Alice Notley


"Where'd You Get It?"

Where do/ did the words come from? I ask. And open my 1975 edition of Slinger at random, to:

his head is a spasm
of presyntactic metalinguistic urgency

What What What
Where Where Where
Who What Where
What Where Who

I imagine this to be a good description of how Ed began writing Slinger — and how he felt each time he went back to it after a lapse in the writing. However, one thing I notice rereading it is that I find some of my own words and sounds therein (Where’d I get them? Slinger):

               Dear lengthening Day
I have loved your apparencies since you created me

I wrote a poem called "Dear Dark Continent" in what had been Ed and Jenny's house in Chicago, at (I think this is the number) 911 West Diversey Street; and a year later, in England, a poem addressed to "Your Dailiness." I wonder if there was a broadside, on the wall of the Diversey Street house, of "The Lawg," which serves as a preface to Book III, The Winterbook. How have I forgotten where my words came from?

In my twenties I seem to have heard Ed read from Slinger in a number of cities: I know I remember New York and San Francisco, but it seems as if there were Chicago and London, I dunno, doano — which spelling suits this ambiance? Slinger is the most physical of poems, despite its purely oxygenated (but knee-slapping) cerebrality; and I associate it with Ed's voice and his reading stance, very straight and tall. There was a lectern in Ed's study, and he wrote standing up. But I can't get this chronology of thirty-some years ago right. Everyone was waiting for what would happen next in the Story; there was an especial suspense as to how it might end — Book IIII: what would it be like? Or rather, would it be as good as its predecessor books? (The pundits finally judged No, but also Yes — Ed had become another person; it was nice that the Slinger said Goodbye, Hasta la Vista — see you later.) It wasn't that there really was a Story — what the hell happens in Slinger? People ride around in a stagecoach or whatever and talk; but there were changes of consciousness between the books, as there were relatively long periods of time between, and there were fabulous word-generated entities talking in the poem, in slant-wise relation to everything that concerned us. The revelation of the new sections was the Story, and the straight-ahead thrust of the line, what it was like when Ed appeared somewhere and read new passages.

Ed's reading style for the poem seemed like a very hip take on the then-current Black poetry style: he was so Kool, and his Whiteness remained cool. He acknowledges Black & White in Book I, in the "Hi! Digger" and thereabouts passages (there were a lot of people who had named themselves Digger in the 60's, though Heidigger hadn't), but the Bombed Horse is also the Oblique Horse and the question "Where's my dark ace?" is as ambiguous as allegory might be (at least one Ed expert thought the line was about black holes.) When Ted and I moved to Chicago and rented what had been Ed and Jenny's house, Ted taking Ed's job at Northeastern Illinois University, we found that some young white poets emulated Ed's reading style, but there was this pervasive, real, black sound, out of Chicago and of course New York and Newark (Roi / Amiri Baraka), that had inspired Ed. You may not hear it coming off the pages of Slinger now, unless you remember it. Along with the inescapable politics of the times.

The poem isn't character driven; single stony words often become characters: Slinger / Zinger himself, but also I, Everything, Sllab, the Barrel, and the two-worded (how Baroque) Taco Desoxin. I was present for the germ of the generation of the latter character. Ted and I came to Chicago just before the inception of 1972, as Ed and Jenny and Kid and Maya prepared to travel to Mexico. Ted and I and Ed and Jenny "did" some desoxyn, on New Year's Eve '71; some time later Ed informed Ted that there was now a character in the poem named Taco Desoxyn. This is how the poem worked; the words come out of the air, out of currency, is the answer to Where do the words come from? On New Year's Day night Ted and Jenny were completely wiped out, but Ed and I went to find some dinner, and the only place open in Old Town — our neighborhood, which is several times named in Slinger — was a rather poor-grade so-called Mexican restaurant. Is this how "Taco" came into it? I was a young woman from the Southwest and took my Mexican food seriously; I think I complained about the meal but I had a great time. This was my first real conversation with Ed, who focused it on me. He was delighted to discover I was a Westerner, had been born in Bisbee, Arizona — see the wife of the mayor of Bisbee passage in Book IIII — had connections in Prescott (I had lived there too as a small child), and had grown up in the Mohave Desert town of Needles. I remember describing Prescott's Whiskey Row to him, and the whiskey-and-stained-wood smell of the bars. God, he loved it! I think he gave me credence as a poet, thereafter, because I was a true Westerner; he was the only person, later, who seemed really to get and savor the melancholic last three words of my poem "At Night The States": "Montana. Illinois. Escondido."

