New Year's Day 2013
Updated Introductory Note
for Burt Kimmelman Survey

by Karl Young


I've believed in pluralism since I started publishing in the 1960s. Around 1970, when I began firming up my plans for publishing and related activities, I was already a dedicated avant gardist, with a firm commitment to experimentation of multiple types. Lettrisme was an important, dynamic, and muli-faceted collection of interacting and internally dividing movements, but even this conglomerate was certainly not the only one that could be used as a model. In addition to the varieties of experimentation I wanted to explore, however, I wanted an aesthetic anchor in at least one poet who held so firmly to a simple, clean, and accessible approach that he or she would extend the pluralistic base, draw in a wider range of readers, and provide not only a greater sense of contrast, but also a greater sense of freedom from brittle tradition or pointless experiment. I would have most liked Kenneth Rexroth to have been this poet, but given our relativev positions at the time, this was foolish of me to think about. My next choice, Paul Blackburn, may have been similar, but more complicated. In addition to the number of publishers eager to publish his books, he had a long and intricate battle with cancer. He sometimes pretended (perhaps even to himself) to have overcome it, but it nonetheless advanced, and he died before we could publish anything. Toby Olson became the anchor. In his case, as in the instances of half the people I published during the 1970s and 80s, I did multiple books by him so readers could get a fuller sense of what he and and other writers were doing, and how their work related to each other's. I published six of Toby's books. These had their share of problems. Although such masters as Jackson Mac Low and Jerome Rothenberg admired him from the avant garde side, not many others did from any position on the spectrum. As he moved into fiction, his poetry became less important to him and to the audience he had. He remained a connoisseur's poet (as witness Mac Low and Rothenberg), but that didn't get many books distributed or make my point about the need for pluralism.

By the early 1990s, I ceased printing books, moved onto the web, and tried other modes of presenting pluralistic work, extending from restraint to the expansive experimentation electronics opened up. This had a lot of advantages, but also disadvantages. Initially, I couldn't present audio works, and have always been reluctant to produce recorded work as distinct from live performance. Other forms of making literature public presented other problems.

By the first decade of the new century, I had seen a few poems by Burt Kimmelman over a number of years. In the last few years, however, his books have become more important to me. He seems to me at the beginning of 2012 the poet who takes the place of Rexroth, Blackburn, and Olson as a clean, clear, accessible starting point for any serious poet.

Kimmelman usually reprints a few poems from one book in the next. This gives the books an echo or suggestion of continuity when read sequentially. At times it can give them a hint at gentle waves. This becomes particularly important in relation to other patterns of repetition: whether that be the repetition of musical phrases or reinforcement of the light rhythms of syllabics or the mirror quality of poems in which Kimmelman contemplates paintings or generations follow each other in families.

We don't know how we'll handle this survey. It may not need to be as large as some of the others, but that's too soon to tell. Kimmelman's present book, however, and these notes, should be an adequate starting place in finding out. At the moment, it seems there might be particular benefit in including passages from two critical works Kimmelman has authored: "The Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters and The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages. Here some of the most important aspects of two very different critical works going in sharply different directions from each other and from Kimmelman's poetry might prove much more interesting than closely related works. Whatever the case, I'd like the inclusions in this survey to go beyond simple selection of a few poems and perhaps some criticism and to further "triangulate" his presentation in this anthology.

We present a large selection of poems from Musaics, Kimmelman's first major book. I like to do first books complete or with large selections since they tend to give the reader a broad sense of what the writer works with and even how the larger opus will grow as time passes and the poet matures. Although somewhat more erratic than Kimmelman's later work, the book suggests several areas of concentration that become more dense and skilled in the next years. Most of the main themes, or, to borrow a term from the Japanese master Kitasono Katue, "patterns" appear in this book. A significant portion of the work deals with domestic themes and situations, presented in gentle verse patterns I'll return to presently. A number of poems deal with natural environments or landscapes, presented in short lines perhaps mildly reminiscent of Japanese Waka or folk-songs - perhaps even the lyrics of Cid Corman, but without the harsh mania for eliminating adjectives. Perhaps the most formally interesting are poems based on appreciations of paintings and occasionally other forms of visual art. The elements that make these particularly interesting to me are the mirror quality of one art form reflecting another, and in so doing, reversing it, as well as giving it depth and producing a type of art criticism or appreciation free from dogma or didacticism. At times they can be related to the domestic poems, either literally in including the family in a literal or metaphorical museum, or in the intimacy and personal interconnection of Kimmelman, the work he creates, and the world he observes.

