Essay

Casting Spells

The quietly mythic life of Gerrit Lansing.
Gerrit Lansing in a cemetery

“You become somebody to read about.”
—Gerrit Lansing, “The Orchards of Sleep”

 

On February 6, 2018, for both business and pleasure, I called the poet Gerrit Lansing. On the business side, we discussed a project for City Lights, where I work: a new edition of the enigmatic Boston poet Stephen Jonas, for whom Lansing served as literary co-executor. In the pleasure column, I noted I was flying east at the end of the month for his 90th birthday party and the tribute reading scheduled for the following day at the Gloucester Writers Center, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This, in turn, led back to business: I’d pitched an article—“Gerrit Lansing at 90”—to the Poetry Foundation and wanted to see if he was up for an interview. “Yes,” he said, professing to be “flattered.” But he wanted to do it the day after the reading, when he’d feel more relaxed. “See you in a couple weeks,” he said.

Five days later, my phone lit up with a call from the poet Derek Fenner. We’d spent the previous day together in Berkeley, finding me a copy of Lansing’s book, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (2009). I say book because there was only one, which he refined and expanded over four decades. Originally published by Robert Kelly’s Matter as The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (1966), the book was reissued in 1977 by North Atlantic Books in an expanded form. The version I owned, Heavenly Tree/Soluble Forest, appeared in 1995 from Talisman. It was high time I upgraded to the current version.

Few things are more agreeable than book shopping with another poet, but a shadow hung over us that afternoon. Fenner, who’d lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, for years and had spent countless hours with Lansing, was fielding increasingly grim messages from friends in Gloucester. Lansing’s health had taken a turn. He’d mentioned to me he was laid up with pain, though his doctors hadn’t determined why, but he fully expected to host the party; mentally he remained clear. Two more weeks suddenly seemed doubtful, though Fenner and I tried to talk ourselves into believing he’d at least make his birthday. But I knew even before answering the call: Gerrit Lansing was dead.

***

One of the last of a generation of major poets born in the latter 1920s—a group that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Philip Lamantia—Lansing is perhaps lesser known but is unquestionably their peer. “His poetry itself is the most important unrecognized body of work of that half-century,” Robert Kelly says. “You can’t read him for long without realizing that the world into which he is writing is a world that has lost its way. That level of critical acumen in his work is so rare because it isn’t immediately coupled with a ‘therefore, do this’ way, which we saw so much of in the ’60s and the ’70s. We don’t get that from him; we get a far more nuanced analysis of the situation of the cosmos.”

Two weeks after Lansing’s death, I found myself in a castle in Gloucester. The birthday party had turned into a memorial, with 100 or more people crammed into a stone chapel. Hammond Castle, built in the late 1920s by the inventor of modern radio remote control, John Hays Hammond Jr., is today a museum and wedding venue with commanding views of the Atlantic. Lansing met Hammond in New York in the 1950s and lived in the castle in the early 1960s, when he first moved to town and hung out with Maximus himself, Charles Olson. That’s the sort of mythic life Lansing quietly led.

Modest, even a little shy, Lansing was nonetheless magnetic, both for his erudition and for the generosity that brought out a corresponding warmth in those he befriended. When I first visited his house in 2013, I went to shake his hand, but he laughed and embraced me instead. “We already know each other,” he said, though we’d spoken maybe once on the phone. He put us on “old friends” footing right away, and despite visiting him only twice and talking with him on the phone a half-dozen times, I felt grief at his passing.

At the same time, I was hardly his most recent friend; that weekend I met more than one young person who’d known him for maybe a year and a half tops. Lansing made friends until the end, and those mourning him were remarkably diverse in age, ethnicity, and, for lack of a better term, degree of queerness. Some speakers during the memorial, longtime friends such as 3rian King, a musician, and Timotha Doane, a poet, gave moving accounts of meeting Lansing when they were young and queer and the inspiration he provided tucked away in his corner of Massachusetts: he was “the bridge to a much larger and more interconnected world,” as King put it. Though Lansing’s relatives recalled him with great affection at the memorial, he had intimated to me that being an openly gay poet interested in tantric sex magic and other occult subjects made him the black sheep of his illustrious and prosperous family.

