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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in lorine niedecker (2)


In Which Kenneth Patchen Created Us All In His Image

"Hiya Ken Babe, What's The Bad Word For Today?"


They've never made a movie about Kenneth Patchen. Now they're too late. The only guy who could play him, Robert Mitchum has just died. He had the voice, the build and the sleepy eyes. He had the laconic barroom style to deliver a poem like "The State of the Nation" whose last line I have altered in the title above.

It's difficult to fathom why he's not read by the young these days. Do the young have enough grounding to read any unconventional poet these days? Basil Bunting always insisted there were still plenty of "unabashed" boys and girls about, but their slovenly teachers had never trained them in the literature that mattered. There were three or four decade when Kenneth Patchen was a poet who mattered to a lot of people. I was having lunch last autumn with J. Laughlin, Patchen's old friend and his publisher at New Directions. He shook his head sadly, "They just don't read Kenneth anymore - how can we understand that?" I don't think we can understand. Each century produces a Blake and a Whitman, a Ryder and a Bruckner. They didn't arrive out of the empyrean with fan clubs and web sites.

Patchen wrote at a time when most writers stayed home and wrote, in places like Rutherford, Old Lyme, Fort Atkinson and Sausalito. The previous generation was into celebrity and reporters followed them to Pamplona, the rue de Fleurus and Rapallo. Patchen had to stay home, and stay in bed - his wrecked back gave him no mercy. Except for a few sessions of poetry-and-jazz with Charles Mingus in New York in the late 1950s, and with the Chamber Jazz Sextet in California, Patchen was a private man, not on stage.

It is instructive, perhaps, to contrast this kind of life with that of two later poets who have recently died: Allen Ginsberg and James Dickey. Both of these men spent early years working public relations on Madison Avenue and neither stopped jabbering for a single second thereafter. Ginsberg was a mensh. His desire to be the spokesman of his generation was the last thing I could imagine or would want, but we always enjoyed being together on what were rare occasions in San Francisco, New York or here in Dentdale. He upset a lot of squares, he opened up liberating avenues, he put himself on the line; but, may I be excused if I have to say that most of the poetry struck me as hard-sell advertising. I was reminded more of Walter Winchell and Gabriel Heater and Paul Harvey than of the Buddha.

Sheriff Dickey, more bubba than mensh, was unbelievably competitive. At a poetry occasion in the White House put on by Rosalynn Carter and Joan Mondale, Jim barely had time to shake my hand. He whispered to his wife, "Come on, honey, we got to work the crowd." He never forgave me for writing to someone that Deliverance was about as accurate about goings-on in Rabun County, Georgia, as Rima the Bird-Girl was in Green Mansions, by W.H. Hudson. I also made the mistake of quoting Mr. Ginsberg on Deliverance: "What James Dickey doesn't realize is that being fucked in the ass isn't the worst thing that can happen to you in American life."

Compared to these public operators, Patchen was as remote as one of the Desert Fathers. (The Desert Fathers is not a rock group.)

I sat in Concourse K at O'Hare Airport in Chicago recently, reading The New York Times and Fanfare and watching the passing parade for about three hours. This is very sobering work. I am not sure I saw one individual who was dressed individually. Most people looked like mall-crawlers. Most people looked overactive and stressful. They were moving at speed, like ants in a formicary. Others were merely bland and moved like wizened adolescents. It would be future ti suggest any sign of appetite among these citizens for Kenneth Patchen or J.V. Cunningham or Wallace Stevens or James Laughlin. A few people waiting for the evening flight to Manchester were reading paperbacks purchased at the airport. John Grisham and Danielle Steele and Dean Koontz were most in evidence. (One young man was reading Camus, but we must pretend he doesn't exist.) I decided to buy The Door to December by Dean Koontz, "a number one New York Times author who currently has more than 100 million copies of his books in print."

Whatever the cause of his crumbling self-control, he was becoming undeniably more frantic by the moment.



Why was he suddenly so frightened of them? He had never liked either of them, of course. They were originally vice officers, and word was that they had been among the most corrupt in that division, which was probably why Ross Mondale had arranged for them to transfer under his command in the East Valley; he wanted his right-hand men to be the type who would do what they were told, who wouldn't question any questionable orders, whose allegiance to him would be unshakable as long as he provided for them. Dan knew that they were Mondale's flunkies, opportunists with little or no respect for their work or for concepts like duty and public trust. But they were still cops...

