Hoot ‘n’ Waddle
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
A literary history for our time, klipschutz’s Premeditations provides one man’s overview of American poetry—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—from Whitman and Dickinson to the near present. According to the foreword, klipschutz’s love affair with literature began as a young teenager stoned and languishing in Indio, California, date palm capital of America, when books by Rimbaud, Bukowski, Lorca, and the Beats began appearing on his oldest brother’s bookshelf. Fact-packed and idiosyncratic, mining not just the Norton Anthology but the bars of North Beach, Premeditations bears testament to the belief (my belief) that for every talent there is an individual tradition. “Poems are People Too,” insists the title of one of his poems, and thanks to the book’s wealth of anecdote, persiflage, and character assassination, we begin to see the point.
There’s another point to be made, however; whether intentional or not the book reads like a valedictory for the era when white male hipsters defined the poetry culture (Ishmael Reed is the only black man, Kay Ryan one of the few women mentioned in the book). Things have changed in the last couple of decades. The White Negro (requiescat in pace) is no longer the bleeding edge of the culture.
Where to begin, in a book so filled with riches—human interest, invective, sex appeal. The Beats figure prominently, especially in Part 1, “North Beach Threnody.” “Sighting,” for example, reminds us of their humor, and raffish charm:
I was just walking down the street
and there stood Gregory Corso,
looking just like Gregory Corso—
to a T the spitting image
(He was, in fact, spitting.)
I congratulated myself on such fine luck
my very first day in San Francisco,
and pushed on.
His very first day, and already a flaneur, like Frank O’Hara and the other urban sophisticates whom he so admires. Tellingly, he prefers his heroes undiscovered by the masses, untouched by fame and money. In “Collected Works,” for instance, klipschutz encounters a latter-day Ginsberg, successful man of letters, “signing [his] own thick epitaph”; he wants the poet “wild-haired young & raving” and, if he could, would—
unextinguish your sweet fractious friends
that you might wound each other bitterly & tenderly again
A real romantic, klipschutz is drawn to the desperate and self-destructive. And so the book offers a miscellaneous cast of downwardly mobile characters: Weldon Kees, Richard Brautigan, Harold Norse, Jack Micheline, Bukowski—confirming his predilection for le poet maudit. But as he himself admits (in “Antipasto À Go Go”), “I was canned, I was sweet, / but I was never really a beet.” A sensitive reader might suspect that k (or is it K) is haunted by the fear of being a Johnny-Come-Lately, a footnote-making machine not even worth a footnote himself.
After conjuring the Beats, his immediate precursors, klipschutz contends with an earlier generation, those Olympian elders: WCW, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robinson Jeffers, etc., but also includes a few ringers, Williams’ wife Flossie and the humorist don marquis. In “Homilectics,” for instance, he takes a big wind-up and lands a haymaker on Frost: “His grousings on free verse are one big migraine … Frost is on the losing side of fashion, where I suspect he’d want to be.”
More often he resorts to lampoon rather than frontal assault. Consider an “Early Darft,” [sic] attributed to Auden:
We must love one another
or work at the tool and die. [sic]
Such a companionable book, in love with all the registers of language! And yet, it is also keenly aware of the pitfalls of the literary life. In “A Visit” we encounter a Keats who might be better off in Bedlam:
John Keats is in the house,
babbling about Chaucer,
talking with his mouth full,
reciting the whole roster
of his antecedentry,
dribbling black tea,
persistent as a bee.
Keats, that force of nature, neither benign nor interested in human desire, puts us all (later poets) on guard, leaving us to rehearse our own “antecedentry.” In his presence who doesn’t exhibit a full-blown case of Anxiety of Influence?
Many of the poems in this book contend with the vagaries of literary reputation. “Delirium” for instance is a meditation on of-all-poets Joyce Kilmer: “not much really lasts,” declares klipschutz, and yet Kilmer, such a bad poet, is still remembered for those eight infinitely trite iambs!
klipschutz also takes aim at the disappointment that is so much a part of a writer’s life: “Verse Reply from the Etruscan Review” is a first-rate example of that rapidly expanding genre, the fake rejection letter, this one couched in archaic (Greek) terminology. Mimicking editorial gravitas, he tells his failing self, “you remain / rhythmically adrift // on the table-wine-dark-sea / of mitochondrial lament.”
A steady diet of disappointment can eventually lead to nihilism and despair; an inescapable sense of futility is never far from the writer’s desk. As he complains in “Extra! Extra!”: “Perhaps we ourselves are merely leftovers of the Age of Knowledge is Power.”
Is klipschutz our Pope (Alexander, not Francis)? Satire, often delivered in rhyme, is one of his strongest suits. Or perhaps, with his knack for the witty, scathing epigram, he might be our Martial, our Catullus.
Not all poets are heroes, not even the good ones. They / we are given to self-importance, not to mention self-deception. klipschutz reserves his strongest censure for poets whose obsessive self-absorption permits them to exploit their lives and loved ones. Perhaps the angriest words in the book are placed in the mouth of Anne Sexton’s husband, “Alfred Fowler (Kayo) Saxton” [sic!]:
Know this, avenging females:
I was her victim, her patron,
so don’t stick pins in me
like you did that poor Ted Hughes.
Or consider the vitriol in this assessment of “Frederick Seidel”:
Here’s to Long John Silverspoon,
on the road on two Italian wheels.
I could live a month on what he spends
for his boa’s weekly live imported meal.
I suppose that even if you love poetry, love writing it, love the people who write it, you’re still subject to the human condition, or whatever masquerades as the human condition in the early twenty-first century. (I won’t go into that now.) If we’re lucky (and/or privileged), we get a little time to have our say, and then it’s gone. As klipschutz says in “Randall Jarrell in Palm Springs,” “We’re fuel. The years gas up, and go.”
We’re fuel. Whatever powered the Beatmobile is almost gone. Ditto, whatever drove the Great Moderns’ limo. Let’s use ourselves wisely.