Election Section

‘Poetry and its Arts’ Explores the Visuals in Poems By JOHN McBRIDE

Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 05, 2005

Closing April 16 at the California Historical Society (678 Mission, at Third, San Francisco), “Poetry and its Arts, Bay Area Interactions 1954-2004,” celebrates the visual arts wrapped around the poetry heard at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center. 

Ruth Witt-Diamant founded the Center in 1954 in the midst of The San Francisco Renaissance, a scene of poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson (aka Brother Antoninus), Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Helen Adam, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Weldon Kees. Yet to come was the marketing of the Beat Scene, that wave of the arriving easterners (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso) and the other youths (Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen et al). 

The Poetry Center presented a broad range of poets both academic and uncoventional—Auden, Roethke, and later Bunting and Oppen, to name a very few. The list is both long and steady; usually, the reading was taped. Hence the center has one of the great archives of recorded poetry in the U.S. 

This show emphasizes the visuals amongst the poems. Opening with Kenneth Patchen paintings and Rexroth pastels, it features the complex work of Jesse Collins, the longtime companion of Robert Duncan, the photos of Harry Redl, the paintings of Fran Herndon, and the assemblages of George Herms, Bruce Connor and Wallace Berman. Especially poignant is the poster Jack Spicer assembled for his book Billy the Kid; quite amusing is the lame but expressive calligraphy Lew Welch committed with “a poorly prepared quill.” Secure within special collections, these unique items are rarely seen or published. 

The show occupies three rooms and involves some 100 artists, from Juvenal Acosta to Will Yackulic, including Helen Adam, Frances Butler, John Cage, Barbara Guest, Lou Harrison, Clarence Major, Arthur Okamura, Mary Oppen and Philip Whalen. Steve Dickison, formerly of Small Press Distribution (one of Berkeley’s invaluable publishing resources) and now director of the Poetry Center, curated the exhibit.  

Norma Cole, poet and translator, prepared “Collective Memory,” a three-part installation. At the front of the lobby she has furnished “Living Room Circa 1950s”: sofa, chairs, shelves with excellent and varied books, and a desk where she presides during the show’s hours (Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m.). A slide show of her local photos runs quietly and continuously. It’s a delight to stop and chat, see the exhibition, and then return for conversation; the first day I went, I met Robert Bertholf, professor at SUNY (Buffalo) who has helped preserve the Duncan/Jess “household” at his university. 

At the front of the exhibit is the wall installation, “Archive Tableau,” a bank of tapes and audio/visual equipment miming the modestly funded, but precious archive at San Francisco State. Further to the right and making a graceful exit from the show is the installation, “House of Hope,” consisting of 426 strips of cloth with a line of poetry printed on each. Norma Cole chose these poets; Suzanne Stein organized the assemblage of the frame and the hanging of the strips. You’re invited to move amongst the strips and read the poetry. A printed broadside (in smaller type) containing all the lines is free at the door. Last Thursday when I photographed the installation, I pulled up a strip to drape around Norma. Quite curiously it was the line by Robert Creeley who had died two days earlier: “Nothing will fit if we assume a place for it.”