BooksWeekend

The Tip of the Iceberg: My Reading of Frank Kuenstler (1928–1996)

by John Yau on August 5, 2012

Photo collage of Frank Kuenstler, by Ira Cohen

Photo collage of Frank Kuenstler, by Ira Cohen (click to enlarge)

“In which the cutting edge meets the bottom line.” —Frank Kuenstler

I.
I want to begin with a few salient facts and personal observations about the poet and filmmaker Frank Kuenstler. He is part of the same generation as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, and Adrienne Rich, and, to my mind, belongs in their company. Between 1964 and 1996 he published nine books. If we take his word for it, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t, he began working on LENS in 1952 but waited more than a decade before he began publishing his work. Partly this had to do with the twelve years it took Kuenstler to complete LENS, but I imagine other factors were also involved.

Kuenstler published only with small presses during his lifetime, and this is his bibliography:

LENS (New York: Film Culture, 1964)
Selected Poems (New York: Eventorium Press, 1964)
Paradise News (New York: Eventorium Press, 1966)
Fugitives. Rounds (Eventorium Press, 1966)
13 1/2 Poems (New York: SZ/Press, 1984)
Continued (New York: Night Three Press. 1987)
Miscellany (New York: Night Three Press. 1987)
In Which (New York: Cairn Editions, 1994)
The Seafarer, B.Q.E., and Other Poems (New York: Cairn Editions, 1996)

I do not own, nor have ever seen, copies of Continued and Miscellany, which have proven impossible to find, even on the Internet. It is not clear why they are rare, but I am reasonably sure that they weren’t published in very small or expensive editions. All the Kuenstler books I have were inexpensively produced, from Selected Poems, with its purple and orange stapled wrappers, to the posthumous The Seafarer, B.Q.E., and Other Poems, its oblong white cover with the title and author’s name in purple and orange, respectively.

Cairn Editions published The Seafarer, B.Q.E., and Other Poems shortly after Kuenstler’s death. It also published In Which, a hybrid work divided into twenty-four sections, where every sentence fragment begins, “In which…”

“In which Faye Dunaway, Raya Dunayevskaya.”
“In which words on paper.”

Quietly run by the marvelous poet and translator, Michael O’Brien — he and Kuenstler met early in their careers — Cairn Editions should not be confused with Cairn Editions. Co. UK., the publishing arm of Cairn Gallery, which is run by the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark. Clark’s Cairn has a website, while O’Brien’s press does not.

Kuenstler always seems to end up existing on the cusp of invisibility. The fact that he is not identified with any group (such as the New York School or  Black Mountain) hasn’t helped him gain attention. I am reminded of something the iconoclast painter, Nicholas Krushenick (1929–1999) said in an interview with Paul Cummings in 1968: Like I’m out in left field all by myself. And that’s just where I want to stay.”  I want to advance that Kuenstler and Krushenick — the individuals who never tried to fit into the scene — are the ones to pay attention to in these days of branding and reality shows about art.

II.
Not one of the seven Kuenstler books that I own has a blurb or a biographical note. There are no affiliations or lineages to be found on the outsides of his books. Except for the writing, there isn’t much biographical information to be gleaned from the insides of the books either.

Paradise News and Fugitives. Rounds feature grainy, black-and-white images of artworks — collages, drawings, paintings, and sculptures — but there is nothing to indicate Kuenstler made them or what they are made of.

There is no attempt by Kuenstler or his publishers to provide a context for his writing. Kuenstler must have wanted it this way. He made the choice simple and unimpeded. Either you jump in and begin reading (looking and hearing) or you wait to hear what someone else says about the writing. This doesn’t mean that Kuenstler worked in complete seclusion, that he was a hermit of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I also don’t think the absence of blurbs was necessarily a manifestation of his literary purity, though I suppose there will be some who see it that way.

III.
During the mid-1960s, around the time that Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945–1965, began shifting the terms, and poetry scenes of all kinds were quickly developing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Harlem and in the West Village, Kuenstler was a member of the Eventorium group, which met regularly on the Upper West Side. The other Eventorium members included Serge Gavronsky, Rachel Blau (later, Blau du Plessis), Michael O’Brien, and Hunter Ingalls. The group published five issues of a magazine, Eventorium Muse (1964–1967), which was co-edited by O’Brien and Ingalls for the first four issues. O’Brien edited the fifth and final issue.

In addition to publishing work by its members, Eventorium Muse included translations by Hiroaki Sato, as well as poems by Michael Benedikt, George Bowering, Russell Edson, Barbara Gormley, Barbara Holland, and Bill Zavatsky.  The poets and writing chosen for Eventorium Muse suggest a strong interest in French Surrealism, in translations from French and Japanese, and in prose poetry.  The center — if that’s what it was — did not hold. Ingalls began teaching at the University of Texas, Austin. Kuenstler and O’Brien went off in very different and unmistakably particular directions in their writing, as did Blau du Plessis, Gavronsky, and Zavatsky.

