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Gilbert Sorrentino, photo by Vivian Ortiz

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Eric Mottram

The Black Polar Night:

The Poetry Of Gilbert Sorrentino

This essay first appeared in VORT (Gilbert Sorrentino/ Donald Phelps Issue), Vol.2, No 3, Fall 1974 (NY and Maryland, USA) — republished here with the kind permission of VORT editor Barry Alpert and Shamoon Zamir and Patricia Methven of the King’s College London College Archives, U.K.

Eric Mottram (1924–1995) was the Emeritus Professor of English and American Literature at King’s College, London. He pioneered American Studies in the United Kingdom. He was also a widely published poet and editor of The Poetry Review. A useful starting point for research on Eric Mottram is Pierre Joris’s collection of Internet pages at

Sorrentino’s first book’s title, The Darkness Surrounds Us (1960), immediately raises a question: and does it penetrate us? The poems, and those in the following volumes, work continually on that edge between surrounding catastrophe (and its metaphysical and religious context in eternity) and survival by recognizing it and resisting its transforming pressures. The act of poetry is that work of understanding and resistance; it has that function in society and for the poet, and in one of the most volatile decades in American history: the Sixties. The poetry is necessarily sombre, sardonic, vulnerable within its classicist needs not to yield to the selfishnesses of the ego. Sorrentino’s generation had at least a senior poetics to arouse their talents. On the jacket of his first book he writes:

Three great literary markers are Pound, who taught me that verse is the highest of arts and gave me the sense of tradition, Williams, who showed that our language can produce it, and Creeley, who demonstrated that the attack need not be head on.

Williams is also present, as the cubist poet of discontinuous explorations, in ‘The Rose’:

That the rose
is an invention

— which has a context in the Juan Gris poem in Spring & All, section V, beginning “The rose is obsolete...” (Zukofsky: Prepositions — “There is or there isn’t a bit of Gris in Williams, of Klee, Demuth, Sheeler, but there is of every painting of his time that re-made things into a picture” — 1948).

Creeley, also, offered how to make the movement of a poem the action of careful definition, not straining vernacular toward symbol and a rhetoric of easy universalities; and in his work, too, as in Pound, the sense of survival in a hostile environment is generative. These poets demonstrate that not all American poets are necessarily as open to large space as Whitman (or as Gertrude Stein insists in The Geographical History of America).

Sorrentino revolts against the per-version of the polis — New York — and moves only warily into the romantic blandishments of landscape nature. The Darkness Surrounds Us is wary and defensive with a need to establish clear position, made with pride: “I’ve nothing to say/ to them. And I won’t write”. Nova Scotia miners against a pit fall and Indians beating locusts are examples here of “loser’s cookbooks”; the working week is to be survived; poems define strategies resisting attack; a crisis may not clear its causes.

The syntax, as in Creeley at this time, is constructed of cautions inside sentences whose completion is a matter of having enough energy and breath within the limited exploration (for example, ‘3 Quatrains’). These are not poems of leisure among leisure-class entertainments but enact a sense of being rescued from labour for a living. Nor are they exegesis-prone criticism-poems of the Columbia-Kenyon academicism of the Fifties and Sixties. But nor do they have the declamatory rhetoric of certain characteristic Beat forms of the time. A poem about the truths of marriage hardly appeals to bachelor Beats or the university common room, especially if it contains the semantic wit of ‘Man and Wife’. Here the name-calling moves out from a married quarrel into a forest — Creeley’s marriage poems come to mind, but Sorrentino pushes into his own action:

...and again, his voice then, you
are that forest right there, and your body

that blue jay, you are too much to know, you
bitch of a forest and jay, you
bleakhearted bitch of a morning, you
stillest birch tree.

Most of the poems move where there is most difficulty, where anger and vindictiveness, in sometimes hopeless uncontrol, are countered by a need for love — it’s a raw, vulnerable place for a poem to emerge, and the ‘I’ of the poem is often lyrically on edge. Some poems generate terror — “the blood raged for blood: and/ a waiting” is the end of one combat. But the personal extends into the social: besides miners and Indians, Sorrentino writes of Americans killed in Korea for the flag totem. Urban and political pressures restrict mobility, but that does not give way to grand gesture in some romantic plein air form:

    The hell with the noble
    eagles, the noble mountains too, let’s
    go back down.

