Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Polished Apple (for David Melnick)

To present a polished apple is the symbolic equivalent
of the old tradition in which families of pupils
would express their appreciation
for a teacher’s work
by providing a meal.

What kind of fool am I? A lucky one, in many ways. Among the fortunes of fate with which I have been blessed is having had at least a dozen great teachers of poetry, both in “school” (high school and college) and ever since, up to and including today.

This post is about one of those great teachers, David Melnick, the instructor in the very first college English class I ever took. This post, in short, is a thank you, thirty-five years (!) after-the-fact. In addition to that personal thank you, this post I hope might also remind those teaching poetry today (if any there be who read this blog) that their work can last a lifetime.

In September, 1974, three months after graduating high school, I started at UC Berkeley. During my first quarter, I took a basic English class, called “English 1-B.” English 1-A and 1-B were a pair of beginning reading and composition classes that were required for many students, including all intending (as I was) to major in English. I had been exempted from “1-A” because at high school I’d taken an advanced English class taught by someone from a local college.

There were many – my memory says approximately 20 – different English 1-B classes offered. These classes were taught not by full or associate professors, but non-tenure track assistants or lecturers. Short descriptions of each 1-B class offered, including required book lists, were posted in a hallway of the building (Wheeler Hall) housing the English Department offices. These descriptions gave students a chance to choose a class that perhaps matched their particular interests. Some 1-B courses focused on fiction, others on poetry, and most reflected the particular interests of the teacher.

I remember looking over the many course descriptions and being excited by precisely, and only, one. This particular description included, among much else, a mention of a Beat Generation writer or two, including Allen Ginsberg. It was the only description that included such poets. During high school, I’d come upon, on my own, Kerouac and then Ginsberg and Howl and Other Poems. I’d greatly enjoyed the latter book, and brought it with me to Cal. And so, I signed up for that particular class.

David Melnick was the teacher’s name. Mr. Melnick, we called him. Sitting here today, I recall a bearded man, with lots of hair on top of his head too. More substantively, he was a poet himself, very cerebral, and (as would logically follow) knew a lot about poetry.

Melnick was also – and this is something I wouldn’t fully appreciate until many years later – a door-opener extraordinaire into the realms of poetry.

Although Melnick assigned and spent class time on some fiction – The Brothers Karamazov, in particular – poetry made up the vast majority of the reading. Almost all of the poetry reading came from four – yes four – assigned anthologies. They were the first college books I ever bought, and I still have them, each with my name and freshman year dorm room phone number (642-8250) written on their half-title or title pages. Here they are, or here are their front covers, today, still crazy after all these years:

The Norton Anthology of Poetry
[Shorter Edition]

Donald Allen, editor
The New American Poetry
(New York: Grove Press, 1960)

Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, editors
A Controversy of Poets
[“An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry”]
(Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1965)

Milton Klonsky, editor
Shake the Kaleidoscope
[“A New Anthology of Modern Poetry”]
[“Today’s Poet’s Writing About Today”]
(New York: Pocket Books, 1973)

Melnick assigned poems from each of these books. Typically, at the end of one class he would tell us which poets and particular poems, and from which book(s), we were to read for the next class or two. Sometimes he’d also offer a thumbnail introduction, to provide some bearings in advance. Of course, he’d also substantively discuss the poets and poems in class, after we’d done the homework.

Back then, I was in the habit – long ago abandoned – of writing in books. For Melnick’s class, I put check marks next to the assigned poems (sometimes in the table of contents) in the anthologies, and at some of the poems transcribed a few of Melnick’s comments about the work. So I have a contemporaneous record of much of the poetry Melnick assigned, and even a bit of what he taught. Looking back on it, it’s a trip, not necessarily long and strange, but certainly full and varied.

From The Norton Anthology we read Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Arnold, Dickinson, Hopkins (including poems that Melnick’s teaching assistant specially wrote out and mimeo-ed), Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Thomas. This comprised a fairly standard introductory survey to English language poetry.

But after these, the class went in a whole other direction, straight into and around much of fairly, for that day, contemporary English-language, and particularly American, poetry.

