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The Tide, Part 1: Philip Lamantia
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows, and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
I was halfway through a year-long fellowship during which I was supposed to write my dissertation. And I’d dutifully cranked out a 50-page chapter on Finnegans Wake, so I felt on top of things. Then in late 1998, I found myself at an unexpected crossroads: did I forge ahead with my effort to finish as fast as I could or did I blow the rest of my fellowship hanging out with Philip Lamantia? I can’t say I made the decision so much as it made me. I couldn’t stop myself. He was charismatic and charming, knowledgeable on a bewildering variety of topics, from art, music, and literature, to utopian, anarchist, and Marxist thought, to world religion, renaissance hermeticism, medieval alchemy, and Egyptology, to ornithology, California natural history, and Native American culture, to surrealism, of course, and, most fundamentally, to poetry. His discourses weren’t so much linear as spiral, taking so circuitous a route through history and geography you’d forget what he was talking about until you were suddenly struck by an unexpected return to the subject from whence he’d begun. The process sometimes took hours. Hanging out with him inevitably became a twelve-hour commitment and I was probably seeing him about twice a week, not to mention dropping another afternoon or two on the phone. This is no way to finish a dissertation, but it is an excellent way to become a poet.
I was lucky. When I met him, on his 71st birthday (10/23/98), I only had a vague sense of who Philip was. I’d read his then-new selected, Bed of Sphinxes, and was drawn to the poems from Touch of Marvelous and Blood of the Air, but hadn’t quite known what to make of the rest. I’d also completed most of my first book of poems and had some idea of what I was about, so I didn’t have the impulse to imitate this least imitable of poets. Which would have been a disaster, because we’re very different poets. Philip was one of those poets who conduct their intellectual life almost exclusively through poetry, manifesting the fruit of their erudition in the poem itself, whereas I tend to handle such business in prose, and in fact write way more prose than I do poetry. If I work with ideas in a poem, it usually takes the form of a prose fantasia in the vein of Barthes’ Mythologies, while Lamantia’s Meadowlark West, for example, is like a concise, left-wing Cantos. My poems are often cries of agony or ecstasy, pure expressions of affect, but the astonishing thing is, so are his. In Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski makes a nice observation about Philip when he writes: “Breton, Péret, Rimbaud, Lautréamont. . . they didn’t exist in history for Lamantia; they were contemporaries. He brings them alive in his small, crowded studio just as he does in his poetry.” Cherkovski might have easily said Nicholas Flamel, St. Teresa, Frederick II of Sicily, or Apollonius of Tyana, and by “bringing them alive” he doesn’t mean portray, for the history and ideas of such figures were relevant to Philip’s everyday life, inasmuch as his life was a continual search for enlightenment. Poetry for him was both an expression and a form of gnosis, functioning on a far higher level than my modest lyricism aspires to.
Nonetheless, though I didn’t learn to write from Philip, what I learned affected my practice of the art. The best way to explain is to quote from the second section of the last poem he published in his lifetime, “Triple V” (2001):
Twelve years old: obsessed every afternoon with throwing darts a few months until one day i finally hit the bull’s-eye one hundred successive times. Not long after, day came when three hundred successive throws attained their mark. In a paroxysm of ecstasy i decided to stop playing the game. About two years later the next “thing” i knew, a sudden raging wind rained autumn leaves on a clump of trees where i sat drinking a rare licor of music from an 1845 edition of Poe’s “The Raven and Other Poems.” He who had prefixed his Poems of 1831 with the idea “poetry should be passion.”
The section this is drawn from is called “How I became a poet” and is dedicated to me. The dedication was spur of the moment, as I was typing it up for him to email it to the prose poem magazine Untitled. (Philip was a bit computer-phobic and peered anxiously over my shoulder as I typed.) It wasn’t written for me, in other words, but he applied it to me, insofar as it advocated a romantic approach to poetry. Romanticism was in short supply within the Bay Area avant-garde at the turn of the century, and I was by no means uninfluenced by this. When I knew Philip, I thought of myself as a cold practitioner of a strictly literary form of art. Looking back now, I realize this wasn’t actually true, but at the same time, I practiced many of those techniques—derived from or inspired by Oulipian writing— for generating poetry according to various procedures or constraints. Take something simple, like erasure. Once you create a poem this way, the temptation is to make hundreds. And they might all be good poems; you can hit the target 300 times in a row. But what are the motives for such production? There’s ego, for nothing feels as badass as being prolific. But there’s also professionalism, for we live in an age of professional poets, of résumés, CVs, and fellowships, and, like literary criticism before it, poetry’s become a publish or perish game, in which ubiquity counts for more than just about anything. You need to have product on hand. But Philip was the very antithesis of this; poetry was passion, not profession. Though he’d been publishing in prominent poetry mags since age 15, Philip only put out a handful of books—a dozen if you include several overlapping “selecteds”—over a period of 60 years. He wrote much more than he published, not for want of opportunity. He occasionally suppressed work and once burned a great deal of unpublished poetry, as acknowledged in the title of his book Destroyed Works. I can’t say I don’t regret this destruction, but at the same time I can’t help but admire the gravity with which Philip approached poetry. He always did what he thought he must do. His standards were high and he strove for his art and life to be one. I’m not suggesting anyone could or should take so extreme a position—different poets are here for different things—but I do think Philip provides a useful exemplar of poetic integrity in an age of incautious publication.
The influence of Poe’s conception of poetry as passion on Lamantia’s own poetics is evident in a statement Philip made during an interview we conducted, also in 2001: “If the poem is not written in a state of passion—what we used to call THE ZONE—then forget it.” This ultimately was his influence on my practice. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with “the zone”; to the contrary, I knew my best poems came from there, from that state of inspiration where the words seem to rise of their own accord, to be recorded rather than composed. Let me be clear that I don’t speak of “automatic writing” in the classic sense, but I am referring to automatism of a sort. I more think of it as taking dictation, from—what? Generally, I imagine, from the unconscious, but I’m also open to the possibility of transmission from the unknown. Such ideas were blasphemous in the Bay Area avant-garde, because they didn’t follow the narrative that the materiality of the text should be poetry’s sole motivation and goal, but whatever reservations I held about them couldn’t withstand the living example of Philip. What specifically changed for me was I stopped trying to write poems, which is to say I let go of the techniques of generating poetry. I’m not against them. In 2009 I wrote an erasure, for the first time in like a decade, but I didn’t decide to; phrases called out to me—from the zone, as it were—as I read a series of related news articles, which I ended up boiling down to 23 lines. I haven’t felt the impulse since. There’s nothing wrong with writing a poem this way, but there needs to be an intensity of imagination behind the process, otherwise it’s just generating product. But I’ve lost the ambition to be prolific. I refuse to make myself write poems, so I write far fewer than I used to. Yet each one that arrives has become something new, almost a period of my work in itself. This is not to say the poems write themselves; sometimes the poem is a slow accretion over the course of a couple of months, like a painting gradually built up in layers. Such an amount of time spent on, say, two pages sounds disproportionate, but that’s precisely what makes the poem an anti-product, an absurd investment that doesn’t pay off except in a cosmic currency. Under these circumstances, the poem is purely a labor of love, a passion.