January 2016

Patrick James Dunagan


The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends by Robin Blaser

Long heralded yet elusively withheld, The Astonishment Tapes by Robin Blaser has finally found its way to publication. This first-person statement of personal poetics is a landmark text for the study of post-WWII American poetry, particularly various branches originally presented to a wide audience by Don Allen's anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960

The talks composing The Astonishment Tapes occurred during the spring of 1974, over the course of several evenings referred to as "sessions," in Vancouver at the home of Professor Warren Tallman. In addition to Tallman as host and mediator of sorts, several local writers were invited to take part in the activities and their presence is reflected to varying degrees. After being stored in a shoebox for decades on a shelf in Tallman's home, the tapes have now been digitalized and fully transcribed, totaling "roughly 214,800 words or about 840 manuscript pages." Editor Miriam Nichols has performed an exceptionally difficult task assembling this oversized behemoth of oral document into a quite readable and still satisfyingly expansive published form.

While not the full transcript, this selection does cover the complete range of the talks; Nichols has interjected short, informative summaries of whatever material has been skipped over at the point of omission in the text. All omissions appear quite reasonable. In addition, Nichols provides "Appendix A: List of Names," an enormously useful glossary of who's who in Blaser's lexicon, and "Appendix B: Guide to the Complete Transcription of the Tapes," equally vital as compensation for the published text's incompleteness. Nichols offers the assurance that "a searchable copy of the full transcript and a digital copy of the audiotapes will be housed in the Contemporary Literature Collection, Simon Fraser University." (Note: at the time of this writing, Dec. 2015, the transcript and digital copy of the tapes do not appear to be as yet available online.)

Blaser is perhaps best known as the third tier of the poetic trio composed of himself, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan at the heart of the infamous Berkeley Renaissance during the late 1940s in the Bay Area which served as precursor to the San Francisco Renaissance and later Beat Generation heyday in North Beach. Up until 1965 Blaser was around during much of the later poetry scene(s), participating sporadically in events while working as a librarian at San Francisco State. He also served as a librarian in Boston for a time during the 1950s, creating a vital link to figures of the local poetry scene there such as Joe Dunn, Stephen Jonas, Gerrit Lansing, Edward Marshall, and John Wieners. Blaser went on to become a major force in the Canadian poetry scene of Vancouver gathered around Simon Fraser University, where he taught and resided from 1966 until his death in 2009.

It was Blaser who triumphantly passed on the tremendous legacy of Spicer's poetry and poetics after the latter's early death from alcoholism in 1965. Blaser's life in Vancouver arrived inextricably tied up with Spicer, since the position at Simon Fraser was originally offered to Spicer as a result of the popularity of lectures he delivered there, as a guest of Tallman and interested students in the year before his death. Blaser's editing of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (1975) provided what was to become the classic entry point for nearly every future reader of Spicer over the course of the following decades until appearance of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008). His defining essay on Spicer's poetics "The Practice of Outside" serves as afterword to The Collected Books. It also provides the aforementioned title of The Collected Poetry, being literally the poet's dying words spoken directly to Blaser as he memorably relates in the essay's moving closure. In effect, Blaser practically launched what might be termed "Spicer studies," under which a significant number of today's younger poets and scholars have made their mark, publishing dozens of essays, along with several dissertations and critical monographs. 

The Spicer essay offers previous indication of Blaser's unique style of critical address as a poet-scholar deeply immersed in the poetic alongside dense theoretical texts, which he proves ever capable of effortlessly weaving into a learned yet decidedly creative discussion. This same unique style shows itself throughout the talks gathered in The Astonishment Tapes where Blaser conducts himself with an intimacy that's by turns profound, hilarious, studied, and provocative. The results are often as much direct as they are obtuse. Occurring when Blaser is midway through his life, these talks are neither introduction nor a summing up; instead they are an immersion into his poetic process in medias res, as it were, granting invaluable insight into his past experience and ongoing practice as creative artist and thinker. As Nichols states, "In my view, these talks are processive rather than magisterial: Blaser works through and toward a language for that story of [his] poetics." That is to say, Blaser reveals the active nature of his own creative method, not only for poetry but life itself.

Nichols describes how "[t]he tapes were meant to be autobiographical, but Blaser did not think of his autobiography as separate from his life as a poet, and he was fierce on this point." There was no singular linear timeline Blaser held himself to as he went through the sessions. Recitation of any one event leads Blaser forward and/or backward, looping up time and again in the endless continual cycle of correspondence within which he lived. Nichols notes: "Readers will notice much repetition; Blaser would think of this as 'folding': content from one story is repeated in another context that alters and extends the original content." As Blaser claims in the opening session: "I am after folds and want things to layer and fold over one another all the time," revealing his hoped for goal "to make it a conversation in such a way that one could make these folds begin to work." Rather than delivering a straightforward narrative, Blaser offers a series of exploratory anecdotal memories of his personal life and creative intellectual development, along with key texts upon which he ruminates.

Quotations and allusions to writing by various authors seem strewn through Blaser's poetry, appearing hopelessly immersed amongst the poet's own words, imbuing each text with ethereality beyond the meta-textual. In a similar manner, during these talks Blaser frequently moves from one period of time to comment upon another, very much engaging with his life as in a poem: the talks thus become an ever-expanding instant of creation. Nichols identifies "the major themes" that appear: "family stories, Spicer and Duncan, [Ernst] Kantorowicz [professor of medieval history at Berkeley], Dante, the metaphysics of light, Joycean modernism, Berkeley poetry wars." These "might have eventually come together in a narrative of Blaser's own poetics," if only the talks were not incomplete, as "the tapes were abandoned." But completion of a cohesive dramatic overview of his life and work was never what Blaser was after.

