(Read Jim Chapson’s “11 Poems”)

 

It’s a matter of little weight for most, no question, but the tavern-thick, working-class city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, once the longtime capital of cheap beer, machine parts, and Harley-Davidsons, boasts a very rich and decidedly under-the-radar poetry legacy.

Especially since ca. 1976, the year of two quite different, but equally vital (and at the time unnoticed) events. Both of them were to send forth branching and lasting impacts, in obvious or subtle ways, into the city’s cultural life and beyond. Even forty years later, they still do.

That year, Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung opened a quirky, “sure-to-fail” bookstore, close to downtown, on Water Street, called BooX-BooX. I happened to be one of their very first visitors. Three years later, moving to its still-extant location in the Riverwest area, on Locust, the quixotic operation would evolve into the internationally renowned Woodland Pattern Bookstore. The venture has proved to be the most vibrant, longest running avant-garde poetry bookstore and performance space in the United States, ever. That’s a few modifiers, I know, but there’s no exaggeration in making the claim. And quite a bit of honor in the fact of it. Scholarly studies about the extended, singular project are sure to come.

Also, in 1976, the Irish poet James Liddy (1934-2008) and his companion, the US poet James Chapson (b. 1944), settled on the East Side of the city after a few years in the Bay Area.1 I will further explain, but in combination with the launching of the historic project by Kingsbury and Gartung, their arrival sets that Bicentennial year as the post-war poetic-cultural anno mirabilis of the “Cream City.”2

As new Milwaukeeans, Liddy and Chapson quickly made nearby Axel’s Bar3 their weeknight haunt and salon, regularly arriving between 9 and 10 PM, and usually staying until the closing hour was shouted out, at 2 AM sharp, by the beloved, near-toothless bartender, Frank. The venerable East Side dive on Oakland—smoke-filled, gritty, darkly retro, and thoroughly neighborly in clientele at the time–quickly became the place-to-be for younger male poets of the city’s East Side and beyond, both straight and queer, who gravitated around the spectacularly charismatic Liddy–a quasi-Spicer figure–brilliant, mordantly witty, gay-alpha, and swift to send fleeing those who didn’t measure up to his poetic standards or sentimental attractions. (At the time, demographic politics in the poetry world were just beginning to shift; very few women or poets of color approached the group.)

Liddy was devoted to those he favored (for as long as he favored them, anyway) and was for many an inspirational joy to be around—including for me, until he punched me one night at the bar in 1980, I believe it was, for having said something positive about Bernadette Devlin, a Trotskyist Irish revolutionary, after which I was excommunicated from his table. We have a feature about the man coming up at Dispatches, from Contributing Editor Paul Vogel, a Milwaukee native, closely familiar with the history of the Liddy scene.

To many in the ever-mutating coterie (which over the decades came to number over a good hundred, probably, some of them to be fairly well-known), Chapson was something like the cynically amused good cop of the pair: younger, amiable, pleasantly phlegmatic. But also sometimes merciless in his judgments, too, capable of pronouncements as withering as Liddy’s. This was part of the attraction for young and serious (as in mostly wet-behind-the-ears) white- male Milwaukee poets of the time: The aura of being in the “Liddy circle,” as it was called–which everyone also implicitly understood as being in the Chapson circle–was an acid test to see if you could take it and hold your own, even if in coy unease, or deathly fear.4

The bluish-smoke nights at Axel’s were also themselves master events in poetic education, in which Liddy, and sometimes Chapson, would hold forth at great expanses, often delivering extemporaneous lectures, both of them with charming Oxbridge stutters, and with books and chaps and journals brought by one or the other, or by their students, placed on the big circle- booth tables. Certain nights, poems were read aloud by some, often at command by Liddy. Reading from The Collected Books of Jack Spicer was not infrequent. Nor from John Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems, either. Villon’s Testament… Those would be some we heard in various voices. Again, to be accurate, not many women, though Lorine Niedecker and Helen Adam were admiringly presented to us by the two, I recall, at a time when these extraordinary, now-famous poets were almost totally ignored in the national discussion.

I don’t remember any of the comradely clientele at the long bar ever much minding that we read out loud and sometimes with not-a-little melodrama. Most of them, in any case, including a few regular long-haired Vietnam vets drowning their recent trauma (and still fairly young WWII vets, too), were by midnight too far gone into their long strings of 25 cent taps and smokes to much care about poetry.5

 I count it all, for what it’s worth, as my own most important poetic education. It was at Axel’s where I first learned–as a 20-year-old jock soccer player and poetry innocent–of Spicer, Duncan, Rilke, Cavafy, Creeley, and O’Hara, to name just a few. And it was at Axel’s that I was usually told by both Liddy and Chapson that my self-regarding, imitative lyrics were basically hopeless exercises in shit.

And yet, and yet… On rare and spirit-changing occasions they did tell me that I could be an actual poet should I decide to go all the way, surrender to something much greater than my own preening ego (Charles Olson was admiringly talked about those late 70s nights, as well), and abandon any hope of a pleasant, happy, normal life in doing so. That was often the honest admonition.