Eventorium published three of Kuenstler’s books between 1964 and 1966, which means that O’Brien has had a hand in at least five of the poet’s nine books. The nearly two-decade break between Fugitives. Rounds (New York: Eventorium Press, 1966), and 13 1/2 Poems (New York: SZ/Press, 1984) suggest that Kuenstler did not find another group after Eventorium, nor did a different group or scene take him up. During this long absence he did not stop writing. The gap in publishing suggests that he wrote poetry, but didn’t make a concerted effort to push it out the door. He wasn’t a careerist; and he taught in an art school, rather than in a literature department.  LENS, his first book, was published by Film Culture, which wasn’t known for its advocacy of poetry. It came out two years after John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962, Wesleyan University Press), and seems not to have made a ripple.

IV.
Pressed Wafer, which is owned and operated by the poet and memoirist William Corbett, published The Enormous Chorus in 2011, a volume of Kuenstler’s selected poems. It has a generous and insightful introduction by Michael O’Brien, his friend and longtime champion.  At the end of a short biographical note the reader learns that:

His films include Color Idioms and the august El Atlantis.  He taught at the School of Visual Arts, edited Bread& and Airplane, and was one of the animating spirits of The Eventorium, an arts collective on Manhattan’s upper west side.

I know that I have more digging to do, particularly regarding Kuenstler’s films, none of which I have seen. (Two readings by Kuenstler can be found on PennSound,  as well as five films restored by Anthology Film Archives.)

While over one hundred pages long, The Enormous Chorus is limited to only a very small portion of what Kuenstler published, not to mention wrote, during his lifetime. It is a selection, not a “selected,” which, in keeping with the publisher’s aesthetic, leans toward the lyric. The book covers a lot of ground, but it certainly doesn’t (and can’t) deal with the breadth of Kuenstler’s oeuvre. It is a good introduction to his lyric side, which certainly needs to have been done, but it doesn’t give any sense of what I regard as his more radical, innovative side: his penchant for puns and neologisms, and his use of words as things literally to be taken apart and rejoined. As O’Brien acknowledges in his introduction, Kuenstler’s “abundance” and range are impossible to contain in a single volume.

V.
Separated by three decades, LENS (1964) and In Which (1994) are full-length books whose contents do not resemble what we have come to call poems. If parts of them — and they would have had to have been extended sections — were included in The Enormous Chorus, they would have pushed the book into another domain.

Working within severely defined limitations, LENS (1964) is far more compressed and opaque than Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1978) and Ron Silliman’s Ketjak (1978) and Tjanting (1981), which, on a fundamental level, were written, while Lens was composed. Rather than being written, it was accumulated, paired words by paired words. In Which was also accumulated, one phrase at a time. They are books that came out of reading — as well as listening to — everyday language. Both books are rife with puns and other associations made through Kuenstler’s precise calibrations of sound and meaning (“In which hand stands and Palm Springs”). By any measure, LENS and In Which are singular and major accomplishments, which seem to have escaped nearly everyone’s notice during Kuenstler’s lifetime.

(Perhaps, Robert Ryman puts it best: “There is never a question of what to paint, only how to paint.” In LENS, Kuenstler simultaneously preserves and intervenes. Language, he proves repeatedly, is not transparent. At the same, in contrast to his conceptually minded, art world counterparts, he never becomes illustrative [Joseph Kosuth] or didactic [Mel Bochner]. He finds pleasure in the banal and disposable, in words).

A note preceding the “Contents” of The Enormous Chorus tells the reader that the selection was made from six books. The other three books plus unpublished work, of which there seems to be a lot, had to be left out. I wonder if a big “reader” including poetry and prose might have served as a better introduction to a poet whose work is known only by a few. Kuenstler doesn’t quite qualify as “a poet’s poet” because so few poets know his work. Though things are starting to change, the word still has yet to get out.

VI.
Although Kuenstler’s first two books, LENS and Selected Poems, appeared in 1964, they bear no resemblance to each other. It’s as if two poets named “Frank Kuenstler, ” who were from the opposite ends of the poetry spectrum, lived in the same city and wrote their respective works at exactly the same time. LENS is a single unrelenting work of paired words divided by a period (“racine.Form.”), and strung together into dense, paragraph-like blocks.

Kuenstler’s modus operandi was to utilize a formally constrained, incremental method in which he divided words, or inserted a homophone into a two-word phrase or multi-syllabic word (“numbers.Racquet.  comma.Dei.”).  Setting one word against itself (“purr.Version.”) could lead to something approaching genius, as when “facsimile” becomes “fact.Simile.”  Other times one word divides into two without completely losing its original identity (“flame.-Buoyant.”)

