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Reckoning Up Robin Blaser

Review by Trevor Carolan

A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser
Miriam Nichols
Palgrave MacMillan

Robin Blaser holds a particular place in Pacific coast literary annals. As David Herd’s introduction observes, while resident in Berkeley-San Francisco he “participated in an important post WW II literary flowering in the U.S.”; and after migrating to Vancouver in 1965 to teach at Simon Fraser University, he emerged as a leading figure for decades in the city’s poetry and intellectual life. Miriam Nichols, the foremost scholar of Blaser’s work and his former student, notes her book’s intention is to “weave together three narrative lines…Blaser’s personal story, his social context, and his ventures in poetry.” As Herd again comments, it is also a “biography of a poetic practice.”

Born in Denver in 1925 and raised in Idaho, through his mother and grandmother Blaser was deeply influenced by Catholicism and its devotional nature would underscore his literary and philosophical journeying. By high school he was writing early poems inflected with sensitivity toward the sacred and a dawning ecological awareness. To this he would bring an appetite for French language and culture. For a time he worked in men’s haberdashery where, evidently, homoerotic inklings were also dawning, although as Nichols writes these could not then be openly expressed.

Blaser headed to Berkeley University in 1944. It was an opportunity he wrote in a letter “to find [his] sexual form.” It proved revelatory, but after an awkward love interest and recurrent bouts of the clap he determined that he was getting something wrong and gave up on sex “for quite a while.” While moving through the bohemian underground however, he met Jim Felts, a student in the hard sciences and they remained a couple from 1945-1964.

Nichols records that at this time Blaser was “deeply rooted in classic American literature—Hawthorne, Poe, and Dickenson.” In searching for artistic and cultural knowledge he also became aware of the Bay Area’s literary scene with its presiding characters—Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, and William Everson. Readings in Horizon journal exposed him to its publisher Cyril Connolly’s remarkable stable of contributors—Auden, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Paul Bowles, Christopher Isherwood and others. Then he met an oddly attired fellow:

…I open the door, and there is a mysterious man with a moustache, dark glasses, a trench coat, sandals, and his feet painted purple for some incredible reason—it turned out later that it was purple gentian for athlete’s foot…it’s Jack Spicer.

Spicer gigged as a minor sleuth and felt this was appropriate dress for a detective. He introduced Blaser to poems by Robert Duncan and an exciting milieu of new friendships opened with Blaser’s reading conspectus expanding accordingly, roping in Lorca, Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Joyce. His association with Duncan, Spicer and their associates brought forward a “potent mixture of sexual adventure, mythopoesis, and critical battle.” This, Nichols relates, with the addition of Berkeley lectures by Dante scholar and cultural historian Ernst Kantorowicz offered Blaser a way to rethink religious feeling at a time when his Catholicism was quavering.

Blaser took four years to complete his M.A., by which time a number of his close chums in what we now call the Berkeley Renaissance were already departing for new intellectual climes. Among them, Duncan was already contemplating his “grand collage” poetic response and Spicer, with whom he grew notably close, was working toward his long “serial poem” idea that he regarded in the fashion of a newspaper’s ongoing weekly cartoon strip. As the junior poet of the trio, Blaser remained in awe of his confrères, yet as Nichols confirms “neither Spicer nor Duncan could have written “Song in Four Parts for Christ the Son” (republished in The Holy Forest as part of “Lake of Souls”). If it draws on his Catholic upbringing the poem, she remarks, it is “a first step toward later meditations on one of the big themes of his oeuvre: the sacred as a dimension of lived experience.”

In 1955, Blaser embarked for a position at Harvard’s Widener Library. The next four years in Boston, Nichols asserts, would prove “the most eventful in terms of his development as a poet.” He was successful as a research librarian and he was seen as a coming administrative talent. Off-hours he dedicated himself to sharpening up the aesthetic refinements in his quality of living which would later be notable during his long years in Vancouver. Literary hours were spent absorbing the new poetry of Black Mountaineers—Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley—as well as bright sparks like Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, and “the Boston boys”—John Weiners and others. Whereas Spicer, who also tried an east coast sojourn, had a knack for alienating others with slovenly personal manners and an abrasive interpersonal style, Blaser showed a talent for cultivating community and immersing himself in the creative juices of the moment. In this manner, through Weiners and others, he acquired knowledge of literary journal production and editorial know-how.

