mUutating Kaufman’s Cincophrenicpoet

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary readings that change the poem into something it’s not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:


A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

mUutating Pete Winslow's Dadaist Scarecrow

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this:

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Louis Z Hammer

Snippet of dissertation chapter (rough draft) on Kayak magazine.

Hammer, who Hitchcock features in the magazine’s opening pages, creates a luminous world extending from the subjective psyche, with its disproportional, intensified perceptions: “That America is a Continuous Western,” the magazine’s first poem, begins, “Someone said there are Indians in this picture: / I say there are Indians in every picture… / All around us in the cool hills” (1.3). Hammer’s intensified, baroque images gently counterpoint his visionary rhetoric and lyrical tone; his “Love Song” turns on the declaration that “[a] fire in the compression of my eyes / Lights from no distance / The ray of your beloved hand” (1.5) and in “Character of the Desert,” he writes, “[t]he sky is soft / As the meat of an olive” (1.4). This uncanny way of perceiving is accompanied by a variety of common surrealist tropes and structures, exemplified in “Soma”:

Glass in the walls of the face
Glass in the wrists
Glass in the exposed chambers of the chest
Glass in the cage above the brain–
The iodine traces
The roses caught in the shadows of blood
The violet stains on the lips
The gloveless hand in the heart. (1.5)

He favors incongruous juxtaposition, the catalog form, a macabre mood, and fragmented, ironically fetishistic re-imaginings of the body. And while he does not shy away from emotional resonance and symbolic closure, he favors the surreal image, rather than the pictorial image or “abstract image,” as the vehicle for emotion:

My heart hears only the small pleas
That are silent as protons
Packed in the atom’s vault
Beneath the hand (3.47)

He describes the poet as “[a] man whose head is a battery / Whose dream is a current / That shocks the anemones” and who “has scorched his eyes” as he beholds a marvelous vision of “white harbors” and “[t]he dance…burning / In the navel of the skies” (3.46). His work presents a hypermodern world where faint traces of archetypal consciousness still persist beneath the simulacra of the modern landscape, where commercial and ideological forces have reducitively overwritten experience and identity:

We have taken tarpits
And called them eyes,
we have taken the little edges of smiles
Around the cheeks
And called the roses of murder,
We have taken the small apparitions of altars
Seen through the doors of lilies
And called them bedrock of love:
Now those sad breasts are hung
Silently over the window,
We are surrendering to bodies
That are burned down to a word. (6.19)

In his article, “How the Poem Speaks” in the Issue 5, Hammer attempts to conjoin the deep image sense of a primal human experience with the ironic fetishisized gestures of surrealism. “Poetry,” he writes, “is the opening up in language of a vertical movement through strata of itself which had not previously been revealed as strata.” The process of language discovering its own associational layers is language “altering itself,” which equates to “an act of the poet reconstituting his relationship to the world.” Poetry is thus seen in therapeutic terms, allowing the individual to “retrieve a life that has been hiding him, a life which lives outside itself in a world it did not fully know” (5.58). This is possible through his theory of the poetic image: “What is the poetic image? It is the recoil of language into its own heart, with all its world-strands contracted into a unit of power” (5.58). Patently self-referential yet re-appropriating experience as both objective and aesthetic, the poetic image is “language that is in search of its meaning, that is in the process of uncovering its own world-fibers.” Poetry, then, is a process of language (and thus the self) rediscovering itself through associational strata by means of image-making, of language “bearing the world as image.” Given the high proportion of surrealist images in his work, one can see Bretonian chance meetings as integral to this process, the incongruities and that lead to renewed apprehension. In this way, most of Hammer’s poems end with a hint of object-oriented triumphalism, as if commodities themselves had extricated themselves from disorder:

Soon the young girl whose eyes are all cash
Will come and denounce the bloated stomachs of furniture,
Soon there will be a long column of speeches from bread
That has examined all that we are
And written its poem. (6.20)

mUutating Federica Garcia Lorca’s “Spiral”

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca that could change your life, if your name is Euclid or Bernhard Reimann:


My time
moves on in a spiral.

The spiral
limits my landscape,
leaves what is past in the shadows
& makes me advance
full of doubts.

Oh perfect straight line! Pure
spear without spearman.
How your light turns my solomonic
path into dream!