The location of main wariness is more like Ben Shahn’s — without the painter’s overt reformist images:

    They are playing handball
     against a wall

     the sun is singing ...

But the last two poems in the book indicate a power to move deftly from local and personal into historical and cultural without self-consciously forcing the issues. The lessons have been learned from Pound and Olson. ‘The Darkness Surrounds Us’, dedicated to Creeley, takes coal and wood-fire as image for a nourishing of self through which to combat encroaching darkness. Light and warmth are temporary. The poem moves in three kinds of confidence — a ‘projective verse’ opening section of varied measures, a middle section of tense disyllabic measures, and a conclusion in the form of a blues song to keep off darkness. ‘The Outset’ locates Brooklyn-European roots in aged members of his family, at the mother’s death, and moves into a sense of rueful inheritance, of holding on to things largely out of control. The whole book generates a tenacious feeling of thrusting off despair through poetry. Sorrentino was 31.

Two pieces appeared in 1961 which show his professionalism about prosody. ‘Some Notes Toward a Paper on Prosody’ (Yugen 7) begins with a Greek example from Sappho to demonstrate “prosody based upon time values of vowels”, a quantitative and artificial line whose metric comes “out of the language as spoken”, at odds with “prose accentuation given in grammar books compiled long after the decline of the classical civilizations”. Measure by time values connects classical metric to music — temporal rather than accentual stress; the corresponding English prosody stresses syllable according to speech, and Sorrentino’s American examples follow — Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, Creeley, etc. But relinquishing “the old anchor of the preconceived metrical pattern, with its crutch of rhyme”, creates its own difficulties with ‘variable measure’:

The poet’s ear has got to refine itself to the point at which his poems take on the same beauty that an unfaltering use of a KNOWN structure gave Donne, Marvell, Campion, etc.

Williams’s programme was “to release the measure, that is the accentuation, from the syllabification, and return the line to its bring the line to the reality of the spoken language, ordered, however, by the poet’s grasp of what that speech is capable of”. That is, it is not simply imitated talk or “the point of chaos, to the academic mind”. Sorrentino is not sure what constant the variable measure is a variant of, and indeed it is difficult to ascertain in these terms (Denise Levertov’s concept of “beat or pulse underlying the whole”, in her ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’ for Berg and Mezey’s Naked Poetry, 1969, continues the analysis). Sorrentino locates poetic intelligence in Chaucer’s “intellect moving among the syllables always at work, his heart and breath shaping the line to something that he wanted it to be”, within, for instance, the ten syllable line of the Tales. The American parallel is how in Negro blues words are “stretched out or shortened (that is, their vowels) to fit the music” — that is, “quantity — as determined by the singer”.

Sorrentino’s interview in David Ossman’s The Sullen Art (1963) acknowledges Pound and Williams but understanding that poems come from particular characteristics of mind, he realizes he is not attuned to them as he is to Creeley — “the man who more or less showed me what to do”.

He read The Whip in 1957 — “it gave me what I would consider a direction... the direction-force of the poem into a subject. Creeley’s attack on the subject is from an angle”. Sorrentino emphasizes the making of a poem as the application of a trade under apprenticeship. He stands aside from Ginsberg’s method of revealing the subject “in every facet” and the Beat projection of direct ego: “no one is interested in the ‘I’ of the poem, unless that ‘I’ is projected through a mask. Yeats has taught us that” — and Creeley after him — “you can’t sustain the lyric if you’re going to talk really about yourself”:

You’ve got to know your place as a poet in the world — all you are is someone who reveals the essence of things. If you feel that your essence is worth revealing, then that’s got to be done with absolute artistry, or it’s a failure.

The master is Pound because he understood that “the poem should deal with the concrete — what one can see, what one can touch, what one can hold”, and because “his ear was and is to this very day, absolutely perfect”.

