New Jersey, jazz and a traveller's tales: August Kleinzahler in St Andrews

Sunday 15 May 2011

August Kleinzahler in St Andrews, May 2011

Not many poets can bring Marlene Dietrich, Nietzsche and WC Fields together in one poem and act out the speaking parts. Or, more darkly, to imitate the cry of a hawk in the air 'terrible in his dismay' as he reads another. August Kleinzahler made a stop in St Andrews on Friday and his reading included all of these moments, in a set that ranged from biting satire to surreal humour and a thoughtful lyricism about time, memory and the past.

His visit was part of a tour of the UK and Ireland to mark the paperback publication  of Sleeping it off in Rapid City: New and Selected Poems, (Faber & Faber), an award-winning retrospective of four major collections and recent work.

Kleinzahler has a reputation for being a poetic pugilist with an ability to shock. His work is described as a ‘modernist swirl of sex, surrealism, urban life and melancholy, with a jazzy backbeat.’ But there is also that deep lyricism, most evident in poems about the New Jersey of his childhood. This was evoked in ‘Closing Down on the Palisades’, prompted by the sale of his family home and in ‘Portrait of my Mother in January’, a delicate observation of aging.

In conversation with the Scottish poet Alexander Hutchison, Kleinzahler reminded the audience of his own attitude to poetry as something ‘thrilling and upsetting, not at all comfortable and predictable.’ He recalled his mentors Thom Gunn and Basil Bunting, whose method was simply to read poetry to his students and play them Renaissance and Baroque music.  And he recalled the effect of hearing Gregory Corso’s poetry for the first time, ‘full of vitality, exciting’. It was the effect of Beat poetry which sent the student on the road, and his restlessness, living on both sides of the American continent and crossing the Atlantic frequently, lends itself to themes of displacement and dislocation that reverberate through his writing.

Hutchison asked the poet to which of his poems he felt would last – his Desert Island list, in effect. After some thought, he named two of his recent New Jersey poems, plus ‘The Strange Hours Travellers Keep’ and ‘Anniversary’ - the hawk poem.  But there were many contenders  in the second half of the evening: the Baudelaire-dark ‘Retard Spoilage’, ‘Christmas in Chinatown’ and the mesmerising poem about jazz giant Thelonius Monk, with which he finished.  Kleinzahler’s sharp wit and rebellious streak combines to create poetry of serious intent. It made for a sublime reading.

The event was held in association with the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts and Faber & Faber.