In the Company of Poets
First read at the Poetry Project on the occasion of the Anselm Hollo Tribute Reading, June 5, 2013
When Anselm and I began our relationship thirty years ago, he was 48 and I was 28. I had been fortunate not to have lost any close friends up until then, but the deaths of my two grandmothers, the only grandparents I remember well, were strangely synchronized, occurring within six weeks of one another. I was in college, and the one-two blow of that loss was so traumatic to my family that my parents and sisters and I all mourned separately, as if we were strangers. I had learned to guard my heartstrings carefully, so, when Anselm told me about the death of his dear friend, Ted Berrigan, just one month before we met, I realize now that I could barely comprehend the import of such a loss.
As I grew closer to Anselm, the degree to which he cherished his friends was revelatory. Some, like Paul Blackburn and Charles Olson, had already passed away, and Pentti Saarikoski, Anselm’s Finnish friend and colleague whose work he delighted in translating into English, had died just one month after Ted and, like Ted, just short of his 50th birthday. But Anselm told me stories about these dear friends and read their poems to me so they would become part of my world, so I would be in a better position to partake of his world. As we began to travel together, I was awed by the geographic distribution of Anselm’s circle of loved ones and how graciously they all welcomed me into their community. Not being an aspiring poet or even much of a reader of poetry myself, I wasn’t as star-struck as I otherwise might have been, but it became clearer by the day that friendships were literally the center of Anselm’s life.
As time went by, especially when we arrived in Boulder, where Anselm and I essentially “grew up” together when we both stopped drinking, I began to experience, for the first time, the heightened energy and enthusiasm that can occur when individuals feel connected to one another through some kind of shared aesthetic commitment. I soon realized that to be a part of such a community is one of life’s great gifts — something to be cherished and nurtured until the end. It is its own reward.
I have no explanation the for the alchemy of how such a community comes to be, but I was visiting with Larry Fagin and Susan Noel a couple of days ago, turning the pages of the beautiful book, “Painters and Poets” from Tibor de Nagy, and I asked Larry, “How is it, do you think, that all of these poets and artists managed to form such enduring friendships?” “I will tell you the reason,” he said. “It is because we were the last generation to fly in propeller airplanes.”
Anselm used to quote a Russian poet he once knew (I think it may have been Andrey Voznesensky), in a fake Russian accent — “Trouble with poetry is poet have to die.” Given our age difference, and the number of poets he knew and loved, it wasn’t surprising that Anselm would lose dear friends and colleagues throughout the years we spent together. He was pleased to have introduced me to Joel Oppenheimer and Jack Clarke on separate occasions before they passed away, but I had the privilege of sharing longer friendships with many others whose loss we eventually grieved together. Among the most poignant losses were friends Anselm had been close to for decades, many of whom he first met when he and Josie still lived in London: Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley come especially to mind. We lost Joe Cardarelli, also before he turned 50, and Fielding Dawson, Philip Whalen, Kenneth Koch, Douglas Oliver, Jackson Mac Low, Lucia Berlin, George Schneeman, and many others, including Anselm’s sister Irina and, tragically, his son Hannes. Anselm used to say that losing dear friends was like the lights gradually going out in a village. Each loss left our worlds a little darker, colder, and it reminded us both, but him especially, of the inevitable extinguishing of our own lights — an eventuality Anselm was not at all fond of contemplating.
Since arriving in New York several days ago on this, my first solo visit to the city since my early 20s, vignettes of our times together here have played through my head continuously. I decided to dedicate one day especially to Anselm, and that day turned out to be last Friday. It began with an early morning meeting with Steve Clay to kibitz about Anselm’s papers and books, followed by a meeting with Chris Fishbach, to discuss, among other things, “The Tortoise of History,” a manuscript Anselm submitted to CoffeeHouse Books — heroically, I now realize, since it was shortly before the first obvious manifestation of his illness.
After saying goodbye to Chris, I thought I was headed to Chelsea but started out in the wrong direction, North, when I meant to be headed East, which was a fairly common occurrence for Anselm and me in the city. When I finally did reach Chelsea, I enjoyed dipping into and out of the galleries more quickly than I would have been able to had Anselm been with me, but I missed the convivial sharing of associations we always had, the references conjured up in my mind neatly complemented by the references conjured up in his. After the galleries closed, I ventured onto the wonderful High Line and ended up walking about 120% of it because, again, I started out in the wrong direction. It was the warmest day in New York so far this summer and since this was Anselm’s day, walking among the plantings above the street noise invited contemplation.
