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Linda Russo

Introduction: a context for reading Joanne Kyger

 
 


          what I wanted to say
               was in the broad
          sweeping
          form of being there

                               - Joanne Kyger, Joanne

"It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are 'members one of another'."
                               - Denise Levertov

 

 

IN THE WORK of Joanne Kyger the fact of presence plays out not in subjective seeing and saying - not as reportage, or confession - but as being and saying. The self is phenomenal and therefore as likely to be seen as to see; seeing the self is not an act of introspection only, but of an arraying. The self is among, always in relation, and in Joanne Kyger's case, in a "broad / sweeping form" of relations - in "being there." For over 40 years she has, in various and particular ways, engaged with her circumstances, a fact to which the essays collected in this feature attest. The results of her way of being and saying, though constantly brought into print with one or another of the small presses in the tradition of the New American Poetry, have escaped the critical eye - and in that Joanne Kyger is at once very similar to women writers of her generation, and very different from them.

 

 

Joanne Kyger, from the cover of "All This Every Day" The form "of being there" that readers of the now-called "Beat Generation" encounter differs vastly from what it was to be there. And "being there" - as a body in those spaces and amongst those signature productions textual, social and psychological - once one is there, is easy; but being able to say "what [one] wanted to say," and being heard, is another thing altogether. Joanne Kyger, unlike many women of her generation who wrote, had the rare - gift? opportunity? wherewithall? - to have been "taken up" by male writers who 'made' the places where poetry was made; literally, Joe Dunn and John Wieners, she will tell you, both young poets themselves, took her to the Sunday Meetings where Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer reigned. At a time when there were few poetry magazines (two in fact) and only one small press edited by a woman, being invited into this close-knit circle put her "under" the critical eye of those who brought poetry into print - and in this particular fact lies her difference. Because she has a large body of work published (over 20 titles) since 1965, we might see her as a prolific and substantial poet of her generation. And because her way of being was broad and sweeping, extending across several continents, into geographies and local histories, and through friendships with many poets and their differently inflected aesthetics, there is no one way to talk about her work except as that of a singular individual.

Levertov's statement, in taking up sight as a metaphor for poetic knowledge, points uncannily back to the context from which I plucked it: the Poetics section of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. The editor as seer, his vision enhanced by various informants, communicates what he sees through forming various 'memberships': the five "somewhat arbitrary" categories (Black Mountain/Origin, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat, New York School, and a group of "younger poets . . . influenced . . . but hav[ing] evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry"(xiii)) that provide "some sense of the history of the period and the primary alignment of the writers." By this he means their allied-ment, i.e. to each other, affiliations of locale and aesthetic sympathy made perceptible through poetry readings, little magazines, and the small press - mechanisms that the "New American Poets" used to make public their distinguishing characteristics. Allen's anthology encourages us to see affiliations between poets; and though 'New American' aesthetics may tend to be oriented toward process rather than product, the affiliation, because this is an anthology and not a time machine, plays in a variety of finished texts that render poetically 'the new.'

Sight is also the primary indicator of sexual difference, a difference which, if you are a woman writing poetry in the fifties and sixties - between the War and the feminist 'revolution' - makes appearing as among or within the writers of her generation an accomplishment. Levertov's sentence, fraught with sexist semantics, points to the heart of this problem when the "seer," the potentially ungendered constituent "members of one another," surfaces as pronominally male. A convention of English usage or a mechanism of exclusion? We get a sense, however, that this distortion manifests itself visually in the non-appearance of women in the category "seer," and that this is the telos of a compulsion to disregard women when considering who composes 'the new.' Levertov, one of four women included in The New American Poetry (Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, and Barbara Guest being the other three), is the only of that group to espouse a "poetics." Cast into increasingly myopic focus by an instrument tuned to see masculine production where poetic production is sought, one sees four women, then one woman, then only the seer "he" and no women at all. That same instrument is what we refer to as "representation"; it is how we chiefly come to terms with literary history. If anthologies are preservatives of "texts that might otherwise disappear"(Golding 120) then what is missing from an anthology has disappeared, for all practical purposes, to contemporary and contemporaneous readers of poetry alike. Out of the 44 poets included in The New American Poetry these four are not representative. The ratio isn't accurate.

That a few women writers were born into a generation that certain male writers made - and certainly made new, i.e. whose "total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse"(xi) prevailed as their defining characteristic - is one way to hear what The New American Poetry tells us. But, as well, it sets the precedent by which we are now given to read poetry in the 'New American' vein. Because it has taught poetry-readers for decades to recognize 'the new' and because what it presents has been taken for 'the new,' as we understand it 'the new' wasn't produced by women. What is the mote in the mechanism of representation, beyond the obvious problematic of sexism, that yields up an overwhelming patrilineage? The nomenclature and genealogies that The New American Poetry created and preserves and through which we see poetic production and assign significance shows itself to be a problem for locating, and so talking about, women writers of that generation.

