Wednesday, November 28, 2007


“The Poetry of Put-On”
by Rochelle Ratner

[Editor's Note: This essay written in 1984 as part of a still unpublished book of criticism entitled Speaking In Tongues.]

The ironic poet is making fun of the society which envelops him; the poet of put-on is attacking society by beating it at its own game. Knott and Codrescu attack the more conventional poets; Spicer attacks the inflexible academic English departments, Schwerner attacks the pseudo-scholars. In his own way, each poet comments on society's values, forcing a redefinition of those values once the trick is exposed.

With the work of Bill Knott, Andrei Codrescu, and other writers of the Warhol-and-Dylan-inspired generation, we begin to see people as metaphors. These personae are no more or less important than the poets, their lives are not inspiring or significant, they are neither mad nor heroic, they are simply Other.

Bill Knott
What should have been the most successful attempt at a persona which would "put one over" on the reading public was unfortunately aborted soon after it began, through no direct fault of the poet. Bill Knott's poems appeared in magazines during the early Sixties. In 1966, a letter was sent to the magazines who'd published his poems, stating that Knott, an orphan and a virgin, had committed suicide. Knott had gone to all extremes to live up to his persona: he is actually an orphan; he had his marriage annulled to better substantiate his claim to be a virgin. He then began to write under the pseudonym Saint Geraud.

In Paul Carroll's landmark anthology, The Young American Poets, published in 1968, Bill Knott's name does not appear. One finds Saint Geraud (1940-1966) listed alphabetically under "S". The anthology was published simultaneously with The Naomi Poems: Corpse And Beans by Saint Geraud, for which Carroll acted as editor.

At first, Carroll appears to go along with the hoax. In his introduction, he even praises Saint Geraud's directness and passion, which drew him to the poems in the first place. He then reveals Knott's identity, "although the poet tells me that he would rather have this not known." Regarding Knott's choice of persona, Carroll tells us that Saint Geraud was the "hero" of an eighteenth century French pornographic novel, Le Tartuffe Libertin. "As Saint Geraud fulfills his responsibility as director of an orphanage for both sexes, all variety of sexual activity, including inversion and perversion, are catalogued in this brief book." He then speculates about why Knott needed this persona. Despite all his attempts to be "hip", his speculations reveal his academic slant, and it is a simplistic one at that:

Saint Geraud chooses to remain faceless behind the mask of his pseudonym in the sense that he doesn't dare ask us to understand or analyze: he asks only that we hear of his passion and desires in all of their incandescence and purity...

By using the pseudonym the poet seems to imply: I hide my unrequited and painful love behind the mask of a fake "saint" of love -- one who is no more than a cartoon in the comic strip of classic pornographic characters...

But as far as the poems to Naomi are concerned, I think we might understand the suicide letter as having come from the same depths in which the poems were conceived... the voice behind the mask tells us the blunt facts: "Bill Knott's love died in 1966. The rest is silence or the oblivion of death."

What Carroll somehow fails to comprehend is that by revealing the identity behind the mask, he is destroying the validity of the poems themselves. He turns Knott's poems into the "literary affectations" the poet was at pains to avoid. The deep loneliness behind the poems of love and death sustains the book and the persona; the finest poems here take on an urgency when written by a man we are told later committed suicide, and that emotional validity is precisely what Carroll unwittingly destroys.

As one frequently finds with the potential suicide, Knott is capable of reversing the process and imagining that it is his lover, and not himself, who has died. Consider the prose poem "After The Burial":

After the burial I alone stood by till 2 workmen came to shovel the dirt back into the hole. There was some left over, the dirt she'd displaced, and they wheeled it off. Drawn, not knowing why, I followed at a distance. Coming to a small backlot, they dumped it, then left. I walked over. It made a small mound. And all around her, similar mounds. Pure cones of joy! First gifts from the dead! I fell to my knees before it, and fell forward on my hands into the elbows, like washwater...For the first time, I became empty enough to cry for her.

Another interesting element in The Naomi Poems is Knott's ability to associate his own frustrations with the frustrations of America. In so doing, he becomes not simply the victimized citizen eventually driven to suicide, but the American hero, sacrificing himself for a country that has already been sacrificed.