I was thinking of how he would have enjoyed experiencing the city as if walking through the sky, and then about the role location plays in all of our relationships and how locations change over time. Cities don’t usually die, like we do, but they do morph and change continuously. The form and context of our relationships morph and change as well, especially when we lose someone dear to us. Most people are forgotten by the time their grandchildren have passed away. But those who create, in one way or another, have a chance of being remembered longer, and it’s touching to imagine the quotidian musings of poets of Anselm’s generation being remembered 100 years from now, in a much changed world, as emblematic of a quieter, less hectic time. But I believe the most significant theme many of Anselm’s poems, and those of his particular generation, will carry into the future is their celebration of friendship.
All of this is, of course, small consolation when we lose someone we dearly love, and we’re walking around with a broken heart, trying to remember that it is possible to feel emotional pain without having to interpret it or not to berate ourselves for being less than perfect when our loved one was alive. I always expected that I would eventually discover Anselm in new ways through his books and correspondence. But I couldn’t have imagined how deeply I would miss his physical presence. I do have his books, his words, and even recordings of his voice, but the most comforting reminder of Anselm I have is his friends. It was very important to him to know that I would keep the friendships he gave me.
When I resumed my walk back to Washington Square, I happened upon the restaurant, Macelleria, near Gansevoort Market, where Anselm, Simon Pettet, John Godfrey, and I found refuge on the evening of September 11th, 2001, now well over a decade behind us. I had a quiet meal outdoors on the cobblestones and remembered how glad Anselm and I were, back then, to be with friends at the end of that terrible day. When I got up to leave, it was dusk, l’heure bleu, as Anselm used to describe the half-light, and I had been walking far longer than I should have in new sandals. I was literally hobbling by the time I stepped into a local Pharmacy and said to the attendant, “Please help me, I’ve mangled my feet!” She set me up with Epsom Salts and special bandages for blisters. I thanked her and assured her I would be OK.
“You are knitting your future to your past,” Reed Bye said to me before I left Boulder, upon hearing my itinerary. It’s true, dear Reed. And thank you. In the company of poets, I will be OK. Let the celebration begin.
What a splendid laugh he had — raspy, deep with just enough treble in it to thrill the listener. And laugh Anselm did, and so frequently, in the times we spent together during the past 46 years. He was like, say, Phil Ochs — he always lit up a room when he entered. His poetry was new, bold, very inventive, and full of satisfying wonder, and he was enormously erudite. I recall him at the World Poetry Congress in the summer of 1968; at an anti-war reading in April of 1969 in Iowa City; at Hobart and Williams in early 1973; at a reading I gave at Bard College in 1974 after which to this day his splendid laughter remains in my mind; in Baltimore in 1977 and 1978; in California; in Boulder — always with that great seeking gleam in his eye, and his mind packed with love of poets and writers. He came up with a powerful new verse for the Amazing Grace project which had its premiere at a benefit for the Poetry Project in 1994.
Like Allen Ginsberg, Anselm had an International Eye — he nurtured many literary connections and friends in a number of countries. And what a noggin! We miss his mind! Like we miss Olson, Burroughs, Rukeyser, Edna Millay, and others by the bardic quire! And wow, as a translator. I recall how I was blown away by Anselm’s German translation of Part V of Ginsberg’s Kaddish (“Caw caw caw crows shriek in the white sun….”). As Anselm wrote in 1992: “Task of The Living: to ask questions of The Dead.”
Here’s a picture of Ron Loewinsohn and his wife Joan, their son, and Anselm at the Magic Meadow above our house in Woodstock near the mountain top in blueberry season in 1978. Anselm was loath to pick the blueberries in the meadow, something about his grandmother in Finland, as I recall, demanding that he pick them when he was a kid.
And then, another picture at Naropa, summer of 1990, with E.S., Anselm, Jane, and Bobbie Louise Hawkins.