Sorrentino’s poems had appeared in Yugen, Nomad, The Nation, Poetry (Chicago), Wild Dog, in his own magazine Neon (begun in 1956) and in Allen’s New American Poetry, when his second book, Black and White, appeared in 1964. The epigraph from Williams spoke directly of his poetic need: “Love is no comforter, rather a nail in the head”. The line to line care for a slow narrative of feeling, learned initially from Williams and Creeley now moves into a more rapidly nervous measure, and perhaps Wieners is a later resource (The Hotel Wentley Poems had appeared in 1958 and affected many American poets by this time). `’The Charm’ begins:

In a dream one sees it.
The touch is there, the taste
is there. The lips press
together, kiss air.

How can this man tell you
what skies hang over him?
How tell you
that you are in the sky
a gentle thing, a tender
thing? ...

This kind of fluency counters the deliberate hesitancies of other poems, — just as a dimension from Arizona desert space creates a humbling context for the contingent emotions: “the sky changes you”. In his novel of 1966, The Sky Changes, Sorrentino writes: “He called out to the wilderness, some gibberish, then called again, the wind cold and fierce in his open mouth, the membrane drying instantly”. In ‘The Meeting’: “...I was suddenly made barren, suddenly/ a terrible loneliness, and the winds/ frightened me”. A strength has to be found to resist being overwhelmed:

I want to shatter the winds
that prey on us I reach
through years for your hand.

The essential sombreness of these poems lies under a threat of “doom and sterility”, a yielding to a barren survival of work, talk, jagged love, anger, the otherness of nature. Always, there is a clear need for poetry as necessity but not the need to be a poet in Robert Duncan’s sense. In Yugen 8 (1962), where ‘The Meeting’ first appeared, Sorrentino understands the presence in The Opening of the Field of a poet by vocation, “as a magician or shaman or priest”, who has no other life except to develop his gifts, the poem as ‘celebration’ of his compositional intelligence. Sorrentino’s own poetry is nearer to the life of working men who may also be poets — to Dr. Williams, for example, who is not a shaman but for whom poems are necessary and built from that conviction. Of  Pictures from Breughel Sorrentino wrote in Kulchur 9 (1963):

The in the line itself, the words sit, rock like, on the page and refuse to communicate themselves as prose statement, the poems resist a fluent reading.... a triumph of Dr. Williams’ insistence on the importance of the line’s composition, its breaks.

Sorrentino’s criticism of New Critics poetry follows:

Men like Winters, Ransom, and Blackmur...relegated the writing of poetry to a kind of super-editing of an originally pedestrian statement, ultimately creating a poem which seemingly contained ‘everything’, polished and fitted together with precision. All that the poem lacked was an emotional content rooted in the actual.

He prefers Spicer to the “romantic gaucherie” of Snodgrass and Dugan “beneath their creaking ‘poetic’ facades”:

He refuses to gesture, to make sweeping statements about Life, and God, and the Tragedy Of It All; he will not act out a role which our time has decreed for the poet; he will not hide banality and stupidity of thought behind a “formal metric”.

In Kulchur 10 (1963) Sorrentino offered a salutary criticism of Robert Bly’s insistence that real poetry is poetry of the “inward world”:

That good old inward world shuffle is, of course, the poetaster’s excuse for his manufactures. Since it is a difficult task to dig out the forms that are buried in matter, these fools insist that these forms do not exist, and they make up an ‘inward world’. Then, anything goes.

The ‘I’ of Sorrentino’s own poems is in continual danger from such inward ness, and right through to Corrosive Sublimate (1971) they “work right on the edge of sentimentality” (a phrase from,a letter written in 1972). The articulative process may be part of the morphology of existent forms but poetic forms still have to be created from experience. Poems define sensibility as well as indicate the discovery of it, as the poet leads words and forms out of himself. The character of Sorrentino’s verse is less retiring than Creeley’s, much more desiring to compose stances and to instruct, in tone nearer, therefore, to Zukofsky or Dahlberg, and frequently using the method of aphorism. But the unique self is there. The dead and inanimate (like the clouds which invite chaos in ‘Maytime’) continually impinge on an embattled, rebarbative self. Formally, the danger is a need for structural finesse, for a certain cleverness of procedure which can show the poet concentrated on fine surface movement. Some of the poems appear to inherit 17th century forms of rhetorical address, a persona desperately finding its metaphors, as if the poem were a mainstay against weakness (for example, ‘The Checkers Problem’). Poems are being used to establish a particular kind of identity by conceit — as in ‘The Mathematics’:

He stands before me. He must be
a friend for his hand
is proffered and his voice, but his head
is a blur
              like they draw speed.