Following one after the other, the dense blocks of paired words occasionally contain a sentence or sentence fragment. In the fourth block (or stanza?), a man on a train makes his first appearance (“The man on the train is Everyman.”). He reappears throughout the poem (“The man on the train is going to Oklahoma.) In this instance, we hear the word as the state, but read its italicized version as the popular musical.

The tension between hearing and reading is maintained throughout the book, compelling us to be attentive to the fact that language is both visual (sign) and aural. Later, we learn, “The man on the train speaks Yiddish & Esperanto.”  Other recurring features include acronyms (AAA, RR, KKK, MM) and musical signs (f). Cliches and homilies are made fresh (“Time wounds all heels.”).

This is what a typical line in LENS looks like:

tante.Analyse.  gash.Roost.  Later.GGG.  brook.Adenoid.  torn.NATO.  f.Ire

It doesn’t look or sound like anything else being written in America at the time. Such writing demands that the poet recognize ways to fill the spaces between reading and hearing or what he calls elsewhere, “Eye & Voice.”  The man on the train (Kuenstler) feels hemmed in by language, and he wants to get beyond it, knowing that he can’t. He is a materialist. As the book’s title suggests, Kuenstler’s time-consuming compositional method brings things into focus, as well as enhances and sharpens the disparate parts. (“addle.Essence.”). Kuenstler’s humor is generous, wicked, and razor sharp.  It’s as much about taking words apart (canticle becomes “can.Tickle.”) as it is about putting them together.

It took more than a decade to bring LENS together. At the end of the ninety pages a note states:  “New York, N.Y. 1952 – 1964. It is hard to imagine that Kuenstler could have composed it any faster. He may never have run into a pun he didn’t like, but how many was he likely to make up, encounter or discover in a day, even if everything he heard and read was material? Punning is a matter of reacting, of shifting the emphasis, and deflecting attempts at communication. Names, for example, were fair game for Kuenstler. Another resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the poet and translator George Economou became “gorge.Economy.”  Economou’s then wife, the poet and playright, Rochelle Owens, became “new   rochelle.Owens.”

Here are five other word pairings—

“lamb.Cheops.”
“franck.Sumatra.”
“tapir.Starry.”
“fiddle.Castrato.”
“burro.Crate”

Kuenstler keeps deflating language as if it were a balloon (full of hot air?). Spend time reading this book, and the words around you will begin dividing and reconfiguring, like cells gone haywire. LENS is maddening and hilarious. It can also be downright unnerving. The space between hearing and reading, listening and seeing, becomes magnified and frustrating because both the borders and ground have been eroded. Repeated exasperation becomes an unexpected form of pleasure.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the presiding spirits of LENS. The anarchic Groucho Marx is another. There is something deeply anti – social about LENS, which may be one of the reasons why it is not better known.

VII.
Selected Poems, which was likely completed over the same time period as LENS, is a gathering of lyric poems ranging from the nearly transparent to the opaque; it contains the poems “After Villon,” After Wallace Stevens,” “After Adrienne C. Rich,” and “In the style of Michael Benedikt, for Alice Morris.” Other poems are dedicated to “Michael O’Brien” and “Edward Field.”  Eager to try every possibility, Kuenstler cast a wide net. Remarkably, he never sounds derivative.

This is “Prometheus,” the first poem in Selected Poems, in its entirety

Flesh, too, those birds that peck at him
& bite. They’re black as night. The sky
is blue, unscarred and South Caucasian.
He lives & dies upon a bed of rock,
hears his cry, “The revolution is dead!
Long live it!” echo like the lament
of a now near-mad aristocrat whose
slaves have been freed by an imperial
edict. Chains as invisible as nails on a
well-made coffin are wrought by his spirit,
a spirit perverse, I say, mouthing freedoms
which later on may prove unreal. But,
like a fool, this I must think about
some more, at leisure. Meanwhile, his
entrails burn. Their flames attract
the magpies, vultures, sparrows, all the
birds, as if he were a renegade, or an
ineffectual scarecrow. His eyes filmed
over, through them the rocks appear wrapped
in cellophane. Unreal images, monuments
of their kind, they, like the birds, speak
no evil. Nor do I. I have seen & read
he signs. My trademark’s fire.
“Dark it grows & dark,” Prometheus says.
The air begins to clear. He has prayed
This day for darkness. We inherit
The epicycle, nuance, dance & drama of his year.

This is Kuenstler at his most traditional, which is to say that, while he was composing LENS, he was writing beautifully realized lyric poems that could have been published in the pages of mainstream literary magazines, as well as little magazines.  I can think of few postwar American poets who occupy such a broad and idiosyncratically configured terrain.  This is the territory that shares with Ashbery.

