First Intensity: A Magazine of New Writing

By Johnston, Devin | Chicago Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

First Intensity: A Magazine of New Writing


Johnston, Devin, Chicago Review


First Intensity: A Magazine of New Writing, ed. Lee Chapman.

Boxkite: A journal of poetry & poetics, ed. James Taylor (Australia).

If experimental poetry in the 1980s took on a narrowness, in part though the ideological dogmatism of some Language poetry, in recent years it has blossomed (or exploded, as some would say). Perhaps partly to impose some order on this plurality, anthologists and editors have turned to the 1950s as a model. As several contributor's to this issue observe, the recent crop of anthologies have often invoked Donald Allen's New American Poetry as a touchstone. In a similar sense, there has been a renewed interest in the work of poets active in the 1950s-such as Jack Spicer or Frank O'Hara-whom the passage of time has rendered both more canonical and less threatening to a young poet's identity. Poetry journals have not been immune to these trends, and a new crop of experimental publications dispense with the Language-poetry fetish of wit and radical disjunction in favor of a more reverent or wide-eyed avant-gardism, such as that which characterized the California poetry scene at mid-century. First Intensity, which has appeared twice a year for the past four years, is one of the best of these new journals.

The name First Intensity is borrowed from a quotation of Ezra Pound from "Vorticism" (Fortnightly Review Vol. 96, 1914), which reads (in part): "The work of art which is most `worth while' is the work which would need a hundred works of any other kind of art to explain it... Such works are what we call works of the `first intensity."' The quotation reveals the journal's focus in several respects. In the first place, its contents reflect a modernist concern for aethetic issues (rather than a political agenda, geographical movement, etc.). Further, the writers included tend to engage expressivist forms of experimentalism. In this sense, it is appropriate that the journal invokes 1950s open-form poetry rather than later, more deconstructive models. This connection is particularly apparent in the "elders" who are represented in First Intensity, including Robert Kelly, Larry Eigner, Diane DiPrima, Tom Clark, and Theodore Enslin. While some of these poets were anthologized in The New American Poetry, not all have received much attention since then. For instance, Theodore Enslin-who has been active since the 1940sis well represented in several consecutive issues with a long poem. The work is entitled "Scripturals," and could be characterized as the sort of spiritual minimalism one finds in the writing of Robert Lax, William Bronk, or John Taggart.

The majority of the journal, though, is devoted to relatively unknown poets such as Partick Doud. Doud's poems are quiet and attractive, and tend towards an evocative or romantic sensibility:

Housedress

The god of

behind the door

is there still

in triad-structured talk

of rooms in the house;

riddle

answer

and stricture, an

agony in the vitals off

knowing's map

looms

above the bare

star, its hunger to

shed

light, the fabric's edge

the garment (No. 6, Winter 1996, p. 25)

Doud's poem typifies much of the work here in its penchant for mystery and reverie. For some readers, this tendency borders on naivete and preciousness; for others, it reflects an openness to the possibilities of the poem. In Eleni Sikelianos' excerpt from The Blue Coat, a premium is placed on such an openness:

esteros , evening

elios , sun

i have begun

to unwind myself

into the light punctuation

of his wrist . in this:

[risk] (No. 8, Winter 1997, p. 60)

Evening, sun, wrist, and unwind concatenate a tenuous theme concerning the passage of time. While "punctuation" could refer to the ticking of a watch, it also plays upon the full-stop after "wrist. …

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