Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City

Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City

by Laurence Goldstein


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Is there such a thing as Los Angeles poetry? How do we assess a poem about a city as elusive of identity as Los Angeles? What features do poems about this unique urban landscape of diverse peoples and terrains have in common? Poetry Los Angeles is the first book to gather and analyze poems about sites as different as Hollywood, Santa Monica and Venice beaches, the freeways, downtown, South Central and East L.A. Laurence Goldstein presents original commentary on six decades of poets who have contributed to the iconography and poetics of Los Angeles literature, including Elizabeth Alexander, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Dorothy Barresi, Victoria Chang, Wanda Coleman, Dana Gioia, Joy Harjo, James Harms, Robert Hass, Eloise Klein Healy, Garrett Hongo, Suzanne Lummis, Paul Monette, Harryette Mullen, Carol Muske-Dukes, Frederick Seidel, Gary Soto, Timothy Steele, Diane Wakoski, Derek Walcott, and Charles Harper Webb. Forty poems are reproduced in their entirety.

One chapter is devoted to Charles Bukowski, the celebrity face of the city’s poetry. Other chapters discuss the ways that poets explore “Interiors” and “Exteriors” throughout the cityscape. Goldstein also provides ample connections to the novels, films, art, and politics of Southern California. In clear prose, Poetry Los Angeles examines the strategies by which poets make significant places meaningful and memorable to readers of every region of the U.S. and elsewhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472052240
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/31/2014
Pages: 380
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Laurence Goldstein is the author of The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History (1994), four books of poems, including A Room in California (2005), and seven edited or co-edited volumes of cultural commentary. His latest book explores both the city where he spent his first 22 years and a vibrant American tradition of topographical verse. Poetry Los Angeles sets the agenda for twenty-first century studies of urban poetry in general, and the literature of Los Angeles in particular.

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Poetry Los Angeles

Reading The Essential Poems of The City

By Laurence Goldstein

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Laurence Goldstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12041-3


The Pacific Ocean of the Poets

It's hard/to address water


Sun-drenched site of summertime revels. Beautiful young bodies silhouetted against foaming surf. Children building sand castles. Palm trees and seabirds framed in the rising and setting sun. Moonlight shimmering on the high tide. So much of Southern California's powerful allure has consisted of indelible visual images derived from tourist brochures, magazine layouts, movies, television, and Internet video. Poets have contributed very little to this iconography. Throughout history poets have planted in our consciousness compelling language for the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, the Mississippi and Nile rivers, Italy's Lake Como and Kashmir's Dal Lake. But modern poets have fallen short of evoking in memorable language the unique features of the sea-edge from Santa Barbara down to Baja California, and the complex culture of coastal municipalities. Or they have written poems deserving of public appreciation and failed to make a connection.

The lyrics that resound in the minds and hearts of American citizens derive entirely from popular songs, such as The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" and "Surfer Girl," Jan and Dean's "Surf City," The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," The Four Preps' "26 Miles," about Catalina Island, Van Morrison's "Venice USA," Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach," and George Strait's "Marina del Rey." Since the early twentieth century, songwriters have usurped the elite poet's self-appointed task of mapping, describing, and dramatizing the far western boundary of the American continent, the far eastern edge of the Pacific Rim, with unforgettable metaphors, witty wordplay, and home truths.

Whose fault is this? The answer to that question is not a simple one.


The Pacific Ocean entered the Western imagination via memoirs by explorers, traders, captains and seamen of vessels plying from port to port. Centuries after Balboa made his amazing discovery of the Pacific in 1513, Hernán Cortés, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Francis Drake, and many others followed with reports about the California coastline. Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s personal history, Two Years before the Mast (1840), and two memory fictions by Herman Melville, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), provided exotic story lines and characters while registering protests against commercial exploitation of regions like the Pacific Islands. Poets did not contribute to this construction of the offshore history, not even hardy and popular types like Joaquin Miller, Robert Service, and George Sterling, who preferred as subject matter the rugged prospector camps and raffish saloons in the western part of the continent. Nor did genteel nineteenth-century poets seek to engage the Pacific coast, except as picturesque tableaux in the manner of the Plein Air painters whose work, often quite lovely, adhered to the restrictive formulas of premodern taste.

