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Kevin Killian

The Carola Letters
of Joanne Kyger and George Stanley

 
 


IN OUR BIOGRAPHY of Jack Spicer, Lewis Ellingham and I quoted without comment from Russell FitzGerald's valuable diary his entry (January 22, 1959) written after visiting Robert Duncan's last class at the San Francisco Public Library. The session "ended in explosions," FitzGerald wrote. "Joanne [Kyger] & George [Stanley] read the Carola letters and were interrupted when Jack handed Duncan the crucial page (unread) and Duncan moved a match toward it. George rescued it and refused to allow insult to halt the reading and proceeded to finish the all but crucial page. Later long discussions by Joanne & Jack & Duncan of magic forces. Jack remains puzzled at George's satisfaction. Duncan confesses his reaction was fear. The new force intended to free those who have been nursed by the Magi made a clear appearance." Lew and I didn't really make the most of this - indeed, pretty much ignored it altogether, but further research among the Joanne Kyger papers at UCSD's Archive for New Poetry has turned up some of the Carola Letters, and it's easier now to judge the shock of their appearance. I'm hoping that someday Kyger and Stanley release the letters as a whole, for if FitzGerald overstates their novelty, they form an important intervention into the Spicer/Duncan project, and mark an interesting beginning to Joanne Kyger's poetic career.

What appalled Robert Duncan so much that he acted to burn the "crucial" letter? And in what sense were the Carola Letters intended to free those "nursed by the Magi" - whom I identify as Spicer and Duncan, the learned Wise Men who had university educations? Nothing makes a poet feel more grizzled than the fun of the young, their sex adventures, their drug kicks, their in-group camaraderie. Stanley and Kyger, with the supreme flipness of youth, flaunt all of these in the Carola Letters and more, they throw into the mix the flammable quotient of camp: "When you question me thus, I feel like wrapping myself around a semi-colon." Written on postcards filched from Brentano's bookstore, where Kyger worked for a time in 1958, the collaboration is an extended conversation between two sophisticated Noel Coward types (they might as well be called "Amanda" and "Elyot," as in Private Lives) meeting by chance in Rome of all places and speculating on the whereabouts of a third party, the mysterious "Carola." "She is not one to divulge secrets . . . She is always too busy putting out the fire in her hair or building stange constructions from macaroni." Carola's a will-o'-the wisp about whom anything might be said or construed, a marvelous cipher, only a nominal subject, for the interest of the piece lies in the debate between the two speakers, in their wit, candor, and pathos.

 
 

In this shrinking from, disappearance of the subject, the Carola Letters derive from recognizable antecedents - Ronald Firbank, Jane Bowles, Carl Van Vechten, Ivy Compton-Burnett, James Purdy - largely gay and lesbian artists for whom surface and identity construction were grave and thrilling challenges. Behind them, the entire Surrealist movement. There's a bit of Lewis Carroll and a little Mad Magazine. In that these letters were read aloud as a final assignment - in poetry, no less, a class devoted to "Basic Techniques in Poetry," with a heavy concentration on prosody - the affront to Duncan's authority becomes clearer. If the Carola Letters are poetry, then what isn't poetry? There's a dig at Duncan's concerns in letter 5: Carola, the exotic Italianate name, proves to be the humble American Carol with an added "'a' on the end for vowel strength."

Up to this point, Duncan's camp was largely limited to Names of People and Stein Imitations, wonderful works which aren't terribly funny - they're studied; Duncan's wit, brilliance, erudition and good humor were those, I think, of the ironist. And what of Jack Spicer? Though he was the author of The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming, Spicer was never especially comfortable with camp, and the Kyger-Stanley Carola Letters exhibit exactly the "tea-party first-name business" Spicer decried some years later, when he accused the magazine Open Space of being a "Turkish Bath of the imagination." Though Spicer was highly cognizant of his own propensity to gather intimacy around himself - what Frank O'Hara, around this time, was calling "Personism" - he struck out, perhaps defensively, against all other manifestations of the "in-group mentality."[note 1]

The Letters, as we have them today, end with a final note from Carola herself: "dear childrun: I have gone away to never-never land with peter pan to have a baby because I think it is best for all of us. I shall bring the baby back Monday. And you can all see the baby. And that baby will grow up and have dear sweet babies. And everything will be pure and good. Russell, FIFTY?" This last is a puzzling allusion to Russell FitzGerald's sensational confession, in his private diary, that he had "sucked fifty cocks since Easter." Kyger adds: "Gaggle." Naturally this makes me now wonder if this confession was private, related only to the diary, or a common plaint, or if the Diary of Russell FitzGerald was actually more or less a public document. In any case, "Russell, FIFTY" breaks the fragile shell of the "Carola" narrative to reveal its instability as a poetic form. If the "Carola" material is about anything, it's about how to be young and excited and cool and capable of great awe.

