Introduction to Andy Clausen’s Home of the Blues: More Selected Poems
By Eliot Katz
The first time that I saw Andy Clausen read poetry was in the summer of 1980, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Andy was scheduled to read one night as part of a three-person bill, along with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. I had expected that the youngest of the three poets, then 36 years old, would be the opening act, but Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen let Andy close the show, symbolically passing along a poetry torch. With his deep oratorical voice, and poetry filled with extraordinary energy, insight, humor, and imagination Andy gave a reading that night which left a lasting impression. The poem that I remember most from that evening was his long poem, “An Open Letter to the Russian People,” with its explorations of the historic hypocrisies and exploitations, sometimes fatal, of both the American and Soviet governments, and its visionary insistence that artists and working people of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could one day figure out how to put an end to the physically and psychically damaging Cold War: “No more guilt American O Russian / The Freedom to choose Peace—/ Jesus! How badly our governments behave! / Brothers & Sisters / THE GENERAL STRIKE! / NOW!”
Andy Clausen was born in a Belgium bomb shelter in 1943, and moved to Oakland, California at age three, at the end of the Second World War. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” The line from Allen’s poem that caught Andy’s attention and changed the direction of his life was the simple but poignant, humanizing question: “Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?
After Andy began devoting himself to writing, Allen Ginsberg would consistently cite him as one of the most important poets of the next generation—for example, including his work in several younger-poets sections of literary journals that Allen guest-edited for New Directions and City Lights. For Andy Clausen’s poetry book, Without Doubt (1991), Allen wrote an introduction which declared in well-deserved superlatives: “The frank friendly extravagance of his metaphor & word-connection gives Andy Clausen’s poetry a reading interest rare in poetry of any generation.” Allen also asserted that Andy’s perceptive writings “present a genuine authority in America not voiced much in little magazine print, less in newspapers of record, never in political theatrics through Oval Office airwaves.”
With a lively, oratorical voice that is unforgettable both on the page and in public readings, Andy Clausen’s work extends the democratic and imagination-filled traditions of poets like Walt Whitman, William Blake, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, the French surrealists, and the Russian Futurists—especially Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of Andy’s main literary influences. Home of the Blues, his second volume of selected poems following 40th Century Man, covers over five decades of his prolific work: from the counterculture and antiwar years of the 1960s (which, looking back, he refers to fondly as “the old days”) through the more politically apathetic 1970s, the rightward-moving Reagan years of the 1980s which would prove to be the last decade of the Cold War, the centrist post-Cold War Clinton 90s, the rightward-again and war-again Bush years of the post-9/11 21st century, right up to the years of progressive promise and frequent disappointment following the historic election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, a former community organizer.
Some of the most memorable poems in Home of the Blues are explicitly dedicated to poets and companions that Andy has known well through the years, including the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Janine Pommy Vega, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, and Jack Micheline. Alongside those personal dedications, many of the pieces are also explicitly or implicitly dedicated to Planet Earth and to Andy’s home country since the age of three—“America the Contradiction / America Home of the Blues,” as he writes in the book’s title poem. His love for the potential of the U.S., as well as his recognition of the wide and deep gap that is all-too-often found between America’s ideals and its daily reality, is nowhere more evident than when he writes, in “Kerouac Noted You Weren’t Named After an Indian King,” that America has insulted many of his anti-Vietnam War generation by calling young people “traitors & cowards / when we refused to die for the cause / of the rich getting richer”; and yet, he nonetheless tells America, “I want to kiss the nape of your neck / & hear you whisper / ‘Health care for all’.”
In Andy Clausen’s poetry, empirical perceptions mix inventively with jazzed-up surreal and modernist imagery, the kind of surrealist imagery that the European philosopher, Ernst Bloch, called “anticipatory illuminations,” because the phrasing creates images that don’t yet exist in the actual world, thus pointing towards the possibility of a more humane future: “in the choking salmon charcoal night miasma / clinging to the windshield,”; “the stock market is wagering on the apocalypse,”; “painting over carcinogenic greys / with a thousand Caravaggios and Blakes.” Tragedy, in Clausen’s work, is often juxtaposed with well-placed humor. Lyrical modes blend easily with epic, narrative, and oratorical ones. Carrying on the most exciting, politically progressive, and intellectually probing aspects of the Beat tradition, torrential strings of high-speed adjectives mix with considered speculations about the unfair nature of our socioeconomic landscape and wage-based work.