***

In a 2015 panel discussion at Harvard, Lansing described his family as “early settlers of Albany.” This is an understatement. The Lansings are “one of the oldest and most distinguished families in America,” according to Claude Munsell’s genealogy The Lansing Family (1916), which begins with Gerrit Frederickse Lansing’s emigration from Holland to New Amsterdam in 1640. Lansingburgh, New York (now part of Troy); Lansing, New York; and Lansing, Michigan; all take their name from the family. Two of Lansing’s ancestors, John Lansing Jr. and Robert Yates, were anti-Federalist representatives from New York at the 1787 Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the resulting document. The Gerrit Yates Lansing on Wikipedia isn’t the poet but rather one of his forebears, a three-term congressman (1831–37) from New York’s 10th District. Descendants of the family remain in politics to this day; another, distantly related Gerrit Lansing served as chief digital officer for the Trump White House for about a month and was reportedly dismissed for failure to pass the FBI background check.

The poet Gerrit Lansing was born in Albany, New York, in 1928. After a few early years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he grew up on a farm in Bainbridge Township, Ohio, south of Cleveland. His father, Charles, was an engineering consultant and metals executive. His mother, Alice, was friendly with Kenward Elmslie’s mother, resulting in a lifelong friendship between the future poets. Though a piano prodigy who played Bach, Mozart, and Scriabin for pleasure, Lansing was no musical snob. During World War II, while still a teen, he performed pop songs with a band. In the mid-1940s, he studied philosophy at Harvard, where his friends included the poets Elmslie, Ashbery, and O’Hara and the artist Edward Gorey. (He also met fellow classmate Creeley, but they traveled in different circles.) Though Lansing had read poetry in high school—including Whitman and his mother’s favorite, the now-forgotten late Victorian Stephen Phillips—Lansing traced his poetic origins to Harvard, where he took a class on Blake and Yeats taught by the famed critic and biographer Richard Ellmann and attended readings by T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Though Yeats inspired Lansing’s research into the occult, Stevens was clearly the more pivotal poetic influence, instilling in Lansing a capacity for baroque exuberance. There are passages throughout Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth that evoke Stevens more strongly than any other poetry I’ve read: “Dreamer of purified fury and fabulous habit, / your eyes of deserted white afternoons / target, stiffen, riot with unicorn candor,” for example, from "A Poem of Love in Eleven Lines," or “Extricate, but not too much, / unfaithful digger of concordances,” from "From Under the Mat Where Sat the Cat."

After graduation in 1949, Lansing moved to New York City. He worked at Columbia University Press and at George W. Stewart Publishers. He also enrolled in Columbia’s graduate school and received an M.A. in English in 1955, writing his thesis on the 17th-century Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. But his pursuits were hardly confined to the classroom. In the early 1950s, he befriended Harry Smith, the artist-filmmaker-musicologist responsible for the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). In addition to their passion for jazz and bebop at venues such as Birdland, they studied magic together under Count Stefan Colonna Walewski, proprietor of the mystical curio shop Esoterica and author of A System of Caucasian Yoga (1955). This began a lifelong devotion to the study of magic and other occult subjects, which sets Lansing’s poetry apart from that of his contemporaries in the New York School. Consider, for example, the alchemically infused poem “The Great Form Is Without Shape,” which ends

All life long
the dew falls from heaven
all life long
trees climb up from underground waters.

In the seed of the old god the new gods are swarming.

Earth is ready for planting.

The shut eye is opening.

The heat.

These lines bear little resemblance to anything produced by the New York School, even as their author could be found with his college pals Ashbery and O’Hara rubbing shoulders with the painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers at the San Remo Café in Greenwich Village.

