I was looking this morning at Silliman’s Blog and enjoying Ron’s enthusiastic and thoroughly sensible ejaculations over the DVD release of the new Allen Ginsberg film. Allen’s meteoric rise to fame in San Francisco in the 1950’s —assisted in no small part by Kenneth Rexroth’s impresarial efforts and Ferlinghetti’s caginess as his publisher—is such a remarkable story that it does seem worthy of being memorialized cinematically.
It also seems paradigmatic of a more general scenario in which young poets spend their formative years in this city and then move elsewhere—mainly back East—and then gain national prominence of one kind or another as writers, or land teaching jobs elsewhere.
But for those who toughed it out in San Francisco and basically refused to leave, the situation has often proved less satisfactory. If you’ve lived here for some decades, the city is practically a graveyard full of standing tombstones for fallen poets who spent their best years here and died without having seen a collection of their work published professionally.
I hope that before all memory of our vanished poets is obliterated, someone will take inspiration from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and leap forth to compose a Lives of the Poets for San Francisco.
Certain restorative attempts have met with varying degrees of success, most notably with the recent resuscitation of Jack Spicer’s reputation, thanks largely to the efforts of Kevin Killian and his several collaborators. (After Spicer’s death in 1965, you couldn’t to my recollection find his poems in any bookshop anywhere, until the first Black Sparrow edition initiated the exhumation process in 1975, ending a printing blackout that had gone on for ten years.)
Other San Francisco poets who were published posthumously in book format include Eugene Ruggles, who was published last year by Petaluma River Press under the title: Roads of Bread. I am worried to note at Worldcat.org that not one public or university library has acquired a copy of the book.
Jack Sharpless, an extraordinarily talented San Francisco poet who worked as a waiter and who died of AIDS in 1988, was published in book form in 1989 by Gnomon Press under the title: Presences of Mind. The book is out-of-print, although Small Press Distribution still offers some copies.
The knockout poem in this collection is entitled Inroads, for which Jack won a prestigious prize in the U.K. after it appeared in 1980. The poem describes, hour by hour, the last day in the life of Elizabeth I, which passes in a slow parade of memories, interspersed with erotic longings and random apprehensions of death. Generally it shows the steady descent from royal dignity into the universal meat grinder.
The poem is too long to quote extensively, but perhaps I can give a brief idea of its form from the two opening passages:
Feb 27/28, 1603
With this poem Jack invented a sort of minimalist lyric narrative technique, which he employs in later poems that reference T.E. Lawrence and aspects of daily life in ancient China.
Because of the sparseness of language and brevity of the lines, individual images—the cat sitting in a wooden cupboard looking out the window—and the sudden interpolation of rhymed monosyllables—cold / gold— lend profile and a sharpened focus to the story and that just wouldn’t happen if you heaped more language onto the situation, as most writers would be inclined.
With Jack Sharpless you get exactly as much as you need to know. It’s a very accomplished and graceful artistry that says much by stating everything just a little short of nothing.