Books by John Kingsley Shannon


Hyde Park, 1973; Each Soul Is Where It Wishes To Be, 1973; W: Tungsten 1976;

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Books by John Kingsley Shannon

Some of the strongest influences on poets come from their associations with their peers during their student days. These influences can be so thoroughly assimilated that they become impossible to isolate or identify. Some of the reasons for this simply result from the age and situation of students: Since students are usually young, they have not had time to become jaded, and they have the capacity and freedom to change their minds easily. They tend not to have strong vested interests in social or artistic positions: they may espouse principals of one sort or another, but they don't find themselves bound to them by the same restraints they may find later. They have no more than a small opus to defend. They find themselves introduced to new ideas in rapid succession and, in the environment of freedom in which they move, they can assimilate them quickly. They can make connections between new ideas and let them interact with each other in ways that would be more difficult later in life. They read the same books, see the same films and art exhibitions, and attend the same concerts, often discussing them while in progress or immediately after seeing or hearing them. Given the intensity and innocence of youth, they can be considerably more critical of each other than they tend to be later in life. The arts for them assume an importance they will not hold later unless the young people continue to practice those arts.

All this leads to intense and long lasting discussions - of books, of music, of theater, of film, of art, of life, of any subject you could name. Such discussions can go on virtually uninterrupted for days, or they may lapse and resume regularly for months or even years, modulating as they progress. Competition and cooperation enhance their thoughts to a level unattainable in isolation or in the society of older people. Peer review and commonality of ideas is seldom stronger in any other phase of life. If young people collaborate on projects, the work produced probably will not amount to much in itself, but the process can easily stay with the collaborators for life. In the crucible and camaraderie of active discovery, discussion, and debate, they learn lessons which cannot be taught in the more formal settings of university classes, even though the university environment creates a framework for them, and what they do learn in class supplies much of the raw material they need to personalize with their peers.

Of early student friends, John Shannon certainly had the most impact on my work and my thinking as a poet. I'm sure details of our conversations and collaborations still work their way through what I write at the present time, even though I can no longer identify all of them - and would probably be surprised at some if they could be pointed out to me. Collaboration and criticism of specific works tends to create a dividing line between other forms of student discussion. This seems clear to me in comparing the influence on my work of Jim Clark, who introduced me to John Shannon. Jim and I spent considerable time discussing poetry and other arts, going to performances and exhibitions of all kinds, engaging in more youthful adventures and explorations of the world, and probably sharing a closer view of life. The big difference is that however astute Jim's observations may have been, he did not write or practice an interrelated art; we did not have the same sense of artistic interchange and collaboration. This does not diminish the quality of Jim's conversation in the least. His influence is still with me in other aspects of life, and our conversations on literary matters remain important. They did not do as much, however, to shape my abilities and practices as a poet.

When I first met John, he was a student at Carthage College, just north of Kenosha, our home town. I was still in high school. John's apartment was frequented by arty young people. We could be rowdy at times, and engage in the sort of pranks common to students of all eras. At times we drank excessively, for instance, though in this small town environment in the early 1960s, marijuana and related drugs had not yet become part of our scene. Whatever else went on, discussion of art, philosophy, and politics was pervasive, and the focus of our attentions never got too far away from our artistic and intellectual pursuits. As much as other young people who congregated at John's apartment may have held an almost religious devotion to poetry and fiction, it was clear from the start that John and I were committed and dedicated to writing in a way that none of the others could be.

This lead to years of discussion of our work, carried out on as close to a daily basis as we could manage as we moved to different locations and went through changes in our personal lives during the next decade. We collaborated on several plays and short stories. We read and commented on each other's poems as we wrote them, as often as not shredding each other's lines as though they were our own and at times writing alternate passages so that they became something like unacknowledged collaborations.