He’s hurt me so he must be a friend, that’s
the simplest proof in the geometry I practice
which works on the assumption that when one
is stumped one can insert Identity...

...Maybe in the blur I understand to hold
his head there is a calculus

to demonstrate that the geometry itself
is obsolete and old.

In ‘Two for Franz Kline’, Sorrentino’s black and white materials are sum marized through the painter’s great monochromatic gestures and precise, minimal use of colour: “those places we/ have made with the/ / world, but they are simply, places, the world passes/ hugely on each side, huge/ and black, and/ white.” For Sorrentino, human process, including love, is exactly such a dichotomized world, secularized from his Catholic ancestry, nostalgic and even angry for clear moral definition, as the title of the book suggests. The acid, erasive wind of ‘Theme and Variations’ and the flawed dance of the self alone in ‘The Language Barrier’ are parts of this construction. Into the monochromatic moral world enters a dream of colour and sunlight out of white light, a dream in which love, creativity and the emergence of green with other colours is primary against the manichean division the mind too automatically turns to. In ‘What I Mean Is’ it is the point at which Duncan enters the book’s field of sensibility, his presence felt also in the garden image of ‘The Long Good-bye’: “the fall is a dream...of the grass growing”.

So the poems set up the posibility of some “tender strategy” to reduce blackness where it is hardly believed possible. (Writing on The Opening of the Field in Yugen 8: “it deals with...what these acts of reality have to do with the making of art....The real and the artificial, the world and what is made out of it, interacting, out of it the aesthetic grows”). That possibility is the “light” of the book. The rest is blackness and flame of Hell. Black birds encroach on the moon, black print on the white page.
One weakness in Black and White, solved in later work, is an awkward movement between terseness of measure (in the manner of Creeley and Zukofsky) and a liking for an elaborative logic of conceit or structural metaphor which moves into a delight in its own action. ‘Shapes of Winter’ summarizes the recurrent images and the formal procedures:

...What world of beauty
occur, those black daubings spattered
on the moon revolve around

a stately ugliness, churn, settle.
Flight. My eye reflects a simple

bird-like movement, dumb hanging
world, lost in its bitterness, of white, a
sad man’s face hacked out of it.

Section 4 stiffens black, white, grey, pearl and even incipient green into a stifling abstraction which militates against love, and in section 7, Winter is given as black and white lace work, delicate but obstinately separative. ‘Empty Rooms’ — its epigraph is from Olson: “the constant is vision” — tries to ascertain the ‘colour’ of love as a way of defining it without defining it away. ‘What Shapes Hide’ proposes Philip Guston’s paintings of the early 1960s as paradigms of black “separating colours” as analogues of the limitations in city life:

                             they find their

  easiest freedom in the
  twists they suffer in the twists
  of black.

The final poem, ‘A Detail’, makes a desperate gesture towards some surely known simplification against a gloom near to incipient madness:


  love, and water, earth and all simple things,
  it is enough to find them out

  simply, singly, make no mistake
  about rules, it is possible to forget

  even your children’s voices.

Black and White has the form of its urgencies and embattlements; its honesty with the living difficulties leads to occasional awkwardness and stridency. In comparison The Perfect Fiction (1968) has an almost Stevens-like formality of imposed calm. All fifty-two mostly titleless poems have a three-line stanza, whose sentences lead out of each other, and, in some cases, into other poems. The perfect fiction is a platonic idea — perhaps this is related to Stevens as well — of reality, and the poems may be said to come out of lines in Black and White: “What we see is really there,/ whether it be there/ or not, or a heaped image/ of the mind, the focus brings it/ / to reality” (‘Empty Rooms’). Sorrentino tells us:

When this book was written, I found that my work automatically fell, almost all the time, into three-line stanzas. This was extremely natural to me, but I wanted to be able to use other constructs. In The Perfect Fiction I tried to exhaust the three-line stanza, to break, as it were, its hold on my line, by using it in any and every way I could.