Nichols punctuates her biography with penetrating commentary, demonstrating how Blaser’s Boston years were the forge in which he mongered his concerns with desire, the unconscious, language, consciousness, and surrealism. A poet-scholar aesthete of dense capacity, he felt compelled to read and keep up with the latest intellectual currents and the Widener library was ideal for this. Now in his early thirties, Blaser was synthesizing the voice of his education, his extensive depth readings, and the influence of his mentors in emerging as his own theoretician. Comfortable and able to hold his own among presences such as John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg or LeRoi Jones, increasingly he was able to define what Nichols presciently terms the polarities in his work—“the strange in the familiar, the Other in the same.” Unsurprisingly, we learn that he was engaging with Yeatsian poetics, the dancer and the dance. Nichols includes a revealing moment from 1957 when after being tapped by editor Don Allen for inclusion in the historic second edition of the Evergreen Review featuring San Francisco area poets, Blaser’s “Hunger of Sound” was bumped in favour of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It left him in a fury. In a sign of Blaser’s capacity to forgive however, (or street-smarts) within a few months Blaser was still able to join Allen in making a visit at Gloucester to the self-appointed boss of the New American Poetry, Charles Olson. It began a significant critical comradeship.

As Nichols has it, “Hunger of Sound”, the poem sidelined by Evergreen Review is “a launching pad” for Blaser’s epic serial poem with which he is synonymous, The Holy Forest. In its final section, she says, the poem resolves “‘the orchard’ of childhood memory, the trees of Dante, and the long years of self-doubt about being a poet,” declaiming:

I said:
My emblem became a tree. Stood
Tall and could both bend and straighten…
This is a gesture. The words stopped
there—part of the forest. (HF, 25)

Blaser was back in San Francisco by 1959. Its North Beach literary district was agog with Beat-mania and non-Beat poets were in a huff. The Spicer-Duncan circle that Nichols diplomatically describes as “practiced in oppositional dynamics” continued apace and included newbies like Ebbe Borregaard and Joanne Kyger. Another affiliate, George Stanley, introduced Stan Persky, a 19-year old navy boy “looking for love and poetry.” Within a few years Blaser wrote Don Allen claiming, “I fear I’ve thrown myself into this Persky thing headlong, as if there were nothing else.” The difference in their ages and emotional barometers did not endear them to a number of Blaser’s old friends, but this same period saw Blaser produce some of his most memorable writing, including the first of the Image-Nation poems and Cups, a Blaserian hymn to Amor, “human potentiality”, and intellectual radiance—all would become further defining particulars of The Holy Forest. His poetry gang pals could be a competitive, ratty mob and carped at his progress, with Duncan commenting in 1967 how, “Blaser as an artist aims at signature or style; I aim at meaning.” Relations between the two would never be the same.

Parenthetically, Nichols records that in June, 1965, Spicer, Blaser and Persky “took a bus to Vancouver to read, with Blaser babysitting Jack’s brandy habit all the way…” Despite downing a bottle-a-day of the hard stuff, Spicer delivered his still-remembered Vancouver Lectures at the home of Ellen and Warren Tallman. Despite his wrecked constitution, Spicer had studied Linguistics and received an invitation to teach at the new Simon Fraser University. “Spicer was quite incapable of holding down a faculty position at this point,” Nichols says. “It unintentionally opened the door to SFU for Blaser later on.”

Within a month Spicer collapsed. “Taken by strangers to the poverty ward of the San Francisco General Hospital,” he died of acute alcoholism. Though not explicitly stated why, Nichols notes that by August “a stressed-out Blaser was undergoing psychiatric examination.” By September he accepted a one-year appointment as Lecturer with the English department at SFU.

