Thursday, June 12, 2008

poems for sale

Spring and early summer in particular have always been the season for poets setting themselves up outdoors among the other buskers of the city.

Max Bodenheim in the late 1940s and early 50s, destitute and always looking for the next whiskey, sold poems for drinks. To be specific, he set himself up on (let's say) Hudson Street right outside the White Horse Tavern, would in some way indicate to passersby or ingoing White Horse patrons that he was indeed the once-famous freewheeling Roaring Twenties novelist and poet Maxwell Bodenheim, a glimmer of those days of High Modernist Hilarity past, and you'd make an arrangement with him: he'd write you a "sonnet to order." People would pay to help out (and thus touch the life of) a broken-down old boho with bona fide modernist and radical lineage. If one ever gets to read the Bodenheim sonnets of this period, they have to be read, it seems to me, as made by the market for aesthetic-ideological nostalgia.

Back in the late 70s I spent some time reading the manuscripts of Bodenheim in the special collections department of Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. I was taking a graduate course in bibliography, textual criticism, philology, books and bookmaking, and manuscripts, taught by the eccentric and wonderful bibliographer, Lester A. Beaurline, whose love of setting type by hand was the one thing that made me realize doctoral study in English could well connect to my life as I'd already been living it. (In high school I'd been the one A-student who took "print shop" all four years. Print shop was deemed then to be a haven for guys we rather liberally called "greasers.")

One of the assignments Beaurline gave us: find a cache of unpublished manuscripts and make something of them. I think he was hoping students would read around in Arnold, Tennyson, Chaucer (there are 4 Chaucer manuscripts there), Poe, even Thomas Jeffrerson (patron saint at UVa), Faulkner (junior patron saint there). The other students went in canonical directions. I went for Max Bodenheim - and specifically Bodenheim's final post-communist post-modernist years on the streets of New York. He lived not just symbolically but literally on the Bowery. He was murdered in 1954 by a man who in court later said he was proud to have killed a commie poet. I read a pile of these sonnets, composed by a bad shaky hand. (Somewhere I have the notes from this - and possibly some photocopies. I'll look.)

Yesterday photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald happened upon a 21-year-old poet, one Robert Samel Snyderman, who sets himself up in Central Park to write on a portable typewriter: he will sell you a poem for $5. He told Lawrence that he "writes all the time" and prefers to write on his typewriter in the park "rather than in an academic environment." Of course there are many places to write poems in the large space between on one hand the "academic environment" and, on the other, Central Park, but never mind. The photo, I think, captures the early-summer post-communist post-modernist Bodenheimian sensibility perfectly.

There--see?--I used the term "post-modernist" to mean something much more specific (I mean it as ex- something) than the dead-metaphor term that gets deployed to indicate vaguely any 1945-present or 1960-present art that either continues out of modernism or reacts against it. Bodenheim's fate is thus finally instructive. He went through his modernist phase (Replenishing Jessica and other flapperistic fictions) and went through his communist phase (in the 30s and early 40s, as actually an activist member of CPUSA), and by the time we meet him selling sonnets for, shall we say, a flow of cash, beyond those aesthetic -isms and (back to? on to? down to?) the poem as a vital (desperate) function of the quavering body in need, setting itself up (through poetry!) to be needy. As you can see I'm still thinking about the possible import of C. A. Conrad's (Soma)tic Midge (see "Poems under the Influence" below). Not advocating it as an end to the coherent movement, just being sure I remember that not everyone befits such. It's possible that Lawrence's photo romanticizes this not-fitting; quite likely that Mr. Snyderman would join the first aesthetic category that would have him. And that's my point: Bodenheim would have done the same in a flash, if it would have saved him from the extremity that wrote those sonnets, some of which someone saved and which later I saw at Alderman. I'm glad I saw them. I've never known until now (blogs are fine things) how or when I could ever mention them.

Credit: Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splashnews