Lives of the Poets 1 Starbuck - Acsu Buffalo

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					                       Lives of the Poets 1: Starbuck

Starbuck had won every prize known to poetry, except the Poet Laureateship and the
Nobel. But whenever a prize was announced – the Pulitzer, the Geneva, the Rilke, the
Bellagio Fellowship – his was the first name on everyone’s lips. It was sometimes hard
to understand why; unless you were already a Starbuck-ist and attuned to his astringent
music, you might feel as though you were missing something. His poems were razor thin,
as if they had absorbed his own body language. A gaunt figure himself, and in jeans
looking cowboy-thin, his persona, his trademark, his logo were to be minimal,
understated, and his poems over the years refused to gain weight. They displayed a tight-
lipped, sinewy parsimony that made them seem like summaries of themselves. A typical
Starbuck poem looked like this:

I told Olson,
Yr leaking money
Thrs twenties falling
Out of yr pocket
And he sd
Pound was lousy with lira
I’m keeping
The tradition

           So, what was the Starbuck mystique? Maybe it was the Black Mountain
connection, frail as it was. He’d gotten to Black Mountain just as it was closing up shop,
but just long enough to be touched by the mythos of geniuses together in the American
wilderness and to be baptized in the waters of de Kooning and Fuller and Cage and

Einstein and Olson. Artists illustrated his poems and he captioned their lithographs and
silk screens. Relativity was in the air, and at Black Mountain, point of view was king.
                                             He had assimilated poetic forms from all over
                                             and brought an American hominess to them.
                                             A poem was supposed to look as though it had
                                             been bolted together out of spare parts in the
                                             garage. You scrounged in junkyards for
                                             pieces for your next poem, which you had up
                                             on blocks. The poet was country cousin to
                                             Mister Goodwrench. His poetry had a way of
                                           saying “Aw shucks,” and after high
                                           modernism had left everyone feeling dazed
                                           and overpowered, Prufrocked into the corner,
                                           critics went wild over “Aw shucks.” He had
                                           taken the imagism of Pound and Williams and
                                           made it seem rugged and folksy, as American
                                           as a jackalope and hard as a beer belly. “So
                                           much depends upon the red half-ton pickup,
                                           glazed with rain water, next to the white
                                           Chevy 4x4." That pickup might have a dead
                                           deer in the back, a stoned woman, or a frisbee
                                           dog with a red kerchief around its neck. As
                                           though somehow his metaphor could kick the
                                           living shit out of your metaphor, which is just
                                           the kind of gun rack swagger American poetry
                                           needed. He wasn’t a Beat but he had hung out
                                           with them, drank with them, and exchanged
                                           punches with them, scored groupies with them
                                           and copped dope with them. His name comes
                                           up in a Kerouac novel as “a righteous cat.”
                                             He’d broken beer bottles in desert bars; drunk
absinthe in Paris, grappa in Majorca, tequila in Gila, and margaritas in Margaritaville.
He’d heard Miles blow at the Five Spot; Dizzy wail at the Blue Note; he’d sat ten feet
from Monk playing “Epistrophy.” He’d awakened in alleys where even the cats feared to
tread on their little cat feet. He’d howled with Ginsberg and seen the best minds of his
generation destroyed by madness. He’d been stoned with the Stones and busted down on

Bourbon Street with the Dead. He'd ridden the bus to Never-Ever Land with cowboy
Neal. He’d blown in the wind with Dylan, broken through to the other side with
Morrison, and asked Alice with Grace Slick. He'd written a libretto in nine deep breaths
for John Cage's silent composition 4'33" and titled it 4'35". Cage threw up his hands:
"You win again, Starbuck." He seen the Buddha on the road and killed the Buddha.
He’d had biscuits and grits with Wavy Gravy. He’d handed out free baguettes in Golden
Gate Park with the Diggers. He’d had somewhere between five and seven wives,
depending on what you meant by wife. And the poems grew more emaciated. They had
to; when did he find time to write? For that, people called him “the crucible of American
consciousness” and “the main support in the old house of poetry – the main beam.” He
was an heir to the tradition – he stood on the shoulders of Marvell and Herrick – and an
heir to The Movement, the flight into freedom from all that the tradition meant. He
pioneered freedom in poetry, the freedom of the spirit to seek its own meanings in its
own way, and yet was strict about form, if by form you meant the white margins that
framed every page. He was the old man of American poetry, that was for sure, and to be
in a room with him was to be in the presence of a living icon, a living, drinking icon once
the bar opened.
          Around Melville Hall, Starbuck was available. He let students know that
anyone who wanted to talk about poetry or poetic theory could spend 15 minutes with an
icon. For someone of his status and reputation, he was the most sociable of poets, and a
conversation that started in a seminar or an office hour might continue after hours in a bar.
Between marriages it might go farther than that. “Bed, bath, and beyond” as one former
student put it. Still that sociability was part of his poet’s equipment, and he was as easy
in the company of university deans and even presidents as he was with students.
           Maybe that was all built into his Boston Brahmin origins. He may have been a
Black Mountain poet, but he outclassed university presidents. He was third-generation
Harvard and fourth generation Starbuck. The Starbucks were once themselves steel
manufacturers who carried on a fierce competition with the Melvilles to supply the rails
for the railroad that yoked together the two ends of the country like a giant chain link. In
the end they all had a piece of the railroad action: Melville Steel, Republican, Jones and
Laughlin Steel, Starbuck, and Carnegie, and everyone prospered. By the time Starbuck
was born, steel manufacture was gearing down and preparing to decamp for Korea and
points west, and the company had begun to sell off the fire belching, air polluting, cancer
creating furnaces and invest in ergonomic glass towers and vast Asian holdings. In short,
it was getting out of steel and into investment banking. Starbuck was given a free ride on
the family gravy train so long as he stuck to poetry and kept away from finance and

politics. The family fortune was managed by two older brothers who indulged their baby
brother the luxury of flipping capitalism the bird as wholeheartedly and as often as he
wished provided that he never show up at a stockholders’ meeting or, alternatively,
actually try to build a bomb in his basement, at which point the subsidy would come to an
end. Indeed, when one urban dynamitard in the 1960s was found with a half-dozen of
Starbuck’s books, annotated and scorched, in her personal library, he was grilled long and
hard by the FBI, and even harder by the brothers who let it be known that they did not
expect him to behave like Che Guevara just because he looked like him or to collaborate
in any way with efforts to overthrow the system that fed and clothed him.
          We last met in a coffee lounge one fall in the late 1980s, after he had spent a
summer in Northern New Mexico, in some of the mountain retreats where refugees from
the sixties went to keep their spirits up and draw up Plan B. All the scripts of the great
rebellion had run out and everyone was in a holding pattern waiting for the next wave to
break. He’d hung his hat at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and found companionship
with one or more of the gallery owners there who were doing their own renditions of R &
R after their own Plan A’s had run aground. It wasn’t just the collapse of the revolution
that had washed up high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in those days; it was the
collapse of extravagant dreaming. Imagine ten thousand easy riders heading up into the
mountains with dreams of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water and milkers of
goats and smokers of endless weed. “The Native American Church is centered in that
region,” he told me. “Getting high is a sacrament and every weekend they set their
controls for the heart of the sun.” He regaled me with stories of Ram Dass and the Lama
Foundation, and about dancing around inside the big geodesic dome chanting the name of
God in all known languages. Kerouac had nailed it alright: righteous cat is what
everyone called Starbuck because he was just that.


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