One response to this distorting patrilineage has been to recover the work of "Beat Generation" women writers in recent anthologies like Brenda Knight's Women of the Beat Generation: The Writer's, Artists and Muses at the Heart of Revolution and Richard Peabody's  A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. But these produce another sort of distortion: women who were not 'there' in the sense that Joanne Kyger's lines (and life) allude to become in these anthologies "women of the Beat generation." A troubling patronym, "women of," it appropriates women into the project of Beat history-making. As in "Daughters of the Revolution," which is, after all, another way of saying "property of," as a sort of appendage, a "Mrs." Such a reading consequently accords with a particular conception of women as marginal, looking from the 'outside' in and thus appropriating materials and techniques - and hence the (Beat) idenity - to be found there. In the case of the 1950s and 60s, women poets emerge either as diminuitives of men, or, at best as merely (proto) feminists - disarticulated feminists without a movement - without movement, static and marginally affixed. To this end Knight and Peabody seemingly compete to inaugurate the most obscure. (note 1) But it's misguided at best to label these women "marginal." As Alan Golding has noted "The center/margin or inside/outside model . . . reaches its limits when confronted with historical specifics that contradict it"(142). History is full of specifics.

I don't want, here, to develop a critical investigation of this problem of literary-historical viewing, the problem of the anthology-frame. I would like, instead, to suggest two things as a sort of conclusion:

First, that there is another way to see women writers, especially of the 'New American' generation, with its particular gender politics, a status quo that remained unchallenged by the avant-garde. But this would, I believe, require a bitter admission; that the women "of the Beat generation" were writers generated out of refusals and failed acknowledgements of women as writers, a result, in part, of a myopic tendency toward a specific manifestation of the poetic, a specific concept of genius. That done, one could view the production of women and women writers "of" that generation as gestures outward. Not directed back toward the literary circles that constituted the Beat movement - and through which various male constituents cohered - but outward away from the identities "Beat" offered them, and, in a proto-feminist self-naming, toward some yet unnamable horizon, a direction offered neither by the status quo nor the literary avant-garde.

And second, that though Joanne Kyger has consistently and for various reasons been an exception to these gendered rules of exclusion, reading her work in this context confirms the limited scope of the recuperative model, for she has continually developed a poetry intricately involved with - responding to and setting forth - the 'new.' In stressing the self as a phenomenon, as appearing, being there - Joanne Kyger's work encourages one to move beyond the tendency to see two types of poets (women and men), which in feminist scholarship has produced a particular, unfavorable model of literary productions. Her work encourages one to see women writers as gesturing outward - in the same generous sense that Charles Olson saw Robert Creeley as a "figure of outward." This Jacket feature ventures in that direction with an array of critical readings, none of them particularly attuned to gender but all of them responsive to the powerful insistence of Joanne Kyger's cultivated line and ear, and the graceful persistence of a continually evolving poetic, one that lets the self go through listening to what's there - from the intimate notebook page and the company it keeps to larger temporalities and geographies - to create a self, broad and sweeping.

 
 

Notes:

Note 1: Peabody wins hands down, at least for speculating a range of inclusion in his introduction, where he suggests that he could argue for the inclusion of a list of  46 writers, from the well-known (Barbara Guest, Grace Paley, Denise Levertov, Diane Wakowski) to "less-known writers, artists and coffeehouse scenesters" (and here's where the bulk of his list lies) from Jan Balas to Marion Zazeela.

 
 



Works cited:

Allen, Donald. The New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Golding, Alan. From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry. Wisconsin UP, 1995.

Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writer's, Artists and Muses at the Hear of Revolution. Compiled by Brenda Knight; Forward by Anne Waldman, Afterward by Ann Charters. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996.

Peabody, Richard. Women of the Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. High Risk Books, 1998.

A much longer version of this essay was presented at the Twentieth Century Literature Conference, Louisville KY, Feb. 25, 2000. For a specific contextualization of the early work of Joanne Kyger, see my essay " 'to be Jack Spicer in a dream': Joanne Kyger and the San Francisco Renaissance, 1957-65" in Jacket # 7 at
http://jacketmagazine.com/07/spicer-russo.html

Thanks to Christopher W. Alexander, Robert Creeley, Kathleen Fraser, Douglas Manson, Eric Rosolowski and Roberto Tejada for help and advice in assembling this feature; and to everyone who contributed their time, insights and writing to make it happen, a special thanks.


 
 

Linda Russo

 
 


Linda Russo (immediately above) lives in Buffalo, NY, and edits, with Christopher W. Alexander, verdure, a magazine of poetry and poetics. Her work is currently or forthcoming in Big Allis, LVNG, Outlet, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Rampike, and Tripwire.

Photo of Linda Russo copyright © 2000 by Anya Lewin.

Photo of Joanne Kyger (near top of page), from the cover of All This Every Day - Francesco Pellizzi (Chiapas, Mexico) (Big Sky, 1975)

 



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