From The New American Poetry, the marks in the book indicate we were assigned to read, at the least, Duncan (including “A Poem Beginning With A Line By Pindar”), Creeley, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, O’Hara, Ashbery, McClure, and Loewinsohn.

From Leary’s and Kelly’s A Controversy of Poets, we were assigned among others John Ashbery’s “Europe.” This makes me laugh thinking back on it now, a rich, appreciative laugh of wonder and amazement. How many other introductory freshman English classes back then taught Ashbery’s experiment in appropriated and automatic writing, spread over 111 fragments? Hell, how many such classes have done that since, or even now?

I wrote Melnick’s advice about “Europe” in red ink across from the poem’s title, right on the page, or at least his advice as I, a discombobulated first-quarter freshman, heard it: “A collage – don’t try to understand – just enjoy.” That’s an approach to reading poetry that I learned, or had validated, there, and it has often since served me well.

Of course, I could make neither head nor tails of Ashbery’s poem, which probably of course was exactly right. But I remember particularly enjoying the following set of lines, from the last section of “Europe”:
They suddenly saw a beam of intense, white light,
A miniature searchlight of great brilliance,
– pierce the darkness, skyward.
Why I’d glom on to these? Well, it reminded me of a moment on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” the Disneyland ride. Near the end of that mechanized adventure, the car you are in seems to turn onto railroad tracks, and then the headlight of a locomotive seems to come right at you.

Sallying forth from Ashbery’s poem to Walt Disney’s Fantasyland amusement-ride is not exactly the height of intellectual insight. But hey, Melnick said to have fun, and I did. And I still think of Mr. Toad today when I read “Europe.”

There’s also a checkmark next to the Louis Zukofsky poems in the table of contents of my A Controversy of Poets, and a mark indicating that “A–11” had been assigned. I dimly remember that Melnick really liked Zukofsky, but sadly that’s all I recall about that.

In Klonsky’s Shake the Kaleidoscope the poem that serves as the book’s epigraph – “Table Talk” by Wallace Stevens – has lots of notes. There are also notes in the poems of William Carlos Williams, particularly “To Elsie” (“The pure products of America / go crazy–”), e.e. cummings, and Gertrude Stein (“Susie Asado”).

According to Melnick – and I quote here again from my notes scrawled next to the poem in the book – Stein wrote in way such that “sounds [and] rhythms dictate . . . away from natural speech,” engaged in “games with language,” and “like Cubist paintings, breaks up things into separate parts.” Very basic stuff, true, but heady and helpful to an eighteen year old ignoramous (that’d be me).

Shake the Kaleidoscope is also noteworthy for having almost twenty pages of concrete or visual poems. That’s a fairly substantial selection, and I remember spending much time looking at those. In class there was a discussion of those by Eugene Gomringer, and also, at least briefly, the work by Aram Saroyan (the anthology includes the latter’s “wwww” poem, in which those letters morph down the page into the words “wake” and “walk”). On the page with the Saroyan poem, there’s a note – again, based on what Melnick said, or what dunderhead newbie me heard him say – that one of Saroyan’s one-word poems (“lighght” – not included in the book) had won a large cash prize. Another note on the same page states that Saroyan had published a “bound volume of blank pages.” Those factoids today remain as wondrous as the day I wrote ‘em in the book.

Another required text in Melnick’s class was Eclogs (Ithica House, 1972), a slim (only 39 pages) volume of poems by . . . Melnick himself:

Teachers assigning their own books was, as I recall, not uncommon when I went to college, and I believe it remains so today (though some professors rebate to students any royalties earned, an option probably not available to most poet-professors given the economics of poetry).

Buying Melnick’s own book struck me as more than fine back then. I was intrigued and excited that my teacher was an actual poet, with an actual book. Melnick in fact was the first poet I ever encountered, in any meaningful way, in the flesh. That in itself was important, in addition to the poets and poems he taught and made available.

As I recall, we spent very little class time on Eclogs, though I believe Melnick read some aloud during one class. As one of the first books I ever bought at college, Eclogs too has stayed with me all these years. Eclogs was tough – very difficult – poetry back then, and still is for me today. That is to its credit. Here’s a snap of the first page of the book’s first poem (click on image to enlarge):

I diligently read all poems assigned by Melnick in English 1-B. But I can’t say I was an adventurous student. For the longest of the required papers – I still have the graded original – I wrote on Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” That’s a great poem, certainly, but I didn’t exactly take the contemporary poetry bait that Melnick put out, did I?

