Captain Poetry's Sucker Punch:

A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012

Kenneth Warren

460 pages. BlazeVOX Books. $25.00

Dark Times Filled with Light

Review by Alec Marsh

Aye, Aye Cap'n!

"The whole creation concerned with 'FOUR'"
Ezra Pound, Canto 91 (91/630)

  Any reader of Jung would twig to that: mandala, order, cosmos; the center, individuation. Kenneth Warren is much concerned with four. He wrote me once, "When working occulted and tabooed domains, sometimes one must use blinds. The purpose of any critique is to spin from center of the mandala-out/in/up/down toward energetic encounters with each complex." No accident, his collection of thirty years worth of essays and reviews Captain Poetry's Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012 is divided into four sections. He takes Jung's typology of sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking as cardinal directions-out, in, up, down-- in steering a course through the work of numerous poets and poetries. Specifically, Warren's book is organized as a guidebook that enables the reader to "pursue poetic aspirations and punk protrusions through four records of interactive knowledge: (1) Semiotic Sobriety; (2) Archaic Sexuality; (3) Alchemical Precision; (4) Pharmacological Utopia" (17).

Following Jung, Warren sees poetic work as the work of integration. Our psyches are ships blown from any quarter, but there is a prevailing wind-different poets have different temperaments symbolized by different archetypes. Theorizing his approach using sophisticated revisions of the Jung-inspired Brigg-Myer personality typology, Warren is able to gain deep insight into the perceptions and confusions in contemporary poetry and poets because he believes that "an encounter with souls in the modern imagination becomes the proximate matter for poesis"(448). Poetry that matters comes from the unconscious depths, out of the dark, like the dead. Poetry is soul-making.

Warren is an iconoclastic, slashing writer-the piratical, pugnacious, bunny rabbit on the cover of this exciting book swings a mean cutlass. It figures that he learned his craft reviewing rock 'n roll. He justifies his "cartoonish title" because it evokes "the street punk lineage of bop-bop romanticism and bravado scholarship that Gregory Corso and Charles Olson deposited ay SUNY Buffalo," where Warren studied in the 1970s. For years, Warren has edited and published a simple folded newsletter/ pamphlet called House Organ, home for fugitive poets and many of these essays-a publication of large ideas in small print that is one of the best things going in the many worlds of poetry. Here, he engages a stunning number of poets, many of whom this reviewer has never heard. There are about 150 separate essays altogether, an archive of poetry criticism orbiting more or less around the double-star of Olson and Clayton Eshelman-or put another way, Olson's Buffalo and Eshelman's Sulphur.

To say that Warren is a Jungian is only a partial truth; after "Buffalo" and "Sulphur," say "Eranos"-with its suggestion of a heady mix of archetypal psychology, anthropology, religious studies and magic. Not a psychiatrist, not an academic, Warren is a free intellectual-a librarian by trade-- who has used his Borgesian occupation to read very widely. He has a penchant for forbidden discourses: the first is poetry itself; but beyond that Warren is read-up on magic, the occult, astrology and alchemy, the suave Anglo-American conspiracy that we used to call "the Establishment," secret history. Of the cults and tribes of poetry, he may fairly be called an "Olsonite"; but his teacher and biggest influence is Olson's evangelist, John Clarke. Warren considers Clarke's dense and difficult From Feathers to Iron (1987) a major work of mythopoesis and Clarke himself "perhaps the most important American poet to begin writing since Charles Olson." Warren finds that "Clarke goes further than Olson to fathom the cosmological, experiential, phenomenological and idealist basis of the epic calling in the age of materialist sign play" (432). From Feathers to Iron purports to be a series of lectures, but is really a kind of magic book, an amazing mythopoetic outpouring of esoteric knowledge looking back to Blake, Ovid, the Vedas, Homer and the Indo-European inheritance generally. That is to say, Clarke is conscious of the "Homeric chain" of spiritual-poetic magi leading back through Hermes Trismegistus into the human dawn. How this golden chain got into the "punkhole" is, I suppose, a sign of the times. It may have to do with "sign-play"-more about that later.

