Simon Pettet is a particular and demanding poet whose work connects many different aspects of poetry as it has been so brilliantly and exhaustively practiced in The Big Apple since the 1950s. Because of apprenticeships with divers people (photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burkhardt, anthologist/ magus Harry Smith and Beat guru Allen Ginsberg, to name a few), Pettet’s work contains threads and traces of master influences. He also penetrates the hive-like cluster of facts distributed over Manhattan isle with the greeny lyric importation of his native tongue. Absorbing remarkable creative energy, he’s made poetry unique to his own cultural background. His Selected Poems (Talisman House, 1995), shows a range of insight impacted with street smarts, ancient wisdom and poetry know-how.
There are many devoted and common lyrics found here, and by using that word common, I do mean to praise. The poems stand perfectly on their own, and so to relate them is a bit odd, bringing my words to bear on a body of work quite capable on its own terms without my critical intrusion. The right kind of job, perhaps conducted by an enterprising soul, would be to identify themes, show formal tension and alignment within the body of work and to historically frame Pettet’s achievement within the American and international poetics of the late twentieth century. But such locomotion seems to me turgid and dull. Instead, I’ll write my way through some of these poems, to find what I have not seen before. Only by moving with the same element of surprise and devotion can I begin to register his work, moving from the known into an unknown condition, where his poetry animates my imagination in ways I could not have fathomed only moments ago.
The trick here is how, or where, to start. Pettet, despite his Old World birth, is American in his attentions and devotion. Although he was born in Southeast England and educated at the universities of Essex and London, he’s an American the way certain other Europeans seem to me peculiarly so. D.H. Lawrence abandoned the dried out husk of European aesthetics, wedging into language and life with unconditional curiosity and uncompromising energy. Pettet, writing on another scale entirely, nevertheless pursues a shared instinct for poetry as religious paean. He landed in the US more than 25 years ago, and in addition to the mighty influences of Whitman, Pound and Williams, fell under the more contemporary creative spells of Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, John Wieners and James Schuyler, among many others.
By absorbing divergent poetry paths, and by listening to his own mysterious affinities for the phenomenal core of every day, Pettet developed in his writing a sense of deliverance and thanksgiving, of triumph and solemnity that registers in brief gestures. Time isn’t wasted. No philosophical conundrums stump us here. We aren’t left either scratching our heads over hermetic references to closed systems of alchemy or Renaissance mnemonics. These elements, however, are extant in the work, but they sink below the surface rather than burdening it. They register as echoes, deep religious pulsations.
He visited Austin, Texas, a few months ago. His moth-like energy filled the room. Conversation ranged from Greek myth to the crew of devils inhabiting the White House. With lepidopterous attention, he burrows into a subject, gnawing through mere surface. I admire the quick movements of his mind and remember how we discussed quite seriously the possibilities of remote viewing and of CIA investigations into this bizarre-sounding phenomenon of human psyche and imagination. I’m curious about how visible forms reveal interior life, and so it was a pleasure to speak casually about this with him, for there is a quality in his work of vivid displays of form, as if the heart of things were shown from the inside out. Random glimpses of people and things appear in his work, their apparitions framed within the small space of his attention. They become larger than they are; yet awkwardly determined by their insignificance and fleeting passage. In another sense, it’s almost as if Pettet were the one remotely viewed, the shifting perspective an occurrence of form perceiving form, image suggesting image — life contained within splintered moments of self-registration. ‘How fortunate to be alive for / just this second,’ he writes in, ‘New Amsterdam,’
how glorious to be in this light which
will never be the same again,
how beautiful, sad and immaculate,
iein anders — the middle-aged bicyclist,
(he too is alive!),
the woman who carries her
mewling child piggyback,
the north wind that blows in my face,
even the couple going by
in a boat. They too
can’t refrain from taking pictures. (102)
The fragmented nature of the work appeals to me for its penetration into the structure of every day. It attests to the limited condition of experience, how what we see comes in pieces. Even one’s self is recollected according to certain placement in the world. In “Self Portrait 1978,” he writes:
thin white sparrow-haired chest
bare khaki fatigues (borrowed)
pale face complexion fair
sweat wet hair summer’s heat
on comfortable green chaise lounge (once borrowed)
at two in the morning... (30)
The bodily kinesis is attractive, because it brings focus to particular moments in time and place. These are quick visions, flashes of perception that reveal phenomena — no easy task. Particularly, we see into attentive accretions of Pettet’s day. A small early poem, ‘Worship,’ reads:
old anxious and thin grey-haired in white
suede hat and white fine coat dull stockings
to bright afternoon sun woman closes her eyes
and takes off her shoes. (22)
Snapshot-like, the quick details form with little fanfare. Look closely and you’ll notice only two verbs, so that the piece is actively quite stagnant, dependent upon the adjectival-noun rhythm. Those extra pica spaces between words isolate them, or enhance their energy in the poem, giving weight to each movement of sound. The passivity and enclosed retention of moving verbs keep focus down tight to the woman’s shoes, her bare feet. A slight, passing poem, it arrests attention for what it proposes as worship, an unguarded moment and the relief of a minute’s peace alone in the sun.
At public readings, Pettet presents his short works a couple of times each. First, the words fly by, images scattering in his voice. Second time the emotive charge kicks in, and the tone shifts to reveal new content. A casual surface exists with an undercurrent depth forming from the tension of image and tone. In ‘A Storm Approaches,’ we read:
I’m at the kitchen table firstly the light
gets dark and, though the conversation’s heated
gloom descends, though everyone is very warm
with clasped mugs cozy and nobody screams.
then, as tight wind shudders, one thunderclap
one rumble. I am cloistered.
it starts slowly and quietly to rain. (46)
Rather than troubling us with his own emotional states, or intellect, etc, Pettet searches the environment for a corresponding registration of emotional tone. This correlation of inner feeling with the indifferent and impersonal range of world objects spares us the messy import of his heart while acknowledging the emotional charge, not just of his instance of feeling, but of the elements as they pass intelligible to the body’s complete range of feeling.
The occasion of his poems remarks on the inconstant, surprising and mercurial nature of life and of writing. The submerged intellection through distilled imagery creates a sudden force.