Tuesday, January 10, 2006

ON THE BANKS OF MONKS POND: THE THOMAS MERTON/ JONATHAN GREENE CORRESPONDENCE

Ron Silliman recently posted a thoughtful & adequate discussion of this book on his blog. The book, published by Broadstone Books (BroadstoneBooks.com) contains the complete correspondence between poet Jonathan Greene & Father Thomas Merton from 1967-68. During this time Merton published the magazine Monks Pond while Greene edited Gnomon. The correspondence reveals the way in which both Merton & Greene, as editors of little magazines with virtually no financial assistance and limited distribution, supported one another, propped one another up. Each played a role in sustaining the work of the other, all of this in Kentucky, a region on the periphery of the 1960s literary community. Despite limited finances and their location on the ragged edge of the literary world, their mutually supportive relationship allowed each of them to carve out a substantial place for themselves and their work. Within the correspondence we find Merton offering poetry contributed to Monks Pond to Gnomon, poetry given to Gnomon offered to Monks Pond. The letters also provide a window into the less exciting, logistical end of small press publishing: the search for financial and material resources, the desperate need for a good typewriter, the issue of balancing the editorial responsibilities of running a small magazine against other, more pressing responsibilities.

Between the two of them they managed to publish important work by, among others, Anslem Hollo, Wendell Berry, Jonathan Williams, Christopher Middleton & Lorine Niedecker. This is indeed more than anyone can ask of a little magazine and, as their correspondence indicates, Merton & Greene were able to accomplish this through their resourceful & affectionate support of one another.

TED ENSLIN: ONE DAY & HOW IT WAS

One Day And How It Was
Theodore Enslin
Granite Press 2005
27 Treverbyn Road, St Ives, Cornwall, UK
...
Prolific as ever, I pity the fool burdened with the task of compiling a comprehensive bibliography of Ted Enslin's published work. The spontaneous, decentralized nature of small press publishing undoubtedly confounds such a task further. Here one minute, gone the next. Tracking down several dozen small press publications and magazines might be difficult but it is nonetheless possible; tracking down a body of published works comparable to the number pumped out by Enslin would require a Herculean effort. The same is of course true for the corpus of work by Cid Corman, one of the first to publish and promote Enslin's poetry back in the late 50s. Both poets have, in addition to their larger works and poetic sequences, published dozens of slim, seemingly negligible volumes of verse. Many of the books are gorgeous works of art themselves--letter pressed, silk screened, hand sewn, printed on beautiful stock. Coming into such publications is more akin to reading a deeply intimate, private correspondence than a book manufactured by a larger publishing company and shipped out of a warehouse. Like literary correspondence, the slim independently published volumes can not only be read for their own sake but also to broaden & further develop readings of more substantial works by an author. In the case of Enslin, we could, for example, ask how a small volume like One Day might lend itself to a reading of his longer works such as the three volumes of Forms (Elizabeth Press) or the two volumes of Ranger (North Atlantic Books).

Where Enslin's two volume epic Ranger is long and indeed dense, a philosophically & historically complex work grounded, in part, in the tragic destruction of Mesoamerican culture in the sixteenth century, the short poems included in One Day are seemingly transparent, bound neither spatially nor temporally. These poems could have been written anywhere at anytime. Beyond the use of modern American English, the poems include no details specific to a particular time or place. They speak in a very general, transhistorical & transcultural way of things held in common by all at all times: language, song, clouds, earth, sky, beginnings, ends, wealth, poverty. Were the poems peddled as contemporary English translations of Greek lyric poems, T'ang poems, classical Korean shijo, or brief verses written by an African griot, no one other than highly specialized scholars would know the difference. Take the following:

To sell or sing
there lies a difference
one who sings may sell
but at his peril
song is precious is of wealth
but cannot be accounted for
the selling lies

Enslin is clearly playing here with, among other things, the distinction between literal material wealth and figurative spiritual wealth, privileging song over gold, singing over commerce. Aside from language there is nothing to tie this poem to a particular time or place, no one detail which would lead us to a particular moment or region. Yet there is a conviction, a value revealed. Singing and selling are diametrically opposed, the two advanced as mutually exclusive dualities. This conviction is, to be sure, a foundational theme upon which Enslin's larger, far more complex works are built.

To read such a slim volume as a window into the larger works is thus possible and profitable. To read it for its own sake is, of course, a pleasure all its own. Granite Press does wonderful work. The book is as delicate as the poems contained within. Hand sewn, printed on fine stock. Like dozens of other small presses Granite Press is completely DIY, done out of the home & as homes change, addresses change. Several years back they were based in Slovenia. Now they're in England. The address: 27 Treverbyn Road, St Ives, Cornwall, UK.