Warren likes magic books, among them, besides Clarke's, the work of Olson, Jung's Red Book, Griaule's Conversations with Ogometelli, Duncan's H.D. Book, James Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld, (very important to both Clarke and Eshelman) and John Giannini's Compass of the Soul: Archetypal Guides to a Fuller Life, which is a sophisticated typology in the Jungian mode. On the historical plane, Warren is drawn to Carrol Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment. The strange journey of Henry Wallace, agriculturalist, theosophist and politician in search of a New World Order is paradigmatic for Warren. Like Olson, Wallace is a "representative man," navigating the violent contradictions of the 20th century.

The hidden treasure in Captain Poetry is what amounts to a whole critical monograph on Charles Olson (pp. 313-367) via extended readings and meditations on the Ralph Maud edition of Olson's Selected Letters-a work which prompted Warren to write more than twenty trenchant essays (divided into four groups) of about 1000-1500 words each. These are supplemented by other essays on Olson, including reviews of the Olson/ Frances Boldereff correspondence, the Ralph Maud/ Tom Clark biography duel, and a review of the proletarian Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini, Olson's antithesis. Warren's essays might stand in relation to Olson as Olson's Call Me Ishmael stands in relation to Herman Melville, so long as we understand that Call Me Ishmael is a book of setting out, written at the outset; whereas Warren's is book written in that state of mature consideration one feels in sifting through a father's papers twenty years after. The picture painted of Olson in Warren's Jungian psychoanalysis of his letters is of an anxious, driven character, haunted by his working-class Catholic background, trying early-on to assimilate in to a WASP establishment that was both alien and alluring. Warren's thoughts about them are characteristic; on the historical plane he comments on an Olson letter to Timothy Leary:

...the fruits of Olson's participation in the Harvard Psychedelic project remain evident in the disintegration of his life. Indeed, it is troubling to imagine Olson' attempts at inner alchemy interdicted through Harvard's CIA sponsored psychedelic drug experiments (340).

The keyword here is "disintegration." As a critic, Warren is most concerned with the well-springs of a poet's being, the dark, archetypal sources, the alignments and signs and symbols. On that mytho-poetic level, Warren concludes his monumental consideration thus

In the end, Olson reaps from his time of living in cultural crisis a heap of radical negations. His family structure is disordered. His cash flow is poor. His objectivity is impaired. Selected Letters is testimony that the descending cycle of the Kali Yuga brings Olson to the brink of encounter with Antichrist and Millennium. When, finally, the reader contemplates Olson's Selected Letters in light of both the Holocaust and the traditional view of time, one cannot avoid imagining that it is Kali, dancer on cremation grounds, who dwells in Olson's New World Order of ambiguity, disequilibrium, irresponsibility and sorrow" (367).

On this dark note, let me shift to other evidence of that state of dissolution accompanying the end of a cosmic cycle, what for me is the climax of Captain Poetry, the capture of the most important citadel of the Olsonites, SUNY Buffalo, by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Movement. The Olsonite cadres were thus driven underground-- into the punkhole?-but through the laws of cosmic compensation this defeat prepared the way for the surprising consummation of a new magic book, a collective project called Curriculum of the Soul, (2010) bearing the Olson tradition safely into the 21st century. "Curriculum of the Soul exists within the continuous tradition of Hermeticism, a spiritual path of exotic and free research connected to Hermes, the scribe of the gods and guide of souls in the realm of the dead" - in other words it is an expression of discovery and soulful potential. Proposed by Clarke and carried to a successful conclusion after Clarke's death in 1992 by Albert Glover, it is a remarkable, collaborative forty year effort by a group of poets in the wilderness. There are 50 copies of this precious book in existence-enough perhaps, to survive the dark ages ahead.