That goes on for 510 pages. So, fellow-stylists, there is hope for us all, whether you like square hamburgers or round hamburgers. I go for the round ones, as I am sure Mr. Koontz does. McDonald's has sold over ninety billion of the little buggers. Here's to LitShit and a kilo of kudzu up the kazoo!

New York publishers calculate the fate of the American novel is in the hands of five thousand readers who will actually purchase new hardback fiction. At the Jargon Society we would by delighted to sell five hundred copies of the latest poetry by Simon Cutts or Thomas Meyer. It might take ten years. Of course, out there in the real world, thousands of verse- scribbling plonkers crank out a ceaseless barrage of what Donald Hall calls the McPoem.

Oracles in high places proclaim a Renaissance of Poetry. A distributor tells me of the purchase of twenty thousand hardback copies by a woman poet I have never read nor hear of. The hermits and caitiffs I hang out with don't explore other parts of the literary jungle, and just stick to their Lorine Niedecker and Basil Bunting, and even drag out volumes of Kenneth Patchen when the fit is on them. We few, we (occasionally) happy few...

How did we odd readers find our way to Kenneth Patchen? He, of course, would never have been in the curriculum at St. Albans School or at Princeton, my adolescent stomping grounds. I stumbled across a pamphlet by Henry Miller, Patchen: Man of Anger & Light. Miller I knew about because evil Time magazine had so vilified his book The Air Conditioned Nightmare that I took the next bus to Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. and bought it at the excellent bookshop run by Franz Bder. By the time I was ten I had the knack of discovering the books important to me beyond those required at school. But I was lucky. I had three good teachers in prep school and I lived in a city with real bookstores. And reading books was something you did. Nowadays, books are a form of retro-delivery system with no cord to plug in. Way uncool.

By the time I was twenty and had dropped out of Princeton to study painting and printmaking and graphic design, I was into Patchen in a big away. I read him along with Whitman, Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Williams, e.e. cummings, Edith Sitwell, Robinson Jeffers, Hart Crane, Kenneth Rexroth, Thoreau, Randolph Bourne, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Henry Miller and Paul Goodman. Before I was twenty-five I owned the manuscripts of The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Sleepers Awake. I had over forty of Patchen's painted books and a few watercolors. I'd published KP's Fables & Other Little Tales during my stay in the medical corps in Germany. What was the attraction?

Patchen was an original. Someone said, equally, of Babe Ruth: "It's like he came down from out of a tree." He was ready to play. Patchen and the Babe were heavy hitters, and nobody struck out more.

There is a towering pile of Patchen poems that amounts to not much. But he really does have twenty or twenty-five poems that seem as good as anybody's. He had power, humor, intuitive vision and a kind of primitive nobility. He knew his Blake and Rilke. He loves George Lewis' clarinet and Bunk Johnson's comet. He drew fabulous animals and painted very well. There was nobody like him.

Oh nobody’s a long time
Nowhere’s a big pocket
To put little
Pieces of nice things that
Have never really happened
To anyone except
Those people who were lucky enough
Not to get born

Oh lonesome’s a bad place
To get crowded into
With only
Yourself riding back and forth
A blind white horse
Along an empty road meeting
All your
Pals face to face

Oh nobody’s a long long time

The poet, painter and publisher Jonathan Williams died in 2008.

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In Which We Are Open For Breakfast



from Meaning: A Life

The people I see and talk to, the ways they earn their livings, the children I watch, the courting customs, the ways of parents with their children are all to me learning, and I re-evaluate my own ways and my country's ways every time I travel.

It is not comfort, ease, or previous knowledge that takes me travelling; travelling is never as comfortable as being at home, and I am thrown out of my accustomed style and habits on meeting situations and people for whom I have no preparation.

George and Mary Oppen, Long Island Sound

I think I go travelling in order to be jostled and jolted and confronted with the necessity of thinking faster to meet fast-changing occurrences. Happiness comes in the conversations and the learning that I have to master, even in the barest knowledge of how to get from here to there. It is culturation simply to gain insight to yet one more country or city I never saw before; if I do not learn it well, at least I meet it freshly at the moment I confront it.