Nichols offers an excellent chapter on “Vancouver in the Sixties” placing the cultural impulse of what was then a much smaller town within a reader-friendly context. Personalities, its intertwined literary and artistic scenes, and the intellectual streams of an important countercultural period are established in detailing the mise en scène that awaited Blaser and Persky who would shortly follow. Warren Tallman’s innovations at UBC and the coterie of Vancouver writers he gathered and encouraged have been written about before, as well as the non-academic downtown poets and the triangulation lines between all of them and the city’s ancillary cultural scenes. Blaser would make accommodation with these and with the ideas of the late sixties as they evolved into the French psychoanalytically-steeped mélange of critical theory universities would devour in the seventies and later as postmodernism. SFU’s early political woes get an airing, as does Blaser’s performance in the classroom: his teaching method “was to present context as explanation,” Nichols describes from her sources, and text “was part of a conversation between the discourses operative in a given historical time and space. The meaning of a work depended on its place in that conversation.”

In the self-consciously dowdy world of academics, Blaser had epicurean style and charisma. He’d arrived with a story, and had travelled and jammed with the big boys in the new American poetry. Committing the academic faux pas of becoming popular, his classes were packed. “Like Pound,’ Nichols assesses, “he ransacked the past for items of present use in his lifelong effort to construct a response to the events of his times.” If students were charmed, not all colleagues were. Nor were all students. Blaser was openly gay. Citing Maria Hindmarch, Nichols notes “some of the male students around him later reported discomfort with the “pressure” to tolerate gay flirtation.” He incited opinion and few were unmoved.

Blaser willingly took part in “the making” of SFU, and his role in the development of the Centre for Studies in Creative and Performing Arts is addressed. As a result he advanced rapidly through promotional ranks. Simultaneously, he maintained his role as poet and launched Pacific Nation, a small literary magazine, publishing Olson, George Stanley, Gerry Gilbert, Karen Tallman, and others, including an excerpt by Richard Brautigan from Trout Fishing In America showing that he knew what was happening. Short-lived, its second edition included his essay “The Fire.” Yet as his twin professional lives deepened, “his personal life was falling apart.” He and Persky split.

Considering the generational nature of the times, Nichols observes how during the 1970s, as Canadian arts academics welcomed European theory, they engaged even more forcibly in bringing redress to the traditional secondary role of Canadian literature. Although Blaser acquired Canadian citizenship in 1974 and maintained an active profile in researching and commenting on Canadian writers, once CanLit came in vogue among nationalist-minded writers, critics and teachers, his “San Francisco and Black Mountain connections … worked against him for the rest of his professional life at SFU.” This confined his reputation; his accomplishments notwithstanding, “it would remain modest throughout his life.” He befriended generational voices such as Louis Dudek, George Bowering, Sharon Thesen, Steve McCaffrey, Erin Moure, Brian Fawcett, and bp Nichol. In Vancouver circles he was a Parnassian figure.

Nichols previously edited Blaser’s master collections The Holy Forest and The Fire, and the last section of the biography details his continued literary production. In 1977, he met his life-partner David Farwell, and shared purchase of a Kitsilano house with Ellen Tallman, an old friend from Berkeley days. He retired early with a golden handshake from SFU in 1984 and in aging troubadour style spent his remaining years collecting and refining his oeuvre, touring and reading in support of it. He still had things to say, including appreciative long poems in honour of “Great Companions” Robert Duncan and Dante, whose panoramic vision of life saw Blaser through his own big vision projects.

Honours followed—the Order of Canada, the Griffin Prize, a Vancouver conference in his homage, an honourary doctorate from SFU in 2009 shortly before the end. He rests in Fraserview Cemetery, New Westminster. Nichols is a serious scholar, so expect some deep-water paddling through late-twentieth century literary theory in her fastidiously researched and exhaustively documented accounts. Blaser’s life, as Nichols convincingly illustrates, makes the argument that it is indeed possible to work creatively and consolidate a meaningful life in one’s art, and gain renown for this without reporting to kitsch, ass-kissing, or the casting couch. Readers of New American Poetry/Black Mountain/Beat Lit will find a rich harvest in this comprehensively executed biography of a poet who with his layers of erudition could still pose challenges even to poets of great stature.

Trevor Carolan is the International Editor of PRRB.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #26