The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry
Alan Kaufman, Ed.
Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Tuesday, September 5 2000, 1:15 PM
It's hard to begrudge anyone success in the world of poetry, because it's not like people are getting rich off of it. At the same time, there are a wealth of good writers out there who have consistently fallen through the cracks in the literary establishment, whether because they live in the wrong place or write for the wrong people. It is poets who fall into this latter category that predominate in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, inhabitants of the literary underworld who target their work, not at critics or the classroom, but at our society's misfits. Bringing the word to cafes, bars, music venues, and the airwaves, they attest to poetry's transformative power. Like the "Archaic Torso of Apollo" described by the almost too famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, (the name of an indie rock band, no less) their poems confront you with a persistent demand: "You must change your life."
To be sure, many of the contributors to this anthology are "names:" William Carlos Williams, Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith etc. But, whether by inclination or necessity, these luminaries occupy the outer limits of the poetic firmament. In the face of poetry's long decline into irrelevance, they insist that it should be a vital part of everyday life. Even as our celebrity-obsessed culture tells us that the stars are not like ourselves, the work of these poets breaks down the distinctions between names and no-names. And that's why it's not only appropriate, but necessary that this anthology pair Jack Kerouac with Julia Vinograd, Che Guevara with Philomen Long, Diane diPrima with Susan Scutti.
The no-names come off very well in the bargain. Consider David Lerner's address to the nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of the medium's last true superstars:
I know you like I know my dick
the way you burned and fled
savaged by beauty
possessed by genius as kind as a
Id've liked to
share a number with you
as the late night glaze of North Beach
glowed over into the dawn
talking about everything at once
These lines deliberately recall Allen Ginsberg's famous poem to Walt Whitman, but they stand firmly on their own free-verse feet. Lerner isn't trying to outdo Ginsberg, but to prevent his legacy from becoming a museum-piece. In this context, to write like Ginsberg or Williams, or Kerouac, or even Jim Carroll is not derivative, but affirmative. It means that those writers' populist vision is very much alive. An analogy with punk is entirely appropriate here. Does the music of Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, or The Promise Ring signal an exhausted genre? Only if you are listening with your ears closed. And the same goes for all those bands out there dishing out heartfelt rock and roll with only the sparest hope of making it big. In mocking them, we risk making a mockery of ourselves.
I had the privilege of seeing many of the "no-name" poets in The Outlaw Bible perform in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past decade, to standing room-only crowds at the much-lamented CafȠBabar, at nightclubs in the South of Market, and at independent bookstores. At the time, I was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley, steeped in an understanding of what does and does not pass for good poetry in the halls of the academy. As I watched poets like David Lerner, Kathleen Wood, Mel Thompson, and Kim Nicolini strut their stuff, I would recognize all the ways in which their poems were breaking the rules of ivory tower discourse. They were too direct, too emotional, too excessive, too "real." But they rocked my world. And so, after a few minutes contemplating the spoken word scene from a distance, I would invariably find myself drawn in by its power and immediacy. I'm not much of a poet. But the lesson I learned in those smoke-filled, beer-drenched rooms taught me a critical lesson about communication. Ideas need an audience. They come alive, not in the "safe" spaces of a scholarly journal with 500 subscribers, but in those danger-filled places where a poem can still provoke a tear or a fight.
Ironically, the editor of The Outlaw Bible, Alan Kaufman, is the one person my friends and I couldn't stand in our years of frequenting the poetry scene. It wasn't because he's a bad poet. By the populist standard of that set, his poetry is perfectly accomplished, if rather limited in emotional range. The problem was that he always seemed to be seeking out the spotlight for himself. But you know what? I'm so happy that this book exists, that people like David Lerner -- who died recently after a tragic battle with drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty -- are finally making their way onto the shelves at Borders and Barnes and Noble in suburbia, that I'm willing to look past my personal distaste for its editor. Score a copy. And then go do some writing of your own.
The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is available from Thunder's Mouth Press