Northeastern Illinois University was a commuter's U, with a lot of working-class students. Ted inherited from Ed as students — and we inherited as friends — the Stone Wind guys (they edited the poetry magazine Stone Wind): Al Simmons, Terry Jacobus, Steve Pantos, Hank Kanabus. They adored Ed — they were like his knights — and constantly referred to the Greek philosopher Parmenides, some of them being Greeks and Ed having just been in process with Book III, The Winterbook, with its character the Secretary to Parmenides. I think Al helped generate the character "Al" in the poem, didn't he? This group was also sometimes called "the new Barbarians"; and their names were the answer to the question posed in Ed's off-to-the-side-of-Slinger poem "The Poet Lets His Tongue Hang Down": "WHO ARE THE BARBARIANS?" "Parmenides" and "Barbarians" were thus words — concrete entities of import, code words — that greeted us right away in Chicago; though my personal favorite squib of Ed's, of that time, is to be found in The Day & Night Book (a diary with weird entries published in Tom Clark's fabulous anthology ALL*STARS): "There's some bad vibes / at Goldblatts." Goldblatt's was a Chicago department store; I myself had occasion to go there and feel horrible.

Effie Mihopoulos, another student of Ed / Ted, was sort of a Stone Wind guy, but she was a girl so constituted her own category. Her interview with Ed in Letter Ex, in 1991, on the occasion of his returning to read in Chicago, elicits a very clear reflection on Slinger. Her questions are direct and come from a past when Ed was God, the teacher and poet, who also let you in, to His conversation and heady air. Ed says of the poem, "I just let it be its own thread and what people are saying to each other, the kind of, sort of vague, abstract sort of irrepressible mindlessness at times, and the vocabulary that generates all that, were natural to the time. That's what I was hearing around me. When I look at that poem now, I don't see it as anything but an empiricism of the language that I was hearing at the time." I take this as Ed letting us know we can have the poem at face value as its language — our delight in it, the fact of it, is what it sounds like it says, though the compressed reading / knowledge therein be so considerable. Despite the erudition, the poem's obvious, and it's for us. Ed goes on to say, of the quality of the obvious: "Because except for things that are extremely esoteric and only a few scientists know about, everything IS obvious. So if we couldn't constantly claim a new connection for the obvious, we'd be in bad trouble real quick."

In the interview Effie asks Ed whether Slinger is really a narrative poem — a good question and probably not answerable, though Ed answers: "Sure. Maybe that's a bit gratuitous. I suppose. It tells a story. It's not much of a story; it's a thinnish excuse." Effie's own argument against the poem's categorization as narrative is its extreme concision and the discreteness of it sections. Ed obviously thought he was writing a narrative poem while he was writing it — one thinks like that while writing — but maybe that isn't strictly what he did. The spaces between the sections are an important aspect of the poem, time-caused, as I said before; if you look at the poem without being conditioned (I am) to think of it as narration, what you might see is a collection of incredible pieces which add up to something quite different from a story, more like The Wasteland than the Iliad. Ed calls The Wasteland "the great poem of the twentieth century" in his interview with John Wright, a judgment only very obtuse people would argue with: The Wasteland created twentieth century poetry. Maybe he was unconsciously emulating it, many people of his generation must have been, in order to get past it. Ed also evokes Kerouac's On the Road in the interview with Effie, and addresses "Jack" in Slinger, Jack being one of those ineffable slidey words / names — Get out of my way, Jack! — that won't stay fixed, but look carved in granite. Certainly Slinger feels like the period of the mid-60's to mid-70's, where one was always in a vehicle, in an unfixed life, high and talking to some others. Shooting out bullets. The line "Bullets are not necessarily specific" may be more pertinent to discussion of the poem than the oft-quoted "Speed is not necessarily fast."

Another of Ed's influences, though, was the lowly television series, a very narrative form. Ted and I moved to England for a while, in 1973, Ted again taking a job Ed had held, at the University of Essex. One day we saw an episode of the British sci-fi program Dr. Who and were astonished at the physical resemblance between the leading actor (can't remember his name; he was, I think, the third man to play the doctor) and Ed. Yes, we were told by others and then Ed himself, everyone sees this, and Ed has modeled the character Dr. Flamboyant on Dr. Who. Dr. Flamboyant is the science-fiction aspect of this supposed western; he has an uncertain space ship which causes his dimension-shattering body to arrive bit by bit at salient locations in the West. Ed was also influenced by another TV series, The Wild Wild West, though I only remember this dimly and don't know if Ed or Jenny or one of the Stone Wind Guys — Steve Pantos? — told me so. I found The Wild Wild West incredibly tacky and rarely watched it; I've had to look up the website to refresh my memory of it. The following is the official description of the series: "James West and Artemus Gordon are two agents of President Grant who take their splendidly appointed private train through the west to fight evil. Half science fiction and half western, Artemus designs a series of interesting gadgets for James that would make Inspector Gadget proud. A light-hearted adventure series." I remember the show in terms of the train, and have a vague image of Robert Conrad (West) in a cowboy hat; there were episodes with vampires and Martians, appearing out of nowhere in the western landscape, along with characters from Washington D.C., like President Ulysses S. Grant and his Attorney General. This is pure Ed land if you think about it for about two seconds. You also start to wonder if Slinger doesn't consist of "episodes."