However, what Melnick taught, and made available via the four anthologies, eventually did provide much sustenance to me, to say the least. I kept those assigned books through college and then – and this is the key here – everywhere else since, and I regularly or periodically returned to them as sources for poetry. They have taken me to lots of places, poetically.

It’s remarkable, really. Melnick’s assignments from the anthologies – I won’t repeat those already mentioned above – were a great start, in terms of an introduction to various ways poetry of the very recent past (Ashbery’s “Europe” for example had been first published just 12 years before). And in the months and years after Melnick’s class, those anthologies gave me my first hits of many other poets, including (last names only here) Olson, Lamantia, Snyder, Spicer, Adam, Welch, Eigner (and all the other “New Americans”), plus Rexroth, Brautigan, MacDiarmid, Jones, Reznikoff, Oppen, Enslin, Ceravolo, Schulyer, Koch, Bunting, Kelly, Mac Low, Loy, and Tolson.

Sure, it’s all almost entirely American and British Isle poetry, so it’s not a comprehensive world-view. And there also are gaps even in the contemporary American poetry. No doubt there were limits on the number of books that could be required, and the poets/poems that reasonably could be taught. Ideally, we’d also have been assigned Paul Carroll’s The Young American Poets (1968), which would have brought in Ted Berrigan and Clark Coolidge, among others, and Clayton Eshleman’s A Caterpillar Anthology (1971), for a deeper and wider sweep (including Cid Corman, for example) and to show what a smartly edited little mag could bring together.

Still, the particular anthologies chosen by Melnick provided a terrific sampling, and served as an at-hand library as the years went by. For example, in 1976, Philip Lamantia published an essay identifying Mina Loy as one of the few historical American poets worthy of being called “marvelous.” When I read that remark, I was able to find Loy’s five page, thirteen section “Love Songs” (the 1923 version) in the Melnick-assigned Shake the Kaleidoscope, and thus get my first taste of, “Pig Cupid” with “his rosy snout / Rooting erotic garbage / ‘Once upon a time’. . . .”

Being a newbie, insecure, and shy freshman, I rarely if ever talked privately with Melnick about poetry or class matters (I did talk about such stuff with the teaching assistant, whose first name – I believe – was Laura, and who graded the papers). As such, I have no doubt that Melnick has no recollection of me. I’ve also not seen him in the decades since the class, despite – as I just recently learned – having lived for the past 25 years just a single neighborhood away from him in San Francisco.

But despite the lack of an interpersonal connection, what Melnick gave to me, as a teacher, was major and ever-lasting. From a basic introductory English class, one that met for only a few hours each week for a bit less than three months (the length of an academic quarter at Berkeley), I was given a tremendous boost to a poetry reading trip that’s now thirty-five years in the making.

So thank you, David Melnick, thank you very much. Thank you for thinking through that reading list and for the anthologies you assigned. You opened almost a half/hundred huge beautiful poetry doors, and I appreciate having had the chance to step through most of them, take a good look around, and, in some, set up a more or less permanent presence.

What a lucky poetry-lovin’ fool I was!

Having had Melnick as a teacher, in subsequent years I picked up the two books he published after Eclogs. The first of these was PCOET (San Francisco: G.A.W.K., 1975):

PCOET is a mind-expanding collection of constructed new-words, a few poems, such as “glarenas” and “adfelf, consist of only single new-words, while most contain a number of such words (letter-combinations) in various alignments, including the following, which is poem # 46 in its entirety:
eo rovs peoy ci meou wahr t boiru
The other poem-book Melnick has published, and the last one he has so far published, is Men in Aida: Book One (Tuumba Press, 1983):

This book too is a mind-expander, a homophonic translation of a part of The Iliad, although one that presents a narrative different than that found in Homer. I’ve no doubt it sounds like the Greek and, at the same time, it reads to me with some of the same wondrous goofiness of Finnegans Wake. Here are a few lines from near the top of page 4, go ahead and recite them aloud; if you super-articulate the syllable-sounds, it will indeed all sound Greek to me (and you!):
Men in Apollo, a nosy cat, table at our (‘Enact!”) toes.
Tiger agone areo. So decent they o.k. my emotion.
Hey men, my prof Ron, a pacin’ guy, cares in a rake’s seine.
Egg are oh yummy. Andrews call o’ semen hose Meg a pant on.
Argue on, critic. All high pay, then tie Achaioi.