This stanza also works as a disciplinary control of tendencies latent in projective form to sprawl and define by spatialities. It nearly breaks, with considerable skill, in a poem which assembles some of Sorrentino’s best powers:

Such a long walk to get out
of any pocket, any abstract

Or the real, as read
$ $. Or “the blue pocket of the

Amen.    Walk on, walk on, the
cornball,old song goes through

And so on.    Darkness.   Rain, out
of the pockets that corrupt us, easy

It.   “The blue pocket” is what
the man said. Lots of smiling faces. Most

Within the new continuity, the old obsessions have another life:

      She waits for her lover, black
  settles on the earth. One places stock
  of sorts in such projection: my pale moon sets.

The earlier painter’s search for ways of breaking monotone with colour now moves into the centre of the poetic action. A man walks in a thundery black and white city: “one/ line of peach sky/ holds, in the west”. Hydrangeas focus on ecstatic enterprise of cultivated light from colour in flowers. A dream of “rose-coloured cities” in “dull grey cities” — “The moon may/ as well be black. It is invisible” — a Guston-like painting in which a black face forms in the colours — out of these motions, however clearly given, no value in lucidity is to be gained. There is simply “clarity and a certain light/ reflection”:

There is nothing to solve.
It is: solved equals solved.
The world is proven by identity.

Reality is both moon and painted moon, Hamlet and “a huge black man/ riding on a motor cycle”, an actor on whose black leather jacket is taped “I AM A SPICK”:

Her voice speaks black
words, they have a shade
of blue, moments pass, or

days, and the words that emerge
are white, the edges are suffused
with yellow, or a pink.

The value is not the colour but the lucidity of the unique: the rainbow “shading again toward black”. Purcell’s festival ode Come Ye Sons of Art invokes the transformation of light into colour and art:

                                the sun shines
     on you is sun clear through.

And this poem is followed by:

     On the margins of various papers
     he draws circles, and lines. They are
     suns and moons, what else

     could they be?

The forms of art are brilliant, beautiful, and absolute, and real, whereas introspective colloquy is “some imbecile gesturing at/ dignity, and a final barrier to love”, an “inviolate and/ manufactured arrogance” — fiction which is in one sense perfect, but sterile. The contrary, love, follows in one of Sorrentino’s most completely realized lyrical movements, a seven stanza poem whose final stanza breaks out of strict measure as the process of love breaks its own instances:

There is no instance that was not love:
at one time
or another. The seasons move

into the past. The seasons shove
one another away, sunshine or rime —
there is no instance that was not love,
one kind or another. Rough
winds at us all now, one kind
or another. The seasons move

away from birds; jay, doves:
or they fly into them, fly, climb,
no instance that was not love.

It is not just some scent on a glove
nor a glittering coin, a dime
or another: the seasons move

unerringly, stolid and bluff.
One would like to find
one instance that was not love;
                   the seasons
                                     move —

Two pages later, the dialectical movement of contraries suggests a Nevada ghost silver town, all gesture just as a poem can be all emoty construct, and as this poem says it is:


and the phallus spurts semen
on the ground, the communications
brilliant in efficiency.

Then follows a group of poems on lonely gesture, photographs of positions, recordings of melodies, lost “fixed images” — and some of the poems are themselves locked in unredeemed cliches signifying “the hopelessly locked imagination” in the book, and shading off into that dead Sixties world of art to which Sorrentino gives,sharp definition in his novel of 1971, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things: “it is a total darkness”, a Hell under Dandy Satan, “a stinking city full of a stinking/ people... they are/ absolutely rotten,/ and are real”. The Heraclitean world of fire and water in process cannot change the state of depression. The red is simply quenched:


flame, I Sorrentino speak of it
sometimes as flame, most often
as it is a fundamental grey. One

goes on ...

