Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Really Love Joanne Kyger's Poetry

My two favorite Beat poets are the ones who were probably the most loyal to Buddhist practices and lived their lives the closest to Buddhist principles.

I mean Joanne Kyger and her (admitted) mentor Philip Whalen.

I recently returned to her Selected, As Ever (Penguin, 2002).

I'm always finding new things in these poems and almost always reading them completely differently than I did last year or the year before.

The poem I have been living with over the past few days is her "Burning the Baby to Make Him Realer."

This makes me think of Southwell's The Burning Babe (1595).

But that poem's conceit is Christian.

And Kyger's poem's burning babe is actually the one in the Demeter (or Diana, if you prefer) myth.

I don't remember all the particulars, but Demeter for some reason or other takes lodging with a mortal couple. And this couple has a baby or very young child.

In the middle of the night, Demeter decides to reward the mortals for their hospitality by making their child immortal.

She is holding the child out towards the flames of their fireplace when the child's mother awakens and comes into the room. She screams out of fear for her child's well-being. (She has no clue she's doing the Greek version of entertaining angels unaware.)

Demeter becomes irritated then and tells the woman how she has just deprived her son of immortality. And then the goddess flies off to Olympus in a pique of dudgeon.

It's actually one of those frustrating, funny Greek myths, because it's about how humans constantly miss the opportunity to become immortal on account of their shortsightedness.

But that's not the mother's fault! She had no idea. She was a good host and simply didn't understand what was happening. As if the Greek (or Roman) gods ever had to have a good reason for the crazy shit they do!

Kyger's poem starts out with this mythological baby from the Demeter myth, but then midpoem switches over to what seems to be a real child:

Gary says of the blond child
tensely crouching on the porch he's
not human.      :   at 2/12 an unfaltering
icy blue stare in his eyes he DEMANDS
        Both hands before him, uh-oh,
want, want
      & his parents cower
          what is it, what is it you want.

Gary is almost certainly the poet's ex-husband, Gary Snyder. But I'm thinking they might have still been married when this poem (which is early Kyger) was written.

The poem definitely strikes me as Buddhist.

The baby represents the desire/ego in all of us, the eternal child, wanting forever.

The parents are dooming the child with their capitulation, but this is not just a literal account of bad parenting or even only an allegory.

The troubling mote this poem leaves in the mind's eye is of course the other poet stating of the baby that "He's not human."

I take that to mean he's not begun to play the mind games demanded by society to keep the individual ego in place.

In a sense then the child is immortal, not human, but only in the sense that he personally represents the raw, natural forces of desire which are life itself.

The poem ends with the child grabbing virtually everything, trying to fill the hole of its desire: a wake of smashed cookies, crushed lipstick, wet cigarettes/& nervous haste, no joy(.)

Here she's definitely making it clear the "baby's" physical age is irrelevant. These are things adults throw into that hole of desire too.

The last line is a really masterful Buddhist koan and almost a complete poem in its own right--I'm thinking of Whalen's masterful one line poems in this enlightened vein.

She writes, "ripping the morning glories 3 times from the pot."

I really think that's Kyger's way of capturing the three (false in Buddhist practice) tenses of time which humans use to make sense of existence. Past. Present. And future. All traps according to Buddhist belief.

It's definitely a liberating push--she pushes you outside your body with that line.

She and Philip Whalen really end up as almost brother and sister in their poetry.

It's strange to think Kyger separated from a straight male poet (Snyder) and then married her mind (if not her body) to a gay male Buddhist poet.

But it makes sense once you know their respective poetry.

They are both spiritual stalwarts and each's poems reinforce the other's.

It's a quite beautiful congress of souls seeking escape.


  1. Thank you for that explanation. Kyger is great! You got me into her and I am forever grateful.

    Also, did you see Maurice Sendak on the Colbert Report? You should check it out on Hulu if you missed it.