In this time and place, where "Bread and Circuses" has become "Bread and Atrocities," to say 'I love you' is like saying the latest propaganda phrase... 'defoliation'... 'low yield blast'. If bombing children in preserving peace, then my fucking you is a war-crime.

The Naomi Poems was successful and Knott, minus his persona, received quite a bit of attention. But the success, combined with the loss of his mask, made the writing itself difficult. Knott tried again with a later book, Nights of Naomi, listing the book as by Bill Knott (1940-1966), and including this note on the back cover: "I consider 'Nights' my first and only book. The other books (including 'Auto-necrophelia') with my name on them are, like the patent-office, full of garbage."

By this time it was too late. The surrealism is more apparent in Nights of Naomi; sexuality is flaunted rather than carefully developed to become the cause of frustration. The urgency is missing; eighteen years and several books later, he has still not found a way to recapture it.

Andrei Codrescu
Codrescu's personae are guises he can slip in and out of, moving from one to the next and back again, attitudes and autobiographies which become so interchangeable with his own life that it is nearly impossible to determine which one is real and which the put-on. He even wrote a pseudo-autobiography, The Life & Times of an Involuntary Genius, and a second volume, In America's Shoes. In the latter, he describes himself starting work on that first volume:

I saw animals, both known and unknown, come almost up to the windows as I toiled at inventing my life... I'd never intended to write an autobiography because I have little or no memory. Years and years of my life were missing and what I remembered was sufficient to overwhelm me.

Codrescu's life, prior to 1966 or 1967, when he came to New York, had a built-in mystique which readily lent itself to persona. Born in Romania (sometimes referred to as Transylvania), he spoke with a heavy accent. Since English was not his first language, the translation of his thought from Romanian to English gives the poems an unusual syntax. In one passage of The Life & Times of an Involuntary Genius, he credits his first conception of persona to an attempt to outwit the Romanian censors: when his own work became censored and he was refused publication by the magazines due to his anti-government actions, he began writing poems as Maria Parfenie, who readily gained acceptance. Then, realizing that much of her popularity was because of her enticing femininity, he decided to make her a lesbian; immediately the magazines refused her publication. Factual or not, this account offers interesting insights into a writer's attempt to survive behind the Iron Curtain. Then, too, Codrescu claims his own last name was invented to replace his Jewish name which could only be a hindrance. Since he was now himself an invented person, the process toward inventing other people was relatively easy.

The best insights into Codrescu's use of persona can perhaps be gained if we turn to the work of the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Pessoa's work, in Spanish translation, was published in Mexico City in 1962, and it is not inconceivable that Codrescu might have been familiar with it. Octavio Paz's introduction to that volume (reprinted in the American edition published in 1971), describes how besides writing under his own name, Pessoa wrote as three other people: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos. Paz terms these identities not pseudonyms, but heteronyms:

The heteronyms are not literary masks... He is not an inventor of poet characters but a creator of poet works. The distinction is crucial. As Cassis Monteiro says, "He invented the biographies for the sake of the works and not the works for the sake of the biographies.

Codrescu's four main heteronyms are Julio Hernandez, Peter Boone, and Alice Henderson-Codrescu (all included in the volume License to Carry A Gun, 1971) and Calvin Boone (published as the chapbook The History of the Growth of Heaven in 1971, and later reprinted as part of the larger collection of the same title). From Codrescu's references to the poems, as well as the comments of other poets, we are given to understand that each of these published works was chosen from a much larger grouping of poems, and also that there were other heteronyms Codrescu used, whose poems have not yet been published in book form. Once again Paul Carroll, as editor and publisher of License To Carry A Gun, was instrumental in harming a poet's original conception of persona: by combining the three personae in one volume, each loses its original significance and a portion of its believability. As with Knott's work, Carroll responded to only part of the picture, and acted accordingly.

The poems of Codrescu's four heteronyms are short, imagistic, surreal, and elusive. They make absolutely no attempt to define character, the people simply exist, writing poems as would any other poet. Were it not for Codrescu's brief introductions, we would have little biographical background.

