Spiritual Necessity, Selected Poems of Frank Samperi edited by John Martone,
Barrytown/Station Hill Press 2004
The overwhelming impression one gets from a first glance at this long overdue selection of the New York poet, Frank Samperi, is one of whiteness and space:
It is almost as if the words were like bird-tracks in snow or as if they were yearning upwards to get to a rarefied world beyond the page. Robert Kelly’s Preface to the volume suggests that ‘Frank Samperi was legendary for the purity of his poetry. His language was clear the way glass is, demanding only attention to its lustre, and to the world it lets through. His poems are statements, clean as rock crystal, rhythmically minimal, intellectually ardent.’ The word ‘crystal’ is interesting not only on account of the volume’s inclusion of a prose piece from Samperi’s 1967 volume, Crystals, but also because it points towards the clarity of edges, the sharp definition which words have in these hauntingly cut poems. Cid Corman, whose series of Origin, A Quarterly for the Creative, was central as a platform for new poets in the quarter-century from 1951 onwards, wrote a review of Samperi’s The Prefiguration in May 1971:
The shortest poems often suggest an opening, a love of the page’s white space—and Samperi is extremely careful in his layout (and the publisher has followed it precisely).
Movement is backwards, the past, or sorrel horses galloping along a dirt road that is itself moving—to a standstill? Or a train, magician, covering distances, exposing a sudden vision of continuity.
Always in a room, looking out a window, or from a train, or even on the street, eyes peering out of the flesh, the stranger within, trying to compose, discompose or recompose, the scene. The seen.
Samperi was in good company in Origin. The first issue, Spring 1951, contained the first of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, the sixth in the Summer of 1952 William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Desert Music’. Looking through the subsequent issues of this journal one comes to recognise the names of many of those who would feature in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-60. Each series of Origin consisted of twenty issues, four a year, according to the seasons, for five years and, as Corman announced at the back of the issues in Series 3, ‘Origin…intends to clarify the editor’s sense of art as the central relation of all human being, the realization of man’s relation, affectionately, to each other and himself and thru himself to all that is met in circumstance.’ The poem quoted above was published in Second Series, issue 12 (January 1964), alongside work by Louis Zukofsky, Clayton Eshleman, Gary Snyder and Eugenio Montale. On the front cover, in bold type, it announced
Corman went on to publish much of Samperi’s work over the following issues highlighting him as the main contributor in Third Series, issue 19 (October 1970) and Fourth Series, issue 1 (October 1977).
When The Prefiguration was published as a Mushinsha Book by Grossman Publishers in 1971, Samperi wrote to Corman to express his delight with the exact presentation of the text:
I must confess that I was overwhelmed by the book. E’s (the publisher’s) fine sense of structure establishes the proportions of the book beyond a doubt—the malleability of the prose in harmony with the longest poems, plus the ease of the last 6 poems surprisingly resolving the totality of vertical direction. Purity is an element throughout, and that does me a world of good.
In the margins of the letter he wrote ‘I mean, the whole book seems to be drawn to the top of the page—so in a truly profound sense So Close is the finest aspect of the vertical.’ Martone’s selection of the poems keeps this visual delight and in the pages of So Close, the lines do seem drawn upwards. For instance the two lines ‘in the midst of the collapse our room dark our/speech our love the background’ sit delicately four-fifths of the way up a completely blank page.
In 1965, Will Petersen published Samperi’s short collection Of Light in Kyoto containing the following page-length piece:
to shovel snow
an old man
the freight yard
It is worth comparing the contemplative tone of this word-painting with Samperi’s own comments on the act of contemplation, published here in the extract from Crystals 1967:
It is wrong to think of contemplation as the opposite of activity: that is, contemplation is a prefiguration of the very activity that pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the State that fosters the idea that contemplation is passive, therefore, more in keeping with the man who doesn’t work, or better who won’t contribute to the give and take that is the market. From this it is just to ask: what is the meaning of the word activity when the State is Unity. It’s obvious: exploitation.
Samperi’s attention to moments is an active engagement which, as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, is also a profoundly spiritual one and perhaps part of the alluring contemplative tone in Samperi’s lines can be expressed by going back to Hopkins’s Notebook entry for March 1871:
What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature. One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.
The detail involved in total engagement with something was what prompted Olson to write to Corman in March 1951 concerning the matter of proof-reading for that early Origin:
I shall be most grateful to you, if you can’t send proofs, if you will be this kind, and take the time I know it, hopingly, takes, to do this for me. For—as you yourself—I know I have a damn irritating style of punctuation & placements (I do it gravely, as a part of, my method, believing that, resistance must be a part of style if, it is a part of the feeling)—and if errors creep in, palpable errors, then, the whole careful structure comes down.
However, with the words ‘market’ and ‘State’ and ‘exploitation’ in Samperi’s prose we might also be inclined to look back to William Carlos Williams’s early poetry:
When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel-staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best
of all colours.
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.
(‘Pastoral’ from Al Que Quiere, 1917)
The word ‘this’ has ambiguous reference to the poem as a construct as well as to the poverty. The shack is pushed to the limits of the city so that it won’t draw too much attention to itself and the poem, written some five years before the publication of The Wasteland, won’t disturb literary society too much! If you are interested in ‘contemplation’ and politics then it would be worthwhile looking at Ed Dorn’s poem ‘Time Blonde’ from his 1964 volume, Hands Up!
