Happy Birthday, Robert Kelly!

Robert Kelly in Encenitas, CA at the Rothenbergs' with jerry at camera, & RK flanked by Diane Rothenberg & David Antin. circa '89-90
Robert Kelly in Encenitas, CA at the Rothenbergs’ with Jerry Rothenberg at camera, & RK flanked by Diane Rothenberg & David Antin. Circa 89-90
Happy 80th birthday, Robert!
Below the clickable cover of the Festschrift for the occasion that Metambesen publishes today, and below that my own festish Schrift piece for Robert.
fest lynn cover

A Memoir: for Robert at 80

I came to America in late August 1967 with a Karl May-fantasy of Apache and Comanche landscapes in one eye and a West Coast dream of San Fran & Bob Kaufmannian be-bop, Ginsbergian Howls & Kerouacian  California Railroad Earth flophouses & bars in the other. From JFK, where a Lions Club friend of my parents’ picked me up, I was driven to a pretty suburban disaster area on Long Island — Hicksville seems about right — where two TVs were on all the time with the sound off and on one of them baseball games unfolded their bewildering & incomprehensible rituals. In the kitchen, the family & I sat at an aluminum-fringed baby-blue formica counter to eat — or just to grab a TV-dinner plate and go back to the TV den. After sleeping off my jet lag, I was taken to my first mall on the morning of the next day, and to Aqueduct race-track on the afternoon of the second day. On the third day they finally drove me to the Big City, to Port Authority where I was to catch the dog upstate to Kingston. Manhattan, to my surprise, did not surprise me: the much-vaunted skyscrapers didn’t look half as impressive in real life than they had looked in all the fish-eye lens LIFE magazine pictures I had gawked at, and in all the “Yankee” movies I had seen in grandmother’s movie house in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg.

Architectural surprise would however come as soon as the bus had left the urban surrounds of the city and, beyond the New Jersey wastelands, moved into more rural settings: a continent of wooden houses! A sea of clapboard siding — an architecture I thought of then as “clinker-built,” my British English still close to naval terminology, though prairie schooners would eventually marry the two. Then the strangeness of the bus stop in Kingston, the taxi that took me for the first time across the bridge and up River Road to Bard campus. At the end of that day I regained my landlubber euro-footing as I moved into my dorm, brown-stony Tudor revival Ward Manor.

When did I make contact with the Kelly constellation (Ursa Major, as for awhile I came to think of it, that constellation formed by Robert and those around him)? I would like it to have been the very next day, but I cannot remember the exact time sequence, though it happened certainly during my first week in Annandale. Early one afternoon, as I was sitting in the old coffeeshop on Stone Row, eating my newly discovered favorite American snack, toasted English muffin and cream cheese, I was approached by a lady of some girth who pulled up a chair, sat down at my table and asked: “Are you the new freshman, the young poet from France?” I said, no, I am not french, but yes, I am a young poet come here to study poetry. She asked me if I was familiar with Stéphane Mallarmé’s oeuvre, especially his masterpiece, the Coup de dé that would never abolish chance. I answered that yes, I had studied Mallarmé some, had tried to read the famous Coup de dé, but had not been all that impressed. She frowned. I tried to explain that the reason I was here was that I had decided to write poetry in English as I found that the two languages I should have been writing in, French and/or German, didn’t offer much excitement judging by their contemporary practitioners.  Mallarmé, I agreed, may be great, but he was nineteenth century, and anyway French poetry was by now a somewhat stagnant backwater. Her frown deepened, no doubt taken aback by the abruptness of my brash youthful judgement, but decided that maybe I wasn’t a lost cause as yet. If you want to learn what’s most important in American poetry now, she said somewhat sternly, you must read Charles Olson,  Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Robert Kelly. Hmm, I wondered, all those Roberts … & despite not being French, a French pun immediately popped into mind: les roberts in French are breasts, tits, teats — so these were the teats of American poetry? I promised to check them out. She then insisted that I needed to proceed immediately to a certain room on Stone Row (I’ve forgotten the house name and number by now) and meet the best of the young poets now studying at Bard: Thomas Meyer. After she left, I finished my muffin, pondering this welcome.