Although the voices appear to be alike, the thoughts expressed in the poems are not interchangeable. That such variation would be limited to content rather than form is indicative of the fact that, by the mid sixties, American poets had only superficial technique at their disposal. Browning was able to involve himself in the craft of the poem, using syntactical differences to establish the speech patterns of the various personae. While Codrescu's poems contain an unusual syntax, it remains the same from character to character.

Each of the heteronyms offers Codrescu something he would otherwise be lacking. Julio Hernandez, the blind Puerto Rican prisoner, "taught me survival." He gives Codrescu "the license to carry a gun", which is "a license to be", one thing denied to the poet who is not yet an American citizen. Since writing workshops began to flourish in the prisons around this time, and the poems of prison-poets were beginning to appear in the small press, the persona is especially believable. Hernandez is the most imagistic of Codrescu's creations, as evidenced by this untitled short poem:

there is an orange rotting on the table
closer to freedom than I ever was.
i'll throw it away soon, its smell
gives me the same sweet hallucinations
i had when i was holding a gun.
orange of sun, my useless state of mind

Alice Henderson-Codrescu, written in the persona of his wife, reaches toward a deeper understanding and sharing, a means of putting Codrescu in touch with the woman in himself. (It should be pointed out that, at the time, feminists accused him of being so chauvinistic he could not even let his wife speak for herself.) The creation of Peter Boone, an "ex-beatnik who became a sort of mystical Fascist in Vietnam or somewhere else", represents New York's East Village in 1967, whose world Codrescu entered. Half its inhabitants were either avoiding the draft or had come back from Vietnam with horror stories, as changed people. Boone was Codrescu's link to this world forever closed to the refugee. But few of Boone's poems directly speak of war; what develops instead is a conditioned attitude toward women, foreigners and foreign cities, and America. And then there is the loneliness which is almost a soldier's cliche. When he thinks of his past, Boone can no longer relate to its presences.

The poems of Calvin Boone, the monk, offer insights into another strange phenomenon of the sixties and seventies: the sudden concern with spirituality which many young people experienced. That Calvin Boone originated on the Lower East Side is also significant. It is as if Codrescu is using this voice to show what he would become had he followed the same path. Perhaps because Boone's life is so diametrically opposite from what it once was, what Codrescu's life still is, he comes across as the most ironic, and most intriguing, of Codrescu's personae. He is also a direct opposite to his brother:

Calvin Boone, that being the monk's name, was a fat, indolent buzzard with a large shadow, who followed the rectory cow around in the belief that it was a large chunk of heaven fallen to his ministrations. Calvin Boone was the brother of Peter Boone, a nervous schizophrenic fascist I had invented early in order to assuage the blood-thirsty urges I got into once in a while, like wanting to ride a bomb or pull a grenade pin, or machine-gun a football field full of cheerleaders. As good as Peter was bad, Calvin shined like butter; he was positively florid; he sat in a puddle of sunshine. And he was horny, and greedy, medieval and plodding, like a certain part of my childhood.

Codrescu gives his imagination free rein in these poems, and some become too far-fetched to be credible. Those closest to his own life are the strongest, such as "The Sin of Wanting A New Refrigerator". One can imagine Codrescu and his wife wanting a new refrigerator, and his not being able to afford it, then transferring it all to the monk's point of view:

Sin is impervious
to past transmutation
yet this is how it happened:
I desired
the bareness of my cell to open
in the vaster bareness of a new refrigerator,
the refrigerator,
having come all the way from the First Avenue of my
New York days,
from the fruit stand of the dark
fat merchant. He opened it up
in another Universe: the milk bottles inside
lit up like Angels. First Avenue
refrigerated. I was a penny short
and I still am.
They tell me here that new refrigerators
are forbidden, oh
that penny had in it a sin
as elemental as the copper
it was made of

1973, when the large press edition of The History of the Growth of Heaven was published, also saw the publication of Codrescu's first autobiography. After the early Seventies, America began taking herself more seriously. The fun-loving Sixties were over, even for the young. Made-up lives no longer held the lure that they had held previously. Codrescu's poems still contained an offbeat surrealism, and a few poems would continue to appear in various personae, but he no longer wrote whole books in the names of invented characters. While I have little doubt that Codrescu keeps his personae within hand's reach, readily available if the tide turns in their direction again, his desire to assimilate as a true American forced him to abandon them when they were no longer fashionable. Had his personae been more of a literary device, they would not have fallen from grace, and they can still be read and appreciated today as examples of such a device. It is to Codrescu's credit that he did not fall prone to such trappings and continue his personae after their original usefulness had faded. What is unfortunate is that writing in a persona also acted as a check-rein for Codrescu's surrealist tendencies; once the personae disappeared from the poems, the progression of images became more and more outlandish.

