August Kleinzahler opens all his senses to his poetic imagination
By Lou Fancher
Don’t be fooled by the style: Lodged in award-winning poet August Kleinzahler’s aggressive-expressive poetry and prose is the work of a master wordsmith whose ears and eyes are attuned to the delicate and dangerous sounds and sights of nature and urban streets. A recent 2-for-1 collection, “Before Dawn on Bluff Road/Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected New Jersey Poems/Selected San Francisco Poems” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $25, 176 pages) presents location-specific poems anchored in Fort Lee, New Jersey, his childhood hometown and –on the metaphoric flip side — poems inspired by his home of 36 years, San Francisco.
Kleinzahler hears harmony in bluesy East Coast duets that mix memory with modern mobility. Out West, bacon frying, a random radio playing, a sunrise bird song and the trolley emerging from a tunnel 50 yards from the window out of which he has gazed at Twin Peaks for decades combine.
“As a poet, I’m aware of all senses. My ears are peculiarly open, attention to color and light is acute,” he says. “Smells. Movement. It’s almost a chord. There’s a tremendous wealth of noises out there.”
Kleinzahler, 67, has a complex background. Raised in a rough New Jersey neighborhood where his babysitter was a mobster, he nonetheless attended Horace Mann, an elite college prep school in New York. After dropping out of Sanskrit and Hindi studies at the University of Wisconsin, he attended the University of Victoria in British Columbia to study under English modernist Basil Bunting.
Various occupations and preoccupations — beat writing, logging, locksmithing, dubbing foreign films, music, the death by suicide of his older brother, shooting hoops, searching for a writer’s voice and authenticity — had him in Alaska, Los Angeles and finally, a rent controlled Haight-Ashbury apartment. “In San Francisco, I was instantly home. It’s mysterious. Even so, it’s not New Jersey.”
Divergent emotional forces and Kleinzahler’s devotion to place characterize and distinguish his poems. Likewise, a polytonal construction allows respect and irreverence for language to coexist through deliberate care concerning rhythm, texture, line length, breath and sound patterning juxtaposed by freewheeling spontaneity.
“It’s like Duke Ellington,” he says, “the tonal shifts can go from dreamy to violent, instantly.” Later, he adds, “My poetry doesn’t behave as poetry does. It’s deliberate at my end, but for some readers, the shift in register disturbs, jars them.”
Everything, he insists, is in motion all the time, with different things happening simultaneously. “Completely silly comes across the scene with sadness in life, why not admit it into the work?” he asks.
As he read from “Disappointment,” a San Francisco poem, it’s as if the words are moist and sticky in his throat, like the couch mold that inspired the poem and which, he suggests, grows unabated on dreams and aspirations.
“A faint smell of urine/embroidering that bouquet of mold the big cushions/give off days the fog won’t lift,/…” he reads. The poem ends with bitter surprise: “…a voice you had let yourself believe was dead/close now by your ear, intimate and sweet:/Well, well, well/look what we have here.”
Another, about peaches falling, gently alerts a reader to old patterns made new. Poems arranged according to chronological seasons celebrate chow mein, a swimmer’s strength, winter basketball, friends more dear than family and, inevitably, fog.
“When I was younger, it wasn’t unusual for me to have 50, 100, 200 drafts of a poem. I’d put it in a drawer for years until I found the right shape. As I got older, I did that work in my head. A 20-minute walk, dribbling a basketball, running it in my head, then write it down. It still goes through dozens of drafts because there are moving parts, and every part is contingent, but you want it to be a living thing in the end, not showing any strains of the effort.”
No longer chasing poems, Kleinzahler says he allows poems to find him. “I make myself available to connections, to bolts between the eyes or in the gut. Once it’s lodged, I take out my bag of tricks and shape it, find verbal expression.”
Shifting to prose, he says, was once like turning an oil tanker around. “It took weeks. Then I’d want to get back to poetry, because it has always been more exciting. That’s become easier, but I still need space and time, because they’re different mediums. I’m glad for the struggle.”
“Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000-2016,” released in May, includes personal essays and perspectives on various poets — Thom Gunn, Roy Fisher, Allen Ginsberg and others. Describing their poems, Kleinzahler writes astutely, even academically, but rails against academia when speaking of his approach: “Academia is a bubble. You’re not out in the world listening to random noise. I’m fascinated not just by accents but by the ways people approach language. An expression I’ve not heard, a cadence, rings my bells.”
Poetry, he says, takes time. “There’s a lot in modern culture that militates against poems: electronic gizmos, social media, dwindling attention spans. People jumping from screen to screen are depriving themselves. Poetry involves a lot of staring out the window. Looking now, leaves on trees are trembling, grass is greener than usual. Writing poems is directionless, shapeless time and craft, out of which shape and connection emerge.”