Beat Parrhesia: David's Copy, Selected Poems Of David Meltzer

Tom Hibbard

To keep good and bad faith distinct…demands a continuous intellectual and moral effort.
- P. Levi

Discussing an individual collection of poetry involves consideration of its art. Discussing a selected works, containing writing done over a period of decades, widens into a consideration of its author. David's Copy, a selection of the work of David Meltzer edited by Michael Rothenberg, is perhaps more like an individual collection than most selected works, because the poems in it are to some degree rewritten and fitted together. The book even in light of its introduction by Jerome Rothenberg does not give a strong sense of previous times and places associated with the writing. Rather it gives the sense of the author, his sensibility, what he attempts to accomplish with his writing, the message that he would like to bring to the world.

A book by Michel Foucault I happened to read at the same time as David's Copy outlines an interesting framework for viewing the work of an author that seems to me to apply especially well to the work of Meltzer.

Titled Fearless Speech, Foucault's book, a one-hundred-and-eighty page transcription of a series of lectures, examines the word 'parrhesia' as it appears in ancient Greek and early Christian literature from the Fifth Century B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D. Generally the word is translated as 'free speech', but Foucault delves into connotations of the word derived from different contexts, different authors, different societies putting together a definition that is a full-length portrait.

The literal root of parrhesia has the meaning of 'to say everything', particularly in contrast to rhetorical speaking which may or may not express or reveal anything of the speaker's personal beliefs. According to Foucault, parrhesia began as exclamation and is thought of as a natural way of speaking. It can have the pejorative sense of mindless chattering, but generally it has the positive sense of truth-telling and associates the author with certain admirable moral qualities. In Greek society parrhesia is part of citizenship and duty and usually implies speaking in a way that involves some danger and requires courage. It is the citizen's duty to offer truthful and reliable advice to rulers. The parrhesiastes speaks from 'below', in a sense continually in opposition to the authority, as Foucault says, of the Other which is always 'above'.

...parrhesia was a guideline for democracy as well as an ethical and personal attitude characteristic of the good citizen.

Later, in relation to a figure such as Socrates whose style of teaching generally employed questioning and probing rather than oratory or in relation to early Christian writers, Foucault presents parrhesia as more attached to an attitude rather than speech only. Parrhesia is more than words. "Freedom in the use of logos increasingly becomes freedom in the choice of bios. And as a result, parrhesia is regarded more and more as a personal attitude, a personal quality....' There must be confirmation of the truth of the speaker's words beyond what he says. '...what he says accords exactly with what he thinks and what he thinks accords exactly with what he does'.

In reading David's Copy it seems to me that parrhesia is precisely the quality that distinguishes Meltzer's work: 'I sing a song of breaking through to truth'. From an obscure sense of duty, Meltzer's poetry is essentially an anxious criticism of civilization. But it is a criticism 'from below', a hard-hitting Beat-style criticism of 'a poet on the bottom/ looking up', of 'another failed aristocrat' puffing 'princely cigarettes' whose 'body moves over the fallen/ and the arising'. It is a deeply felt criticism that requires courage, a 'torn heart' expressed in a self-certain/self-doubting poetic form that is offered only to be taken or left. Its language and subject matter are as much a part of its criticism as what it says.

ginks & finks & company goons
shoot down the moon w/ buckshot
buttwards skid into halfassed graves
chowtime for rodents, rot rooters & wiggly worms

chrissake we need shtarkers like Mike Gold
fearless & loud
(both quotes from 'Reds vs. Feds')

Though the collection covers nearly half a century, from 1957 to 2005, from my own reading I did not get a sense of episodes or of writing tied to different locations. Meltzer mentions in the poems that he was born in Brooklyn. From J. Rothenberg's introduction it seems that, like several others, Meltzer's creative energy is interwoven greatly with San Francisco and writers, artists, musicians and activities that have taken place in that area over time. Rothenberg says in passing that Meltzer 'has never been a great traveler, in the literal sense, but his mind has traveled, metaphorically, into multiple worlds'.

This sense of residence increases the aura in the poetry of citizenship and responsibility. The images that crop up in Meltzer's poetry are not always exotic and can have a domestic flavor, but the unorthodoxy of the lifestyle, the ethical frankness, the poetic way they are presented, intermingled with history, with 'the Bomb', with 'Shoa', with sex or with, for example, the music and vision of Lester Young and jazz give these images a significance and prominence that puts them out on a limb. The blend of commonness with specialness, of citizen with metaphoric wanderer is what creates the danger in the poet's role and makes the term parrhesia applicable.

My father was a clown
my mother a harpist.
We do not forget
how close to death love leads us.
Of course, in using the term 'criticism' in relation to Meltzer's poetry and poetic oeuvre I do not mean it in a narrow sense but in a broad sense that along with reproach includes understanding, observation, restraint, sympathy, consideration of historic strands and themes. It is quite true that David's Copy is 'more than [an arrangement of] work in an attempt to give a sense of an entire career'. This is a tribute to editor M. Rothenberg who made it 'a collaboration, a transcontinental improvisation, sending boxes of poems back and forth between California and Miami'. Rothenberg has given us an intense modern clear-focus photographic close-up of the poet in familiar setting, with imaginative but distinct shading and knowledgeable, adoring light.

But the overall intensity and complication is also a tribute to Meltzer's poetry and I would say the comprehensive inquisitiveness of the Beat style in general. I prefer the longer poems, most of them excerpted, with their numerous sections and substantive intricate riffs. Poems such as 'Eden Book', 'Brother' 'No Eyes: Lester Young', 'Beat Thing: Commentary', 'Shema (2004)' and "Tech' stride bravely and endearingly, if sometimes alone, into the chilly evenings of the universe with a highly trained optimism and a mystical belief in the possibility of finding answers to life's unanswerable questions.

Organizing these myths these trends these
traditions these rituals
this history this pattern
this secret this hope

Organizing these stars into one bright dot of hot
white light
As simple as that
(from: The Art)

Foucault's essay and Meltzer's poems give a fleeting glimpse of the purpose of poetry. Poetry is not as difficult to understand as it appears. Its language may gust and swirl and bang the shutters outside of society. But its message is clear and soothing to the heart. Truth can only appear in a destabilized form. Poetry is a configuration of word and deed. In a way that is not frivolous but is natural, poetry 'says everything'. Poetry is a frank and truthful commentary on society from an integrity that puts the human community above itself.

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