Hyde Park, The Neighborhood and The Poem

John left Carthage shortly after I met him and went to work in a factory to earn enough money to attend the University of Chicago. Once enrolled at that school, he lived in the Hyde Park district which houses the university. I visited him regularly during my last year in Kenosha and my first years in Milwaukee. The Hyde Park district consisted of layers upon layers of history and labyrinthine intertwining of culture. Once a prosperous suburb, it had become a largely African-American ghetto in the long and strange process of affluent Anglo-America's rejection of the culture of cities. When John first moved in, you could regularly listen to Blues masters such as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells sing to a nearly all black audience in local clubs. At times, you might be lucky enough to catch Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. U. Chi. was one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and still holds the position of third largest entity housing Nobel Prize winners, after the united States and Britain. Professors and students closed in on subatomic particles or distended the boundaries of epistemology as young black men formed ever more militant political organizations, sometimes subsuming local youth gangs, sometimes forming bridges with revolutionaries in Africa.

To me the magnificent Harriet Monroe Poetry Library was not only one of the best of its kind in the world, it also seemed a national treasure that should be housed in the vicinity of Blues clubs. Although John did not agree, he had a superb appreciation for the African-American art. Its syncopations and phrasing worked their way into our poems just as surely as did those of Ezra Pound, whom we both venerated. On the street you could find people circulating pamphlets and magazines extolling the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, espousing the ideas of Jerry Rubin, or presenting the rants of Beat poets. Rioting broke out in the area a number of times while John lived there. Under more peaceful circumstances, we might attend a concert by Ali Akbar Khan or a reading by Stephen Spender. The Royal Hosho Company staged Noh Plays in the neighborhood, which the largely Japanese audience were not able to see before they'd left the land of Seven Islands. Chicago was self-consciously the nation's Second City, and opportunities to visit its resources in art museums, theaters, concert halls, book stores, reading venues, coffee shops, and night clubs seemed to bring the world to that place. The Brestead Institute housed one of the world's largest collections of Egyptian artifacts, and African-Americans at the time were beginning to see Egypt as part of their heritage.

The milieu of this area would provide the background for John's first mature set of poems, Hyde Park. He did not surpass these poems in later years, though his formal development moved him through different material and different modes of composition. The prosody and tropes of the series of poems find a strong base in Pound's Cantos. This formal base took in more contemporary rhythms and patterns of rhetoric, including sly borrowings from African-American preachers and an indirect allusion to the celebration of freedom of speech in the neighborhood's British counterpart, London's own Hyde Park. The poems skillfully interweave natural, organic principles of growth with the imposition of layer upon layer of attempted artificial regulation. The sculptures of the Brestead Institute and Pound's Greek literary modes overlook the destruction or conversion of stately dwellings into tenements, while Aristotle's conception of formal principles finds an answer in the anger of young people, and the Bibles of the needy find echoes in ropes whipping against flagpoles in the winds of a city famous for long-winded orators and for harsh winds sweeping down from the Bering Sea. The long reach of history, vanity, and assurances of immortality found themselves perpetually slapped by the immediacies of life in the city. The long lines and intricate sound patterns of the series still carry the same bardic sonority that entranced me while John wrote them. I was not alone in hearing this. Clayton Eshleman accepted the first six poems for Catterpillar magazine, even though he simply received them over the transom, without the usual chain of introductions and associations that stretched behind this essential and unsurpassed magazine of the period.

In the summer of 1967, John and I drove to the World's Fair in Montreal, then swung down to New York City. John left after a few days. I stayed for a month. During this time, some of my thinking on poetry and what I could do took more directed form than it had before. More than anything else, the pluralism of the NYC scene at that time and the dynamics of readings in bars and coffee houses gave me confidence that something like them could be recreated in and from Milwaukee or any other place where there were enough people interested in poetry. I want to be careful in the way I present this: the important thing was not that I was a hey seed awed by the big city and the new ideas I first discovered there. More important was seeing the kind of scene that I wanted to be part of, and which I had seen partially in the midwest, and finding that what I wanted could actually exist in the world. If I could find something like my own Utopian notions being carried out in one place, they could be created in another. At the same time, if this kind of scene could only happen in a dream world like New York, I didn't want it. This view of a pluralistic scene in New York superimposed on those of Milwaukee and Chicago provided one of the basic triangulations that runs through this retrospective.

