Memoir and Essay
Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay is equal parts love letter to New York and knifetwisting account of how underground writing gets made. The thing about love letters to New York, though, is that New York doesn’t read anymore, and if it did, it wouldn’t pay attention to a love letter, unless it happened to be from someone young and pretty, or failing that, a rich friend from school. And the thing about writers’ memoirs is that what people really want to hear about underground writers is nothing at all, unless they themselves happen to be underground writers, in which case, why the knife?
Gottlieb’s poetry, if you’re not familiar it, is worth a look. Of the six collections in stock at Small Press Distribution, I prefer the 1993 book from The Figures, New York, and of that, I’d recommend taking more time with the first, longer sequence “The Great Pavement” than with “The Ulterior Parkways.” The signature of Gottlieb’s line accommodates both friendly shared allusion and sidelong quip. “It’s not colloquial, it’s ungrammatical.” He has a taste for obsolescent words and befuddled know-it-alls, and his stated resistance to prose sequence has never really camouflaged a love of narrative. As with the work of Armantrout, his west coast counterpart, or for that matter as with their true modernist model the satirist Pound, I don’t quite feel I’ve had the complete experience of the poems unless there’s a bitter finish:
You want to say,
“Yes, I was looking forward
to this abyss.”
this was the just reward.
You realize then
no one ever puts it quite that way.
For good reason.
is not with the emotion,
or the recollecting.
It’s the tranquility.
(from “The Night Book” Gorgeous Plunge, 1999)
For whatever followers the Language writers may have left, Memoir and Essay confirms what anyone who has spent time among them knew instantly: Charles Bernstein acts superior and is a master delegator, Bruce Andrews is a born salesman, Ted Greenwald is not above revenge, the late Hannah Weiner defaulted to anger, Alan Davies is fragile. Gottlieb’s line drawings are true to life, and while it is likely some of his subjects are irritated by their portraits here, the person who comes off worst is Gottlieb himself. His continual comparisons to these other figures leave himself on the short side, and yet his confessions are self-praise by faint damns. He is a companionable narrator in the Ford Madox Ford mold, witty and oblivious by turns. At bottom, there is a fundamental belief in the value of the work he and his colleagues were writing, and below that, a conviction that what gives that work its value is the hostility and indifference of the world. The belief is debatable; the conviction is a laugh.
Gottlieb embraces self-doubt and carries on. He narrates transitions: how he left Union College for Bennington; how he left the US for Czechoslovakia to work as a conscientious objector; how he left painting for poetry; how he left conventional poetry for writing free of residual narrativism (his phrase); how he met his first publisher (co-publisher of the present volume); how he met his wife when she was fifteen; how he left everywhere else to live and work in New York; how New York left him; how, despite being present at the creation of Language writing, he’s been a minor character in the story so far.
If M&E follows any literary example from the American avant-garde, besides his colleagues’ group autobiography, The Grand Piano, it’s William Carlos Williams’s talkative, unreliable Autobiography. Of the memoirs of Gottlieb’s near-contemporaries, there’s a slight family resemblance to Rae Armantrout’s memoir True, and a fainter still connection to Ron Padgett’s Ted. Armantrout and Padgett are extremely economical prose writers, though. More than once in Gottlieb’s memoir, the sight of his Penguin paperbacks of Balzac novels serves notice that more is more. Take for example this representative passage from the 19th section, “Bulk Rate Permit”:
The job I remember in particular involved a number of tedious steps: there was a letter, or appeal, which had to be folded, and perhaps an envelope, and maybe there was a return envelope and an order slip too. All of the collated pieces had to be labeled and arranged, that is rubber banded, sorted, and bagged by ascending order of zip code so that the four or five mail bags that all of these dozens of man-hours, actually poet-hours, which stand against man-hours in the way that dog-years stand against people-years, so that each of them could be sent to a different quadrant of the country, to some super-mail sorting facility.