Through Elmslie, Lansing met John Latouche, a lyricist most famous for the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky (1940) and the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956). At the Harvard panel, Lansing recalled Latouche as “an extraordinary charismatic person, charismatic in a way that I really couldn’t describe.” Latouche introduced Lansing to a world of theater, ballet, and opera and to a network of writers, including Paul and Jane Bowles, Christopher Isherwood, Jack Kerouac, and Lamantia, the latter of whom influenced Lansing’s poetry in terms of its hermeticism and surrealism. Lansing was also friends with Latouche’s lovers Harry Martin, a painter, and Elmslie, who became Latouche’s primary partner for the rest of his life. (Latouche died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41 in 1956.) Other poet friends from this time included Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Jonathan Williams, Ronald Johnson, Robert Duncan, and, inevitably, Ginsberg.

Despite the openness of Latouche’s milieu, Lansing conducted his sex life elsewhere, in the city’s gay underground of illegal bars and cruising hotspots. During the Harvard panel, he recalled “living two or three different lives with friends who didn’t know each other. My sexual explorations in New York were quite separate from the older friends I had like Latouche.” In later conversations and interviews, Lansing occasionally alluded to this “street” or “bar” period, and discreet references to cruising are scattered throughout Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth; sex frequently occurs outdoors, and at least one poem, “Boxcar Moonlight Scene,” is entirely devoted to this theme (“Furtively, then freely / they made it in an empty boxcar / moonlight streaming in the open door, / two o’clock in the morning”). One of my regrets in not having interviewed him is that I was unable to ask him about this period, though in an interview in the Boston lit mag Let the Bucket Down, Lansing identifies John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) as an accurate depiction of the gay hustling scene.

***

The 1950s were formative years for Lansing, who began publishing poems in New York School periodicals such as Semi-Colon and A New Folder. In 1959, he embarked on arguably his one flight of career ambition as a poet when he sent out an announcement for an offset little magazine called Set, whose “character [was] conceived as dual, historical & magical[.]” This announcement—expanded into an editorial titled “The Burden of Set”—is a précis of his subsequent poetry and a declaration of his belief in the integration of fact and imagination, in terms derived from Stevens:

As Wallace Stevens says, “To be at the end of fact is not to be at the beginning of imagination, but it is to be at the end of both.”

       Thus “poetry increases the feeling for reality” (again Stevens) &
the historic fact (our scene) lies equally beneath all the moving
poetry
& all the moving science we make. Poetry & science invisibly concur
between the poles, & the Properties of the World are summarized
for any point-moment by the Riemann-Christoffel tensor or by a
poem
                                               &
“…in the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science.” (Whitman)

However, by the time the first of Set’s two issues appeared in 1961, Lansing’s life had undergone profound changes. He’d grown “weary of the city,” as he recalled during the Harvard panel, and had accepted an invitation to stay at Hammond Castle from Harry Martin, who—as Lansing suggests in Howard Pollack’s The Ballad of John Latouche (2017)—was conducting a clandestine affair with Hammond himself. Though Lansing initially thought of his visit as temporary, two events conspired to make Gloucester a long-term proposition.

The first was meeting Charles Olson, who settled in Gloucester in 1956 following the failure of Black Mountain College, the influential experimental school in North Carolina where he had served as rector. Lansing and Martin became fast friends with Olson. They arranged his first local reading and were his frequent drinking companions. Lansing was also a resource on tarot and other esoteric subjects touched on in Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953–70). The poets around Olson also included Vincent Ferrini, whose former home now houses the Gloucester Writers Center. The second event was Lansing’s meeting Deryk Burton, a yacht captain for a wealthy family. They soon set up house together and remained partners until Burton’s death in 1997. Their relationship imparted its own rhythm to Lansing’s life, as he usually worked as a deckhand when Burton sailed the yacht Playtime to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, nearly every winter.

Living less than an hour from Boston, Lansing was also drawn to the remnants of a mostly gay group of poets, alternately known as the Boston Renaissance or School of Boston. This crucial configuration of the New American Poetry, under-recognized compared with the New York School or the San Francisco Renaissance, included his close friends John Wieners and Stephen Jonas—both of whom he’d met in New York—as well as Edward Marshall, Joe Dunn, Robin Blaser, and Spicer, all of whom wound up on the West Coast. Lansing also used Set as a calling card to reach other poets who he felt shared his interests.