Tom Raworth e’d me that Anselm will lie on the same hillside as Ed Dorn and Lucia Berlin. Good for swapping rounds of poesy in eternity.
For Anselm Hollo
Anselm Hollo carried some charmed genetic material into this world and had inside knowledge of what was needed and possible in the poems of his time.
This material and knowledge was apparent in his eyes and smile and poems. Within the circumstance of his Finnish first language and culture and his wide and peripatetic curiosity, Anselm became influential upon the way anglophone poetics developed from the 1950’s through the end of the 20th century. Some of that influence included a sense for the music of language that didn’t conform to any prescription for the music of “a” language, but that held the phrasal energies of talk with a formally trained ear for past poetic rhythms; a sense that allowed for idiosyncratic new formations to sing and settle into contemporary poem-rhetorics.
Anselm was a link to earlier formations of culturally challenging verse that had emerged in Europe in the earlier twentieth century; he conveyed that avant-garde history for his friends and colleagues here and in England, and so acted as something of a double agent for the cross-fertilization of experimental poetries from the two hemispheres.
His poetry balances syntax of argument and simple statement with felicitous accident and conversational asides (sometimes footnoted for further layerings of inter- and intra-texts). The prosody is a “mind-breath” — measured compression of intuition with critical thought, aesthetic values, bemusements, and interests. In an essay entitled “Oh Didn’t he Ramble,” Anselm reveals his bias for a poetry “that runs word-thought/word-feeling by me with economy and elegance, sometimes playing with different levels of available rhetoric, switching back and forth between them, and has some surprises in it the way good conversation does.”
At Naropa University, where he taught translation and poetry workshops and courses in 20th century French literature and postmodern poetics for twenty-five years, Anselm was known as a teacher who both gave wide permission for students to explore individual inclinations, but who also brought his cutlass down swiftly at first signs of poetic self-importance or unconscious indulgence, usually followed with the laughter and extra power of a good, serious joke.
He was a great poet of the community in which he lived and wrote—a joyously expansive and at the same time private and humble presence, a man of incisive thought and words. His eyes and smile remain in his poems. We count ourselves very fortunate that as a boy he was drawn to adventure stories of the sea and the American West.
Anselm Hollo was a gypsy scholar. I first heard that term (a term I warmed to) when, in 1978, I went out with his confrere of confreres, Ted Berrigan, to the unlikely locale of Cottonwood, Minnesota, in the dead of winter (he and Jane, whom he had just met, were living in a trailer, a homely trailer there (another first for me) and Anselm was in the middle of his post-Iowa wanderings, Baltimore, Salt Lake City, Sweet Briar College, up-all-night San Francisco proof-reading, before finding a permanent spot, a home, a hearth, in Boulder, Colorado as part of the faculty at Naropa.
Sui generis — beloved teacher — He displayed an encyclopedic erudition that he wore lightly but seriously and without pomposity (in fact, he was a living repudiation and scourge of pomposity).
From a Poetry Society of America “interview”:
PSA: When you consider your own “tradition,” do you think primarily of American poets?
AH: No, I don’t. My conscious lineage includes Hipponax, Sappho, Arnaut Daniel, Walther von der Vogelweide, Francois Villon, Heinrich Heine, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy, Bertolt Brecht, numerous other twentieth-century European as well as [US]American and other Western Hemisphere poets.
PSA: What about the American poets who lived primarily in Europe (Eliot, Pound, Stein)? What about the European poets who have recently lived or worked in America (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz)?
AH: Interesting: Walcott is “European”? You must mean his Nobel buddy Brodsky, no? I prefer Andrei Codrescu (Romania), Christopher Middleton (England), and Pierre Joris (Luxembourg) to the three overrated artistic reactionaries you list.
PSA: Are you interested in poetry written in America but not in English?
AH: Not particularly.
Finland, Deutschland, (“Europe”) London (the BBC!), America! (“just like me”!). In fact, I confess it was fascination with his trajectory (as well as immediate and delighted engagement with the poems) that first drew me to him (London in the ‘60s, that iconic picture of the poets on the steps of the Albert Memorial, Allen Ginsberg and “Red Cat” Voznesensky filling the Albert Hall).