Armand Schwerner
A somewhat less dramatic put-on is found in Armand Schwerner's The Tablets. In "Tablets Journals/Divigations", consisting of fragmentary notes into the process behind the poems, Schwerner states:

Eliot and Pound structured ironic and tragic commentaries by confronting past and present. Why not go further, I thought, and recreate the past itself, in a series of subjectively ordered variations suggestively rooted in the archaic? And, more, why not augment the confusions between illusion and reality by the further invention of a scholar-translator whose fictive but oppressively present self would be a dimension of narration? (Armand Schwerner, "Tablets Journals/Divigations", included in sounds of the river Naranjana, Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1983, pps. 113-122. All quotations in this section are taken from this source.) It is through the use of this scholar-translator that the poem achieves its ultimate ironies. Schwerner has used his voice to notate missing sections and passages which are untranslatable, often in key spots, where the reader can invent what has been left out. The following "key" appears at the beginning of the poem:

(?) variant reading
[] supplied by the scholar-translator

One more key is added in Tablet VII, and used in succeeding tablets, an encircled +, signifying "confusing". The participatory sense which is created by these symbols stems from the Happenings of the fifties and sixties, and is an essential part of Schwerner's poetics. It also greatly adds to the visual quality of The Tablets.

Then there are the variant readings the scholar-translator supplies: a word translated as "pig" can also mean "god"; "power" can also mean "damage", "pintrpnit" is a "transliteration. Probably an archaic form of 'alleluiah' or 'selah'", "stony shit" might be translated as "lentil soup", etc. The scholar-translator continually comments on passages, at greater length as the sequence progresses, and often rambles on, questioning if what he has done is correct, begging the reader's patience through earlier misjudgments, attempting to justify his choices. That this voice sounds scholarly enough to be at first believable adds to the put-on quality of the whole; the pomposity assumed at times makes its own comment on scholarship. Schwerner knows whereof he speaks; this is not some casual mocking, but a studied reworking based on a familiarity with the Sumero-Akkadian tablets on which these forms were modeled, with the interjection of knowledge from other cultures.

In Gunslinger, Edward Dorn attempted to destroy the ego; Schwerner has a similar intention when he notes that "The aim of my poetry is to reduce the 'gulf between the unconscious and the ego'." Where Dorn made "I" another persona of the poem, Schwerner presents us with a multiplicity of "I"s which are not immediately recognizable as different voices, what he refers to as "Extension of dramatic monologue into pluralogue". Though the uniting persona is the scholar-translator, we must not overlook the fact that each Tablet was written by an individual scribe. And each scribe is, as much if not moreso than the other personae presented in this study, searching for his own identity.

This sense of each scribe as an individual becomes more apparent as the series progresses and Schwerner's own preoccupations come more into play. The antics of the beginning were enjoyable, but they could not hold our interest forever without being set alongside a more personal voice. Schwerner tells us that "my barely conscious but pronounced anxieties about my fatherhood informed some of the early, largely 'animistic' Tablets"; unfortunately, such an insight is not discernible until "Tablet XIII", which the scholar-translator refers to as a "psychotic rant":

when I was four the liver said you will choke you
               will puke out your heart
o and your life your life your life in the pit of
               the thinking stomach
and your feet caught in the swamp mulch by the knom
               and your son
separated from his name hating you
let it come down said the star Nergal*

                            *sun-god of midsummer, bringer of
                            pestilence and death
in the nightmare of the liver-loves I used to read
               the face of Lak
from the back of a burnished brass mirror saying
..................................gall-bladder and
               daylong white-green trance
in the bloody fresh sheep gall-ducts surrounding
               me and my balls were cut
who do you know who threes? who do you know who
               threes? and let it come down
the young lettuce is separated from its name and
               grows dwarf.

