Friday, February 23, 2007

Love Letter to a Mentor or Thirteen Ways of Looking at Nathaniel Tarn

Nathaniel Tarn is a poet who doesn't quite fit into any model. Although more prolific and certainly as talented as many hailed American poets such as Williams, Ashbery, or Olsen, he has never won a major award or been interviewed by the New Yorker. To my knowledge, he has never had a book reviewed in the New York Times. Neither would I call him a fixture of academia (a world which he is conflicted about anyway). Although he maintains an archive at Stanford, reads at Yale, and long taught at Rutgers, he seems to stand apart from this world as much as from any other. Nor does Tarn inhabit the body of a third kind of American poet -- a sort of cultish celebrity status of Bernstein, Berrigan, or O'Hara.

Too, unlike many others, Nathaniel struggled, not with becoming a poet, but with NOT becoming a poet. In his essay "Child As Father to Man in the American Uni-verse or Dr. Jekyll, the Anthropolgist, Emerges and Marches into the Notebook of Mr. Hyde, the Poet" Tarn explains the dichotomy of his two personalities -- what I would call the rational mind that wants to fit into the "real" world and the poetic mind that is so hard to resist. Despite the realization of a poet-self at age five -- what he might refer to as "a poet born, not made"-- as a young man Tarn visited the Musee de l' Homme and ended up enrolling in classes. Tarn writes, "He told no one and his grandmother, with whom he roomed, thought, like all good French grandmothers, that he went someplace every day to misbave himself....And he would have taken his first exams total incognito had his parents not happened along for a visit. He had reassured them that the disrepuptable and good-for-nothing Mr. Hyde was replaced by an eminently respectable and presentable careerist-- while sure in his own heart, naturally, that anthropology and poetry were identical twins."

Ironically, Nathaniel and my father, Lee Bartlett, have always steered me toward a similar path. Both long knowing what it mean to be a "preveyor of text," they spent an enormous amount of (wasted?) time encouraging me to turn my attention away from poetry toward library school (or such). After all, what does poetry give us? Not a whole lot. There is no money, little fame, and an enormous amount of heartache and disappointment. I think when I was encouraged toward library school, it was meant to be a pointing toward, well, happiness.

In his letters to Eliot Weinberger published in "Views From the Weaving Mountain" Tarn writes critically of the options for poets today. (I am not sure if he feels as strongly about this today). In my small (perhaps incorrect translation) Tarn sees the world of contests and MFA programs (that which he callss Pobiz) as a incetuos system created in order make room for what he might call an excess of aspiring poets which "The M.F.A. schools churn them out by the hundreds.....A branch of the the Polity steps in and begins to codify the process. At first, they make themselves useful: information about the prizes, grants, and awards; lists of poets and addresses; lists of reading sponsors and organizers; a potential great source of help. Later, however, you get the uneasy feeling that a double standard is being generated." When I was first aware of Tarn's harsh (cynical?) attitude toward the current writing system, I think I miss understood him. It is not necessarily young poets he is against. I am not even sure that he is against the system as a whole. I believe (with all my heart) that it is actually POETRY he is trying to protect. He grew up in a generation where the idea of a "poet" was one who wrestles with the thoughts "1). Oh my god, is there ANYONE in the world wide world interested in this stuff. I mean interested enough to die, or better still, live for it? And 2) What the hell! It's the thing I do, the thing I do best, why, then I'll die for it." In other words, Rilke as poet. Poet with no choice in the matter. "Poet born, not made." Tarn further writes, "When I speak of a POET: I mean one who has married his/her art, as so defined beyond the grave. This means something more than one who has had x number of poems accepted in y number of magazines in the last z years." And because of the difficulty of being a "poet" who -- myself among them -- hasn't fallen so easily into this trap. While I will not say I entirely agree with Tarn, I wonder if the computer hasn't added to this equation. Who (again guilty here) hasn't "googled" themselves lately? In his truthfulness about the failing of the modern poetry "scene," he is fabulous. But, has this kept him from being endeared to some?

Likewise, Tarn's life and work are difficult to pin down. Born in France, raised in England during the war, and educated in France, Belgium, and England, Tarn was a member of "The Group," a friend to Plath and Hughes (he won't tell me anything -- he told me to go look it up in the library!), one the founders (with Jerome Rothenberg) of Ethnopoetics, the founding editor at Cape Editions, and the primary translator of Neruda. This is needless to say, he was a major anthropologist who studied with Levi-Strauss. (Who, other than a master poet, could name a book Scandal in the House of Birds). In his personal life, he has has stepped in basically every country and lived in many of them. He speaks countless languages -- literally and metaphorically. He recently told me that South Africa was the finest place he'd ever been.

And the poet. Tarn's own poetry -- as explimified his reading at Yale last week -- is as complex and diverse as his life. Is he a political poet, a love poet, a lyricist, a narrative poet? During the reading he reminded us of the poet's responsiblity to speak up about the difficulties of our particular time and read amazing political work that was neither trite nor didatic. Moments later, he was reading love poems to his wife, the poet Janet Rodney ( who is the Goddess of Everything -- which I say COMPLETELY without irony). OR a "sentimental" poem to his dog (also named after a goddess). OR any number of poems which employ a naturalist/romantic view of Tarn's (and my own) beloved New Mexican desert. If we want to count numbers, Random House, UNM Press, Salt, Standford, Coffee House, and Wesleyan (which recently published "Selected Poems 1950-2000) are just a few of his publishers. In a review by Brenda Hillman of Tarn's Selected Poems in Jacket writes, "Almost everything that can be said of a terrific book of poetry can be said of this one." And calls it something to the effect of the book that every American should own. I would also argue that Recollections of Being (Salt) is one of the best poetry books published in the last 5 years.

There are birds and trees and a desk that only gets in the way.

Like poetry itself Tarn's work is, at turns, startling, beautiful, and moody. The poems employ humor, sentimentality, surrealism, and the best parts of narrative and experimental poetry.

The poems are, in short, like Nathaniel himself. Vast and spectacular.

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