The proximity is damning . . . damning.
Who the hell am I to say who I am?
—Richard O. Moore
Earlier this year, at age 75, Richard Tagett published what is, for most intents and purposes, his first book: a selected poems called Demodulating Angel. Few poets I’ve asked know who he is, and this is partly his own doing, for Tagett holds a calling card he refuses to play. And by this I don’t mean the 11 issues of the groundbreaking gay literary journal Manroot that he coedited with Paul Mariah between 1969 and 1978, as impressive as that alone is. I speak rather of something that, at this point in poetic history, confers instant and undeniable “street cred”: the fact that, in 1961, after reading Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, he moved from New York to San Francisco to meet and discuss poetry with Jack Spicer.
Not that he’s kept this fact hidden; in Manroot #10, “The Jack Spicer Issue” (Fall 1974/Winter 1975), Tagett’s “Mono/graphic Letter—Jack Spicer & Proximities” reveals that he “made that decision standing in a Broadway bar, watching & listening to Ella Fitzgerald do her doo-beep-eeow.” But back then, such testimony was in support of a marginal figure in American poetry—Black Sparrow hadn’t even published The Collected Books yet—whereas today Spicer’s position has never been more central, judging by his brisk-selling, American Book Award–winning collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. Indeed, Spicer’s work enjoys the luxury of being both central and hip, and the fact that Tagett not only perceived its significance when few others did but literally upended his life to trace its source would surely inspire interest in his own poetry, if only people knew.
“I don’t want to be portrayed as some Spicer acolyte,” Tagett snarls when I propose writing about him, and throughout the process he’s been a half-willing participant at best. I can’t say I blame him. Like most poets, he’d prefer to be considered on his own terms, rather than in relation to another. “I know I’m a poet,” he adds in a later email. “I need no validation, only listeners.” At the same time, however, a little of the former helps generate the latter, and lesser poets have built greater reputations on far flimsier foundations. Witness, for example, Jack Micheline’s famous napkin, on which Kerouac scrawled his drunken endorsement.
Unlike that dubious blurb, however, Tagett’s connection with Spicer is indisputably substantial. After passing a two-poem “audition”—the first of which, “Of What Is Real,” opens Demodulating Angel—Tagett would spend the next two years as a core participant in Spicer’s Sunday poetry group, then including Robin Blaser, George Stanley, and Stan Persky, eventually dropping out due to a severe, protracted case of mono. While he would subsequently join Robert Duncan’s Society for Individual Rights in 1964, Tagett remained friends with Spicer, witnessing his final public appearance at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, shortly before his death. And while he would associate with Duncan off and on for 14 years, Tagett’s far briefer friendship with Spicer remained the decisive poetic encounter of his youth.
For a poet who has resolutely refused to dine out on his Spicer connection, the preceding paragraphs will probably feel akin to character assassination. But at the same time, I feel obliged to rehearse such information because it’s so compelling, and surely the fact that he decided to meet Spicer while watching Ella Fitzgerald in a bar in New York elevates Tagett to a level of cool the average MFA student can only dream of. And let’s face it, how else do you direct attention to a 75-year-old who’s just published his first book? Poets, I’ve found to my surprise, are not immune to the cultural bias towards youth; younger poets I meet tend to be extremely conscious of their immediate peer group, and perhaps the immediately preceding generation, measuring their accomplishments against each other, and they can be remarkably incurious about anyone older who’s not already a bona fide star. As a critic, you need to give people reasons to turn to someone like Tagett, and as I’ve suggested, there are plenty. To assert his membership in Spicer’s circle is simply to vouch for his historical significance as a poet in order to direct readers to his work.
Tagett’s resistance to such salesmanship is, of course, a mark of his integrity, but it raises a more fundamental question about the efficacy of considering membership in such a circle in relation to a poet’s work. That is, does the fact of a poet’s participation in a given scene shed much light in terms of the poetry itself? So general an inquiry obviously doesn’t permit a singular answer, yet the question has forced itself on me lately, particularly in relation to another poet whose first book was even longer in coming: Richard O. Moore.