And I won’t forget the night, in the usual big booth, when Chapson silently read a short poem I shared with him, one I recall having written a couple days before, in an easy chair at Woodland Pattern, in fact, in a kind of ecstatic rush I hadn’t experienced before. Just when I thought I had failed again, and that I would get his rebuke, he looked up and exclaimed, so that everyone in the circle of low light could hear it, There you go, poet! I wish I had written that one…

I have published many things and a number of books, by now, and those few words, coming just when I needed them, probably meant more than any reaction I have gotten to my writing, ever.

But that memory is irrelevant to why I believe Jim Chapson is a great poet. I use the adjective not in the loose and easy sense, but in the venerable one. In the sense, too, partly, that the wider tribute that hasn’t come his way is in no small measure because he’s never sought it, and would hide from it, probably anyway, if it did. Great in that sense of uncommon renunciation, for sake of something much deeper than illusory “success.”

Please listen, poets. The pellucid diction and sardonic cool of the old Chinese, Greeks, and Romans suffuse the man’s laconic art, but with a thoroughly singular and modern mien. It is an inimitably Chapson tune, and there is no other Augustan song like it in our time that comes close. He is, I say, our finest living classical poet, hands down. And whether he intends it or not, he intimates, thus, the lineaments of what a consequential poetry of the polis might become.

Actually, I think he is something like our Cavafy, as I once wrote in an epigram dedicated to him:

 He is our Cavafy, completely unknown.

Out of time. All of these things are exceptionally old—

the sketch, and the tavern, and the darkening afternoon.

 

Jim Chapson was born in Honolulu in 1944. He attended San Francisco State College (later San Francisco State University) and received his MA in 1968. He has lived in Milwaukee since 1976 and taught in the UW-Milwaukee English Department as an adjunct from then until 2016. From 2014 to 2016 he was Poet Laureate of the City of Milwaukee. A partial bibliography of chapbooks and books by him is appended beneath the Notes to this introduction.

–Kent Johnson

 

Notes

 

  1. During their Bay Area sojourn, Liddy and Chapson were close to the famed printer and Jack Spicer publisher Graham Mackintosh, so the “sociological,” interactive affinities of Liddy’s circle with the Spicer group are not merely accidental. Both Liddy and Chapson were published by Mackintosh’s now-fabled White Rabbit Press, when they were living in the San Francisco area. During this time, too, Liddy and the young Ron Silliman had a close romantic relationship, something that is of some ironic interest, given Liddy’s “bardic” lineages and–by the late 70s–agonistically anti-Language poetry positions.

 

  1. Milwaukee bears the name “Cream City” because of the unusual light color of the limestone in the area, which gives the bricks of many buildings built in the 19th and into the mid-20th century a lovely pale, cream hue.

 

  1. By the mid-90s, Axel’s had transformed into a fashionable hipster bar catering to a university-based crowd, and so Liddy and circle moved their meetings to County Clare, an Irish pub near Brady Street, closer to downtown. It was a bit like the Beatles ruining things for Spicer and company, at Gino & Carlo’s, in the 60s.

 

  1. Henri Cole was in the MA program at UWM with me around the time. He has gone on to become a very successful official poet, well-granted and rewarded, New-York published, etc. He never made an appearance at Axel’s, so far as I know. Liddy sneered at poetic-career seekers, and he sniffed them out in embryo among his students, too. So perhaps Cole sensed that the Liddy gang wasn’t his best bet. That is just speculation on my part, admittedly, based on certain strong institutional tendencies and paradigms that began to strongly manifest in the field in the early 70s, and which have gone into hyper-speed overdrive in the past twenty years. (I never personally knew Cole, though we shared an MA advisor.)

 

  1. There were a few exceptions, one of them when the late John Penglase, a lapsed UWM English professor, and a regular of the group in the late-70s, stood on a table and began declaiming from the astoundingly pornographic letters of James Joyce to his then-fiancé Nora Barnacle, an event which almost started a large-scale bar fight before the cops arrived.

 

 

Partial Bibliography of Jim Chapson

Plotinus Blushed. Dublin: Arlen House, 2013. 64pp. Poems.
Scholia. Dublin: Arlen House, 2011. 64pp. Poems.
Daphnis & Ratboy. Galway: Arlen House, 2009. 96pp. Poems.
The American Coot. San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 2004. 12pp. Poems
Bishop Fisher’s Tippet. Milwaukee: Blue Canary Press, 2003. 10pp. Poems
Colored Gravel. Milwaukee: Blue Canary Press, 1991. 20pp. Poems
Sentimental Journey. Berkeley, California: hit & run press, 1985. 32 pp. Poems
The Adventures of Peter Poontang. Berkeley, California: hit & run press, 1980. 22 pp. Poems
A Biography of Frank O’Hara. Gorey, Ireland: Funge Art Centre, 1975. 8 pp. Poems
Jim’s Book. San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1969. 12 pp. Poems
Blue House, with Tom Hill and James Liddy. San Francisco: Nine Queen Bees Press, 1968. 38 pp. Poems