Our trips back and forth between Milwaukee and Chicago tended at first to be solitary. But Jim Clark moved into John's apartment building, John's brother, Tom, a visual artist, moved into the area and found an initial burst of success in local upscale galleries. Janice Serr, another visual artist and John's future wife, joined my commutes back and forth between the two cities, often giving me a ride. On some of these occasions, she had me photograph passing cars for her to use in her painting as we discussed whatever we were talking about as a group, or what Jim and I discussed. John's closest friends in Chicago were med students, one of them managing to purloin a human heart from a dissecting room for Tom to use in a kinetic sculpture. Ron Zimmerman - to my mind, the brightest of the students John met in Chicago - collaborated with him on a novel. The Hyde Park poems tend to reflect the solitude John seems to have felt during his initial residence in the area, before he started meeting other students living there. He would return to a similar period of temporary isolation in Toronto.

John did not complete his studies at U. Chi., which left him vulnerable to the military draft. He emigrated to Canada, escaping the U.S. in one of my Volkswagens - the first of a string of people to leave the country in cars I purchased in the late 60s. In Toronto, he set up a branch of his father's automotive jumper cable business. His career in business may have set in motion changes in his orientation to writing, but we continued our discussion of poetry, and moved into a different mode of collaboration - that between author and publisher.

Hyde Park, The Book

John and I had discussed editing several magazines during the late 1960s, though we got none of them off the ground. I produced letterpress and mimeo books of my own poetry, which was all I could manage before 1970. At that time, I began including poems of John's in magazines I edited or was otherwise involved with, and as I worked my way through several jobs at various print shops to learn how to produce books, John was one of the poets I wanted to publish. As soon as I felt confident in my abilities working at Ed Wolkenheim's shop, I made the first attempt at setting the type for Hyde Park and my own Prayer Through Saturn's Rings on the rickety Varityper we used primarily for envelopes. I was not satisfied with the results, and reset both books when we got an IBM compositor. After setting type on a Selectric typewriter and the Varityper, the copy this machine produced seemed miraculous - almost as good as the hot lead I had cast briefly using one of the last Merganthalers in commercial use at a previous job.

For the book's cover, I used a map of the Hyde Park area, contrasting the grid-work of streets with the organic colors, green and brown. The map filled the back cover, except for the now quaint price: $ .30. On the front cover, I borrowed an idea from the Egyptian backdrop of the Brestead Institute. A circle above a horizontal line represented the sun coming up above the horizon, hence acting as an iconogram for the cycle of eternal life. Among the ancient Egyptians, this symbol would later become the upper part of the now familiar Ankh. It also suggested The Loop, a pattern created by Chicago's elevated trains. Inside the circle, I placed the most immediate streets of the Hyde Park area on an angle, suggesting that it was rolling away from its anchored image on the back cover. I began work on the book in 1972, but my dissatisfaction with the type and the general confusion of the shop kept me from finishing it until the next year. It and the next book of John's I published marked a divide in my publishing, as the two books marked two different phases of John's work.

Each Soul Is Where It Wishes To Be

By the time I had begun work on Hyde park, John had purchased a house outside Toronto on the Dolly Varden River. As much as the environment of Hyde Park had acted as a stimulus, the new home provided a place for contemplation. Jan joined him there after he had settled in.