“One day in the mail I found a copy of Set,” Kelly recalls, “and that was the first I knew of Gerrit. I responded to it, I was impressed by it. We began to correspond a little bit, and when I first went to Gloucester in 1962 to visit Olson, I visited Gerrit as well, and from then on for the next decade or so we were in pretty close contact.” Their friendship resulted in the first iteration of Heavenly Tree, which Kelly mimeographed at Bard College, complete with a letterpress cover. “He persisted with [Heavenly Tree] as the title of his book the way Whitman did [with Leaves of Grass],” Kelly says, “and I think he was guided by Whitman in that insistence that that was his book.” Kelly also introduced Lansing to another of his lifelong poet friends, Charles Stein, whose one-off, occult-themed journal Aion (1964) seems almost like a third issue of Set, including texts by several of the same poets as well as Aleister Crowley.

Lansing’s initial stint in Gloucester lasted until the early 1970s. The deaths of Olson and Jonas within a month of each other in early 1970 cast a temporary pall over his life in Massachusetts, and by 1972, he and Burton had embarked on a period of wandering that led to Annapolis, Maryland, due to Burton’s nautical career. There Lansing cofounded an antiquarian bookstore, Circle West, that specialized in rare occult books. In 1977, North Atlantic Books put out the second edition of Heavenly Tree. Around that time, he was also hospitalized for alcoholism, perhaps exacerbated by time spent in the gay bar scene and among heavy-drinking poets.

“It was a very interesting turning point; it changed him,” Kelly says. “He became much more accessible to other people, friendlier. When in drink he could be a little acerbic. Some of his naughty young boy magic stuff would come out and he’d be trying to cast spells on you.” Lansing’s treatment was successful enough that he could engage in light social drinking late in life. I had a beer or two with him during my visits and at least one teeny glass of fernet, but it was all steeped in ritual and hospitality. Approaching 90, he didn’t seem to have the capacity or the desire for serious drinking.

***

In 1982, Lansing and Burton returned to Gloucester, where Lansing founded a second used bookstore, Abraxas, that had a decade-long run downtown. By 1992, the couple had retired and purchased the sprawling sea captain’s house overlooking Gloucester Bay where Lansing spent the last 25 years of his life. It was to this marvelous house that I repaired with Fenner and the poet Micah Ballard the day after the memorial, on our way to the tribute reading, to meet Timotha Doane, who had stayed with Lansing while he died, and David Rich, a friend of Lansing’s collaborating with us on the Jonas project. Our stay was brief but therapeutic. In the front room, Lansing’s piano had been moved to make room for a hospital bed, though this had already been returned. For reasons related to his esoteric beliefs, he wanted to die facing east, though doubtless he enjoyed his view of the Atlantic during his final hours. Otherwise, the place was as I remembered it: packed with books and with rooms devoted to subjects such as poetry, philosophy, magic, surrealism, Egyptology, religion, and so forth. Tucked away were various items of magical significance—prayer flags, knives, potions to ward off evil, art by Harry Smith, Remedios Varo, and Thorpe Feidt. Lansing’s personality permeated every corner; it was almost like seeing him again. We toasted him with teeny glasses of fernet before heading out.

To accommodate the crowd, the reading had been moved from the Writers Center to the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church, whose bell was cast by Paul Revere—appropriately historical, given Lansing’s historic family. Many of his poet friends, such as Ammiel Alcalay, Charles Stein, Simon Pettet, George Quasha, and Joseph Torra read his poems while musicians set them to music. I found it hard not to wonder if I’d ever see another large celebration of him. I don’t want to call Lansing’s poetry difficult, but it functions on a high enough level of abstraction to appeal to Language poets, though you’d never mistake it for Language poetry, given the sources it draws on. “Gerrit’s work was trailblazing in bringing the traditionary sciences into contemporary poetic discourse,” Kelly notes, referring to Lansing’s use of materials mined from alchemy, astrology, numerology, and so forth. “He avoided the narrative in some remarkable way.” Yet the poetry remains open to the quotidian, with references to McDonald’s, Tin Pan Alley, and even the Teletubbies, as capable of taking as its theme either an “Egg Breakfast” or “In Erasmus Darwin’s Generous Light.”