In Paris the Impressionists were not yet all dead; in 1930 even their art was not yet in the old established museums, and we went to a private gallery to see Picasso's latest show. I noticed Picasso himself watching us to see our reactions to his paintings, which were the first I had seen of women distorted into their social and emotional meanings, beyond the portraits of previous times. Meanings which were painful to accept I later found to be profound class judgments and beautiful in new ways, in their colors and design. After seeing these portraits, women on beaches and bourgeois women in cafes had a different meaning, in which Picasso had caught and held them. His contribution of fifty years as a painter, most of which time I have been alive, has put him on a list of those who will speak for us to a future time.

George and Linda Oppen in Detroit, 1942

Apprehension mixed with elation as we disembarked at Baltimore and began the drive to New York City. As we approached the first stoplight, grown men, respectable men stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished.

Manhattan loomed across the New Jersey flats; it grew into pinnacles as sunset lit the windows, and we entered the long tunnel under the Hudson River. In Brooklyn we rented an apartment on Willow Street, the first of many apartments we have lived in at one time or another in that same neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

George Oppen with Harvey Schapiro

Louis Zukofsky, the slender dark young man, sloping along on his long stalk-like legs, head forward, shoulders hunched, a little close-visored cap on his head. Louis so delicate I didn't think he'd live out five more years, Louis in my mind associated with his own Mants.

But as his long life has proven, Louis is hardy, more hardy than we knew. He has survived with Celia, refusing the attentions of the young who have come admiring him and his place in poetry. He survives, perhaps strengthened by his bitterness and feeling that he must be the only poet or he will not accept acclaim. Louis had not been to Europe; he had only corresponded with Pound. The problem was that Louis had no money; the trip required that Louis' friends help to pay his way. Somehow this was done, and several of us made contributions.

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker, a student of Louis' at the University of Wisconsin, followed him to New York; we invited her to dinner, and after waiting for her until long after dinner-time, we ate and were ready for bed when a timid knock at the door announced Lorine. "What happened to you?" we asked.

"I got on the subway, and I didn't know where to get off, so I rode to the end of the line and back."

"Why didn't you ask someone?"

"I didn't see anyone to ask."

New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems which described her life. She chose a way of hard physical work, and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small ms of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices, that seeped out into poems.

Walking with Louis when Discrete Series was in manuscript, George was discussing it with him before showing it to anyone else. Louis turned and with a quizzical expression asked George, "Do you prefer your poetry to mine?"

"Yes," answered George, and the friendship was at a breaking point.

We went exploring with our friends Mary and Russel Wright, through the East Side of the city where lines of drying clothes festooned the area-ways and back yards of the tenements. Fruit stands and vegetable stands and wagons drawn by horses were piled with heaps of color created by oranges, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons. Russel wept at the color.

Women leaned with their elbows on pillows at their window sills, idly gazing at the street scene, or shouting at children in the street, or engaging in conversation with a next-door neighbor, window to window. Everything seemed to be going on at once; men hurried across streets pushing loaded racks of clothing, and boys carried bundles of cut cloth to be sewed at home for bosses, who sent out the cut pieces and later collected the finished garments. Sweatshops in every block hummed with their machines, and small industry crowded in among the workers in the neighborhoods where they lived.

George with daughter Linda

At Coney Island we went into the hall of mirrors and laughed at ourselves, then as we stepped out onto the promenade, a blast of air raised Mary's skirts above her head; her arms went up too, and she was a pretty Hower, a half-naked shrieking girl. We rode the giant Ferris Wheel which lifted us up above the city and the sea, and when our car reached the top, high above the surrounding city, a system of rails started the car in a slide of its own as the rest of the wheels stood still, and rocked us in a violent pendulum motion before it came to an abrupt stop. Russel bellowed, and we screamed. His voice rose above the noise of the holiday makers, "GET US OUT OF HERE!" The Ferris Wheel made a half revolution, without any stops, brought us to the platform and let us out.