VIII.
Paradise News (1966), which was published two years after Lens and Selected Poems, contains a translation of “Dante’s sestina.” (James Schuyler also translated the same sestina by Dante) A page later, “Chapters From The History of Photography” starts out as a found poem, but drifts forcefully and purposefully into an altogether separate space:

In 1568 Daniello Barbaro put a lens with a changeable opening on the camera obscura, which was a box used to trace drawings.

In 1727 Johann Schulze found that the change in color of a mixture of nitrate & chalk in sunshine was caused by light.

“Chapters From The History of Photography” ends, however with:

Cyrano de Bergerac described the phonograph in 1641. “It was used mostly to make family photographs.”

Phonograph, photograph — for a moment the reader might wonder if this deliberate or a typo. Image and sound are collapsed together, as can happen in a movie.

Movies, history, baseball, names, and other poets enter into Kuenstler’s poems. He can write declaratively (“’There are no atheists in foxholes’ it’s written, on marriage certificates”) or parodically, “I wandered lonely as a cloud’s digestive apparatus,/difficult as asparagus.” Often, sound rather than meaning leads the author from one word to the next.

In Fugitives. Rounds (1966), there are list poems that work by sound and association, such as the ten-line poem mysteriously titled:

The 9

The Yankee Clipper
The Brown Bomber
The Brown Derby
The Stork Club
The Little Club
The Little Place
The Polo Grounds
The Peace Corps
The World’s Fair
The World War

Throughout Kuenstler’s work there are references and allusions to, as well as “translations” of, Classical Chinese poetry. He knew Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems and Arthur Waley’s translations. He loved baseball and went to all kinds of movies, from Hollywood extravaganzas to experimental films. He tried to put everything he loved and was interested in, into his writing. Nothing was exempt from scrutiny or inclusion. This is one of his most enduring and endearing lessons: Don’t be embarrassed by anything.

IX.
Published by Cairn Editions, the last book to appear in Kuenstler’s lifetime, In Which (1994), is, as we have come to expect, relentless, funny and frustrating. The opening lines are:

In which the big wig. In which a new broom sweeps streets. In which from wench I came. In which rain on rain. In which Lucy Lippard’s slippers. In which nouns, calendars. In which the garter belt & the Bible Belt.

Once Kuenstler starts with a transparent methodology, he never steps back, but immediately and confidently nudges the reader onto a slippery territory where there is no release or sign of stability. Is the wig big or did the “big wig” do or witness something that we will never learn? Each line asks us to consider the larger domain “in which” this, whatever it is (“nouns, calendars”) follows. Every line is both complete and partial, underscoring the fact that there is no vantage point from which to view reality. In this regard, the poet shares something with painters the New York School, such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, as well as those of his own generation, Nicholas Krushenick and Robert Ryman.

Kuenstler recognized that reality isn’t something that you can get outside of, even through language. You literally had to work your way through it, knowing there was no relief. We exist in a state of tentativeness, with conclusions constantly being deferred (“In which the garter belt and the Bible Belt”).

Humor and puns were Kuenstler’s way of pushing back against the constant barrage of irritating reminders that language fails to communicate more often than it succeeds. Similar sounds lead to disquieting connections (“In which Dakar & Dachau.”) that we are left to ponder or ignore. Stretching, bending and twisting the syllables as if they were made of rubber (“infant.Decimal, from LENS) — no matter what Kuenstler did to language, he knew it would always find a way to spring back at him, like a leering Jack-in-the-Box.

“In which rhymes of passion.”
“In which they draw a line because there is no solution.”

X.
At the beginning of his “Introduction” to The Enormous Chorus, Michael O’Brien cites the opening line of Kuenstler’s “Canto 33”

In media res, the human voice, crystal

He goes on to point out

In media res comes from Horace: “in the midst of a thing,” the place where we begin a story, a day, between a beginning we can’t remember and an end which is the end to all remembering. Here. Now. In what Wallace Stevens calls “The the.”

In Which emphasizes the “beginning we can’t remember” and the destination that we cannot arrive at, intact.  In this regard, the book mirrors our bracketed existence between silence and silence, nothing and nothing. The grammatical structure of incompleteness running throughout is Kuenstler’s philosophical comprehension of what it means to be alive in time (“In which any newspaper story will duplicate itself like a virus.”). Like words, we are both caught and free – floating, between a beginning we don’t remember and an end we will never see. In the midst of this changing continuum (reality) that we briefly inhabit, Kuenstler recognizes that we neither add up nor make sense.

For those interested in reading LENS, it can be found and downloaded from the internet hereEnormous Room can be ordered from SPD.

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  • Michael Leong

    This is excellent, John. I love Kuenstler’s “torn.NATO.” It reminds me of one of Derrida’s wordplays: “connect, I cut.”

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