumped against the coffee table and parking tickets discovered under the windshield wiper and rude bookstore employees and assholes walking unleashed dogs make you feel small and anxious. Those negative thoughts and feelings might still be there but you’re nicely distanced from them, looking down from a hot air balloon, making observations of cool indifference from an ivory throne of the mind. The mind as it is buoyed by codeine. The mind as it is softly lifted into the heavens by Sister Morphine.
And then there’s booze; booze worked pretty well for Charles Bukowski. Kerouac combined booze with benzies and the result was On the Road. Rollicking, vivid, incandescent prose. The kind of writing that makes you fall in love with words and go crazy with a wild lust to experience the world.
Booze never really worked for me. A couple of beers, a shot of whiskey and a mug of Guinness would have me feeling pretty good for maybe an hour, at most, but I rarely, if ever, felt the inclination to write, and it was never very long before I was shitfaced drunk and slurring my words much less writing anything I would want to claim as my own. The opioids don’t compromise the intellect as devastatingly as alcohol. Not for me, anyway. Reaction to drugs of any kind tends to vary wildly. Me, I’m an opiate guy. Never liked cocaine much. Loved amphetamines, but coming down was excruciating, worse than a hangover from an alcoholic binge.
As for the more exotic drugs, psychedelics and such, I would enter that realm with extreme caution. It has been many decades since I entered the portals of space and time through those doors, but I can state unequivocally that they’re not things to trifle with. I haven’t been tempted to try again. My relationship with reality isn’t what it used to be. Reality itself isn’t what it used to be.
This is what makes Poe’s confidence in language so endearing to those of us who crave a heightened awareness or more buoyant mood. Just the immersion in words alone is a journey of disembodied poetics, a wild ride through that vertiginous zone we call infinite possibility. I feel like one of those Wild West medicine show guys when I start preaching like this, but you really don’t need codeine or opium or even pot to write the kind of language that stirs and rustles in Lethean enchantment. You just need to figure out a way to do it. Because if you’re in an ordinary state of mind that in any way resembles my ordinary state of mind, you’re fucked. Most of the time I’m in a shitty mood. Angst, mortality, climate change, mass extinction, benign prostatic hyperplasia, envies, jealousies, betrayals, rejections, racism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, a teetering economy and a flatulent fascistic oligarchy are as common to my daily existence as Wisconsin is to cheese or sewage from a poorly maintained septic tank. I call on the ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to help me out with this.
I don’t know how they did what they did but I’m pretty sure Emily Dickinson didn’t go out back and smoke a doobie before returning to the kitchen or linen closet to finish her domestic chores. And yet she wrote marvelously, turned language into a distillery for metaphysical insights and a general euphoric buzz.
So then, what is it? What technique do you employ to get the words out there blinking like Christmas tree lights?
I use a number of tricks, including Burrough’s cut-up technique, Tristan Tzara’s cutting out words and putting them in a bag and taking them out one by one, Joycean stream of consciousness, Kerouac’s bop spontaneity, or just sitting down and writing, just doing it, just putting pen to paper, fingers on a keyboard, and begin, word after word, until a sequence forms, any sequence, it doesn’t have to make sense, in fact it’s just the opposite, I don’t especially want it to make sense, I want it to make mayhem, I want chaos, I want a storm, I want to stand high on a cliff like Prospero and make the seas toss. Do that, and consciousness will follow. What consciousness I cannot say, but consciousness, awareness, an altered perception, call it what you want.