There are few poets at work at present making with such consistency so many uniquely strange and wisdom-packed poems as Whit Griffin. They seem to emanate from some endarkened sibyl yet their creation is doubtless formed from an attention to all available luminous muscle--whether in book, mind’s movements, common tongue, sage occult data earth’s riven up; the infinite storehouse. Stitched to shine or grieve as pristine scrolls. Architectures of careful labor. Twists & Shouts. The joke and grim rune, homely anecdote and unveiling trouble psalm, all together in one space. E.g.*:
First you need an Ethiopian
scale. Just as the geranium
needs the bee’s buzz. Sounds
bounce around this contemporary baffle-
ment. The unmoved mover continually
shapes the world with a purpose.
Radical even in a time of ferment.
Eat the fruit and let others misconstrue
the meaning. Gather rose hips to stave
off scurvy. Gather ye oak galls
while ye may. Who was it
who thought the written word would
be the death of memory? Compose
a list of deadly inhalants. As
the freeway goes the way of the
Roman road, so the rose has
lost its scent. Gilded with
bruises. Cleansed with fire. Hosed
down by King Neptune’s disturbance
regime. Heretic is a title conferred.
Kindly stand out of my sunlight.
Several books are filled with such poems, the tone immediately recognizable.**
Key mentors to keep in mind when reading Griffin: Ted Enslin, Thomas Meyer, and, perhaps looming largest, Jonathan Williams, for whom the younger poet worked as secretary for years.*** The tradition found itself well-given in these relations; from each a wealth going back to the most ancient of Orphic consciousness. A sense for a complex music of verse from the first****; from the second an encounter with a disciplined attention unmatched among living poets; and from the third an ability to respond no matter the source of the numinous--Williams published Duncan’s Letters and Mina Loy as well as Ernest Mickler’s White Trash Cooking. From all three an unshakable love of beauty and furious hatred of any “nation ruled by Ares.”†
I mention these for context--a study could be made of each relation. Here’s not the place. Saying Surrey and Wyat knew one another means much.
I came across the long, marvelously korubantic “Summerland” perhaps two years ago, the poem at the center of The Sixth Great Extinction. Here’s one section (p. 47):
Flying nutcracker an absence of jurisprudence
leaping in a whisper yellow branches lukewarm
obtuseness gargling westward fury cause
to be late evening primrose linseed delphinium
inverted itching comma natural strangle water
lily breeding buried azure bib crow behind
magic fallow deer rose-water sun-fish chamomile
The work “struck me”, as they say. The syntax disturbs; diction estranges; the sound at times holds the sense together, at others the on-rush of disparate image and abrupt turns of verbal motion rasps the limits.
A few allies in form come to mind:
One of my favorite books, Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, a book of like liminal confrontations--poems like “Aster”††:
A star tow ash stow
rote crowd mickle mass daisy
frostflower lazytongs lightning aster risk
your fire anneal generous gentle
baited shadow some moss-burn’d summer
evergreen-winter connect a cut clay
aurous quick gnomon he’ll mellow
lucre head purple black study
The language is similarly wild yet exact, measured as carefully as any poem ever written.†††
On asking the poet about the origin of the poem he wrote back:
‘Summerland came about after I found an old Turkish-English dictionary at an antique store. The definitions were alphabetical by the Turkish, with their English equivalents, so the English words had no rhyme nor reason to their arrangements. They read on the page like lists of random words. So Summerland was really me "shaking words off each page." I went page by page and just let my eye and hand catch what appealed to them.'††††
“Let my eye and hand catch what appealed to them”: attention. “Shaking words off each page”: the musical shake of word--Plato’s “correct editing” of the music the world offers.
Where Zukofsky scanned virtually the entire corpus of available literature--whatever he could get to--for quotation and collage, reading botanical texts (Theophrastus, Gray’s Manual of Botany, Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, etc.) and Shakespeare as the flowers grew up, physically, about his apartment, Griffin focused on one dictionary. This fact in turn called to mind another work by Zukofsky, “Thanks to the Dictionary”, which took its vocabulary from the words and definitions of those words found in ‘a 1930 Funk and Wagnall’s and a 1917 Webster’s Collegiate’.‡ These two texts seem uncles to “Summerland”--hopefully readers will search them out if they have an interest in the poem.
Other forces seem relatives of “Summerland”: the Ginsberg / Kerouac “spontaneous bop prosody”--emanations of fertile mind set to a music deeply affected by the jazz improvizations of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and others‡‡; the care-full syntax-attentions Clark Coolidge registers in books like Space and The Maintains‡‡‡; the automatic writing of the medium: a spirit channel often verging on Babel-tongue fits for the spirit comes at times eruptive from the Aether.