Asking around, I quickly found out who the lady who had undertaken me on this advanced literary matters was: Joby Kelly, the wife of poet and professor Robert Kelly. Ah, I thought, one of the Roberts is in fact here! I will need to meet him. I then walked over to the bookshop where I bought an anthology that had the two other Roberts in it, as well as the man called Olson:  the famed Don Allen New American Poetry gathering that would become a ground-breaking book for my discovery of American poetry. When I opened it, I did feel relieved that those poets I had championed as the new American avant-garde, namely the Beats, were also included. Ah, I thought, here is a wider, more democratic community in which various groupings with differing aesthetics are able to co-exist, without the excommunication-mania and internecine fighting habits of European avant-garde groupings.

A day or so later, I dutifully went to knock on Thomas Meyer’s door on Stone Row. A sweet and elegant young man welcomed me into a room very much to my own liking: overflowing with books and crowned by something that made me instantly jealous— a golf-ball IMB Selectric sitting atop his work desk. I had been so proud of my new Olivetti Lettera 32 portable bought just before coming to America — and now I realized I was stuck not only with a mechanical machine but also with a latinate AZERTY keyboard when I should be using an anglo-friendly QWERTY. Tom read me some pages of a massive work in progress, called, if I remember correctly, A Technographic Typography In Progress — or in Process, maybe, a work of major proportions never published in its entirety to this day. Via Kelly, whose student he was, Tom had acquired the necessary habit & discipline to “write every day” — as Robert was to put it much later in a biographical essay. It was, I think, Tom who on that day hipped me to another useful anthology I managed to pick up soon after: the Robert Kelly / Paris Leary A Controversy of Poets — a book that at first seemed to reinforce my vision of multiple communities co-existing peacefully in a land roomy enough, given that space comes large here indeed (I’d also started to read that Olson character). But on second thought I realized that the book, maybe against the will of its editors, proposed a topography of conflict that demanded one take sides. I immediately knew what side I was on: having read and liked Francis Ponge back in my days of studying life sciences in Europe, I instantly took to Robert Kelly’s postface where I underlined the following:

I mean a poem that means something because it is no longer about something but is something: but, and this is all-important, a poem that, as a thing, does not come to exist aesthetically and in remoteness, as a thing would be in a museum, unthinged, but as a thing would exist, and possess meaning, in a world of living men. As a chair possesses meaning. Not as furniture, but as a place to sit down.

At some point I did meet Robert: in the coffee shop, no doubt, where I was eating yet again my daily toasted english muffin with cream cheese, an anti-dote to the food of the school cafeteria. Of course, & boringly so, I remember as first impression the man’s size, the forked, reddish beard, the eyebrows — & the voice, oh that voice, Irish opera basso, with what I would later learn was a Brooklyn tinge, it immediately amazed, even before I heard him read his poetry. And when I saw him walk away, I was amazed at the grace of the big man’s walk: a dance it was, an elegance I would never have suspected in a man so large. Joby had no doubt filled Robert in on my provenance, my likes and dislikes, but I remember little of our early conversations, except for a piece of advice that would prove essential. Explaining my decision to write in English — or rather American — I wondered what would be best to improve my language skills toward writing poetry. Robert was adamant: get a radio & listen to baseball games, he said, in order to become familiar with and soak up the rhythms of an american language sports announcers are master practitioners of. I followed his advice, and if at first — being clueless about the game of baseball — the running commentaries sounded like dadaistic babel, I quickly began to hear the rhythmic and musical nuances that made for a very different language dance than the Britisher English I had learned in high school in Europe.

In hindsight I can say now that with that suggestion Robert gave me my America. Tonight, 48 years later, I am writing this while on television, our Mets are winning another game — & I’m sure that Robert will be watching in Annandale. (The Metsies are indeed tearing it up right now & just may get into the playoffs & even to the world series this year, my suspicion being that this is the baseball gods’ secret birthday present for Robert). In 1968, still intrigued by the radio broadcasts, I started watching games on TV. Then one of my co-students, Bruce McClelland, a St Louis native and thus a Cardinals fan, after some patient tutoring in the rules and arcana of the game, took me to Shea stadium for my first Mets game: that was spring of 1969.

