Miriam Sagan

Words on Poetry

The notion that poetry should be beautiful, amusing, even lovable is not one which is currently in fashion. Academics and small press poets alike tend to take themselves tremendously seriously. But art is also play, as is seen in the new book by Joanne Kyger, Again: Poems 1989-2000 (La Alameda Press, 2001. 173 pages. $16.00). Kyger is associated with many of the poetic movements of mid-twentieth century America, the Beats, the New York School, and the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Kyger's poems are snatched from the ephemeral realm of conversation, of dream, of the track the mind makes as it jumps about. She's apt to end a poem "Here, I'll kiss it and make it better" or "one hundred percent pure."

But the talk in Kyger's poems isn't just ordinary talk. Her work is compressed, associative, and self aware. It draws from Buddhism, art, nature, but it remains of the moment:

(Hushed tone of voice)
Does Air have Memory?

     the crickets are telling
     this story tonight

The contemporary poet that Kyger seems most like is Philip Whalen, her lifelong friend. Her amused introspection, the sense of play in language, and the unpretentiousness of tone are similar to Whalen:

   Snow fall on green leaves
Eye is twitching quite dreadfully
I'm going to be cool
  and soften the dreadful hate
  and pity I have in my heart

The physical book which contains the poems in Again is a beautiful one. Jeff Bryan, publisher of Albuquerque's La Alameda Press, is both a poet and a book designer of distinction. His design work always shows an affinity for the poet whose work it contains. Of his association with Kyger, he says:" She's always been one of my own poetic influences and inspires my approach to art. Her attention to detail while also aware of the big processes coupled with an almost self-deprecating attitude gives her work a unique presence."

Indeed, part of the power of the volume is that although each individual poem has an of-the- moment feeling, the work adds up, short piece after piece, to create a wider look at a life. One of the poignant themes in the book is the loss of old friends; death, time, and change work like water, smoothing and shaping these poems. The poems are also physically very precise, like concrete objects themselves. When designing the book, Jeff Bryan reports "Joanne's poems are built typographically exact. Her own pages have a distinct form and I tried to "feel" the most compatible typeface and echo her own construction. She uses a typewriter which is monospaced, while set type is kerned and spacing is proportional. We needed several proofs before I was finally able to get the positioning of her lines correct and the page Structure to an essential beauty. "

Unlike many of her Beat contemporaries, Kyger did not going searching after reputation but rather has lived a quiet life in Bolinas, California. She even quotes someone as saying about her "With Joanne it's the fact that she has chosen to live/in this little town and not be famous...." Still, Kyger is of course well known and well loved by many. And her selected poetry is forthcoming next year from Penguin. But La Alameda Press has also done her readers a service. As Jeff Bryan says: "Most of her work has only come out in various small presses between long intervals, so that has been her modus operandi. Hopefully (now) more people will fall in love with her poems."