The poems of the first set he completed in Canada were variants on traditional sonnet form. In these poems, John avoided the iambic line, and in most instances, rhyme as well. Instead of these conventions, he worked primarily with the logic of various different sonnet forms. In Petrarch, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and other sonneteers, stanza divisions within the 14 line format carried different types of arguments, usually proceeding by one of several patterns of antitheses leading to a synthesis. John called these "syllogisms," and even if the term isn't a precise fit, it does link the procedure closely enough to formal logic. Although John declined acceptance of the meter and rhyme of traditional sonnets, he did retain their wit and the dance of delicate sounds common to poems in the sonnet tradition. Lyricism replaces the extended sonorities of Hyde Park.

The book contains two sequences, one sharing its title with the book; the other called "November." Some brief lyrics that found their way into the "Each Soul" sequence were, I believe, written in Chicago, and the tenor of this first sequence carries over some hints of concerns in the previous book. Hyde Park had included Jeremiads, and "Each Soul" continued some of them in a different key. More important in looking at Hyde Park and "Each Soul" is the way John emphasizes the importance of internal structure as opposed to decoration. In Hyde Park he had derided trivial decoration; in "Each Soul," he used the structural logic of traditional sonnets, but pointedly eschewed their more easily recognized sonic decorations.

This formal device includes by implication one of the judgments that make up the new sequence. The title may suggest complacency or a kind of benign acceptance of a comfortable world order, or a kind of conservatism which (like the traditional sonnet) would reemerge later in John's work, but here the theme tends more to stress the way people condemn themselves or find themselves stuck in traps of their own making. Still, the graceful dance of sounds creates a more optimistic groundwork in the series. It seems easy enough to see the "Each Soul" sequence as part of a process of settling in to an environment more congenial to John than the tensions of Chicago and the Vietnam War. Although such a reading is a simplification, it may help readers get a better sense of the dynamics of the series.

"November" is dedicated to Jan, and comes across as an outgrowth and an acceptance of the lyricism of "Each Soul." There is some anger and angst left in this sequence, but natural images and a greater freedom of formal experiment within the sonnet frame suggest an opening out of a confined world and a sense of new possibilities.

I set the type for the text of the book on the same compositor as Hyde Park near the end of my time at Ed's shop. In what now seems a symbolic gesture, I had to have the half tones shot by another company, since we had sold the process camera that I had used previously. Although Hyde Park was set at Ed's shop, I printed the book on the press in my basement. It was among the first books finished there. I set the type for Each Soul at more or less the same time as I did the type for Kathy Wiegner's Encounters, and liked the way the two books, each containing two sets of 14 poems, seemed to work together, despite the differences in the personalities of the authors and their approaches to poetry.

This was one of the few books in which I used author photos on the cover, largely because all sorts of people insisted that they would make books more saleable. It didn't hurt that Jan provided an excellent photo, and that the camera shop that made the negative did a better job than I expected. Their work on the frontispiece, a photo of the first stage of the house on the Dolly Varden River where John and Jan now lived, however, left plenty to be desired. Although the front and back covers don't integrate as well as I'd like, they don't have the disassociated character I try to avoid, and the front cover gave me plenty to work with. In keeping with John's insistence on sonnet structure, without decoration, I wanted to make the type stand out and produce an effect something like the syllogisms John had worked with. The words of the title descend the page, one at a time, in orderly fashion. Creating an axis between the last word and John's name, I placed a small detail of the farm house on the river from the frontispiece in a box on the cover. If this didn't tie the front cover to the back, it did tie it into the text pages. The clean white ground of the cover stock speaks more loudly than the stock on any other book I did at this time. Although the book contains few rhymes, and the front and back covers don't integrate the way I'd like, the brown square on the cover of Each Soul does rhyme with the brown circle on the cover of Hyde Park, visually linking the two designs.