As it turned out I didn’t take a single so-called academic course with Robert during my two years at Bard, but his primary advice panned out marvelously, opening up a cultural trove I am still exploring today. I did work with Robert during my last semester when he was my senior project advisor, a project that consisted in translating Atemwende / Breathturn, the most recently published book of poetry by Paul Celan. To this day I cherish those afternoon sessions on the porch of his house, once known as Lindenwood, facing the pump that don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handle. Robert may have been thinking of Schubert’s aching songs of nostalgia (see “A Line of Sight”) as he sipped his huge pewter? bronze? can of (it was rumored) 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk & 1/3 sugar, and I may have had Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues buzzing in my head which didn’t need anymore coffee given last night’s still active black beauties and the late morning’s calming joint.  Still, the power of Celan’s stark yet boundlessly seductive cosmos was enough to draw us in along its image- and language-rails, making our so differently busy minds focus and exult in the sheer power and beauty of the poems underhand and work on bringing it over into this, to me new, American language. 

It may have been during one of those sessions that Robert showed me (or spoke of?)  Julius Pokorny’s 1957 Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, a book I tried to acquire in vain for the next three decades (the only other copy I ever saw was in Jeremy Prynne’s rooms in Caius College, Cambridge, sometime in the mid-seventies). Then, less than 10 years ago, a new edition was finally published and Nicole Peyrafitte, having heard me mythify this book for so long, gave it to me for my birthday. The first thing I looked up was the root pel — from which derives, among others, our word polis —, the definitions and derivations of which Robert had reproduced directly from Pokorny in his 1971 book of essays In Time, one of the most cogent and illuminating ways to present such matters.

By this time — spring 1969 — I had started reading into this other American tradition, the Black Mountain & San Francisco Renaissance poetries. In 1968 I bought my first Kelly book, Finding the Measure. If “Last Light” was the first of his poems that opened up as process and world (some of its lines have remained with me ever since: “in front / of the agony of any being / we are stupid mute” ), it was the “(prefix” that I thought on most often over the years — a 19-line poem that is a complete poetics  & that I used as an essential teaching tool ever since. That year I also picked up Songs I-XXX, those “experiments in the extended lyric” in which I could exercise my ear for the American speech Robert had sent me to via baseball radio, and follow those rhythms into lines of poetry as they create a bright, breathtaking dance out of the retort of our dailynesses in the alchemical wedding that joins what you do & what you read. Among many of the riches these Songs revealed to me  — besides an interest in the traditionary sciences — let me just mention the abiding figures of Giordano Bruno, a writer & thinker who has remained core to my own thinking (I anointed him the patron saint of translators a few years back in an essay), and that of the book’s dedicatee,  Stan Brakhage, whose cinematographic work Robert’s Songs led me to.

How foolish of me to have suggested that I never took a course with Robert! In truth, I have been a student of his since arriving in this country. When I left Bard in 1969 to move to New York City, Robert gave me the keys to the big city of his youth in the shape of two phone numbers: those of Paul Blackburn & Jerome Rothenberg. Now I was on the, on my, road — a road that would take me across three continents over two decades before I returned to America. An America, “rica,” rich and “amer,” bitter, as he writes in his long poem, The Common Shore, but whose name also holds a word from one of my old languages: “aimer,” to love. Yes, it is now our common shore, Robert — and it has been a great pleasure, an honor, a blessing, to have been able to walk along these shores in your company, and to have had you & your work teaching me to read so many of its shapes and names, to see so many of its obvious and its secret riches. Happy 80th, compañero, and may we soon break bread again, up in Annandale or here in your Brooklyn, around a table — that “natural gamecourt / to lean & draw on,” that perfect place to talk and share.

Pierre Joris

Sorrentinostan, Brooklyn
August 14, 2015,
also the 70th birthday of Wim Wenders.

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3 opinions on “Happy Birthday, Robert Kelly!”

  1. “A long time ago I made a list of persons & properties essential to the work. I found upon examination that it contained nothing but the names of women. Angels who are informers. But the girls’ names ride like swans on the paper.”…Robert Kelly

  2. I meant to add a ‘Happy Birthday’ but got caught up in reading the verse. I call Jaq My Swan and sent her this verse long ago.

  3. Jaq is very fond of Kelly’s work too. She also felt I should add a comment about what a splendid piece of writing you did here yourself.

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