Artful Dodge Reviews, Vol. 3 No. 2


On You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With by Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, and William S. Burroughs

This two-record set features William S. Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, and John Giorno, three artists who are taking advantage of modern recording techniques in such a way that their written work acquires added strength and dimension. Although these presentations are technically disparate, they do share a sense of performance that is often dismissed or simply non-existent in literature. The result is an accessibility that allows the material to remain interesting after repeated listenings.

Burroughs’ material consists of live excerpts from his “Red Night Tour” and includes readings from his various novels, especially his forthcoming The Place of Dead Roads. His somewhat “insect-calm” delivery skillfully underscores the exploits of Dr. Benway, Clem Snide, and the Wild Fruits. Burroughs understands that these characters are attractive (unattractive?) enough in their own right and his off-handed reading provides an ironic counterpoint to the pervasive dark humor of the world he describes.

Unlike Burroughs, who simply reads his prose, Anderson adds minimal musical accompaniment to her sparse lyrics. Simple phrases are often no more “important” than handclaps or percussion. On some tracks, Anderson’s voice is electronically altered while one selection “Born, Never Asked,” is an instrumental. Her approach here recalls the experimentation of her O Superman, a record which was well-received in England last year but comparatively unknown in America.

Giorno takes a third approach in the presentation of his work. By using recorded versions of his poems, he accompanies himself with his own voice. The effect is that of a layered wall of voices where each voice is the “same” voice reciting a single poem. Dramatic effect is achieved when one or more of these voices (including the “live” Giorno) races ahead of the others, or suddenly slows down, or at times matches the others syllable for syllable. There is thus ample opportunity for Giorno to improvise, in the manner of a jazz musician, insuring that no two readings will be identical, and to call attention to the freshness and organic nature of poetry (and all other literature) which is often forgotten when the material is fixed on a page.

This eclectic, yet accessible collection is a fine extension of making new the tradition of oral literature, or, to say it differently, of listening. It is time to realize (again) that writers and their work should be heard as well as seen. Getting back to poetry’s origin in the oral experience, as evidenced by this record and those in Giorno’s Dial-A-Poet series, seems to be a more promising development in current literature than experimentation with the “concrete,” visual elements of poetry, or monotone rhapsodies on movie stars. —Don Boes


On I Name Myself Daughter and It Is Good: Poems of the Spirit

This anthology has avoided several pitfalls through the competence of the editor, and is thus a unique book well worth reading. It is not a collection of the usual big name women poets, whose work is available elsewhere (though a few such names are present), and it is not an anthology of poems whose authors happen to be women. It is an anthology of “feminist spiritual poetry” by competent but lesser known poets, divided into four sections, Mythologies, Encounters, Immanence, and Celebrations. A few poems stray too near the didactic and the prose expression of personal ideals and convictions, but not enough to seriously damage the book. Many of the better images and lines combine the restructuring of mythology and society with a saving ironic tone, as in Kathryn Christenson’s Advent: With Leda in mind / Mary’s father warned her to avoid swans /her mother even thought / to mention men.

Despite some excessive idealism in the preface, and rough graphics, this is an overall good job. —Stephen Cape


Selected Love Poems by Michael J. Phillips

After reading Richard Kostelanetz’s forward to Michael J. Phillips’ Selected Love Poems, one is prepared for poetry by one who “should be taken seriously, initially for his courageous assertion of a highly characteristic signature.” According to Kostelanetz, what makes Phillips a poetic trailblazer is his “intentionally limited vocabulary and his penchant for exact repetition.” Evidently there is the assertion that Phillips is at work channeling the muzak of our current culture into a poetic framework suitable for the expression of that culture. Unfortunately, we at the Artful Dodge tend more to see Phillips as just plain muzak. We have trouble viewing him as being a signpost for the course of American poetry in the next 50 years mainly because there are other roads in sight, involving a thematic as well as an expressive nature, a duality of sensitivity which Phillips seems to lack. For Phillips to be considered as a building block is an indication of the vacuum which might be in existence. But this emptiness in American literature will not be filled by manipulation of language only, which seems to be Phillips’ only positive claim to public notice.

