The Poetry Project, or When the Shit Hit the Fan

No one who lived in the East Village during the 1960s can forget the foetid smell in the tenement hallways and the reek of garbage on the street. Parallel with the journey which young poets made down Avenue B to clubs like Slugs was another kind of ordure a world away where the Vietnam War was being fought. A common term used by soldiers engaged in a battle is for “the shit to hit the fan.” In the literature of the Vietnam War, shit is used more than any other word to describe the experience of war in general and that war in particular. The word is given even more heightened status in poems like “Burning Shit at An Khe” by the combat poet, Bruce Weigl—arguably the best poet of the Vietnam War. Of course, the Lower East Side, even with its new name (the East Village), had its own versions of shit. Breasts might be the obsessive image in Joel Oppenheimer’s poetry, but out on the streets of the East Village, shit was the unifying image, though one could not help but notice breasts, too, as more and more women decided not to wear bras. Human figures were only backdrops to the overpowering smell in the air.

Even Frank O’Hara, who often travelled in the rarefied circles of the New York art world, was not above this kind of stinking imagery. Lunch Poems (1964) mostly concerns itself with the witty, elegant, urbane world of O’Hara’s midtown life as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Yet here he is, describing his downtown world, if not literally, then in its spirit. He describes it this way:

Wouldn’t it be funny
if The Finger had designed us
to shit just once a week?

all week long we’d get fatter
and fatter and then on Sunday morning
while everyone’s in church

Shit would seem to follow in the path of hunger and poverty, and yet this obvious fact may be misleading. Wealth and food may be the natural adjuncts of shit. In a catalogue I have at hand from the London Consortium, a doctoral program offered jointly by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Tate Gallery, Architectural Association, School of Architecture, and Birkbeck College, in which a PhD is awarded from the University of London in Humanities and Cultural Studies, one of the key modules in the first year of study centres on “Shit and Civilization.” It is subtitled “Our ambivalent relationship to ordure in the city, culture and the psyche.” The first sentence of the course description states: “Our societies are, quite literally, founded on shit.” The course description goes on to explain that civilization means city-life, and this kind of life means being confronted with garbage everywhere.

I would suggest that New York was no different than London in this regard, and the Lower East Side (the East Village) was a kind of microcosm of civilization and shit. The immigrants, mostly from eastern Europe and Russia, brought their cultures on their backs. The shit was provided by the city of New York, teeming, edgy, overly energetic, devouring, and in your face. Back at the turn of the century and then up to the time of the Poetry Project, the tenement world of the Lower East Side provided its own aromas and textures, and the streets literally reeked of offal wherever one went. A kind of essence of this world, in fact, is found in Joel Oppenheimer’s poem, “Sirventes on a Sad Occurrence.” An old Jewish immigrant, coming down her tenement stairs with her daughter, encounters the poet there, and she shits her pants. Oppenheimer writes of her embarrassment:

—as if there weren’t already
shit in the world, and you invented
it. what further indignities to
allow besides inventing shit?

The Czech writer Milan Kundera notes in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) that “shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil.” He further observes that Stalin’s son Yakov, while a prisoner-of-war, held by the Germans, would constantly make a mess of the latrine when he went there. The British officers who were also prisoners complained of how often Yakov fouled the latrine. Yakov — Kundera suggests that he was almost like the Son of God — complains to his German captors, but “the arrogant Germans refused to talk about shit.” Finally, Stalin’s son ran full-force into the electrified fence, and killed himself.

Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?

Kundera goes on:

If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.

This has everything to do with the ethos of the new East Village, a warren of cold-water flats that had been fabricated and slapped up in the 19th century as disposable housing, not to be inhabited for long, and suddenly a hundred years later, the old Jews long gone from the premises, their grandchildren were re-peopling these three-room configurations with the bathtub in the kitchen, and often the toilet in the hallway, the smell of shit, ancient and recent, filling the tenement hallways and the streets where garbage lay uncollected, filling people’s heads with its smells, even affecting their dreams. At one point in the Kundera novel:

The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s- – – has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner. It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.
Oppenheimer confronts this issue of shit and the Lower East Side head on, i.e., without an ounce of kitsch. Of course, kitsch does not literally mean the denial of shit, although its end result could as easily be understood that way. In her essay on “Camp,” Susan Sontag says, in her sixth definition of it, that “it is good to be camp,” and goes on to add: “[m]any examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch.” So we have Kundera saying that kitsch is a denial of shit, and Susan Sontag claiming that kitsch is bad art. In fact, Kundera sticks to his guns regarding kitsch; he says that it “is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” The Oppenheimer poem, the sirventes, is many things, but kitsch it is not. The sirventes is “a form of lyric verse of the Provencal troubadours satirizing political, social, or moral themes.” One of his longest, most sustained poems, it is also a rare example of the poet using narrative poetry to characterize figures other than himself and/or a lover.