Having prepared a few larger-scale bulk mailings myself some years later, I can vouch for the tedium, not to mention the pathos and arrogance of the resentment that calculates poet-hours as dog-years. And all too believable, the scene that follows:
Everyone had shown up and at least was going through the motions—almost everyone, that is. […] Charles never showed up on Saturday, which excited a certain amount of comment. By the time he did stroll in on Sunday half of the work day, however that had been defined, was over already, and when he sat down and joined the work circle it quickly became clear that he had no intention whatsoever of actually making much physical contribution to this effort. He was treating it as a social event, making barely a sketch at the sorting or folding or collating or stuffing that the rest of us were busily engaged in, more or less; all the while chatting away a mile a minute, giving every appearance of being simply delighted to be in this company and having the opportunity to see all of us at once. In short, he was negotiating the situation no differently than, say, an after-reading dinner.
There are times I wish my generation hadn’t had its aggression neutralized; observing Gottlieb’s rage and Bernstein’s self-importance, though, I cringed. Why should either of them have taken this volunteer work so seriously, when as Gottlieb points out earlier in the essay, it would eventually be rendered unnecessary by technological advances? To anybody who’s sort of been paying attention the irony is clear: the work Gottlieb labored physically and tediously to promote would lead to a major trade publisher producing a selected poems for Bernstein, with Gottlieb left to settle the score by means of this prose account published by the same fragile individual who first brought his work into print.
Here, by the way, is what Bernstein’s publisher has to say about printing him: “I thought it would be fun to have FSG publish something from the Language-poetry school. But you know, when you read his book, it’s not very different from a lot of other folks.” If you don’t already feel empathy for Bernstein, that interview will take care of it.
The late Richard Rorty was occupied with the conflict between authors “in whom the desire for self-creation, for private autonomy, dominates,” and those driven by “desire for a more just and free human community”:
One sort of writer lets us realize that the social virtues are not the only virtues, that some people have actually succeeded in re-creating themselves. We thereby become aware of our own half-articulate need to become a new person, one whom we as yet lack words to describe. The other sort reminds us of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the conviction to which we are already committed by the public, shared vocabulary we use in daily life. …Both are right, but there is no way to make both speak a single language. (Contingency, irony and solidarity, xv)
Who falls into which category should not be prejudged. Neither should Gottlieb’s book be read as the history of a community built around a shared interest in putting words to odd uses. Gottlieb makes some gestures toward the reasons behind those uses (aesthetic satisfaction, chance, perversity) but his larger purpose in writing the book, aside from staving off the terrifying insecurity that confronts every writer, is to remember what it was like to want to be a poet only to become one.
In Gottlieb’s exemplary case, becoming a poet meant inhabiting that terrifying insecurity. Throughout “The Empire City,” the memoir of the book’s title, Gottlieb constantly compares himself to everyone else while also recounting the unchallenging jobs he took to be free to think and write. When the objects of comparison are legends of art history, it’s entertaining writing, as when the man in the street with an interesting walk turns out to be Merce Cunningham, or when the basement at the Warhol opening turns out to be Gottlieb’s uncle’s industrial space where he used to store his books. There’s no actual interaction with these larger-than-life figures, though there is a remarkable moment on the subway when he realizes he’s wearing the same shoes as… but to say more would be to spoil it.
Memoir and Essay comes very close to being required reading for new recruits scanning Craigslist for a share someplace no more than a fifteen minute walk from a subway an hour from the temp agency. The greener grass is the last thing the underground has going for it, and this book pretty much demolishes whatever romance might be left for the life of a poet without credential. Perhaps some survivor of the writing camps will do the same hatchet work for that side of the world some day.
In the meantime, better to let Gottlieb continue to attempt to justify himself:
Was it all those bad choices, mine as much as any other’s, that are, more or less, called out in the memoir, which shaped the argument that appears in the essay? Or, was it surviving—to the extent I have—my bad choices and watching others, survive or fall beneath the wheels of their own, that gave form to The Jobs of the Poets?
Perhaps the natural course of the diseases, or the oppressions, if that is what they were, which fell and befell, which continue to afflict so many of us, may not appear so to those coming afresh upon the events and individuals populating this memoir.
I couldn’t put it down.