In 2010, at the age of 90, Moore published his debut volume, a selected poems called Writing the Silences, with the University of California Press. The core of California’s marketing for this title can be gleaned from a sentence on the book’s back cover: “Moore belonged to the San Francisco Renaissance literary circle of Kenneth Rexroth in the 1940s and 1950s, a precursor of the Beat poetry movement.” This sentence was more than enough to pique my interest, but, like most marketing copy, it distorts as much as it reveals, conflating two overlapping but distinct groupings around Rexroth: the Friday night salons that continued well into the ’60s, and the Wednesday night meetings of the San Francisco Libertarian Circle, which were conducted over a roughly three-year period between 1947 and 1949. The Fridays could conceivably be described as “literary,” though they were also heavy on politics and philosophy, but the Wednesdays were specifically an anarchist discussion group, whose attendees were by no means limited to literary types and eventually numbered over 100.
Moore participated in both groups at different times. Having enrolled at Berkeley in 1939, he soon met Rexroth through fellow student, poet, and communist Thomas Parkinson and began attending the Fridays. Expelled from Berkeley for academic delinquency—though he suspects his involvement in anti-war demonstrations on campus may have been a factor—Moore moved to San Francisco, but would head north to the rustic Sonoma County town of Duncans Mills with his then-partner Eleanor McKinney in 1945. They would return, however, in the late ’40s, to help found the country’s first listener-supported radio station, KPFA, with Lewis Hill. Though he downplays his role, insisting that he merely fell into the project by proximity to McKinney, Moore is nonetheless a significant figure in the history of alternative media. As he is fond of saying, public broadcasting “was my version of going straight,” though “going straight” for Moore wasn’t incompatible with joining Rexroth’s anarchist group.
Though he appeared in a few Bay Area little mags such as The Ark and Circle during this period, Moore never pursued publication with any assiduousness and soon left off altogether as his involvement with KPFA grew. But he always sought to incorporate poetry in the station’s programming, interviewing poets, broadcasting them reading, and even securing Rexroth a weekly show devoted to books. While he would quit KPFA in 1952 over what he describes as a “political” disagreement, Moore would return to broadcasting two years later with the country’s sixth public television station, KQED. He would spend the rest of his professional life working in public television in one capacity or another, until his retirement in 1990, and is probably best known for the cinema verité documentaries he directed in the ’60s and ’70s.
But Moore never stopped writing poems, and while he has good-humoredly acquiesced to his publisher’s portrayal of him as a Rexroth circle poet, he’s still apt to demur at the notion that his associations of the 1940s somehow account for his output of the ensuing 60 years.
“I never really felt a part of any school,” Moore says. “If for no other reason than through my extensive reading encouraged by Kenneth and other poets, I was aware that there are a seemingly infinite number of individual voices and therefore no school. If you look at the New York School, Ashbery is totally different from Koch and Koch is totally different from O’Hara. So I wanted to reserve for myself the flexibility of using any form and any language set available to me.”
As was frequently the case with poets he mentored, Rexroth’s influence on Moore was more intellectual than prosodic, particularly with respect to what Moore calls “the attitude of philosophical anarchism.”
“The importance of the Rexroth circle for me was that it provided a kind of critical attitude towards all institutions and the ways in which institutions influence the individual,” he explains. “The other important thing was his enormous acquaintance with other writers, ranging all the way from Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff to Kropotkin and the basics, beginning with the Greeks. Through Kenneth I learned about Martin Buber, who’s been an important influence in my life. Herbert Read was another. All at once the universe enlarged exponentially through Kenneth.”
If pressed on his poetic influences, Moore readily acknowledges Eliot, Pound, and Williams, though he insists that “my head is as filled with Chaucer.” The inspiration of Pound’s use of both open and traditional forms clearly manifests itself in the formal restlessness evident throughout Writing the Silences, from the rhyming ballad “A Reminiscence” to the baroquely modern prose poem series “d e l e t e” to the austerely postmodern, dual-column title sequence. But Moore remains skeptical of the explanatory power of such influences.
“I’m not an imitative poet,” he says, “nor am I the sum of my reading. There’s a certain distaste, to me, in even trying to define it, like this is who I am. That’s nonsense. Who the hell am I to say who I am?”
Such radical doubt about the province of the self in poetry seems to turn the question of influence on its head. Yet if it exudes a Buddhist air characteristic of the San Francisco Renaissance, Moore’s skepticism is equally grounded in his study of Wittgenstein. “The role of language in perception, or the relationship between language and perception, fascinates me, and these things were not talked about in the Rexroth circle, nor with Duncan or any of the other poets,” says Moore. His interest in such matters in relation to poetry prefigures that of Language poetry, even as the results are quite different.