  2. Hi Rachel. Now I feel guilty because I know poetry can't be "explained," especially great poetry. If I gave the impression I completely "understand" the poem or have "solved" it like a crossword puzzle or rebus or something, then I fucked up lol. Because the poem retains its mystery and the possibility for many other readings. "I too easily give up the meaning of a picture."--Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. But I'm glad my mentioning her once because your (sometimes scarily) perceant poetry (you look right through fake scrims) reminded me of hers, and that it led on to you bonding with her work. She's very underappreciated but I"m sure she doesn't care a bit about that. Since you know the poetry, I'm sure you know what I mean. Her life in Bolinas must be wonderful. Bolinas must have been wonderful for everyone who found that loose-leaved community. Look at how many New York intellectuals and movers and shakers gave it up because they loved the West Coast ocean so much. Creeley seemed to have really been energized by that and I think he kept Bolinas as a touchstone. Sure, some we're hippies (hell, even Creeley was a proud hippie) but the ethos is a great one and it breaks you open to your real humanity, I think. And that's what I get from Kyger. She's a spiritual worker first, and a poet second. Heal the people, heal yourself. Her poem about her father is like a novel in miniature...knowing the impossible distance will remain distance. How much she says without saying it when she talks about him "following me to the sick squirrels in the cellar." And that poem just captures the impossible questions left and right ("How far does one go / to help a parent like a child"). I love the funny, existential jokes about distance: "I had greens with vinegar last night--that's something/ in common." Patching, patching. We're always trying to fill in those spaces. And the closing line so resigned and the emotion beaten out, beaten down, diminished--a survivor's numb statement. I bet a LOT of people read her too quickly and think "Hippie chick" or something like that. And miss the real work--and I mean work in more than one sense--like the spiritual work she's clearly done to arrive at a place like this past the "wrong kinds" of caring.


  3. I think the smartest thing she did in her life was get away from the wrong kinds of men (wrong being understood to mean "wrong for her.") Sure, Whalen was a man too. But when Whalen laughs at Charles Olson calling him a "great big vegetable" and insists that Olson was right, you get that his move past the ego (where the vegetal is just as real as the human) is a genuine relocation of the mind and not a pose. Because Kyger's early mentors like Spicer and Duncan were bound to be controlling and demanding and fatherly and she started out in that direction (you can sense just a wee bit of seeking after approval from those guys in the stylistic stance adopted in her first book) but quickly found her own voice and where the poetry wanted to go through her body. I love it that she generously dedicates the book "To those who love to read." Some people adopt Buddhism as a costume, as something fun to do or a way to get respect in the world. Some people, however, like Whalen and Kyger, adopt Buddhism because they clearly needed it to help them die successfully (a.k.a. live successfully) their whole life long. I really find succor from both her and Whalen's work in a way that I don't get from any of the other beats (okay, Ginsberg sometimes but not nearly as much--Kerouac never). But that's just me. I realize (finally) I'm not speaking for anyone else but me. But sometimes my older misconceptions inform my style. So sometimes I will sound pedantic when I don't really put any stock in the pedantic or my own subjective feelings. But this is a diary. A weblog is a log, a diary. So I figure I'll be a little girl telling things to my diary forever. lol. Oh well. Thanks for the Sendak pointer. I will go see if I can find it on Hulu or YouTube now. You must be psychic. I have a Sendak poster facing my bed. Found in a thrift store a year or so ago. It has a bunch of characters from the different books all standing around together. There's even Mili. I love that book! It's almost Biblical, that parable. So weird they found that over a century later in somebody's letter just sitting there. When I read a recent translation of the Grimm tales (love them! Had no idea the Grimms such serious scholars and had written dozens and dozens of scholarly works in various disciplines that were standard in German curricula of the time--I knew they were linguists and about that Law, but never knew their work was this thick) the translator scrupled to include it and gave what I consider "bogative" reasons. I think it's really just a matter of his not being able to secure the rights to "Dear Mili." I kept thinking (and I think even said once) Sendak is dead, but obviously that was wrong lol. Oops. Hope all's happiness and love furtherance at your end.