W: Tungsten

Perhaps the most ambitious poem John worked on during his time in Canada was titled Plat of A Poem. This included characteristics of Hyde Park and Each Soul along with extended narrative passages, expository tracts clearly deliminating his Libertarianism, and some delightful experiments with such devices as multiple sequencing of lines. The poem tended to be more didactic than any of his other work in verse, but also more willing to incorporate tropes previously used in brief poems into the larger structure. I accepted part of the poem as a work in progress section for Stations, and other selections were published in Writ and Gnosis magazines. My recollection is that the poem was never completed, though John's notes on it in Stations indicate that it was. I accepted the sections for Stations while the issue was in its planning stages, and John may have completed it by the time I asked him for the notes. Whatever the case, the sections I used in Stations include directions in poetry not present in the books of John's which I published, and in the context of work in progress, bring as much triangulation as I could to John's poetry.

After negotiations which allowed John to return to the U.S., I introduce John to Tom Montag, and John became a regular contributor to Margins. His drastically different views of poetry from those of the other editors advanced the contentions of the staff; and to my delight, added to the growingly pluralistic and anarchic nature of the magazine. I'm not sure if I had the Guy Davenport symposium in mind at the time I introduced John to Tom, but I definitely had this symposium in mind as I set up the series. As much as John relished getting into squabbles by means of his often vitriolic reviews and essays in Margins it's important to see how well he could get along with other members of the staff and keep him in touch with poets as well as the business people with whom he earned a living. It's also important to note how John assisted several of them in projects ranging from the writing of a doctoral dissertation to managing finances.

As to my continuing interest in triangulation, the criticism written for Margins did more to place poems like Plat and Hyde Park in a literary world view of the poet's own making rather than the arbitrary delineations of critics who write no poems. I liked to think of the title, "Each Soul Is Where It Wishes To Be," in relation to John's sketches of a truly singular and original view of literature and art in general.

The last book of John's I published under my imprint bore the title W: Tungsten. Engaged in industrial production, and dedicated to the sciences and their history, tungsten works perfectly for this book. As an element in the chemists' periodic table, tungsten holds unique places. Like a few late-discovered elements, its letter abbreviation, W, has nothing to do with its sound in Modern English. Brushing shoulders on the periodic table with unusual and rare elements, it took a long time for industrialists to find a use for it, for eras seeing it only as an annoying byproduct of nickel and copper mining and refinement. It does not occur in a free or pure state in nature, and intentional mining of it can prove difficult. In looking for an element to use in light bulbs, Thomas Edison went through nearly all the other metals and their alloys trying to find something that would have a capacity for resistance which would allow it to become luminous quickly and give off a steady light. This he found in tungsten. Its industrial uses depend on its extreme toughness, ductility, high tensile strength, low coefficient of expansion, and the fact that it has the highest melting point of all metals. It is thus essential to spark plugs (such as those for which John's company made jumper cables), electron targets in x-ray tubes, and in high speed machine parts that must retain their form at high temperatures, often caused by the resistance of the materials with which they work.

The book consists of four sets of poems with no immediately apparent connection other than their formal invention and resistance to easy interpretation. The first of these, "The Numbers. The Colors. The Alphabet." is made up of lists of correlations, at once slyly winking at or satirizing some of the hermetic poetry current at the time (perhaps particularly that of Robert Kelly), and showing how much simple lists can extend in different directions or go beyond immediate expectations. Thus the number 1 becomes "Winter. Rage. You minus everything." Black finds its correlation in "Stars, stars! And all eyes else dead coals." (Note how many ways that last sentence may be construed.) The letter D can be broken down as "(1) She danced, my heart in caracole. (2) Only half the story; compare, O. (3) Dogma." and of course "W: Tungsten." These sets of associations can move from expansive lyricism to excruciating literalness.

The second part, "Picasso 347 Tracings," essentially does what it says it does: it traces several engravings as published by Draeger Freres in a copy made from that company's exquisite colotype edition. This simple set of applied words and phrases captures the knotty humor and sharpness of the Picasso engravings in a manner that approaches Cubism more closely than much of the poetry by such poets as Reverdy and Rexroth which have had the misfortune of being labeled cubist.