Walt Whitman wanted to plant the first American flag on the Pacific shore. The "Western Sea," as he called it in "Starting from Paumanok," loomed in his imagination as the significant terminus of the Open Road, but the road the settlers trod in his hymnal "Song of the Pioneers" led to a place he could not precisely imagine. In his bombastic lyric "Facing West from California Shores," written without having experienced the actual terrain, Whitman conjures not a real place but a mythic staging area for travel from maternal origin through mortality and back to the cosmic womb. He calls the Pacific shore a "land of migrations" where one embarks as a figurative child and navigates around the world in a westerly life-cycle that terminates in the original site. These two manifest destinies, the personal and the national or imperial, become mystically intertwined in his visionary book Leaves of Grass. Whitman wrote with some specificity about landscape in "Song of the Redwood-Tree" set in the Yosemite and Mendocino mountains and forests. But he could not have prophesied what we now call Manhattan Beach or Newport Beach except symbolically, as one vast shoreline from which a voyager might sail and sometime in his or her future run onto the sands of the "spice islands" and other stepping-stones back through the lost childhood to the cosmic embrace. "The ocean, the symbolic site of California's endings, is also ... the place of beginnings," David Fine remarks in a commentary on Carolyn See's novel Golden Days, which ends with a nuclear attack on Los Angeles, but moves its few survivors down to Topanga State Beach for a redemptive ceremony of rebirth.

Whitman's impulse and his example persist. The Pacific shore is an attractive location for poets not only because it provides beauty and sport but because it signifies the possibility of transfiguration, of ecstasy, of radical change of personality and lifestyle. David Orr writes that "the beach ... is an area that lends itself to discussions of in-betweenness, hybridity, and unstable identities." One might employ another of Whitman's texts, the Preface to Leaves of Grass, which claims, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," in order to assert that the Pacific Ocean and its shoreline communities constitute one of the most perfect lyric poems imaginable, its water and sea-edge imagery always available for symbolic use. Mel Weisburd, editor of the poetry journal Coastlines during the 1950s, drives the boundary of land and ocean in "Along the Coast," reminding himself that "earth's surface is mostly water/and unconscious, to be farmed only by poetry." Gail Wronsky published in 2000 a tribute in the style of the Good Gray Poet, "Tonight, Walt Whitman, the Pacific." Intended for recitation at a public occasion, the tenth anniversary of the American Oceans Campaign, it glorifies the Pacific as it addresses Whitman:

    we'll celebrate the salt spray dashing on the rocks in Venice;
    we'll celebrate the winds piping and screeching through the sea caves in Malibu;
    we'll celebrate the absence of oil drilling off the glittering coast of the Pacific Palisades ...

And so forth. What matters in such poems is not the quality of the verse but their function as placeholders for the genuine bards of the beach who will render this marine landscape knowledgeably, with felt passion and persuasive rhetoric. In order for the Pacific to be entirely a liminal place made sacred by Whitman's zealous nationalism, there must be language capable of attaching this far western frontier to other locations he and his disciples — Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg — established in the canon. Whitman showed how the coastline can be assimilated into the city proper, if the poet's imaginative dredging is extensive enough. The East River is no Pacific Ocean, but "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" demonstrates how intimately water and meditation are wedded, in Melville's phrase. Without some such memorable articulation of the Pacific and its enthralling hold upon the imagination of Americans, the whole of the city's literature falls short of bringing the "Western Sea" into the consciousness of readers who seek inspiration from the poetic tradition beginning with Homer. The place can never quite be Greater Los Angeles without a masterpiece or two to anchor and delineate the spiritual value system and natural ecosystem of the coastline.

The California poet who by consensus owns the Pacific Ocean is Robinson Jeffers. He gazed at it day after day for decades from Hawk Tower atop a granite house he and his wife built with their own hands above Carmel Bay. Though he is the epitome of the northern California temperament, we must appreciate his mystique of the ocean and coastal community so that southland depictions come into proper focus by contrast. In fact, Jeffers spent some ten years of his youth in Southern California, including two years of matriculation at Occidental College. His first book, Flagons and Apples, was printed in Los Angeles by the Grafton Press in 1912 and contains a few poems set in Hermosa and Redondo beaches. By the time he published his second book, Californians (1916), however, he had fixed his imagination exclusively on the region of Big Sur and Mill Valley. Los Angeles and its environs became the portion of reality he deliberately repressed. Later in life he tellingly remarked at a poetry reading: "Now perhaps it is time for some California scenery. You must understand that this is not Southern California; there are no orange-groves and no oil-wells, but high mountains rising steep from the ocean, pasturing a few cattle and many deer." Jeffers had forgotten that the southern part of the state has mountains and beaches as well.