Unlike his essay writing, which is immaculately polished, cohesive in tone and structure, Blaser's expressions here are found at times rather raw and unpolished. Blaser did not go over these transcriptions and Nichols keeps any direct editorial changes to a minimum, removing such things as conversational pauses and utterances (e.g. ums and ahs, yeahs and rights). Several strands of thought or points of reference come up only to quickly vanish and never reappear. For instance, at one point, when Blaser briefly alludes to several references as coming up in later sessions, Nichols explains in a footnote: "Blaser never gets to [Theodor] Adorno's Negative Dialectics on these tapes, nor does he give a session on Avicenna, Ibn 'Arabī, or Rumi as he promises a few lines later."

Alternately, Blaser recalls particular memories on multiple occasions in varying form. One of these instances focuses upon key differences he sees between the approaches towards having a relationship with poetry as taken by Duncan and Spicer. The first appearance is during Session 3 (the "it" mentioned here is poetry):

Duncan says, "I would kick it in the teeth, I wouldn't give anything for it." Jack says, "I'll die if it will speak to me." Jack becomes the lover of the other. Duncan says, "I am the other! I speak it!"

This same difference of approach taken by his two closest poet-peers is restated during Session Eight. Blaser recalls: "When Duncan was here at Simon Fraser for a reading he said, 'I've given nothing up for poetry.' This is in contrast -- you heard that, Warren -- to the cost for people like Jack." Tallman responds: "Well, Duncan once said, 'I would kick poetry in the teeth.'" And Blaser retorts: "Yes, 'I would kick poetry in the teeth rather than have it cost me.'" Well worth noting is that, in both instances, Duncan is never referred to as "Robert" while Spicer is always referred to as "Jack."

Blaser's personal recollections and critical engagements with the work of Duncan and Spicer assume a central role in the talks. His amusing account -- another instance of him repeating himself, he describes the occasion more than once -- of his first encounter with Spicer paints an indelible image:

[I]t's either late August or early September '45 when the doorbell rings, 2520 Ridge Road [Berkeley, CA], and I open the door and there is a mysterious man with a mustache, dark glasses, a trench coat, sandals, his feet painted purple for some incredible reason -- it turned out later that it was purple gentian for athlete's foot -- and an umbrella, and it's Jack Spicer. He so horrified me in the shadow of that hallway that I slammed the door in his face.

As Blaser articulates the position he maintains in respect to these two poet-peers, so central to his life and work, it's clear that his relationship towards Duncan is by far the more contentious. Spicer's death, and Blaser's role as literary executor and steward, has smoothed over any tensions which existed between them as poets and friends. Duncan, however, is far from dead at the time, and had recently publicly castigated Blaser over a difference of poetic opinion concerning a translation of Nerval. As a result, Blaser is consistently forced to assert his independence from Duncan's pervasively willful compulsion towards maintaining control and the upper hand in both friendship and poetry.

Blaser compares his relationship with Duncan to the one he enjoyed with Charles Olson, pinpointing an area of his critique of Duncan while maintaining his utter allegiance to both poets:

One thing I knew about the difference between my relationship with Olson and my relationship with Duncan -- two very powerful men whose work was well beyond any range that my work then had, whose thought had moved in a range that I wished to be companion rather than anything else at that point and so on -- I knew that Duncan was imposing it on me, and I knew that Olson was composing, and the fearsomeness of Olson was how do you join the composition. With Duncan, it was not that -- all you had to do was be a good audience, an intelligent one, and I was. I remain among the best of his audience, if not the most knowledgeable about his work -- as far as I know more knowledgeable than anybody who has written, anyway -- which is a difference between imposition of content and composition of content.

Blaser moves delicately, yet ever stridently, not so much in opposition to Duncan as searching after means for declaring his independence from him. In the Blaser-Duncan-Spicer poet trio, Blaser is in many ways the late bloomer. The Astonishment Tapes has moments of feeling as if it is the tail end of his emergence from the cocoon of the friendship. (The vast majority of his poetry and essays appeared after these talks were recorded.) Blaser is announcing, even if just to himself in part, that he's through standing in the shadow of his friendships.

At the beginning of the ninth session, Blaser opens with some of the off-the-cuff urbane wit and ever gracious charm he's so well known for: "[O]n the way over here, it's such a quiet day, I opened both windows in the car and a gust of wind came and blew my notes out the window."

Warren questioningly reprimands: "[Y]ou mean you opened the window and threw your notes out." To which Blaser somewhat acquiesces while dovetailing the probable reason for the wind's actions into an elegant analogy:

I think what I wanted to do was throw them out the window because I have had trouble concentrating. But when they went out the window, I felt a little like that famous Chinese poet, the princess. There are no poems. She's supposed to have been a tremendous poet, but she threw all of her poems in the river as she wrote them, and that's a little the way I felt. Anyway, my house is full of peonies and the perfume of the peonies has been disturbing my mind. I went out into the garden to get away from that and the foxglove is taller than I am and it's full of bees and somehow I don't think my notes came up to that, so the wind took them away from me. It was very strange because it's so still today.

At this point Blaser is clearly beginning to show signs of becoming less interested in continuing the sessions. During the very next session he agonizes, "I'm also narrating my own narration so that, I mean simultaneously, so that I go nearly crazy." He continues on, noting how "it just became toxic. I couldn't tolerate it, and I was in a state of collapse last week." Here, near the end of the sessions, Blaser clearly foresees the incompleteness of the project. Yet his original goal was perhaps always, intentionally, rather far out of reach.

The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends by Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols
University of Alabama Press
ISBN: 978-0817358099
328 pages