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John Yau Pays Necessary Attention to Poet and Filmmaker Frank Kuenstler (1928-1996)

By Harriet Staff

For Hyperallergic, John Yau has written a necessary piece about the much-neglected poet and filmmaker Frank Kuenstler, who died in 1996 and was the author of nine books. Yau looks at each one, if he can (“I do not own, nor have ever seen, copies of Continued and Miscellany, which have proven impossible to find, even on the Internet. It is not clear why they are rare, but I am reasonably sure that they weren’t published in very small or expensive editions.”) Yau’s overall point is well made:

Kuenstler always seems to end up existing on the cusp of invisibility. The fact that he is not identified with any group (such as the New York School or Black Mountain) hasn’t helped him gain attention. I am reminded of something the iconoclast painter, Nicholas Krushenick (1929–1999) said in an interview with Paul Cummings in 1968: “Like I’m out in left field all by myself. And that’s just where I want to stay.” I want to advance that Kuenstler and Krushenick — the individuals who never tried to fit into the scene — are the ones to pay attention to in these days of branding and reality shows about art.

Also notable is that none of the seven Kuenstler books in Yau’s possession contain a blurb or biographical information:

There is no attempt by Kuenstler or his publishers to provide a context for his writing. Kuenstler must have wanted it this way. He made the choice simple and unimpeded. Either you jump in and begin reading (looking and hearing) or you wait to hear what someone else says about the writing. This doesn’t mean that Kuenstler worked in complete seclusion, that he was a hermit of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I also don’t think the absence of blurbs was necessarily a manifestation of his literary purity, though I suppose there will be some who see it that way.

Some context, however, can be dug up, and Yau has done his research:

During the mid-1960s, around the time that Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945–1965, began shifting the terms, and poetry scenes of all kinds were quickly developing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Harlem and in the West Village, Kuenstler was a member of the Eventorium group, which met regularly on the Upper West Side. The other Eventorium members included Serge Gavronsky, Rachel Blau (later, Blau du Plessis), Michael O’Brien, and Hunter Ingalls. The group published five issues of a magazine, Eventorium Muse (1964–1967), which was co-edited by O’Brien and Ingalls for the first four issues. O’Brien edited the fifth and final issue.

In addition to publishing work by its members, Eventorium Muse included translations by Hiroaki Sato, as well as poems by Michael Benedikt, George Bowering, Russell Edson, Barbara Gormley, Barbara Holland, and Bill Zavatsky. The poets and writing chosen for Eventorium Muse suggest a strong interest in French Surrealism, in translations from French and Japanese, and in prose poetry. The center — if that’s what it was — did not hold. Ingalls began teaching at the University of Texas, Austin. Kuenstler and O’Brien went off in very different and unmistakably particular directions in their writing, as did Blau du Plessis, Gavronsky, and Zavatsky.

Eventorium published three of Kuenstler’s books between 1964 and 1966, which means that O’Brien has had a hand in at least five of the poet’s nine books. The nearly two-decade break between Fugitives. Rounds (New York: Eventorium Press, 1966), and 13 1/2 Poems (New York: SZ/Press, 1984) suggest that Kuenstler did not find another group after Eventorium, nor did a different group or scene take him up. During this long absence he did not stop writing. The gap in publishing suggests that he wrote poetry, but didn’t make a concerted effort to push it out the door. He wasn’t a careerist; and he taught in an art school, rather than in a literature department. LENS, his first book, was published by Film Culture, which wasn’t known for its advocacy of poetry. It came out two years after John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962, Wesleyan University Press), and seems not to have made a ripple.

Yau also looks at LENS, which seems to have taken more than a decade to complete:

Separated by three decades, LENS (1964) and In Which (1994) are full-length books whose contents do not resemble what we have come to call poems. If parts of them — and they would have had to have been extended sections — were included in The Enormous Chorus [Pressed Wafer 2011], they would have pushed the book into another domain.

Working within severely defined limitations, LENS (1964) is far more compressed and opaque than Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1978) and Ron Silliman’s Ketjak (1978) and Tjanting (1981), which, on a fundamental level, were written, while Lens was composed. Rather than being written, it was accumulated, paired words by paired words. In Which was also accumulated, one phrase at a time. They are books that came out of reading — as well as listening to — everyday language. Both books are rife with puns and other associations made through Kuenstler’s precise calibrations of sound and meaning (“In which hand stands and Palm Springs”). By any measure, LENS and In Which are singular and major accomplishments, which seem to have escaped nearly everyone’s notice during Kuenstler’s lifetime.

(Perhaps, Robert Ryman puts it best: “There is never a question of what to paint, only how to paint.” In LENS, Kuenstler simultaneously preserves and intervenes. Language, he proves repeatedly, is not transparent. At the same, in contrast to his conceptually minded, art world counterparts, he never becomes illustrative [Joseph Kosuth] or didactic [Mel Bochner]. He finds pleasure in the banal and disposable, in words).

A note preceding the “Contents” of The Enormous Chorus tells the reader that the selection was made from six books. The other three books plus unpublished work, of which there seems to be a lot, had to be left out. I wonder if a big “reader” including poetry and prose might have served as a better introduction to a poet whose work is known only by a few. Kuenstler doesn’t quite qualify as “a poet’s poet” because so few poets know his work. Though things are starting to change, the word still has yet to get out. . . .

Hopefully it’s starting to. You can read the entire piece here. We’ll also include the endnote: For those interested in reading LENS, it can be found and downloaded from the internet here. The Enormous Chorus can be ordered from SPD. Photo collage by Ira Cohen.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, August 7th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.