Strange how the actions Russell ascribes to Duncan and Spicer - the way they team up to try to burn the Carola Letters - have become a familiar trope to students of the San Francisco Renaissance. There's another legend that David Meltzer, standing in a living room reading off an endless scroll composed of taped-together sheets of manuscript a la the MS of On the Road, suffered the ultimate indignity when Duncan and Spicer crept up on the carpet and set fire to one end of his masterpiece. This legend has been disputed, but still holds sway anecdotally - why? I wonder if Duncan and Spicer ever conspire to burn the writing of any younger poet, or is this a screen for deeper-seated anxieties? If so, it has the tremendous credibility of the urban legend - people want to believe it. The lit match, the burning paper, express so vividly the poet's fear of being squelched, silenced, ignored, dismissed; taking the shoe to the other foot, we've all suffered through poetry readings where we wished someone's manuscript would burst into flames. Do Duncan and Spicer stand in for one's mother and father, the castrating parents? But Duncan and Spicer weren't middle-aged. They were young themselves. Oh but they must have felt deeply middle-aged in the company of these students, Kyger, Stanley, FitzGerald, Ebbe Borregaard, Joe Dunn, John Wieners, James Alexander, some of them teenagers, none over twenty-five.

In the context of the future careers of Kyger and Stanley, the Carola Letters seem like an aberration. The work of both poets, though often warmly human and emotional, would in future avoid the brittle, camp humor exhibit - an old form outgrown, or abandoned once the "real work" of poetry fell upon them like mantillas of sorrow. Even at the time, the Carola Letters stood outside their normal modes of writing - George Stanley was already the author of the magnificent, often somber Flowers, and Kyger was embarking on the epic drama that became The Tapestry and the Web. Robert Duncan's contemporary memoir As Testimony, his reflections of teaching "Basic Techniques in Poetry," fails to mention the Carola Letters at all. Both Kyger and Stanley became teachers themselves, of exceptional repute, with cadres of devoted students - Kyger at the Naropa Institute, Stanley in Terrace (B.C.). I don't know if either ever set fire to any student manuscripts; I don't know if either have had any students quite as prank-minded, irritating, gifted or independent as they.

 
 

1. George Stanley, December 17, 1958.

"Carola! Is she in Rome?"

"Didn't you know?"

"I've just this minute arrived from Sicily and you are the first person I have seen. I've no desire to see her."

"I thought she was looking extremely pretty - "

"You're not hard to please."

"I mean, prettier than she did in Paris."

"Exoticism, no doubt - but if you're feeling randy . . ."

2. Joanne Kyger, December 31, 1958.

"Yes it is true she has gone, down-castly, stomach stuck out uttering, 'Reason my dear is the spice of life.' We haven't seen her since, but then one never knows . . ."

"She is not one to divulge secrets you remember, Carola, I mean. She is always too busy putting out the fire in her hair or building strange constructions from macaroni."

"Yak-yak."

"Stark drunk again. Really! Alfredo you must learn how to control those lusts of the body."

"Ah well it is only that the world depresses me."

3. Joanne Kyger, December 31, 1958.

"The world. How strange your philosophical desires?"

"No, no. When you question me thus, I feel like wrapping myself around a semi-colon."

"Your utterances are so - Tell me, what of the Wednesday that occurs after next."

"Completely untrustworthy I have heard. Carola took one look at him, turned up her nose, and said 'That's no poet worth seducing.' I must admit, however, that he has one of the most enchanting sequence of DNES I've seen since that charming Tuesday we saw on the Venice Canals a year ago."

"I prefer cognac myself."

"Every Boor to his pig."

4. George Stanley, January 3, 1959 (written across a conventional birth announcement card with "It's a Girl!" written in excited typeface across its face).

"Carola split the scene!"

"No!"

"Bag, baggage, and Michael!"

"I'll see you in Cap d'Antibes then."

"Yes. Under the clock."

Poor

Girl

She'll

Never

Learn

Not To

Throw Good Money

After Bad Love

5. Joanne Kyger, January 7, 1959.

"Carol, like Christmas Carol, you say?"

"Yes, but you add the 'a' on the end for vowel strength,"

"Foul strength?"

"SHUTup."

"But I have been waiting under this clock so long and no babies have come. Only James Kielty."

"There is no new way to look at anything, everyone looks like James Kielty."

"You've been eating too many bagels and not paying enough attention to the long swoop of the heron's neck yak-yak."

"Do you ever LISTEN to what you say?"

"I wouldn't marry you if you asked me."

"Just as I thought, - It's four:fifteen."

"25."

6. Joanne Kyger, January 9, 1959.

dear childrun: I have gone away to never-never land with peter pan to have a baby because I think it is best for all of us. I shall bring the baby back Monday. And you can all see the baby. And that baby will grow up and have dear sweet babies. And everything will be pure and good. Russell, FIFTY?

gaggle.



[note 1] I sometimes think that collaboration itself is an act of camp - the radical instablility of intention never becomes more apparent than when more than one writer works on a text. "Sincerity" and "authenticity," the touchstones of straight writing, disappear like - like figs down a well. Seen in this light, the camp quotient in Duncan and Spicer reaches its apogee in their early "Canto for Ezra Pound" (written with Josephine Fredman and Hugh O'Neill and still, at this date, and remarkably, unpublished).

 

 


 
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