This little lyric turns a beautiful, minimalistic image into a philosophical meditation. If the spaker is imagined to be in a “landscape,” as he calls it, then it is a Dali-esque landscape. That is, it’s basically a vast desert with just a few important, unusual objects placed in our field vision. We must confront and make meaning of them. Here, we have the spiral and the straight line—two ways of interpreting experience.

The spiral is a mixed bag and quite ambiguous: it brings “advance” but also the discomfort of “doubts.” Does Lorca think “limits” or leaving the past behind are good? Is “advancing” a good thing? Is this a forced march or an existential embrace of the present? The perfect straight line is an ideal. It stands above and beyond time, caught in mid-air, as it were, a “spear without spearman.” But again, ambiguous: it is a “light” that turns the path into “dream”—but is that necessarily good? Is a “solomonic” path better or worse than a dream?

In any case, there’s no clear favoritism, landing us squarely in the dilemma and the paradox of the “real” versus the “ideal.” What is the nature of that relationship? Philosophers have given us little to sort that question out. This poem suggests they are both operative in life and sustain each other in a mysterious paradox. Who can say, though, what straight lines have to do with spirals? What grounds does the speaker have for hoping in the straight line, caught as he is in spiral reality?

Isn’t it curious that “time,” which most people think of as a straight line (or horizontal trajectories) is here called a “spiral”? That’s western thought for you, thinking something is linear when in fact it is curved, cyclical, centrifugal. Most non-European philosophies have something closer to the spiral model. Another thing we tend to think of as linear when it’s really not: writing. We write in spirals, not from start to finish.

A spiral is a corrupted line, a line finding its way back to straightness, its former state. On the other hand, a spiral turns on a center, creates its own gravity and identity. It is a line finding its way back to itself, moving inward and outward simultaneously, “advancing” but “full of doubts.” It “limits the landscape” by cutting itself off with its own curve/past, thus leaving itself behind “in shadows.”

Now re-read that last paragraph substituting “human” for “spiral” and “life” for “line.” Then re-read it, substituting “poetry” for “spiral” and “language” for “line.”

mUutating Matthew Zapruder's "To a Predator"

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary readings that change the poem into something it’s not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s Matthew Zapruder’s “To a Predator”

I woke up early and saw a fox.
It was leaping and dragging its glorious
red and white tail behind it across
the road. It held a grasshopper in its mouth,
which it dropped when it saw the small
carcass of a young javelina. Last night
I was woken by their hairless rooting through
a field of cactus in moonlight. They all
stood together, ears rotated forward into
the breeze, protecting the single mother
protecting a pair of young. Their
mustachioed labium superius oris i.e.
upper lip protects a gentle tusk
the color of greywater. I almost sympathize
with their corporate need to snuffle
and roam in packs until dawn returns them
to hollows they made in the ground.
But my sleep does not. Thus I shone
a very powerful flashlight into their midst
and watched them scramble across
the highway, dispersing. Thus I walked
out into this morning, wearing a shirt
the color of a dandelion, whistling
an uncertain tune about the mild unequal
life I would like to know better of a rich
acquaintance in the Mexican city of Guadalajara.

I’ve been thinking about what Robert Kelly wrote in the early 60s about each image in a poem having “its field of force, its shadow moving darkly through the poem.” Arrangement, or sequence, for Kelly, is the key:

Basically, the fullest force is possible only by means of the successful employment of one image’s position in a context of other images… The subsequent image is conditioned, made to work, by the image that precedes it, and conditions, as it is finally conditioned by, the image that follows it: through the whole poem…

The whole poem is more than the sum of its parts. Very important for this superequivalence is the ORDER of images within a poem.

Kelly is thinking about images, but it is impossible not to see an overlap with narrative or dramatic sequence working the same way and being almost the same thing. In Zapruder’s poem, the most remarkable moment is not the encounter with the fox-mother and babies in the night, but the “shirt / the color of a dandelion” the speaker dons the next morning. The sensory and psychological tone in that detail gathers almost all of its meaning from the scene preceding it, the nocturnal encounter. “Thus” rhetorically aids the transference and reinforces the sense of a causality-link between this moment and the night before. We’re cognitively confused and delighted at the notion that a shirt’s color (or his choice of shirt) hours later had anything to do with the foxes. The tight, chronological structure of the poem amplifies this effect. What’s the “residue” of the previous images on the image of the shirt? It’s impossible to say—herein is the ineffable, almost magical trick poetry playing on the mind.

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