Selected Poems (Vol. 1 & 2)
by Edward Sanders
Coffee House Press 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
“O beautiful for an end to war”
If anyone doubts the impact Charles Olson had, look no further than the prolific and varied career of Ed Sanders, one of the chief chroniclers of his generation, and in a fair way to be the Carl Sandburg of our era. While editing Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts out of the Peace Eye Book Store, the legendary Lower East Side gathering place for poets and radicals, Sanders fomented the mimeograph revolution, America’s answer to the Samizdat. Founding The Fugs with Tuli Kupferberg in 1965, he virtually invented folk rock. Today, he creates unique musical instruments such as the electric necktie and the pulse lyre. He also writes a 9-volume populist history of America in poetry, invigorating both history and poetry with a sense of performance, music and myth.
Here’s an introduction to the Fugs for their foreign tour in 1968, complete with what one imagines to be hilarious Danish subtitles attempting to translate Ed’s impromptu comic book psychosexual romp introducing his concept of goofitude:
It is also worthing checking out The Fugs official site, where Ed’s goofy outrageousness is toned down into a politically engaged, historic camaraderie. Sanders’s work is so congenial by now that it takes historical perspective to remember how subversive and necessary his elm fuck poem was:
fuck till the come drift
down through the bark furrows
fuck thru the warm afternoon
sperm steams in the sun
such care and kindness
—as when a rabbit nose snoozles a carrot—
but give it thrill jabs,
give it to her
a tree-twat is as good as
& the elm branch is the dryad’s breast
So joyously in your face. What might have once seemed gratuitous and shocking now seems almost environmentally sincere, if a bit goofy.
Knowing what I do about Sanders’s place in history, I wanted to get a little more excited about the 2 volume career-spanning retrospective put out so professionally by Coffee House Press. Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century is his collected poems from 1961-1985, and Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War covers a similar span of years from 1986-2009. In addition to including some of his song lyrics for The Fugs, Sanders taps into the tradition of the illuminated manuscript, freely incorporating his own glyphs and illustrations. Poems such as “Sun Arms” reproduce the original Courier typeface, and the glyphs surround the poem like a pair of arms. Glyphs like “The Celestial Golf Game” arrange hieroglyphs that indeed look like a golf course mapped from space, or chart “Paths Through the Data-Clusters in the Search for Brilliant Verse.” The quest here is to unify an entire body of work in various media by squeezing it all into print.
Problems arise with the inevitable leveling of print, and the use of a standard typeface and page size. Even though Ed’s handwritten glyphs and illustrations are beautifully reproduced, the print and the drawings don’t mingle as promiscuously as you’d expect, sometimes feeling more like illustration than a Blakean marriage of poem and art. A hip primer is still a primer. A picture of the pulse lyre seems only to point out the lack of actual sound. Life defies our attempts to trap it within the covers of a book. Sanders’s work should be distributed on broadsides and in stapled mimeographed editions; it should be written on the inside of toilet paper rolls and cigarette packs and smuggled out of jail in your shoes, as was his first major effort, “Poem from Jail,” after his arrest for trying to swim aboard a Polaris nuclear submarine.
Sanders keeps you reading with fond recollections of Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. Most of this reminiscence doesn’t come across as self-indulgent, partly because the incipient nostalgia is tamed by Ed’s sense of gratitude at the community they created, and his sense that the work of the beats is still ongoing, which shows up clearly in “A Visit to Jack’s Memorial Park,” a poem also interrupted by a somewhat gratuitous photo of the skateboarding kids of today:
“Life spills out”, as Olson says
and so it does as the boys skrunk happily
among your tall shiny stones, o Jack Kerouac
where I catch in a blaze your sense of
being part of eternity
staring at your writings carved in the shiny
I am feeling the awe of the Loner commingling
amidst all the conservatism
O Jack phantom of the Lonely Dream
Daimon of the skrunks!
The experience of writing The Family, a book about the Charles Manson cult killings that once ranked a close second to In Cold Blood in the previously nonexistent “True Crime” genre, led to Sanders’s practice of investigative poetry, perhaps the true fruit of Olson’s anguished efforts to be both a poet and a historian. For both Olson and Sanders, polis is eyes, and every citizen must investigate for themselves: “know the new facts early! And do not back away one micro unit because some CIA weirdomorph whose control agents never ended WWII invades your life with a mouthful of curdled exudate.”
Sanders is more interested in the cosmic story than the ideology: we easily forgive the occasional gratuitous asides, because his storytelling ability is in no way limited to personal anecdotes or political sloganeering. Through scholarly backtracking he traces his rebellious spirits to Sappho and the Egyptian slaves forced to build the tombs of the Pharaohs. He mingles ancient tales with stories adapted from Anton Chekov. He takes us easily from ancient Egypt to the depths of outer space.
But unlike his mentor, you don’t get a sense of mythic massiveness as much as a sense of event, of reportage. The mythic element is much lighter, and more digestible. Sanders’s work dreams big, but does not totter under its own weight. One senses immediately that Sanders is a happier man. The older I get, the more I feel that should count for something.
Sanders is a sincere idealist, reminding us as Emerson had it in his essay “Politics” that:
In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case; that they are all imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.
Whatever your politics, this is a much needed message of hope. One need to look no further than “Further Verses for ‘America the Beautiful.’”
O beautiful for an end to war
An end to class and strife
Bring Freedom Rides where no one hides
The truth in every life!
Come sing your song of grace
For every hue beneath the blue
And every creed and race!