The New American Poetry, put together by Donald Allen in 1960, is one of those classic canon-forming texts. The poets he chose, and the ways he grouped them together defined post WWII American poetry. As a teenager, my dad pointed me towards this book as an essential source of knowledge and enlightenment.
I went back to the book last week because of something that came up getting ready for a solo sax performance. I put one thing together by taking the first few lines of a Steve Lacy solo piece, Pearl Street from the Snips loft concert, which I used as the jumping off point for my own improvisation. That wasn’t the most successful thing I’ve ever done, but it reminded me of Robert Duncan’s “A Poem Beginning With A Line By Pindar” from New American Poetry. I read some of the poem as an intro to playing, and probably would have been better off just doing that.
I don’t know Duncan too well, and this is the main poem I know. He’s grouped with the Black Mountain poets by Allen, and probably by self-definition, but he was much more a lyrical poet than any of them. In this poem, he goes into a historical section, but I don’t think it’s as strong as other parts of the work.
The poem is a great cross-disciplinary work. It starts out with music and sound: the line from Pindar is after all “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins” and moves to reverberations of a Grecian lyre, a Rilkean motive. And dance is here as well, and comes back in the end with an image of children dancing. What really struck me was his writing about painting, Goya in the main instance:
<>“In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Pscyhe
have a hurt voluptuous grace>
bruised by redemption. The copper light
falling upon the brown boy’s slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing
up from blind innocence, ensnared
into the deprivations of desiring sight.
<>But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,
diffuse with rapture absorb the flame.>
Their bodies yield out of strength.
Waves of visual pleasure
wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience.”
The description of Goya goes on a little longer. It reminded me of the Goya painting currently on display at the Frist as part of the Wadsworth Athenaeum collection, “Gossiping Women.” It shows two women, fully clothed, reclining outdoors in a pastoral setting. The woman in front is seen from the back, so she is all fullness and curve of voluptuous body. The painting has a narrow, horizontal shape, probably meant to go over a door. According to the catalogue its pendant was a sleeping woman, again reclining, in soft fabrics, this time seen from the front, her head resting in her hand. That seems more explictly erotic and seems to confirm that the image of the gossiping women is meant to be alluring. The eroticism is understated but pervasive, a function of the “desiring sight” Duncan describes.
<>Each succeeding line of the poem, especially in this early part, gives you something else to take and use for looking at pictures: “waves of visual pleasure”, “sorrow previous to impatience,” and later on “hot luminescence at the loins of the visible.”
Its not necessarily the most sophisticated way to read a poem, something like the way historians use novels to illustrate some point or the other about an epoque. But pleasurable even if not entirely responsible to the status of the poem as an integral whole.