Essays in this collection show that Warren was hostile to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement from the very beginning, already seeing in 1984 that it marked the incursion of "Theory" in all of the worst senses of that term into a domain that, in his view, is ultimately concerned with the sacred, a discourse of the soul. French skepticism married to American materialism and self-marketing techniques meant the production of "signs of cultural labor" built by careerist cultural constructs with Titanic agendas: "The Language Movement attacked the descriptive, naturalistic, referential and transcendental mystifications of literature and accentuated in the field of language the linguistic contradictions of commodity culture" (422). In a world where all is constructed and nothing is given there is no need for a poetic dimension, or poets. There is simply the endless production of synthetic texts, mimicking powerlessly the shifting of financial instruments in a fully financialized economy. Words become signs. In the beginning was the text and the credits still roll on long after the end of referents. Warren was hip to this consonance from the beginning and he watched as the Languagian junk traders filled better poets with doubts-Creeley for one, who driven by psychological imperatives he little understood, treacherously opened the gates of Buffalo (428). Recruited to write one of the Curricular Fascicles for Curriculum of the Soul -on "Mind"-Creeley evaded the assignment, "spooked," Warren says, by the religious dimension of the project; evidently Creeley was ready and willing to close down right brain intuitive experience. Perhaps this is why his poetry died before he did, becoming in his last readings the anodyne notations of a genial retiree.

In celebrating Curriculum of the Soul within "the underworld poetics and quantum resurrection cycle of Olson's right brain 'onslaught,'" Warren proposes that "SUNY Buffalo became a major site for a clash of poetics. The archetypal forces that drove these moieties to contest matters of language and soul, personality and power" there, "are dialectically structured; they can be imagined as two bicameral camps, each with cognitive biases, quantum effects, and poetic moods. On the one hand there is the left brain profane separatist Language clan of innies...indisposed toward the transcendental entity of soul. On the other hand there is the right brain sacred participatory wave Olsonian clan of outies, disposed toward the transcendental entity of soul" (422). The triumph of the Languagian innies, meant the construction of "deconstructive death ray adepts" aiming "at Olson's cult of the soul," with the intent of putting the Olsonian lineage-that is to say the Homeric Chain itself-under erasure and out of business.

Clayton Eshelman is the poet who seems to Warren to stand for the other star in the binary-though he too is in the Olsonian line, but; "Just as [John] Clarke is Olson's true successor in the upward thrust of imagination into the celestial realm of Sirius, Eshelman is his true successor in the downward thrust of imagination into the archaic realm of blood, cannibalism, monsters and rock" (369). Eshelman, with his fascination with the Cro-Magnon caves underwrites the subtitle of Part 2 of Warren's collection, "Archaic sexuality." Eshelman is interested in the body, ingestion, initiation; "his preferred realm is the labyrinth of lower nature" (370).In a brilliant review-essay of Eshelman's Companion Spider called "The Essence of Spider Man' Warren explores the explorer, so to speak, getting inside Eshelman's poetics as though finding his way into a cave, aware of dark possibility but also of stony limits. Insofar as poetry is soul-making-the poetic career a process of individuation-Warren argues that: "Like Olson, Eshelman writes in the wake of the modern revolution that banished religion from the unconscious. As Olson's life and work suggest, the soul, with all its feelings for the contents of the universe, is the battleground between the poet's original religious formation and his conscious regeneration in poetry" (371-2)-Eshelman's childhood Presbyterianism, like Olson's Catholicism, poses problems for the development of the soul and informs that development. The repression of the religious impulse and the attempt to locate a primeval religious/ poetic space is what gives Eshelman's poetic spelunking and soul archaeology its tension. As with Olson, the problem of salvation is never too far away.

Early in Captain Poetry there is a brief manifesto in the imperative mode written under the spell of Eshelman that might be read as Warren's ars critica, called simply "Ten Ways"-they seems to be ways of going below to overcome. The ten imperatives begin thus: Pursue, Comprehend, Master, Attend to, Turn, Hypostatsize, Leap, Drill, Blacken, Dance...rock on!

In Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) H.D. wrote that what the world needs is "appreciators" of art, a few people who could act as "receiving centres" for the telegraphic messages being beamed from great works of art. Few, today, are open to the messages, even fewer know how to respond. H.D. thought that even two or three such people with the right kind of brains, "could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the world of dead, murky thought" (NTV 26, 27)-no doubt, this is the right brain "onslaught" of satanic energy activated by Homeric adepts and their captains and powers. Cap'n Ken Warren is one such. That is why we should dance with him.

Alec Marsh
Allentown Pa.