We took Mary and Russel sailing on the Hudson before we laid our cat-boat up for the winter, and we found that our boat, so roomy for two during the previous summer, was crowded with four. On our return to the mooring, I lost my balance in excitement and misjudgment, and in what seemed to be slow-motion comedy I fell in a forward somersault into the water. I seemed to see myself fall, and I clambered out in chagrin.

There was no way to be adequately myself while, soaking wet in a new red sweater and skirt, I entered the hotel lobby and dripped up in the elevator to change clothes. Zukofsky went with us to strip our boat for laying her up at the end of summer.

the Oppen family

I took off the sail and tied it into a bundle, Louis continuing to talk. I started up the steel stairway to Riverside Drive, with Louis right behind me; George followed with his burden, up the stairs, across the tracks, and up the next Hight of stairs. Louis gallantly protested, "Mary, let me carry it, Mary please." Near the top I turned and handed him the sail. He staggered and went down a few steps before he landed against the railing to recover himself. I gathered the bundle again in my arms and dragged it to the top of the stairs.

Aunt Elsie took me to lunch one day to ask me if we intended to have children. I thought it was none of her affair and said no, but I did not have any kind of birth control and we had gotten no advice from doctors we had asked. She took me to the birth control clinic the next day and I never had to have another abortion. I wrote to Nellie and to my sister-in-law Julia, who had so many children, and told them they must find birth control clinics at once. Nellie replied in high glee, with cartoons, but Julia could not arrange getting from Oregon wilderness to a San Francisco birth control clinic, and she had one more chnild. At that time there were only eleven states that allowed even doctors to give birth control information.


During those years Linda and I did not laugh much. In pictures we look like refugees — remote, thin and bleak. Linda looked like a little wild girl; she would not have her hair combed. When George came home at last I told him, "Linda does not understand what a joke is; laughter is threatening." George made little jokes for her, and we laughed, but we needed time to recover our spirits.

Linda also needed to learn that George and I were equal as her parents — she would turn to me for permission when George had already told her what she might do.

New York City was not a place we understood in ways we needed to understand to bring up a child. George and I visited the school I would have chosen for her to attend in the fall; we tried to imagine what life was like for a child growing up on city streets, and we quailed from it.

We needed to get out of New York City, where tension and too much argument had to be faced; we needed to get away from the scene of wartime living and be a family again. We needed to be free of close neighbors and be together, just three of us, free of the tight living of New York City. We needed space, sky enough to see the sweep of it, stars at night, forests, to have a garden and ride horses.

We retrieved an old open trailer from New Jersey. George parked it at the curb in front of our house in Sunnyside and began to build it into a camping trailer for our trip west — we were going to California. Our neighbors were incredulous, and fathers brought sons on Sunday to watch George at work on the little camp trailer, making a place to sleep, a little shelf for a stove and food, a hitch for the car to pull it. They said, "That trailer will never make it over the Rocky Mountains." At war's end these neighbors were buying their first automobiles and learning how to drive them.

In March 1946, we drove west. Linda stood behind the front seat and kept up a constant conversation, happy that she had us where she could touch us. We had barely started to be a family when the war came upon us, and Linda had had only stories of a father. Her love was for us, and to be with us was her life.

Mornings we drove until we found a roadside place open for breakfast. We discussed farms, animals, horses; I told Linda an endless story about Hoppy the Frog until she began calling me "Hoppy." We passed horses on the prairie, and George caught one for Linda; he has a poem:

"Horse," she said, whispering

By the roadside
With the cars passing.

Little girl welcomed,
Learning welcome.

In France in 1930, from the art of the Louvre, paintings speaking out of different times, from the streets of Paris which make their patterns and take their names from the earliest use the ancients gave them, from a cafe for writers, tourists, artists or students, we looked on and tried to absorb the meaning to us of a culture which accepted living artists, writers and students into the social fabric with a freedom we had searched for in the United States and had not found.

I think I travel to ask the questions which are hard to formulate about one's own times because one is in the midst, at home, of all that one has seen so often that one does not receive the jolt that might confront one with the uncomfortable but important question. Not with answers — answers are not possible for one's own times and in one's own place. The answer only becomes obvious after time has passed, and we can see, if we have survived it, the predicament that we have passed through.

Mary Oppen was an artist, photographer and poet. She was also the wife of George Oppen and this is an excerpt from her autobiography Meaning: A Life.

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