How Jeffers describes his surroundings exerted a profound effect on writers who followed in his prodigious wake. He begins with the all-important fact that unlike the Atlantic Ocean, which unites the Old World and the New but also represents a gulf of separation between them, the Pacific is too vast to be a figure of extension and connection; rather, it represents what Derek Walcott calls a "mythopoetic coast," as much an allegorical resource as a body of water. The Pacific did not offer, like the Atlantic, an easy passage to a parental and ancestral civilization; for the white-skinned pioneers it was an alternative to civilization, an escape from civilization, perennially wild and thrilling to the imagination. It served writers of Jeffers's generation as the dependable nunc stans of local geography, the unchanging and static form distinct from an ever-evolving cultural community. While many aspiring American authors migrated east just before and just after the Great War of 1914–18, settling in future-oriented cities like Paris and London or points even more eastern along the Mediterranean, Jeffers made his singular way down the coast from Washington to California, all the time writing apprentice lyrics and narrative poems he confessedly modeled after Wordsworth, Rossetti, and Yeats.

Jeffers offers the best précis of his worldview in a retrospective essay included in his volume Selected Poetry (1938). When he first came upon the Carmel coast,

I could see people living — amid magnificent unspoiled scenery — essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer's Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life; and not shut from the modern world but conscious of it and related to it; capable of expressing its spirit, but unencumbered by the mass of poetically irrelevant details and complexities that make a civilization.

To construct a language commensurate with this primitivist, nostalgic vision, Jeffers turned to the toolbox of bardic figures and attitudes. His narratives of people caught up in the grandeur of life belonging to an agricultural and seacoast society demanded a diction adapted from Sophocles and Euripides rather than the slangy dialogue that his contemporary, Eugene O'Neill, crafted for his rowdy seafarers. Jeffers's model of versification remained the long free-verse lines of Whitman and the hexameters of Homer. The scenery is often a dark place, clouded over or cast in twilight shadows. "Civilization" as defined affirmatively by progressive writers of his era is largely absent from his visionary lyrics. He provides pictorial vistas of the ocean akin to the sublimity of Romantic models in both poetry and painting. J. M. W. Turner and Winslow Homer inspired him, not the incitements of Cubism. Often the poem lifts our eyes from water, sand, and rock to the pelicans, herons, or golden eagles flying above the waves scouting for prey:

    Fresh as the air, salt as the foam, play birds in the bright wind, fly falcons
    Forgetting the oak and the pinewood, come gulls
    From the Carmel sands and the sands at the river-mouth, from Lobos and out of the limitless
    Power of the mass of the sea, for a poem
    Needs multitude, multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesh-eaters, musically clamorous
    Bright hawks that hover and dart headlong, and ungainly
    Gray hungers fledged with desire of transgression, salt slimed beaks, from the sharp
    Rock-shores of the world and the secret waters.

Jeffers insists that his fluent poem "needs multitude," and his eye turns deliberately away from the few human beings lounging in a wild landscape dominated by natural creatures and forces. It is mesmerizing, incantatory poetry, complex in syntax (the above passage is a single sentence), and elevated in diction, the perfect expression of a solitude-loving neo-romantic who seeks union with the profoundest natural forces of the world.

But it was utterly useless as inspiration for the poets and songwriters who passed their time in Southern California. How strange it was in the late 1950s, as I sat on the sands of Venice Beach watching the volleyball games and overhearing the low idioms of my peers, to think of Jeffers some three hundred miles north writing the prophetic poems later collected in The Beginning and the End (1963) a year after his death, and how strange it must have been for him to overhear from radios on the Carmel and Big Sur beaches the blithe lyrics of The Beach Boys as he composed his last tragic testament.

Whitman and Jeffers have this in common: they recognize that the liminal property of the shoreline enforces a captivity of the spirit akin to the womb's and the grave's. Serious verse about the beach, about the Ocean, will always be atavistic, retrospective, apocalyptic. The journey toward the beach, or onto the beach, will always have an ecstatic fatality of purpose. Put another way, the Dionysian union of man and nature experienced by beachgoers is evoked as a death of the self, a surrender to overwhelming and ultimately anti-human cosmic forces. For this reason, the Apollonian poet in Southern California will always be tempted to travel in the opposite direction, away from the paganism of spent youth and the seductions of profound spiritual transformation, toward places marked as civilized where poetry will be valued more than self-erasing immersion in the beckoning surf. The world of rapturous enchantment belongs to the operatic north, where Jeffers's descendants like William Everson (Brother Antoninus), Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Czeslaw Milosz cultivated the austere yet satisfying natural religion of their forerunner in Carmel. In the south of California, few beachgoers or weekend sailors on their pleasure crafts welcomed a critique of "ephemeral accretions" or a devotional attitude toward the gulls and stormy surf at the water's edge.