All of Melnick’s books are long out-of-print and now scarce. Fortunately, the great Utah Eclipse site has scans of Eclogs, PCOET, and Men in Aida: Book One (click on each title to go, if you please). That site also has the text of Men in Aida: Book II (again, click the title to go), which never has been otherwise published. Further, Melnick’s not otherwise published In Pin’s Fee is also available on-line (click title to go). That same site also has PCOET and an extremely useful introduction to Melnick by Ron Silliman (a pdf).

Silliman as it turns out has been a close friend of Melnick since the late 1960s, and a great admirer of his writing. As Ron explained back on September 22, 2005 (click to go), his first blurb ever was for Melnick’s Eclogs (the day after that post, Ron provided on his blog the text of Melnick’s “Hasty Fields,” a poem from Eclogs (click to go)).

I believe the only other on-line consideration of Melnick is a comment made a few years back by the ever-astute Mark Scroggins, who focused on PCOET (click here to read).

Finally, Ron Silliman, in a blog footnote just last month, mentioned that he is actively involved in editing Melnick’s collected works. That’s a project that excites me. I look forward to having all Melnick’s writings at hand.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

David Highsmith's store Books and Bookshelves in San Francisco might still have a perfect-condition copy or two of the original Tuumba chap of Men in Aida Part I. I got a copy there a few months ago (cheap!).

Steven Fama said...

Thanks, K. Silem. Yes, Books and Bookshelves would be a good place to check. There have been times when a copy of two of the other Melnick titles were also in stock there. I usually stop in that shop to browse (and read) the poetry on the shelves every week or three (it's just one neighborhood to the north, I can walk it). If I understand or remember right, Melnick lives very close to Books and Bookshelves.

All that said, a Collected Melnick will be a great thing, especially since Aida: Book II has been only done on-line and -- who knows? -- perhaps there is a Book III etc.

Curtis Faville said...

The first horse out of my gate wants to know where Melnick is today, and why he hasn't published more than he has.

Curtis Faville said...

Is Men in Aida a take-off or application of Zukofsky's method in his Catullus?


Steven Fama said...

Hi Curtis,

A bit of answer to your questions, I think, can be found in Ron Silliman's "Introduction" to Melnick's "Pin Fee," which is linked to in the last few paragraphs of the post. I highly recommend that.

Curtis Faville said...

The collected Melnick--sounds great, especially if it has newer (more) work than already published.

I seem to remember that Melnick worked in the newspaper business once.

And still lives in San Francisco-- ?

Elsewise ??

Steven Fama said...

Hi again Curtis,

I dunno how David Melnick is doing, but I hope he is very well. As I said in the post I've not had contact with him, and put in the post everything I "know" as gleamed from others.

The linked-to introduction by Ron suggests there is a third (not published anywhere) piece of Men in Aida, and further suggests that A Pin's Fee, completed circa 20 years ago, marked the end of Melnick's poetry projects.

I too would look forward to reading anything more that he's written, but on the other hand, it sometimes happens that there isn't. Rimbaud stopped at nineteen. On the flip side, there are plenty of examples of those who didn't start until circa age 50. Plenty of similar examples in other creative disciplines too. Duchamp, save for the surprise at the end, gave it up decades before he left.

I also would love to hear Melnick read Men in Aida aloud. Silliman's linked-to "Introduction" says it is amazing, and I well believe it would be.

Of course, I primarily celebrate here the other, and personal to me, poetry teaching work of Melnick.

John MacConaghy said...

I stumbled on your blog. I think I was in the same class, maybe one quarter either side. David Melnick was indeed a gifted teacher, and in my case quite a revelation to a sheltered Irish Catholic boy from the outer sunset. I could not "get" his poetry until I heard it read aloud.