At first, over email, Richard Tagett dismisses the question of associates and influences: “I had my associates and friend-peers then, as I do new ones presently, all of whom had and have completely different aesthetics and styles. Of course you can see that all this associative stuff means nothing to me as to the artifact.”
In person, however, he’s more expansive, recalling his profound delight in the freedom of Spicer’s varied line lengths in “Imaginary Elegies” from New American Poetry. As Tagett points out, however, influence itself isn’t necessarily static, as a poet’s interests and opinions evolve, nor is it always local or contemporary.
“I can see Spicer in me,” he acknowledges. “But recently I find myself liking Oppen, of all things. Right now I feel like Spicer’s over here, Oppen’s over there, and I’m somewhere between the two. But it changes; at one time I liked Nicanor Parra a lot. When I was first writing I really liked the French Symbolists, and I’ve gone back to that.”
“My favorite poems of mine,” he adds, “are those skinny narrow ones.” I find this admission intriguing, because while I can “see” Spicer in Tagett’s work, as in the opening lines of “Scherzo for Jack” (“It’s alright to fuck over the dead. / No one listens. / In the emptiness a blue sheep.”), I often feel a hint of Robert Creeley in Tagett’s short-line poems. Take, for example, the first stanzas of “Rivus”:
my hand there
“I liked Creeley a lot, and I think it shows up in my poetry,” Tagett says. Yet, too, he’s exacting even in praise. “I used to have both volumes of Creeley’s Collected Poems, but the second volume I didn’t like at all. He was just doing the same thing over and over.”
Whether or not one agrees with such an assessment, Tagett’s point is clear, insofar as his own work rejects Creeley’s Mondrian-like commitment to a particular mode of poetry. While drawn to Creeley’s minimalist lines, for example, Tagett also has reservoirs of surreality that burst forth in his work, as in the prose poem “Triptych for Believers”: “The lips of old men are lockboxes in the terminal of no-knowing without gratitude for the despair of angels.” There’s little in Spicer and nothing in Creeley to suggest so thoroughly weird a sentence; the only San Francisco Renaissance poet it evokes for me is Philip Lamantia, not in that it seems imitative but in that it’s a truly irrational admixture of concrete and abstract imagery into a vividly felt but not-quite-visualizable whole.
Still, at the risk of overemphasis, I’ve dwelt on the Creeleyan strain in Tagett’s work because I detect something similar in certain poems by Richard Moore. Moore—who was interested enough to include Creeley in a series of films he made for KQED called USA: Poetry (1966)—is alive to this comparison, evident, for example, in the opening stanzas of the sequence “Holding On”:
of the lights
of old age
tagged and waiting
or light tricks
“What I liked about Creeley was the spare, spare line,” Moore says. “There are many of my poems that are comparable in the sense that they try to say something with the minimum of words. The word becomes an object, in a sense; you put them out there one by one by one.”
I confess I’m uncertain whether this resemblance between Moore and Tagett supports or gives the lie to the significance of the poetic circle. Not being a resident of San Francisco, Creeley obviously wasn’t a member of either Rexroth’s or Spicer’s circles, but he certainly impacted the general ambiance of the San Francisco Renaissance. While it hardly accounts for the depth and variety of their work, the influence of Creeley’s spare line is what Moore and Tagett’s poetry has in common, but it has no basis in any personal association, either with Creeley or with each other.
Though they had some mutual friends, notably Robert Duncan, Richard Tagett and Richard Moore never met back in the ’60s. Moore, of course, knew Spicer from the Rexroth circle, but even on later occasions when he visited Spicer at Gino & Carlo’s bar in North Beach, he never encountered Tagett. Tagett wasn’t much of a drinker, nor did he enjoy seeing Spicer made belligerent through booze, so he usually limited himself to the Sunday poetry group. Moore and Tagett were in the same room on at least one occasion, Spicer’s appearance at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, but even here they didn’t connect. Given the sympathy that exists between their work, I can’t help thinking that, had they crossed paths, they would have had a lot to talk about. As it turned out, they did, when they finally met to be photographed for this article.