Mark Jarman


    In Ball's Market after surfing till noon,
    we stand in wet trunks, shivering
    as icing dissolves off our sweet rolls
    inside the heat-blued counter oven,
    when they appear on his portable TV,
    riding a float of chiffon as frothy
    as the peeling curl of a wave.
    The parade m.c. talks up their hits
    and their new houses outside of Detroit
    and old Ball clicks his tongue.
    Gloved up to their elbows, their hands raised
    toward us palm out, they sing,
    "Stop! In the Name of Love" and don't stop
    but slip into the lower foreground.

    Every day of a summer can turn,
    from one moment, into a single day.
    I saw Diana Ross in her first film
    play a brief scene by the Pacific — and
    that was the summer it brought back.
    Mornings we paddled out, the waves
    would be little more than embellishments:
    lathework and spun glass,
    gray-green with cold, but flawless.
    When the sun burned through the light fog,
    they would warm and swell,
    wind-scaled and ragged,
    and radios up and down the beach
    would burst on with her voice.

    She must remember that summer
    somewhat differently, and so must the two
    who sang with her in long matching gowns,
    standing a step back on her left and right,
    as the camera tracked them
    into our eyes in Ball's Market.
    But what could we know, tanned white boys,
    wiping sugar and salt from our mouths
    and leaning forward to feel their song?
    Not much, except to feel it
    ravel us up like a wave
    in the silk of white water,
    simply, sweetly, repeatedly,
    and just as quickly let go.

    We didn't stop either, which is how
    we vanished, too, parting like spray — Ball's
    Market, my friends and I.
    Dredgers ruined the waves,
    those continuous dawn perfections,
    and Ball sold high to the high rises
    cresting over them. His flight out of L. A.,
    heading for Vegas, would have banked
    above the wavering lines of surf.
    He may have seen them. I have,
    leaving again for points north and east,
    glancing down as the plane turns.
    From that height they still look frail and frozen,
    full of simple sweetness and repetition.


Excerpted from Poetry Los Angeles by Laurence Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 Laurence Goldstein. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction Thomas McGrath Suzanne Lummis James Harms 1

1 The Pacific Ocean of the Poets Robinson Jeffers Mark Jarman Derek Walcott Lawrence Lipton Eleni Sikelianos Lewis MacAdams Charles Wright Susan Suntree 28

2 Hollywood, "Here" and Everywhere Karl Shapiro Bertolt Brecht Vachel Lindsay Randall Jarrell Robert Hass Wanda Coleman David Wojahn Frederick Seidel 64

3 How Good, or Bad, is Charles Bukowski's Poetry? 100

4 On the Freeway: Moving Fast and Standing Still Frank Bidart Eloise Klein Healy Wanda Coleman James Schevill Ron Koertge Carol Muske-Dukes Miroslav Holub Allen Ginsberg Mary Armstrong James Harms Dana Goodyear Dana Gioia Diane Wakoski|p121

5 South Central: The Lofty Towers and the Plains of ID Elizabeth Alexander Michèlle T. Clinton Wanda Coleman Jack Hirschman Samuel Maio Ice Cube Harryette Mullen 161

6 Californios, and the Fertile Blood of Poetry Lorna Dee Cervantes Curtis Zahn Gina Valdés Gary Soto Jimmy Santiago Baca Richard Garcia Aleida Rodríguez 192

7 Interiors: Kinds of Sanctuary Victoria Chang Garrett Hongo Denis Johnson Quincey Troupe Charles Gullans Paul Monette Carol Muske-Dukes 224

8 Exteriors: Signs of the Endtime David Trinidad Timothy Steele Henri Coulette Charles Harper Webb Dorothy Barresi Joy Harjo 253

9 Conclusion Nik De Dominic Patty Seyburn Dana Gioia 284

10 Twenty More Poems About Los Angeles 300

Notes 303

Selected Bibliography 333

Acknowledgments 343

Index 349

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