If the poem seems episodic, it's still constructed in a tightly designed way, with Books I and II, then its cosmic center The Cycle, flanked on its other side by Books III and IIII (the "IIII" as opposed to "IV" is not mere conceit, it refers to design.) The Cycle with its numbered quatrains, as opposed to the continuous style of the other sections, is like a mock-creation myth; in spite of its mockingness it scares me plenty. It really does feel like a creation myth, or an anti-creation myth, and it does feel like it knows what creation is:

  1. The Grand Car with the Superior Interior
    Moves with basal shift So Large
    It would be a dream to feel time curve
    For no masses so locked serve straight time

  2. Thus rhythm has a duty to de-tour the Vast
    Contra Naturum? Baby you ain't heard nothing yet
    Like this is a day in the life
    Of the Man who grabbed the crack

  3. And wrapped it around the Antho-space
    From the Eye of the U on out
    Displacement is never felt
    If that's where you're at, uh,
    It looks like that's that

                  (from The Interior Decorator Runs
                                                            the Scenario of the Wingéd Car)

This pre-Socratic, Platonic, Plotinean, Blakean section seems to me the most on-cocaine one, with its very extreme compression and its feel of standing in the room where the primal gears move. I've been in that room while not writing, and it made me want to get out; it's different to be in while writing, it's under control, it's yours. There's a term I've recently picked up, "phosphenes," which refers to "the images perceived by the human brain as visual images in the absence of visual stimuli…" (A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Alex Patterson, Johnson Books: Boulder: 1992). Phosphenes can be perceived when the eyes are closed, during physical stress, meditation, or when one is on drugs. They are highly geometric, with lots of checkerboards, triangles, grids, crosses, parallel lines etc; and are found in Southwestern Indian rock art all over the place. Sometimes these patterns are used to construct a human figure. The Cycle reminds me vividly of this kind of image (Ed would love this reference), coming so purely out of the imagination of its most basic geometries. It's a real first-things place.

The point of being in such a place is to be in it. One has been influenced, has read widely, been instructed in various ways in order to stand there; but when there the influences are beside the point. They (and the drugs) have simply been used; they are not authoritative — oneself is. As the Slinger says in Book III:

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits

Poetry concerns itself with what it leaves out; it gets its effects by omissions. It renews by finding new aspects of explanation to omit; the difference between twentieth and nineteenth century poetries is where the spaces are. Nineteenth century poetry wavered between leaving out the story and telling it; it lost interest in the discourse and treatise. Twentieth century poetry created omissions on the physical page itself, put more white space in front of the readers' eyes, tried to leave out the story pretty much entirely, and dispersed the discourse and treatise here and there. Contemporary mainstream poetry professes no idea that any of this is happening: it has kept syntax rigidly tight, shrunk the story to anecdote, and made an utterly boring poetry. Orthodox innovative practice, on the other hand, supposes a lot of spaces, but places them all on the surface, and that can get a little old and didactic-feeling. Space isn't always visual, or perceptible as disjunction; in a highly compressed poetry, like Ed's it's inside the line and thought pattern. It's how the poet's mind works. Ed put the story back in (Olson left it out), and he isn't ever disjunctive, but he NEVER explains, or demonstrates, his reasoning. This is how Slinger is fast.

But now
A weak-minded mammal stands
on the corner of his head
and fort Phil Korny avenue
you can catch him
as the Driverless Horses pull in
this must be Everything's connection
whos haranguing the perspicacious crowd
'But why is he so loud' Lil asked
'perhaps he can use some help
before he gets boxed up and sent North

This poetry entertains and pushes one ever forward, without one necessarily knowing what's going on, because it is possible to be funny, fast, and linguistically brilliant without elucidating. Everything — Everything is a character, after all, a unity — is right there as you read it. The words are as concrete as it gets. This is a poetry with a consistently hard surface; although the words may mean a lot of things, they never float loose, and you aren't permitted to stop and contemplate the layering. Any word might become a character, but then it is. Period. You're in the story the same way you're in a dream: situations and events are taken for granted and you keep going through it. The surface tells you not to stop and meditate on references; it tells you you're being pulled ahead by the driverless horses. The poem gives you everything you need for it, by existing the way it does. I certainly accepted it as it was.

Ed did a lot between the sections of Slinger — including write other poetry: Hello La Jolla, Yellow Lola, A Day & Night Book, the two sequences for Jenny, Love Songs and Songs: Set Two: A Short Count, Recollections of Gran Apacheria, some individual poems. This is an amazing amount of work; but certainly living got done too. It's just that the living and the poetry are so interconnected. Ed sometimes talked as if poetry wasn't everything — Everything! — did he really believe this? In Boulder in 1980 I once saw him in a state of total exhilaration. It turned out he'd been playing golf. I think I must have looked astonished when he told me he'd been playing golf, in fact I really didn't know what to think. He looked at me with defiance and said, "Don't you ever want just to live?" I didn't say anything, I wasn't sure if I did; I'm still thinking about it.