“How We Sizzled in the Pasture” is a useful example of Lansing’s work. First published in a selection of his poetry and prose called A February Sheaf (2003), the poem was incorporated into the 2009 edition of Heavenly Tree and is dedicated to Elmslie. It opens

Down in the boondocks rhematic sinsigns multiply

                        jug to hungry ghosts,
                        bursting open pearly gates.

“Aint no grace, aint no guilt
      popcorn twiddle, come full tilt”

           handy pathfinders whoop

                        at no-restriction hurdles:

Da woid ob sin aint dare at all,
not in giggles nor reddening toes

                no think blink
                no tattle no buckle
         high dick fun at the fair.

As this passage suggests, his poetry is highly wrought, more a deliberate bricolage than an automatic outpouring, even if, on some level, Lansing considered himself a surrealist. The movement from stanza to stanza here is more free associational than rational, with few narrative cues to guide readers. Without attempting to reduce it to a narrative, however, the poem might be fruitfully considered a reminiscence or celebration of adolescent or even preadolescent sexual exploration. The dedication to Elmslie and, later in the poem, the depiction of farm life (“milked the cow” and so on) places the poem in the period of Lansing’s childhood, while the one obvious sexual reference, “high dick fun,” perhaps imbues the more equivocal ones (“come full tilt,” “bursting open pearly gates”) with such meaning. Of course, I’m reading this against the totality of outdoor sex in his work, for I suspect this is the type of “sizzling” Lansing would get up to in a pasture. I assumed sinsigns was his own portmanteau, and I still think it functions that way, given that sin is picked up seven lines later in a line seemingly couched in 19th-century literary Black dialect. Yet sinsigns turns out to be a technical term from the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914); its significance isn’t something I can easily fathom, though Wikipedia tells me an example of a “rhematic sinsign” is “a spontaneous cry,” which seems broadly consistent with my feeling about this poem.

There’s more to consider in these 12 lines than space permits. Jug jug is a standard Elizabethan representation of the song of the nightingale, perhaps alluding to the myth of the rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses by way of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), itself by way of John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584). As such examples suggest, Lansing’s poems are complicated, though this complexity needn’t be a barrier to appreciating them. He’s one of those poets, such as Lamantia or Yeats, whose poems come across as works of art even in the absence of precise knowledge of their references. As a poet, I take no small pleasure in his exquisite sense of composition, the way the first line above pivots from dactylic to iambic, for example, or how the placement of “pearly gates” under “hungry ghosts” teases out a structural similarity, in the distribution of the letters y, g, t, and s. Each poem displays that combination of light touch and supreme command that characterizes the virtuoso.

***

We lingered in town that night after the reading and got drunk at a bar called the Rhumb Line. It was hard to leave because we were so clearly at the end of an era. The presence of three significant poets from the postwar New American Poetry—Ferrini, Olson, and Lansing—had made Gloucester a real scene and an improbable destination for poetry. Lansing was the last one standing, and if the past weekend was any indication, his presence was a major force holding the scene together. That weekend, I spoke with Henri Ferrini, Vincent’s nephew and a co-founder of the Writers Center, and he looked ashen. As it turned out, Fred Buck, the poet Ed Dorn’s stepson and the editor of the 1970s little mag Bezoar, had died the same night as Lansing, as if to hasten the era’s end. Yet I’m optimistic about this scene’s capacity to endure, if only from witnessing its display of community in the face of his death; the Writers Center itself is a magnet for prominent visitors as well as a hub for local poets such as Amanda Cook, Dave Rich, Gabe Barboza, and Jim Dunn.

But it would be pointless to deny that Gerrit’s death was a real blow to the scene and to those who knew and loved him, as well as a loss to American poetry. It hurt to see him go, despite his long life or indeed because of it, in the sense that I had grown to rely on his enduring presence, connecting us to long-gone poets such as Olson, Jonas, and Wieners. I’m reminded of a recent interview with Ron Padgett in The Believer, in which he’s asked about Ashbery’s death: “He had a long, productive, successful life, so it’s wrong to think he got short-changed. He made out pretty well!” Padgett says. “But from my point of view, I just miss knowing he’s here.”

Originally Published: December 19th, 2018

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...