Saturday, October 23, 2010

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!

Series III, No. 2 (June 1943)
[9" x 12"]
[Featuring “Five Poems” by Philip Lamantia]

All right, and let’s go! For the third time in the short history of this here glade, it’s Philip Lamantia Day, the anniversary of his birth (October 23, 1927), and thus an occasion to remember and celebrate the poet who died in 2005 and whose poetry – which I’ve read for decades – forever inspires.

On the two most recent anniversaries of Philip’s birth, I’ve respectively (1) surveyed about a dozen poems, by an equal number of poets, written for, to, after, and/or about Lamantia, and (2) told about a few of the many things I learned from him. This year, I take a more bibliographic bent, and take a look, an enthusiastic one, at Lamantia’s first big-time appearance in print, the publication of “Five Poems” in the June, 1943 (Series III, No. 2) issue of View.

View, edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler and published between 1940 and 1947, was an important American magazine. As curator and critic Michael Duncan explains, in a note published in ArtForum in January, 2003:
With a penchant for the unexpected and an unerring eye for quality, View mixed fiction and poetry with features on Max Ernst, Pavel Tchelitchew, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, and Isamu Noguchi, all of whose commissions graced its covers. View was the first little magazine to publish translations of work by Raymond Roussel, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The 1945 Marcel Duchamp issue was the first monograph on the artist . . . .

View also put an American spin on the Surrealist sensibility. Aztec and Native American poetry were featured, as well as Joseph Cornell’s worshipful paean to Hedy Lamarr. The magazine was formative for associate editor Parker Tyler – perhaps the most underrated critic in American letters. His later books on Tchelitchew, Florine Stettheimer, Hollywood film, and experimental cinema all had their seeds in View essays.

Most important, View was a quiet yet crucial force kindling kindling underground American culture. Touchstones of the decade to come like Henry Miller, Paul Bowles, Philip Lamantia, Paul Goodman, and Marshall McLuhan all published in the magazine. Its brand of poetic Surrealism in particular seems to have spilled over to the West Coast Beats. In the mid-‘50s, Los Angeles artist George Herms remembers excitedly perusing a pile of Views in Wallace Berman’s living room on Crater Lane.
Lamantia first saw View in 1942. He was 14 years old. His poetic energy – already ignited while in junior high school, where he wrote imitations of Poe and The Rubáiyát – had just been super-charged by back-to-back museum exhibitions in San Francisco (where he was born and raised) of paintings by Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Via the museum and public libraries, Lamantia read what he could on and of surrealism, including issues of View, VVV (another, more purely surrealist magazine), and plenty of poetry.

In early 1943, Lamantia sent a typewritten, single-spaced, and just over one page letter to View editor Charles Henri Ford. Lamantia begins, “Not to have this fact seem to important, in relation to my poetry, I state nevertheless that I am fifteen years old.” He then states that his recent verse “can be considered surrealist,” explaining why via references to such things as dreams and the indigenous realm of fantasy, and precursors and practitioners such as Rimbaud and Breton. “The words seem to lose their history,” Lamantia asserts about his poetry, “and they become free . . . .”

Lamantia then writes, “I am sending you several of my most recent, and I believe my best, poems that you may possibly want to use in View.” Lamantia explains that he does “not spring from the leisure class, in fact far from it, and therefore . . . have not as much time and energy to devote to my poetry as I would like to have.” His high school work and other matters take up his time, he says, but otherwise he confines all energy for poetry. Lamantia expresses his dedication and the desire to share his writing – necessary and beautiful impulses in all creative artists – in a most direct and fervent way:
If I am serious about any one thing, in its entirety, it is poetry. But I must be heard! I must be heard as soon as possible, for conditions as they are I will perhaps have to limit my attention to poetry in the future. But I will never stop writing it!
Lamantia in his letter also questions in some detail an editorial in the then current issue of View, asking Ford if it represents a leaning away from surrealism. He then returns to his own poetry, stating he has been previously published only in a high school anthology, and asking directly if there is a chance his work could be included in the June issue of View.

If Ford replied in writing, it has been lost to time. But we know what happened: the June View included five poems by Lamantia. The poems appear a single large (9" x 12") blue page, part of a bound-in center section of the magazine that also includes eight poems by e.e. cummings. Other contributors to the issue include Benjamin Peret (a long essay on magic and poetry, translated into English), Leon Kochnitsky (on artist Leonor Fini), Kenneth Burke (on literary theory / philosophy), Étiemble (on 16th century paintings) and Harold Rosenberg (on a new book by Wallace Stevens and a new translation of Rilke). The magazine’s cover – imaged at the head of the post – is a classic: a Man Ray solarized photo-print showing a broken chair (how does it stay upright with a leg missing?!), a piece of driftwood that somehow looks strangely human, and a pair of ballet slippers.

For Lamantia, it’s hard to imagine a nicer nation-wide debut in print. And the poems! As editors Ford and Tyler simply put it in the magazine’s Table of Contents, “View considers Philip Lamantia a discovery.” Or as Kenneth Rexroth later wrote of Lamantia, “I have never known anyone else who started out, without preliminaries, with no five-finger exercises or scales, as an achieved poet.” Here is the page, imaged from the magazine (click on it, then click again to give it a nice, clear read:

Of the five Lamantia poems in the June, 1943 View, the two most often re-published are “I Am Coming” and “There Are Many Pathways To The Garden.” Both are classics of youthful surrealism, charged imagery, cinematic energy, gothic tones, and emotional peaks. Here’s the first of these, in the full resplendency of its three stanza, sixteen line glory:

I Am Coming

I am following her to the wavering moon,
to the bridge on the far waterfront
to valleys of beautiful arson,
to flowers dead in a mirror of love,
to men eating wild minutes from a clock,
to hands playing in celestial pockets,
and to that dark room beside the castle
of youthful voices, singing to the moon.