In the longest section of the book "31 Judgments," John uses an artificial extraction method such as those used by Jonathan Williams, Ronald Johnson, and any number of other poets working at the time to draw words and phrase out of pages of Walter Savage Landor's Imaginary Conversations. The lines float on their respective pages bonding with or standing in contrast to each other. John has a strongly judgmental character, yet that's not necessarily most operative in this set of poems. Some of the poems may suggest some of the tight logic of Landor's quatrains; but many rely purely on observation and precise delineation, suggesting that that is an inherent part of judgment (shades of the "Each Soul" concept). Some suggest that judgment is an organic process relying on nearly arbitrary association.

The book closes with "The Three Sisters," a set of sonnets addressed to three hills near the Dolly Varden house, and pulling in reference points from quixotic scientific experiments. This set is a good place for this round of my publishing to end. It includes variations on the sonnets of Each Soul, the sonority of Hyde Park, the didacticism of "Plat," and the wit, intransigence, and accuracy of the earlier work.

In designing the book, I started with the title, enlarging the letter W so that it would make its resemblance to the filament in a light bulb more apparent, and printed it in something like a neon transition color between the red of the author's name and the blue of the word "Tungsten." I had another of Jan's photos to use on the back, but this time I could draw a detail out of it in such a way as to create a Futurist or Constructivist set of diagonals which bore a structural resemblance to the large W turned sideways. These came from balconies on a building behind the building in front of which John stood. I thus brought elements of the deep background, the kind of thing people often tend to ignore, into prominence, much as John had done with the element tungsten and other oddities and commonplaces in the book. Balconies are places where people can rest, as does the wraith of Landor in "31 judgments." Balconies are also places from which people can view their city from a different point than anyone looking at them from the ground. When I started the process of isolating these lines, I didn't know what they were, initially guessing they were iron bars used to reinforce the concrete wall immediately behind the figure. As in the book, working closely with them revealed what they were, and how wrong my initial assumption had been. A white line between the diagonals and the detail of wall on the front cover mimicked the book's spine. The isolation of image elements suggested an ideogram as arcane as any in the book, though remained an element of design. As an extra bit of visual reinforcement between front and back covers, the W echoes John's collar.

This book I printed in ease and comfort in my own shop at a time when it was full of activity and I was feeling thoroughly optimistic about the direction my publishing ventures were taking. I'd gotten through what seemed the last stages of apprenticeship, and this was a book I felt had fewer flaws than most of my earlier publications. I set the type on the compositor in the Margins office where Tom, John, and I had discussed the magazine, and where all sorts of other literary currents flowed on a daily basis.

This book seemed to mark the most expansive experimentalism of John's development. After this, he concentrated more on writing novels and on setting up a publishing venture of his own. Although he published a few of his poems, his major goal was reprinting novels by Anthony Trollope which were no longer available. A worthy enough goal in itself, but also one that, to me at least, went as thoroughly backward against the contemporary grain as his experimental work had reached past the experimentalism of many of our contemporaries. I printed several works for him, including his novella, Hosea Jackson, but these were not part of my press list.

As far as I know, John never gave a public reading of his poetry. This is particularly odd for poets of our generation. Whatever this may have meant for him, it was unfortunate for those who did not get to hear him. Reading privately to me or to a small group of friends, he articulated each word clearly, precisely, and slowly, making sure each phoneme stood out distinctly and clearly. Short phrases spoken this way tended to create micro-rhythms, and John's phrasing seemed a natural, and perhaps conscious, extension of them. This worked equally well in the rolling sonorities of Hyde Park and the crisp lyrics of Each Soul.

It seems unlikely that these three books will be reprinted, and as far as I can determine, John will not return to work of this sort. Still, the three books make up an opus better than that of many poets born in the 1940s whose work has received much wider attention. They remain an important part of what I've published, and they're certainly worth seeking out in used book stores for virtually any poet. As a result of writing this article, I got in touch with John and made arrangements to reproduce Each Soul.

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