John Martone’s introduction to this selected Samperi is clear and sympathetic:
Samperi was one of that vital generation for whom poetry and life were a single task. Along with Olson’s Maximus Poems, Larry Eigner’s countless books, and Corman’s Of, Samperi’s work belongs to that distinctively American genre of the life-poem. His work is a radical autobiography, structured upon image rather than narrative.
Martone sees Samperi as a visionary pilgrim who has Dante as his master: orphan and first-generation Italian-American, he discovered Dante in a Brooklyn institution, taught himself Aquinas in Latin, studied the Indian philosopher Sankara, non-Euclidean geometry, and astrology.
Editing Samperi’s work presents specific challenges. On the one hand, he wrote but one long poem with structural complexities reminiscent of Dante’s Commedia, complete with late-twentieth century versions of his predecessor’s canticles, cantos and episodes. Each of Samperi’s volumes is in fact a poetic sequence made up of subsequences, which are sometimes named, sometimes partitioned by blank pages. Conveying a sense of the individual lyric in its own right and in terms of its place in the opus is a difficult proposition in a volume of selected poems. The meditative and visual qualities of Samperi’s work also require abundant “white space” in any faithful edition.
The results of Martone’s editorship can be judged by the extracts he has chosen from Lumen Gloriae, Grossman 1973, where he has kept to the nine words to the page for
riding a train
looking at homes
desiring a home
or the simple junction of movement and stillness in
an old man leaning out of a window
knowing himself useless
the potted plant beside him
backing it up
When Samperi defines contemplation in terms of activity there is another interesting link to be made with Charles Olson’s immensely influential essay, Projective Verse where he sees movement as being essential to the poetic enterprise:
Now (3) the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.
This sort of relation was perhaps what was on Corman’s mind when he delivered his Aquila essay, ‘Projectile/Percussive/Prospective: The Making of a Voice’ in March 1982:
Though Olson, Creeley and I have worked out our own modes for ourselves and hopefully of use to others, our voices, I believe, utterly individuated, impossible to confuse us, we are also deeply related. Not only through the ear of Pound, the idiomatic quickening and flow of Williams, and for Creeley and myself at least the confirmation of exactitudes within the confines of language in Zukofsky, but through continuing attentions. There are others, of course, too, like Dorn and Sorrentino. Or Samperi.
Corman opens his review of The Prefiguration with a few lines from Hopkins’s ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ and goes on to say;
To read Hopkins or Samperi, for me at least, requires no suspension of either disbelief or belief. I hear what they say to the extent that I can and to that extent precisely my own words follow.
A man in the middle way, or an innocent, for he is an innocent. His eyes see beyond judgement, though the body’s needs brought to society bring him to critique.
The earlier poems are lonelier and even more imaginary, a man talking to himself always, trying to make sense, if only to himself, seeing himself dying, seeing himself dead, his body roped to a raft by vagrants and children, with lilies and seaweed,
In a sense he comes on like the Noh, from way back, posthumously in the guise of a native of New York, or Brooklyn, but clearly, transparently, a spirit.
Samperi’s spiritual quality is not a turning away from the world around him but rather an embracing, an understanding of its components. In Crystals he is very clear about the spiritual in the modern world:
To be drawn into the market only intensifies one’s sense of the ambience that impedes; therefore, any science that pretends to have discovered a means to a re-establishment of the natural has, in truth, simply proposed to the mind an end that places the whole populace in a position conducive toward complete service to the State.
The despair: to say the world is to give rhetorical definitiveness to your world.
It is obvious that the notions making it on your own and being responsible are there solely for the sake of stressing the eternity in the now.
Linguistics is the sole study of the logomachist.
Looking out only to refer back and then finally looking out significantly.
A doctrine is only valid ontologically, that is, nothing that one man or another can say can place the meaning unequivocally there rather than here. What is intended is a boundary that reduces each man’s movement to a movement essential in the sense that the ambience is but a projection of his inner state.
There is a seriousness of tone here that points back to Blake on the one hand and forward, perhaps, to the Kitchen Poems of J.H. Prynne on the other. In terms of the former there is the aphoristic sense which echoes the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; in terms of the latter there is the italicised colloquialism which is inserted into the discursive text carrying with it a tone of anger at the State’s involvement with the life of the individual.
Samperi’s spiritual quality can be felt through the simplicity of lines such as
we stood on a bridge
the vantage point
Or, it can be read in the translation of Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, which Corman published in Origin Fourth Series issue I, October 1977, where it appeared alongside William Bronk and Lorine Niedecker:
As is the geometer who wholly applies himself
to measure the circle, and doesn’t meet,
thinking, that principle whence he needs,
such was I to that new sight:
I wished to see how the image agreed
with the circle and how it places itself there;
but the proper wings were not for this:
except that my mind was struck
by a brightness in which its wish came.
To the high fantasy here power fell short;
but already was turning my desire and the velle,
like wheel that’s moved equally,
the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Ian Brinton, Spring 2006
Tears in the Fence, Literary Journal