The neurotic element is picked up in the next Tablet; an interesting thread that runs throughout is the writer's confusion of selves, with the speaker often naming himself in the third person as if he is confused about this Other. That this is made light of by the scholar-translator only points up the seriousness of the concern.

Again, from the "Tablets Journals/Divigations": "a good comedian is not a successful mystic. Is this true? The necessary spontaneity of the good comedian makes him yield to the world of the audience. The conflict between the comedian and the mystic can make poems." There can be no doubt, when one reads Schwerner's other poems, that he regards himself as a religious disciple of first Zen, and later Tibetan Buddhism. The Tablets also increasingly embodies these aspects, but the distancing of each tablet's persona and the interjections of the scholar-translator present a humorous and ironic element Schwerner is not able to capture in the poems written in his "own" voice. "Tablet XVII" takes up the study of Zen, and at the same time mocks it: the four words which end the poem are "to discover the Teacher", but discover can also be translated as "invent". And, from the next Tablet: "You are your own teacher when your eyeballs bulge open through the luck/of knowing your pain."

Tablets XIX to XXIV, the final Tablets published thus far (in the mid 1980s), extend this concern with Buddhism, but also "seem to be a sequence of letters" which "trace the decline and end of a relationship." In these poems, Schwerner reveals his own Self to a greater extent than in any of the previous Tablets), while still remaining embodied in the personae that the series has created:

what is the pain that rises up?
it is the pain of the youth
of my life now tainted with spots of age and regret
the youth of my life to which you'd given yourself
with my 50 shirt* and how is it

             *subatu: usu. 'garment,' perhaps equivalent
             to our 'T-shirt.' The number '50' puzzles.
             His age? His Akkadian size? Reference to
             an unknown sexual ritual?

I could not have seen?
the teacher and life-changer you loved is now the student
of the oppressiveness for you that is his singing voice++++++
the pain: that for every phrase I inscribe
evokes from you yet another distancing from the scribe
so ill at ease in the man
I always seem to be too late
for the dancing

The first twenty-four Tablets have been written over a period of more than twenty years. The entire process has been extremely gradual, and gradually continues, at times playful, at times revealing. Schwerner's scholar-translator has situated himself in a position from which all other positions are hypothetically possible: since the tablets he translates are written by different individuals, there is no limit to the guises or the interests that future Tablets can contain. The only other works which had such possibilities were Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus, and both these works were ended by the poets' deaths.

Jack Spicer
If one is to believe Robin Blaser, Spicer's literary executor and most vociferous biographer and critic, all Spicer's work is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, including his "dictated poetry". And yet Spicer himself contradicts this view. In the final "letter" to Garcia Lorca included in After Lorca, he says:

It was a game, I shout to myself. A game. There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeats' spooks or Blake's sexless seraphim.

Lorca's "introduction" to Spicer's "translations" of his poems, complete with hesitations about inconsistency and Spicer's projection of his own being and thoughts into Lorca's words, is more recognizably a put-on than is Schwerner's "scholar -translator", but the intent is much the same: to create a persona who will at first be believed, but who we appreciate more readily
once we understand his facetiousness. Spicer's inventiveness seems to be not so much in the translations themselves, but in "new" poems which he adds, what Lorca refers to in his preface as "several poems written after my death."

In an early "letter", Spicer refers to his writing as "our" poems. There is no question that he believed this. After Lorca presents a new voice which is a mixture of Lorca and Spicer. It is a dialogue only as concerns the "letters", whereas the poems always contain this merging. From Spicer's linguistic base, we can see how it was obvious to him that the new artifact which is created, this mixture of himself and Lorca, must be a new person, not simply a new poem. To create a new poem would do nothing more than add to the storehouse of language already available. In Part 2 of "A Textbook of Poetry", Spicer says:

"Personify," you say. "It is less abstract to make a person out of a sound." But the Word was the Word not because he was personified but because he was a personification. As if he were human.

To proclaim his humanity is to lie -- to pretend that he was not a Word, that he was not created to Explain. The language where we are born across (temporarily and witlessly) in our prayers.