In a later poem “the chalky blood/ on the wounded” only exposes troops “that move in the sun/ think they are going to win”. The sun is white, the blood merely part of “a colour scheme for the eye”. Variations on black/ white, sun/ night, frozen/ movement, red setting sun/ blue shadows of night precede a last recognition of the meditated construct as something made. The ‘lack of colour’ itself can be a made reality; death is not. The evasiveness ends, as it began, with a lonely figure, K. — perhaps Kafka’s existential explorer of what real might mean, endlessly stuck in introspective fantasy on the real world:

The last batter, the long shadows
out across center field, has
struck out looking. K.

Sorrentino is an authentic voice of survival in a bad time, always conscious of a position in blackness. A poem in Peace News for December 25, 1964 begins:

Sullen men who walk
through a sullen world, I am among them.
Behind are black years, I tolerate
them, the few brilliants among them
self-created, the blackness acciduously
shifting, straining to obscure
them ...

In July of the same year Wild Dog No. 9 printed a long poem called ‘The Bull Pen is Up and Throwing’ in which Sorrentino confronts the complex interactions of survival with selfishness with considerable care and unselfpitying anguish. The five-section structure demonstrates what he had learned of poetic craft — the long sentence within lengthy measures, the short measure of explorative slowness, a four-line stanza which is able to hold together emotion which threatens to disperse, and an eight-line narrative and descriptive stanza of tense rapidity. The poem concerns, immediately, the emotional plague — like Reich’s and Mailer’s — of being, in a time of plague, in a state of “general deprivation” in which “my acts” are in danger of becoming a debt of selfishness in a society of competitiveness. A return visit to the poverty-stricken urban area of boyhood shows how little the democratic state has moved to welfare:

the people stunted with
despair and hunger, the violence
directed toward each other ...

What alternatives are there to nostalgia, the fallout, “guilt in silences and arguments,” “self-inflicted martyrdom”, and literary figures still believing in bucolic healing? None, except the craft of poetry and “a bitter smile, here in the/ cavilling market of the world”. In 1973 Sorrentino’s Splendide-Hotel meditates on this life of poetry, in such an environment, focussed on Rimbaud and Williams and working out once again the black and white of his obsession. The Rimbaud epigraph speaks of “le chaos de glaces et de nuit de pole” and the book which follows is a sustained, succinct account of the artist’s position:

Well, so the country is dying and against its death I can do — nothing. What little I have to offer, all find useless. A government of scoundrels, a people numb with hatred and fear...

We go about our business in the rooms and corridors of the Splendide-Hotel. Outside, the black polar night, a chaos of glaciers...

I insist that I do not speak of this game (baseball) as art, yet it is close to art in that it is so narrowly itself: it does not stand for anything else. It exists outside of metaphor and symbol. Shaped and polished artifact, a game of — nouns and verbs...

I agree with all who wish to leave something behind that has the flash of the smallest truth. It is, I admit, sadly, sadly, so much of my life’s concern. That minuscule flash, that occasion, has more value than the most staggering evasion by explanation of the real. Who will believe it? ...

The centre of the artist’s contempt is the President, a man completely at home, powerful and successful, in the Splendide-Hotel world, with his elegant language, Porsche, tie-dyed shirts, trout fishing, “his love for the Rolling Stones”, his reading of “Marx, Aristotle, Lenin, St. Thomas”, his Godard movies, drug culture, Golden Delicious apples, Joe Cocker at the Fillmore East, faded Levis, underground press, response to Blacks’ and Women’s Liberation, W. C. Fields, Warhol, Brakhage, his subscriptions to Art News and Rolling Stone: “he has no style”. Nor does the local society of poets and other artists attract Sorrentino. His Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things — “a book about destruction” — excoriates the New York scene of the late Fifties and the Sixties as a wasteland “a wilderness of hierarchy” (its only parallel in American literature is Dahlberg’s onslaught on the Thirties in The Flea of Sodom, 1950, and certain works of Wyndham Lewis):

The confrontation with the demons does not necessarily lead to the creation of great art (or any art at all). You can writhe in the darkest pit and filth of yourself and come up with some dull fragments of Vers Libre, indistinguishable from that of a hundred contemporaries. Thus pain does not guarantee anything. Art, you see, is not interested in your suffering. It is not a muse. Look at Robert Graves — all that palaver about his Goddess, and all those third-rate poems. What is one to do with that chatter? ...