When the sun comes up she will live at a sky
covered with sparrow’s blood
and wrapped in robes of lost decay.

But I am coming to the moon,
and she will be there in a musical night,
in a night of burning laughter,
burning like a road of my brain
pouring its arm into the lunar lake.

Just about every line there just about begs for a response in the form of a visual image or collage. The wavering moon. A bridge by the long waterfront. Valleys of beautiful arson. Flowers dead in a mirror of love. And I could post such images for you, and do the same for the rest in the poem as well. Plus add a soundtrack: youthful voices singing to the moon, a musical night, burning laughter, and much else, including the steady rhythm laid down by the anaphoric openings of the second through sixth lines. Yes, all that could be done, and I swear – I swear on the chance encounter a sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table – that I could do it here and now for you, dear readers.

But I will do nothing of the sort! For once here in the glade, the words – Lamantia’s words, those that he set free at age fifteen – will remain unfettered by interpretation or the analytic. It’s the anniversary of Philip’s birth – he’d be 83 today – and as such we should especially try to enjoy and celebrate his work au naturel, just as it came into this world. And so I shall, and – if so inclined – may you do so too. Just remember, if you please:

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!


Additional ¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!! information:

After his initial appearance in View, Lamantia – while still a teenager, in the four years spanning 1943 and 1946 – published poetry in two other issues of that magazine, as well as in VVV (which also published a long letter he wrote to Andre Breton), two issues of Hemispheres (a bilingual French-English journal edited by Yvan Goll), the first two issues of Circle (a west coast avant-garde magazine edited by George Leite in Berkeley), James Laughlin’s New Directions Annual # 9, an anthology-tribute to Henry Miller, and his own first book, Erotic Poems (Berkeley, Bern Porter, 1946). To date, the most complete collection of Lamantia’s early surrealist poetry is Touch of the Marvelous – A New Edition (Four Seasons Foundation: Bolinas, 1974).

Lamantia after his teens went on to write and publish poetry, off and on, for another approximately sixty years. Currently, The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia is in preparation, edited by Nancy Peters (Lamantia’s widow, a long-time editor at and currently co-owner of City Lights Books), Garrett Caples and Andrew Joron. The University of California Press will publish the volume, I believe in 2012. The book will include all poems previously collected in Lamantia’s books, plus many rare and difficult to find works. Among the latter will be his very first published poem, the one printed in the high school anthology that Lamantia mentions in his letter to Charles Henri Ford. That poem – titled “Ages In The Wind” – had been lost, including to Lamantia, for more than half a century until – after approximately a decade of searching and using tips given by Philip before his death – your lucky fool of a glade-keeper found a published copy (joy! joy! poetry-reading joy!) about two years ago.

Philip Lamantia
circa 1943 - age fifiteen

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!



John Olson said...

Thank you for the article, and sharing that remarkable publication of Lamantia's five poems in View. Where on earth did you find it? The poems are remarkable for their sureness and beauty; they would be a fine representation of poems by anyone in their more mature years, but that they are written by someone still in high school is astonishing. It gives rise to notions of genius and destiny. His words shine with a divine hunger.

Steven Fama said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the note, and I agree, the combo of youth and these poems is something to behold. Although as maybe you agree, I tend to think that youth has an advantage in that certain creative impulses, and ways of seeing the world, have not yet been strait-jacketed by cultural institutions (schools), ground down by certain other realities (e.g., day-to-day survival and economics), and/or flatten or deflated by what may be an innate dulling of perception or senses of possibility as we humans get older.

I've had this particular issue of View for many years. I'm proud to report that I have a copy, with just a handful of exceptions, of every publication by Philip, or which includes his work. That numbers approximately 300 items! I also have a chronological checklist of it all, and have for many years. I started it well before I met Philip, he helped a bit circa 1999-2001 and saw then an earlier version of it at that time too.

Brian Lucas said...

Thanks for posting this Steve. I recall Philip pulling out copies of VIEW and VVV when I first went to his apartment (in addition to the original John Hoffman manuscript, looking exactly how Kerouac described it in Dharma Bums). Philip's work and person are still a primary inspiration to me, not just in poetry but in ecology, myth, consciousness, hermeticism, West Coast dreamtime....

John Olson said...

True. I definitely agree. Youth has an advantage in being relatively free of institutional pollution. But these five poems evince a facility with language and a level of sophistication far beyond the reach of most adolescents. There is something uncanny about it. It's hard not to think of myself as I was at that age, struggling to get out of an English class whose rigors were too much for me to handle. I found out several years ago that Nancy Peters and I had had the same English teacher at Roosevelt High! Mrs. Smith. She was a tough teacher.

But yeah, no doubt about it. The domineering influence of a materialistic culture focused on commerce and industry to the exclusions of anything else, particularly art and imagination, is toxic to the development of young intellects. And so, too, in many ways, are universities and colleges. Most have a heavy bias toward the conventional, the latitudes of previously mapped realms. Lamantia managed to escape all this. He sailed unknown seas, sounded uncharted fathoms.

na said...

What a great JOY to see this!

Thanks Steven!


J. Karl Bogartte said...

Nice work, Steven! Good to see you're still involved here, and this tribute is great reminder!

J. Karl Bogartte