This is not a simple statement, and we need to read it several times to ferret out its precise meaning. Certainly it refers back to the biblical "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was in God." The second stanza is more difficult, and more radical in its assertion that "To proclaim his humanity is to lie." Since Spicer, too, is creating the Word and personifying the Word, he ironically compares himself with God. But since this language is all he has to work with, he implies, it is not his fault. The implications of this statement will become more apparent as we continue to study Spicer's use of persona.

The other key element in Spicer's poems is his concept of "ghosts". He mentions them in a letter to Graham Mackintosh:

Even up to my early adolescence I used to be afraid to go to sleep because I would dream about ghosts -- chasing me and singing in weird voices, things like that. I think that at the time if I answered honestly what I was the most afraid of it would have been ghosts rather than death. But I discovered that fear of the supernatural could be used in poetry and magic (if these things are different) and could give me a kind of contact with things outside of myself. Now when a ghost comes into a dream I am still afraid, but I use that fear to force the ghost to tell me something. (Jack Spicer, Letter to Graham Mackintosh, from Caterpillar 12, New York, N.Y., 1970, p.105)

Spicer understood these ghosts to be aliens, capable of communicating only through the thought process of the poet/medium. I have talked many times in this study about how the persona, to establish itself with any degree of significance, must bear a direct relation to the poet, and it would appear that Spicer is saying much the same thing in a unique manner:

just like I said, the Martians could take these alphabet blocks and arrange them in the room. You have the alphabet blocks in your room -- your memories, your language, all of these other things which are yours which they rearrange to try to say something that they want to say. The thing is using my memories, which, I think, as far as any poets I know, -- in the most dictated poems, their memories are used, naturally, because that's all there is to it... suppose Martians were trying to communicate -- they couldn't really say, "Upon the uxshul was on the prossi," and so forth. They would have to use your own memories and what your things were rather than theirs. And so what the thing is, is the nearest relationship I see, is – that the Martians can see -- is that if my grandmother chewed up the jigsaw puzzle, which was in her bedroom when she died in the living room -- and that could be in different people's memories, different people's terms, almost anything, which is why poetry is hard to translate.

Aside from the After Lorca poems, two other books by Spicer directly concern our study of persona: Billy The Kid and The Holy Grail. If we can conclude that persona poetry in itself is a Romantic form, we must contend that Spicer is perhaps the most Romantic (or neo-Romantic) of those poets using the form. In After Lorca there is an obvious identification with Lorca's homosexuality, reflected in the poems which Spicer chooses to translate or "write", adding credibility to my portrait of Spicer as Romantic. In a letter, the poet David Miller pointed out that Spicer was, like Baudelaire, the genuine Romantic who genuinely "burned" himself out:

Billy The Kid is to be seen in that context; I suppose the 9th section is in a sense the "key" to the poem -- & I read it as an extraordinarily fine love poem; but there is a real terror at the heart of love for Spicer, & the figure of Billy is the figure of that terror. [David Miller, letter, Jan. 15, 1981])

Billy The Kid consists of only ten poems, and consequently has little space to define itself. The series itself alternates between first and third person (Billy's comments and Spicer's address to him); the 9th section could almost be in either voice, but one assumes it is the persona's.

So the heart breaks
Into small shadows
Almost so random
They are meaningless
Like a diamond
Has at the center of it a diamond
Or a rock
Being afraid
Love asks its bare question --
I can no more remember
What brought me here
Than bone answers bone in the arm
Or shadow sees shadow --
Deathward we ride in the boat
Like someone canoeing
In a small lake
Where at either end
There are nothing but pine branches --
Deathward we ride in the boat
Broken-hearted or broken-bodied
The choice is real. The diamond. I
Ask it.