What they mean is that they want a key to art, and they think, in their profound arrogance, that the whole thing is a trick, learned process...

There is no body of work in literature that, conceived of as same kind of diversion from the stringencies of art, will not rot and its putrescence affect the population. These drudges of the Poem of Life, or the Poem of Protest and Revolution they think they can insult the language and it not matter ...

They (reviewers) “come to the conclusion” that Pound, after all, is more an influence and teacher and guiding light than he is a poet... He has always been an interesting “experimentalist” however. He doesn’t have the unifying power of a Frost, or a Berryman ...*

(The footnote here reads: *“It is clear that in his anger the author is knocking over straw men.”)

One begins to think that the only escape is to have one’s work totally ignored. I myself would embrace this position were it not essentially precious...

The political gist of Sorrentino’s work is particularly sharp in a poem in his most recent collection, Corrosive Sublimate (1971), called ‘Give Them Blood’:

  Baudelaire, who once explained
  Mao, drunk on cognac (his
  cuffs damp

                               was heeded by Rimbaud:
                               arrogant bourgeois
                               colonist. A nance to boot.

The bird. The bird. There
was something about an
albatross, some “symbol”
they call it.

                               Alexei Stakhanov and
                               Horst Wessel, both, in their way,
                               devoted men, thought it a “symbol”.
                               Did they not.

The subjective and psychological inferences of the title of the book rest on a chemical (and alchemical) meaning: a refined, concentrated product of mercuric chloride, a white crystalline powder which is a strong poison. Sublimate refers to both refinement and elevation. Sorrentino’s materials here are not new in his career but they are sublimated. The scene is again New York — the Atlantic wind of the “bitter city” — but the poems contain a new range of feeling. Nostalgia for the few good times is the elevation which “works on the edge of sentimentality”:

All experience is of needs in the past; When dealing with the past and its varied tendernesses and losses, the simplest false step takes one into bathos and sentimentality. The necessity is to turn what is true feeling of sentimentality into art. What happens between that raw and nonartistic emotion in the mind and the way it is formed in the work is difficult in the extreme to understand and control, but without that understanding and control one is no better than a hack.

Therefore, it is the artist, the man of controlled sentiment in measured forms, that many of the poems celebrate. Each poem masters essential incident from the past — the structure is in fact often a rhetoric for recalling an occasion:

   Oh turn into summer, what
   quality of American light
   that is not bitter

   is departed

At night by a river: “where is that sustenance, that past location” — and elsewhere the poet’s father who “maintained certainly/ in that far that dignified/ location” — these move into imagic centres from earlier work: black night, grey, blue sky, paintings of light with red, the moon in darkness, and the hopeless soldiers. Baudelaire is present again — “the agony/ of his purity of pity for himself/ that was never self-pity” — and now Louis Armstrong in one of Sorrentino’s finest short poems, ‘Blue Turning Grey’:

...The other night, old Satch hit notes
way past his prime that were perfectly

chimes. The ringing of that music
a parcel of a last belief and hope

for cleanliness.

These artists have in common “their particular perfection”, the perfect fiction they create which sublimates whatever bitterness in “clarifies” — or:

  Some few moments
  of bitter understanding: that we were children
  of loveless worlds, or, precisely, one world
  and found that (or searched for that
  absolutely alone.

‘Pinochle’ celebrates such a master of controls, a man who

Smoked a pipe and played guitar played cards

O played with a brilliance and verve.