Here is what we will give Phillips credit for: audacity and a slapdash approach to the motion of a poem which is, in the short-run, enjoyable. In the best of his concrete poems, there is the sense of the poet-at-play present. And the poems which pare down the language are beyond the doubt the most interesting poems in the book. This pairing down involves either the gimmickry or breakthrough of condensed/altered spelling or syntax. A good example is “Nancy:”

Y’ s’d
“How bout

m’ bl’ck
s’lk tings.”

st’ll un’ble
to bleev
Id ad

s’ch a g’d-
dez al-
red’ s’d

“Bi al meens
sl’p tem

The almost breathless voice at work in the poem is brought out by the playfulness of the form. “Wisdom” is another poem that reveals itself in this way.

But the playfulness and wit of Selected Love Poems are short-lived. There is no flesh and blood beneath the glossy, air-brushed finish of Phillips’ imagery, and as a result Phillips’ strong point, his language, becomes more and more suspect as gimmick. After enough of these poems, you begin to look at them as being contrived manifestations of a poetic “Clever Hans.” The concrete poem ends up no more interesting than a one-pun-poem, a one-trick pony, as elsewhere the stripping of language — like Phillips’ omnipresent and omni-stereotypical sex-symbols — ends up a dull mind game halfway between scrabble and “Celebrity Crossword Puzzle.” We just can’t follow Phillips into his land of People magazine conquests. Plus you have the fact that Phillips’ more conventional poems are remarkably lacking in depth of execution as well as theme — they are too cute and predictable. After you read one, you will need only a few lines of any other poem in order to complete the rest. (This, of course, might save time and energy for the poetry reader of the future and therefore parsimony many be in its favor…) Thus, Phillips, rather than siphoning off the culture and reinterpreting it, ends up for the most part adding to the cosmetic din of elevator and bank music — or the amusement of such signs as:


His work so far does not challenge the reader’s world as much as it merely challenges taste — which, after all, is a much easier thing. The trouble is that when one arrives at the end of one of Phillips’ attempts, there has been very little emotion or perspective gained other than momentary agreement or disagreement with Phillips’ current attempt at visual cleverness or verbal manipulation.

As poems — without considering for them such a messianic function as bringing on the future of American poetics — Selected Love Poems might be rescuable. But then, the truly pathetic quality of Phillips’ poetic vision (or should we say voyeurism) of women comes to mind (CF. International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses under the entry: Michael Joseph Phillips). He has, on the whole, achieved a fairly unique effect of causing disgust without shock. Everyone probably has met someone in their life at some time who thinks this way. Although this may count as some form of realism, the fact remains that this vision of the woman as flesh-facade and sexual step-n-fetch-it is hardly one that anyone pays any mind to. Selected Love Poems offers us such visions as “Gangbang,” a listing of feminine names each one of which we are supposed to believe was selected as carefully as if it were le corps just. His “Diahann Carroll” may be a trailblazing effort at a new genre — racism-made-sexual, but probably not, although Phillips’ visually-extorted sexism continues and continues, as if it indeed had a theoretical axe to grind. In this role of voyeur (a voyeur of public women mainly, again, very easy targets) the persona is whimpering and unimaginative. If in Phillips’ work women are toys, then to the reader so are his poems mere playthings quickly discarded because they are so free, so gratuitous in outcome, like something found at the bottom of a cereal box.

It is very easy either to denounce or support someone like Phillips, who is both a tantalizingly easy mark and an aesthetic underdog who does have some good points. This strange notion of his role as harbinger of future literature aside, what we would really like to emphasize is our assessment of his strengths, which are few but do occasion real poetry, and his weaknesses which are great and which masturbate at poetry. Selected Love Poems does work up to the point that Phillips’ quasi-innocent, adolescent stirrings hold interest for the reader. The poems are indulgent in selfish discovery and revelation, and this is not necessarily a bad thing because there is energy in them. But to allow them a place on a higher plane is to court the prostitution of poetry into a matter of sound and linguistic-facade only. If we are to talk of poetry and its future, we must remember that there is not a thematic vacuum extant in poetics. Indeed, American writers have been harping for years that there are too many craftsmen and too few poets. This problem involves more that, and cannot be solved by, word manipulation itself. It is perhaps high time for a significant metamorphosis of sensibility rather than more dabbling at progressive spelling, visual punning and undirected culture-siphon. I think the true avant garde realizes this. If, as Richard Grabhorn says, Phillips may represent the course of American literature for the next 50 years, then this is where it and the Artful Dodge diverge. There are other alternatives, such as poetry and other media, regional writing which is beginning to transcend the provincial, and the prospects offered by other national literatures. We also want to emphasize that poetry, although it should never risk propaganda, still needs to be a bit more engagé with its surrounding culture than muzak or star-gaping.

—Daniel Bourne & Jim Brock