The work in this collection, presented to begin the survey, evolves naturally and without pushiness or belligerence. Thus the first books, Musaics, Somehow, and As If Free seem to evolve and grow from each other naturally and gracefully. Likewise, the divergence in everything from book design to prosody in The Pond at Cape May Point (coming after Musaics) presents a pleasing set of alternatives working on multiple levels.

In this first collection, Kimmelman already moves toward basing his prosody on syllabics: lines of equal number of syllables, but without regularity of stress. Unlike later work, he is not absolute in the syllable count, but sticks close enough to it to make it a major governing measure. American poets have made extensive and fluid use of syllabics. It has been used eccentrically and without affiliation to school or genre, but, oddly, it's not as natural to English as related forms are to other languages, particularly French and Latin. Still, Vachel Lindsay could combine it with hefty stress patterns, at times reminiscent of Norse prosody. Mariane Moore could use it almost regardless of sound but more as a mode of organization, while Kenneth Rexroth and Joel Oppenheimer could use it as a means of winding parallels to the long melodic lines of two different varieties of jazz, and Kimmelman can use it as both a cushion and a clarification for a gentle and friendly, yet crystal-clear form of verse.

Not a dogmatist, Kimmelman can bring together these themes or patterns. The Pond at Cape May Point includes paintings by Fred Caruso in manner similar to Kimmelman's poems, and pairing them one painting for each poem. We present the book here linked to Kimmelman's website at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

We were unsure as to how to present The Way We Live at this point in the survey. I try to present surveys and home pages in different manners to bring out the character of the writer as best I can. My feeling is that in recent years there has been too little attention paid to the needs of readers. Without careful consideration of poetry's readers, the whole art becomes preposterous: closer to a static and solipsistic game than a dynamic art in which the interchanges of poem, poet, and reader form an art which can change, grow, and continually create possibilities for mutual enhancement. Almost accidentally, I stumbled into an unusual discovery. Everyone will tell you that if people can get books for free on the web, they won't buy them. I started testing this with a book of my own that sold well enough during its first year and a half or so, but then came to a screeching halt. Dismal sales continued for nearly a decade. Once I put it on-line, however, the remaining copies sold out in several months. With the rise of e-books this may change. I don't know. It is an odd time to speculate, particularly when massive recession becomes part of the equation. My guess is that print and electronics will continue to assist each other, though the ways in which they do so will change at intervals. Stingy practices such as presenting one poem as an ad will remain a turn-off, and will move away from the most important potential of the interrelation of electronic and print books. That is fostering an audience. I don't think electronic publishing will cease that function unless print publishers become too greedy and electronic publishers continue, as they often do, to grab books without consent.

For this book, we've tried an en face type of presentation to bring out characteristics in Kimmelman's poems and how they can work together i books or on-line. We began with one set of two poes. The poems, strategically placed to face one another, augment and expand the "patterns" in Kimmelman's previous work. Both poems continue the practice of commenting on art. But here the type of art is different; it intersects with history, and the contrasts in the poems can be both jovial and deeply disturbing. The first, "Alhambra Steps," apparently comes from a vacation in Spain. Skipping down a stairway at the Alhambra, Kimmelman and his wife seem to create a floating partnership by the way they skip, arm in arm. Here they are free in a moment in a magic place where civilizations once intersected and renewed each other, and cultural and spiritual tolerance reached one of their highest points in western history. "Mikvah, Warsaw Ghetto 1941" begins on the facing page. Here the art form Kimmelman observes is documentary film rather than the holistic palace which incorporates virtually all arts. There is no joy or lightness in this poem or the film it traces. Cultures intersect, but in one of the most ghastly moments and situations in our history. The film shows stains and splotches from age, carelessness, and what seems an attempt to hide this "document," which is an atrocity in itself. A girl who survived the situation watches the film as an old woman. Her response is enigmatic, perhaps suggesting that she became inured to this kind of barbarity long ago, and has come as close as possible to stoic endurance. Both poems touch on other patterns in Kimmelman's opus. Initially, we used only this pair of poems to represent the book, in part so the publisher wouldn't feel we were giving too much away. The presentation of pairs, mimicing openings of books, has meet with a good response, and the book has had plenty of time to establish independent initial sales. The additional pairings suggest other forms of interrelation and enhanced significance.

We may continue the survey with some of Kimmelman's critical and historical writing. We may simply add some follow-ups if he has hit a stride he wants to maintain. Whatever the case, this survey seemed a good way to start a new year, and today, New Year's Day 2013, a year later, seems a good time to make some additions.


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