Oppenheimer’s grandparents were from Czechoslovakia. His mother’s father, Samuel Rosenwasser, migrated to America from the village of Stropkov in Czechoslovakia in the 1880s. One presumes they lived, originally, in those tenements on the Lower East Side before migrating northward, and out of the city, to Yonkers, just beyond New York’s northernmost border in The Bronx. His sirventes, no doubt, bears some emotional echo back to these progenitors. How else explain the depth of sympathy—perhaps this might be another definition of that which isn’t kitsch—the poet brings to the old lady coming down the stairway in the tenement where he had lived. (This is not a poet who writes of “mauve stars” when he can say they are nipples, which perhaps is another way of saying “no ideas but in things.”) On her way down the stairs, the old woman loses her control, and shits on the stairway. The daughter—a kind of knight of kitsch—is in full denial about the shit.

and on her way
up the stairs an old lady loses
her control…i will write
against that which is in us to
make age an embarrassment in the
season of coming alive

Writers as diverse—and as great—as Jonathan Swift, Rabelais, Aristophanes, and James Joyce all had obsessive interests in the topic of shit. All were satirists of one sort or another. Oppenheimer joins their ranks with his poem, not just because the sirventes is a satirical form which the troubadours used. But there is no question in my mind that Joel Oppenheimer satirizes political, social, or moral themes in his poem. What better way to attack the sentimental world of kitsch, where shit is not only denied but morally objected to? For objecting to her mother shitting in the hallway, the daughter shows incredible bad taste, even “a pretentious bad taste,” and that says my dictionary, exemplifies kitsch, a word whose German origins means “to put together sloppily.” By putting her life together so sloppily, i.e., without compassion, though with kitsch, the daughter makes a virtue of her own denial about her mother. Joel the poet wants to tell the old woman:

old lady, it’s spring, i love
you great grandma, this is a
natural act, why will you
fear me for it, i see each day
more shit than you could ever
dream of making, screw your
daughter, let mrs. stern watch
out for her own steps, i am just
standing here waiting for you
to pass, too late now for me
to go back up the stairs.
Oppenheimer goes on to tell her:
there is room for it, need for it,
labor does not create wealth, wealth
does not create wealth, shit creates
wealth, old lady, old lady, you are
the creator spirit, tho your tits
hang shrunken in your wrapper, tho
your man’s long dead

In its way, the poem goes back to what that module about “Shit and City” at the University of London is about—civilization and wealth, not ignorance and poverty. This poet of tits and asses, of shit in hallways, this slovenly anarcho-bohemian poet of wild hair and unkempt beard is also a civilized person, and therefore a civilizing influence on the anarchy of the Lower East Side. At the denouement of this narrative poem, the poet reflects on a former lover, perhaps because that is what Piere Vidal, the great troubadour balladeer, would do. But as this is a sirventes, and so a satire, he is not writing a courtly love poem, and instead reflects on a lover who would pee his bed as she had an orgasm. Then he goes back to the old woman in the hallway of the tenement. He exhorts her to “let it go, old woman, let it go, shit on it, let it go.” And then in one of his more considerate moments as a poet, Oppenheimer shares with her that he worries if he farts too loud:

in his own silent room, who pisses
to the edge of the bowl it shouldn’t
make no noise, who, like so many
of us, wakes each morning to either
constipation or the runs, this
much i can grant you, shit on
the stairs of my house, you
are old enough for that.

The sirventes concludes with Oppenheimer, still addressing the old, embarrassed woman—with the assumption being that the mortified daughter is somewhere in the shadows of the tenement hallways—that this grandmotherly creature should not worry because this is the Lower East Side.

guns crack, people snort
their noses full of life, and you
are dying because you shat
upon these steps?

The vernacular speech joined to the spokenness of the line, the hip voice, New Yorky, Jewish, educated but not showing off about its intelligence, even the allusiveness of the poem, harking back to the troubadours, has many archaeological layers of poetic depth. From the troubadours, I hear the exaggerated tones of a Rabelais. Then there is an almost Elizabethan tone to that lovely word “shat,” creating a past-tense verb of “to shit.” But in a 20th century sense, the progression from the Provencal poets to Joel Oppenheimer, is a direct line to that tenement hallway of his poem. It goes from Ezra Pound directly to Paul Blackburn, and then to Joel Oppenheimer.
Blackburn was a big influence, not only on Joel Oppenheimer’s poetry, but all the poetry written on the Lower East Side. He had known Ezra Pound since the late 1940s when he would visit the legendary poet in Saint Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C. Blackburn was at ease with forms like the alba and the sirventes, and his poem, “Sirventes,” leaps off the pages of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology, drunken, playful, erudite, wildly lyrical:
I have made a sirventes against the city of Toulouse
and it cost me plenty of garlic:

and if I have a brother, say, or a cousin, or a 2nd cousin,
I’ll tell him to stay out too.