The image of riding in the boat recalls King Arthur leaving Camelot, which Spicer would use four years later in writing The Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail is Spicer's most ambitious work in persona. To understand its basic premise, we must recall Spicer's concept of dictated poetry, where the poet is the medium through which the ghost speaks. "The grail is the opposite of poetry/Fills us up instead of using us as a cup the dead drink from", Spicer says in #3 of "The Book of Gawain", the first poem in the Grail series. Tennyson, one suspects, would have said precisely the opposite. Thus Spicer sets his original quest as opposite from Tennyson's; it is the quest for the anti-hero. Spicer's hero is not the one who finds the Grail (and, we must remember, goes mad), but the one who can rise above the quest by disregarding the Grail itself. Though this is present in all the personae in "The Holy Grail", it is most poignant in "The Book of Gwenivere". Even in Tennyson's cycle, Guenivere was partially responsible for the failure of the quest. Spicer's playfulness with language is at its best in #6, where the poem assumes a contemporary urgency:

Boo! I tell you all
Scape-ghosts and half-ghosts
You do not know what is going to appear.
Is going to appear at the proper place like you, Lance
Salt Lake City, New York, Jerusalem, Hell, The Celestial City
Winking and changing like a light in some dark harbor. Damn
The ghosts of the unbent flame, the pixies, the kobalds, the
dwarves eating jewels underground, the lives that seem to have
nothing to do except make you have
I lie in this bed. The spooks
Around me animate themselves.
Boo! Hello!
Lance, the cup is heavy. Drop the cup!

Spicer confirms his sense of the Grail poems as the search for love by infusing "The Book of Lancelot", the famous lover of the Grail cycle, with the presence of his own lover, Graham Mackintosh. In the first section of most of the poems, Spicer gives a third person description of the persona, then switches to first person for the rest of the poem. He also uses these opening sections to insert his own comments on the persona and, almost as an afterthought, thrust a contemporary relevance on the poem itself.

Spicer's reverence for poets of the past, In The Holy Grail, in After Lorca, in countless other poems, is partially due to his ability or his need to transform these past visions into a vital present. But Galahad "laughed at the feel of being a hero". All Spicer's heroes laugh; it is only this which keeps this stupid quest from becoming a bore. Again, as in Codrescu's work, the date is important: The Holy Grail was published in 1962. Kennedy, the last true American Hero-figure, was president. Spicer seems ahead of his time in predicting the downfall of heroes; America was soon to have as little use for them as Tennyson's Victorian England had need.


Even if we disregard Paul Carroll's interference in the work of Knott and Codrescu, the fact remains that the put-on is more difficult to sustain than other categories of persona. Because the put-on begins as an attack, it follows that the energy level could not be sustained for a lengthy period and, once the original action and reaction has made its impact, there is no immediate need to continue. If the poet is determined to keep the persona active he must, as in Schwerner's case, bring in new elements which relate the persona to the writer's emotional progression.

Since all these personae are individuals rather than character-types, the physical landscape is almost entirely removed from the poems, at least in the traditional sense of landscape as setting. At the same time, these personae are located so precisely in the current time that their landscapes are omnipresent, reflected not so much in mood, but in the character's responses. These responses, and the events which provoke them, provide the cause and effect of the poems.

We can safely say that every writer included in this chapter is writing some of the finest political poetry which America has produced. When one compares the works of Knott, Codrescu, and Spicer with the current political rhetoric which infuses our poetry, we see how much we have lost in that these three poets are no longer writing in persona. If we accept the premise that only the Romantic is gullible enough to buy a put-on, and that these poets beat the Romantics at their own game, becoming anti-Romantic cynics, then we can surmise that, in the loss of these poets America has lost her innocence.


In the late 1970s and mid 1980s, when Speaking in Tongues: A Study of Persona in Amerrican, Canadian and British Poetry was written, Rochelle Ratner's own poetry was immersed in the world of personification, most importantly the unicorn figure in Quarry (New Rivers Press, 1978) and the mermaid figure in Combing the Waves (Hanging Loose Press, 1979). Her most recent poetry books are Balancing Acts (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006), Beggars at the Wall (Ikon, 2006), Leads (Otoliths, 2007), and the e-book Toast Soldiers (Vida Loca Books, 2007). More information can be found on her website:

1 comment:

notknott said...

... well, I've written a lot of poetry since 1984, and if anyone reading this piece is curious they can come to my blog ( just google "bill knott blog") and see that I have posted there almost all the poetry I've written and published over the past 5 decades: I have published my work there for open-access perusal and free download . . . among the collections of poems that appear there is a "Selected Political Poems 1965-2005" . . .