Sorrentino’s poetic controls now include an extension of the “attack from an angle” he spoke of in 1961, taking the form of a rapid notation of concentrated instances within the lyrical movement. ‘Another Case O’ Wheaties’ is a good example of a kind of poem now particularly his own:

Some attempt to make my life
come around to that promise

At least I have never seriously
talked of revolution. Love
your friends,

                     My magic words I only
                      understand the bones of clank clank
                     old skeleton

Hide your son
no matter who
he kills

                      Clank clank old bones
                      I revere you
                      revere you

This kind of movement is pared to terse aphoristic projections — again wholly his own — in a poem like ‘Anatomy’:

                        Certain portions of the heart
                        die, and are dead. They are

                        Cannot be exorcized or brought
                        to life.

                        Do not disturb yourself
                        to become whole.

                        They are dead, go down
                        in the dark and sit with them
                        once in a while.

Another kind of virtuosity lies in the 16 sections of ‘Coast of Texas’ (a development of means in ‘The Bullpen is Up and Throwing’), built mainly of 3 or 4 line stanzas. The title translates a phrase from Apollinaire. The initial proposition is a cold, white city, a Hell where erotic madness is enacted. Both the romantic aspects of the location and the language of romance are resisted as much as they thrust themselves mockingly into the speaker’s sardonically observed anguish. Complete and broken off sentences form into a movement between writing and experience, recalled and fused into a single discontinuous narrative control, worked out at different distances from the subject. Images, incidents and comment move rapidly to delineate a single, complex area of feeling. It might fall apart but it does not because the flowing lyric cohesion constitutes exactly those aims expressed in the 1972 letter quoted earlier:

Everyone knows Apollinaire
went mad on that hazy coast, dazed
under the blue. I went mad
there too.

                           Particular articles of apparel certain
                           girls should not be allowed
                           to wear. Stuck in the mind.

I thought of her with the bell
ringing behind her voice. I thought
of her with the bell.

                           I wrote down the precise colours
                           in an old notebook lately come across.
                           Scent of Castile.

Nothing for a grown man
to be up to. Well, her smile
anyway was a crooked one...

Writing on John Wieners in Parnassus (Spring/ Summer 1973) Sorrentino indicates something of his own ability, though of course their work is unlike:

The poem, for such writers as Wieners, is not a way of improving one’s life or fortunes, but is a kind of supplication to God, an offering given since there is nothing else to give.... We live, it is no secret, in an age in which the contemporary poem is thought of, with increasing frequency, as a sort of slate on which any doodle may be scratched: the poem as placebo, as key to wisdom, as testament, confession, holy mystery, as tool to open any can of metaphysical soup. Or, the poem as intermediary between ‘life’ and ‘art’. In this thinking, the poem is rarely thought of as a finished product, a result, but as a conductor of ideas more important (of course) than the poor thing that conducts them.

The resultant kitsch is not meant to be “grasped, fixed, made to hold still so that one may determine of them their failure or success”. Every event is used “as if the world were put there to amuse the intelligent man” (Robert Creeley: “I want to live in the world — not ‘use’ it as ‘subject’” — A Controversy of Poets, ed. P. Leary and R. Kelly, 1965, p. 526). Wieners, on the contrary, “grasps the materials of his life and refines them into art, which latter is long famed for being aloof from the artist’s intent”.

In Wieners the ‘I’ of the poem — and it what Sorrentino required of poetry back in 1961 — appears through a mask — “the poem explains nothing but its words” — and is remote from the rubbish of “metaphor is real” and “everything” is art and “everyone is an artist”. The repeated term carries over from Corrosive Sublimate: Wieners has ‘refined’ his language, “trusting it, all the way, to carry and structure his emotion”. The failures of syntax fall within the poem as “a closed system”, each poem aiming for discrete “perfection” not “shards of a continuing process”.

These classical principles of completion are exemplified in the best of Sorrentino’s own poems. Each work is built to be stable, what-ever the instability of its materials, to last against the encroachments of loose literary society and the values of egotism in a culture which stresses anarchic individualism. His career has the coherence not only of recurrent obsession and image which any worthwhile poet will have, but of continuous effort towards inventive craft. His poetry affords the double pleasure of astringent thought and feeling and of shaped measures under the impulse towards proper artifact.

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