As for me, Henri,

I’d rather be in Espana
pegging pernod thru a pajita
or yagrelling a luk
jedamput en Jugoslavije,
jewels wide and yowels not
permitted to emerge—
or even
in emergency
slopping slivovitsa thru
the brlog in the luk.

Paul Blackburn needs to have the last word here. He was the person whom everyone thought would be the director of the new Poetry Project. Instead the last person in the world was given the directorship. Still, as Sam Abrams has said, Paul never bore any grudge against Joel; they were long, lasting friends. Paul wore the black cowboy hat; Joel wore the white one. They drank like sailors together in the bars on the Lower East Side and westward into the Village along University Place where all the Abstract Expressionist painters used to hang out before they got too famous and moved to the Hamptons. In fact, Blackburn would teach poetry workshops at the City College of New York, sending his best students down to the Poetry Project for Joel’s workshops. In turn, Paul got Joel a job at City College after Joel got Paul one at the State University College at Cortland in upstate New York. Paul would move to central New York; Joel would work uptown at City College after his two-year stint at Saint Mark’s Poetry Project ended, and the great wheel of poetry would spin ever onward.

At Cortland, Blackburn would suffer mortally from cancer of the oesophagus. Toward the end of his life, he continued to keep a poet’s journal. I have always loved this Journal immensely, but no place more tellingly so than its very last entry which reads:

Bigod, I must have been full of shit.

Finally, this issue of shit in the poem highlights that Williams adage about no ideas but in things. I often thought, attending Joel’s workshops at the Poetry Project that Williams’ words also meant “to tell it like it is,” i.e., without bullshit. In his essay, “On Bullshit,” Harry G. Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, observes that “when an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.” If you tell it like it is—as Oppenheimer did—you write truthfully. It may offend, as often his poetry did, but ultimately correctness, as Wittgenstein himself noted, is more important than beauty. I have been someone who has found Joel Oppenheimer’s poem both beautiful and true. In that sense, he was not full of shit, as Paul Blackburn said of himself, but, like the ancient Greeks, he was a truth-teller and a truth-seeker, a true poet until the very end.

At the Lion’s Head as well as at the Poetry Project, Joel was famous for his word usage, spellings, and grammatical corrections of either young poets or seasoned journalists. Not surprisingly then in the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the fourth example of the slang-word hype has a citation from Joel Oppenheimer.

4. Something deliberately misleading; a deception: “[He] says that there isn’t any energy crisis at all, that it’s all a hype, to maintain outrageous profits for the oil companies” (Joel Oppenheimer)

In his essay on bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt observes that humbug is just another word for his subject of bullshit. I think that “hype” is just another word for bullshit, too. How apt then that the dictionary would choose an example from that least of humbugs, Joel Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s last wife Theresa Maier noted that—

Joel had a firm belief in words. Words don’t lie. It was an axiom. In culture like ours, it seemed like such a silly throw away line to me. Of course words lie. We are lied to all the time. Joel was a purist. The agent lies. The words never do. And he showed great care about that. But he meant more by that line than that. He also saw words, and their etymology as an opening into history. Shifts in a word showed shifts in the world. The fun he had in tracing roots, in his poem “Greens,” or his “Chemo” poem. Building connections.

Maier goes on to say:

Joel’s words reflected his world. His poetry allowed a reader to penetrate it. And just when you thought you were merely a voyeur, the son of a bitch drew you into your own world. It is pretty rare to find that. His purpose for writing was about connection. And not to him, his open field connects us to heart and history, and what it feels like to be human.

M.G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole; the play Our Father, which was revived last year in London; and the nonfiction books Lost in Seoul, Green Dreams, and Where the Sky Ends. Mick lives in London, is the director of the MA in creative writing at Kingston University in Surrey, England, and is finishing up a PhD thesis on the St. Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project and its influences at the University of Essex in Colchester, England. His essay is drawn from that thesis. Some of his other recent work includes essays and stories in Witness, Boston Review, the Review of Contemporary Fiction and Foreign Policy. He recently completed the third novel in the Coole family saga, this new one called Kid Coole, and has been writing a book of sonnets for several years now, as well as writing a nonfiction book about living in England after 9/11, and also surviving one of the tube explosions on July 7th this year, being on the train in front of where the Edgware Road bomb went off.


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