Personism

Yesterday we had a lovely wander of the university — including the inside of Charlie Wittman’s tower, where I’d never actually been before — and it’s small libraries, particularly the ones that look like they used to be boilerrooms and that have tape on the floor leading you in and out since there’s no way to orient yourself, no windows or even walls, just monotonous stacks of books. We ended the day at the pub for a swift half. Okay, it was as close to a pub there is in Texas and it was more like a leisurely two and a half. But we played pool and darts, the last of which is an amazing and frightening experience with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old. So somehow it seemed appropriate to read Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” while finishing up the last pint:

Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track start for Mineola Prep.”

That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aime) you, you don’t say, “Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!” you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I got lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.

But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is “yearning.”

Abstraction in poetry, which Allen [Ginsberg] recently commented on in It Is, is intriguing. I think it appears in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between “the nostalgia of the infinite” and “the nostalgia for the infinite” defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarme). Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poesie was to Beranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off. For a time people thought that Artaud was going to accomplish this, but actually, for all their magnificence, his polemical writings were not more outside literature than Bear Mountain is outside New York State. His relation is no more astounding than Debuffet’s to painting.

What can we expect of Personism? (This is getting good, isn’t it?) Everything, but we won’t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything. But it, like Africa, is on the way. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.

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