Subsequently, we met and became, like they say, instant friends, “for over three decades.” Others, many others, have testified to his warmth, his humor (the sustenance of such a friendship) — and it’s in the poems, right there on the surface:
my little stalk of alfalfa
i used to like to laugh a lot
with everyone i met
laugh & play with them
take them by the hand &
pull their little earlobes
then go to the tavern with them
run up some ridiculous tab
until i got bored with the booze
& felt the farts & hiccups coming on
moon shines on the valley
grass sleeps by river
now why don’t you come
sit down with me
& love me a little
as i love you
I loved and admired him more than most poets I’ve known — the complimentary combination of a peer and an elder, confidant, reality-check, model of devotion:
Devotion to love, devotion to the work:
“when there’s nothing else to do, there’s always work to do”
my father said that in one of his notebooks and its true
Echoing Allen Ginsberg:
Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work –
and what’s the work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else drunken
That extraordinary, Viking laughter (who will ever forget that laugh?) and the deep sparkling eyes. An abiding impression of sympathy (sympathy and intelligence — what a terrific double-bill!). Joie de vivre, an “appetite” (“tamed,” of necessity in later years, but always maintaining a-muse-ment and curiosity).
Lover of language, consummate translator, so, always playing with words, OED-o-phile.
Sentimentalist and animal-lover:
One Boulder student sweetly recalls him giving his class a blow-by-blow commentary on a cat searching through the trash outside the classroom window — commentary, in the persona of the cat ! — Anthropos anthropomorphizing. Anselm must have been a wonderful person to visit the zoo with.
Or the tavern.
Or the library.
Anselm was a wonderful person to have had the huge privilege of having known.
From (as previously quoted) his sequence of “gypsy poems” (versions based on translations made from the traditional Romany by Katerina Taikon (Sweden) and Leo Tiainen (Finland) and published in the suitably boundary-crossing ethnopoetics journal, (his friend, Jerry Rothenberg’s pioneering endeavor) Alcheringa):
it’s you puts the green sprig in my hatband.
if you should ever leave me
my hat would be a dirty old thing
my heart empty, eyes full of tears
i’d look for green leaves in the woods
but they are the wilting kind
they wouldn’t stay green on my hat
where could i find as good a woman
a wife, as beautiful ?
i’d burn my caravan, cut off my hair
& trot off to the darkest part of the woods
to sleep there in my black sorrow
weep & sleep, until the white dos comes
to take me back to you
First read at Naropa University on the occasion of the Anselm Hollo Memorial, July 7, 2013
Ted Berrigan, dear friend of Anselm Hollo with whom Anselm continued to have a long conversations (in his head and in his poetry) long after Ted’s death, used this phrase to me once: “tattered bodhisattva” — and also in a talk he gave at Naropa in describing what many of us were all doing circa mid-’60/’70s. And he said, “like Anselm Hollo.” This was before the more secure teaching jobs, grants and the like raised the stature of poet survival. The itinerant poet was singing for his or her supper. “Have ticket will travel.”
And this notion — bodhisattva — also infused a commitment to the role and ethos of the poet, as one benefitting other interested and curious ones, on a kind of trajectory, not exactly a do-good mission but of some benefit. This is what we do. Not about la gloire or the money. This particular ethos has been a key component to the Colorado poetics community on the front range with Anselm many years a delightful, crucial part of. He was also International. But “tattered” the way Ted said it had a distinctively poete maudit ring to it. One thinks of the continuing struggle of being a poet in these remarkable and trying times. Anselm said to me once that the “top goal” of a poet—what would make you a superstar!—would be to have “2,000 seriously loyal readers, ho, ho, quite the ambition for humble poetry.”
I remember traveling with Anselm in the late seventies around D.C. and Virginia when he was doing a stint at Sweet Briar, which had a lot of wealthy female students with thoroughbred horses and cars and yachts. Some interesting commentary from Anselm there. We tore around that area to meet and honor our reading gigs often fueled by a few “drinkies” in a questionable car Anselm owned, which broke down on one occasion. And while we were heading for an event at the Corcoran gallery at one point running a light Anselm exclaimed, “I love you! And this whole ride! It works. Why not?” This was our risky tattered bodhisattva moment.
Anselm and his page