Proper to this Aether-space, the title “Summerland” comes from the name of an occult-theosophical conception / place of the afterlife, described by Helena Blavatsky in her Theosophical Glossary:
'SUMMERLAND. The name given by the American Spiritualists and Phenomenalists to the land or region inhabited after death by their “Spirits”. It is situated, says Andrew Jackson Davis§, either within or beyond the Milky Way. It is described as having cities and beautiful buildings, a Congress Hall, museums and libraries for the Instruction of the growing generations of young “Spirits”. …’
The occult and pagan is a field of perennial concern for Griffin. The cover illustration of Pentateuch is “adapted from a frontispiece engraving” in a book by Joannis Agricola. The titles of poems often contain occult, pagan, and alchemical elements, the poems themselves scattered over with the sort of obscure lore one might find in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, yet condensed to soul-spark formulae one imagines murmured over a cauldron for the health of the earth and cursing of the wicked. One gets these here, because of the difference in the method behind the poem, more as ‘atmospheric’§§ feeling than straight talk (as in what might be called Griffin’s “periodic poems”§§§--”Summerland”, like 80 Flowers, contains no punctuation). The experience of the reading itself replaces the deliverance of unburied wisdom. We find ourselves in a foreign language in our own tongue as the poet found himself among an antique Turkish lexicon. (Something similar happens in the later sections of “A” and in 80 Flowers, as well as, though different in kind, Zukofsky’s rendering (“cutting, breaking, peeling”--OE rinde, “bark of a tree, peel of a fruit or vegetable”) of Catullus’ poems.) An arranged bewilderment here; a dizzy glow.
Reading the whole of The Sixth Great Extinction, “Summerland” can be seen, felt, as transport: the poem as dense thicket, on either side of it poems more tonally recognizable as Whit Griffin poems, i.e. they read comfortably alongside the poems found in Pentateuch and A Far-Shining Crystal. “Summerland” the aether on either side of which worldly matter--the other fine poems in the book--grows to and from. As such the poem reads as a revelatory innovation of form in Griffin’s corpus.
I won’t venture here a “reading” beyond these small relations I found pertinent for a reader coming to the poem for the first time. Endless dilation could be made from such a work.
This piece another advocation.
Some other sections for an ending:
Lapis-lazuli let go wishbone
alluvial soil nonchalant rice pudding
picking figs pancake dialect lemonade
lilac stork signboard chamber pot lynching
holding ether fickle sugar Sodomite metaphysics
goat’s milk Meerschaum cloudiness choked
combustible scissors magnolia windsail
Scorch the connection December retreat
alphabet chill a present the return
of which is demanded six goldsmiths
useless but harmless topsy-turvy
intentional cousin soiled with love
safe capable of journalism marsh
mellow midwifery literate unbound
pharmacy will-o-the-wisp mummy
Balance the minister so that licensed
prostitutes make a present of varnished
blood vessels gulp down food in
accordance with the astute hypotenuse
utter abuse in his presence spacious
keepsake desert importance a squawking
visa purple without a middle
clearness to be in love with thunder
notorious ointment you are in luck
halfway between juiciness and a raceway peninsula
“CLEARNESS TO BE IN LOVE WITH THUNDER”. Dictionary Aether--one might imagine a soul in Yeats’ Dreaming Back phase babbling such bright seeds into the eternal frieze.
* This poem can be found on page 113 of The Sixth Great Extinction (Skysill Press, 2012).
** Vide: Pentateuch: The First Five Books (Skysill, 2010); The Sixth Great Extinction; and A Far-Shining Crystal (The Cultural Society, 2013). ‘Tone’: I use it in the sense Hugh Kenner does in The Art of Poetry (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965).
*** You can find a selection of Whit’s poems on the Jargon Society “Musings” page here: http://www.jargonbooks.com/whit_griffin.html.
**** I think here of Pater, in Plato and Platonism: “For him, music is still everywhere in the world, and the whole business of philosophy only as it were the correct editing of it…”.
† The last words of “Benign Violation”, on page 17 of The Sixth Great Extinction. I do not mean these three gifts as limitations--to list what any poet is given from his precursors, especially when known personally, would likely exceed the mammoth size of the O.E.D. Nor do I mean the poet had no sense of these things before he found them in others, but that in the meeting the faculties dilate, a word I associate with Emerson having read it in an 1838 Journal entry some years ago.
†† Poem can be found on page 348 of the Collected Short Poetry (John Hopkins University Press, 1991).
††† Readers interested in the poem might look to Mark Scroggins’ The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007) and Michele Leggott’s Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (Johns Hopkins, 1989). See also: http://www.z-site.net/notes-to-poetry/80-flowers-1978-and-gamut/. To hear Zukofsky read some of 80 Flowers go here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Zukofsky.php.
†††† Email to author (14/Aug.’xiii).
‡ Vide pages 137-38 in Scroggins. The relation of Zukofsky and Mallarmé there discussed. Dice-games.
‡‡ Listen to some of the lines: “purple bear bowels fresh / vermicelli five bushels hashish vowel”; “Erotic acrobat botanical bovine / Arctic spice hoodwink hemlock / dealer in honeymoons”; “Fine drizzle sigh Red Sea wild pear / spooky octopus squinting spittle / birth tree eunuch wisdom tooth I”. I can hear these in Kerouac’s mouth.
‡‡‡ Vide Coolidge’s comment: “I once wrote a whole book using a similar meditation on the dictionary, although I don't think it was inspired by Kerouac. I think I found it or it was an unconscious influence anyway, a book called The Maintains which I almost dedicated to this section of Desolation Angels.” Found here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/kerouac-per-coolidge.html.
§ Wonderful (bloody) name.
§§ ‘1630s, atmosphaera (modern form from 1670s), from Modern Latin atmosphaera, from atmo-, comb. form of Greek atmos "vapor, steam" + spharia "sphere". Greek atmos is from PIE *awet-mo-, from root *wet- (1) "to blow" (also "to inspire, spiritually arouse;").' (Found at the Online Etymology Dictionary.) The sphere inspired.