Andy has worked most of his adult life as a construction worker, a union hod-carrier and stone mason. Various other jobs have included cab driver, tire warehouse worker, and saw mill worker. Now in his late 60s, in recent years he has been teaching poetry in New York schools and prisons, while still occasionally having to do the sort of heavy-lifting construction jobs that, in a more just society, one of America’s best poets wouldn’t have to be doing into his late 60s, bad back and all. Andy has thus lived and earned the blues that he is writing, the blues that have historically been sung with a keen sense of irony and self-awareness—while waiting, writing, or working for a changed world.
In the American poetry arena, recent decades have seen much critical attention focused on the Language Poets, many of whom have been writing from progressive perspectives to deconstruct the absurd and oppressive logic that far too often dominates American culture and politics. That sort of deconstruction of existing practices and institutions has its useful place. But as a longtime construction worker writing in the radical traditions of Whitman, Ginsberg, and Mayakovsky, and as an incisive student of U.S. history, Andy Clausen knows that the more difficult and urgent task for socially concerned contemporary poets is reconstruction—throwing out the debris and the degrading, and building on or expanding the existing parts that work and that make good democratic-egalitarian sense—and he takes on that challenge with all the serious depth and humor it deserves.
From wars to widespread hunger and poverty, from the AIDS epidemic to ever-present racism and sexism, from continued violations of international human rights to the new and growing risk of climate change, our species has witnessed plenty of tragedy and danger over the last half-century. As Clausen writes in “The War to Begin All Wars,” up to this point in world history, “the medicine isn’t working.” But even as some of his poems criticize the very notion of “hope” as too abstract and insufficient a foundation for creating tangible social change, many of his poems nonetheless provide at least a glimpse of hope in the form of individual and collective human potential, either explicitly in the substance of the text or implicitly in the way that the poems’ surrealist elements stylistically convey those “anticipatory illuminations” mentioned above. In “Patriotism,” for instance, written before the fall of the Soviet Union, Clausen redefines love of one’s country and people by predicting that “Russia & America / will pass in the night,” implying that the end of repressive policies on both sides of the Cold War could one day open space for more compassionate and democratic political structures. In “The Iron Curtain of Love,” he expressionistically transforms symbols of Cold War militarism into pacifist imagery: “there’s a warhead strapped to the back / of the dove / It’s the iron curtain of love.” In the latter poem, he also paraphrases a Russian proverb to assert that, even in our most apparently dire moments, “every wall has a door.”
In addition to memorable social and political poems, Home of the Blues is filled with poems about personal dreams, desires, and loss. Clausen’s work explores the spectrum of human emotion. Love is ever-present and there are moving poems for at least three of his life-partners: his ex-wife, Linda, with whom he had three kids (Cassady, Mona, and Jesse) and with whom he spent nearly two decades and countless cross-country adventures; the Beat Generation poet, Janine Pommy Vega, with whom he lived for a dozen years until she passed away in December 2010; and his current partner, the poet, Pamela Twining, with whom he lives in Woodstock, New York: “Come Love, bite my brain with resplendent teeth” (from “Come Love Come”); “Who needs a motel room / when we have the top of Mt. Tamalpais?” (from “Glorious Sex”); “I had slept in a private way / with the woman who danced / in the sky…/ I touched her flesh…/ yes I’m beginning to see Design” (from “Design”); “Like Light, her smile, her laughter travels / to the hand of a judge in a harsh land / As he grants clemency to a political prisoner” (from “The Anticipation”). And, and in the tradition of both Mayakovsky and the blues, this volume also includes heartbreaking lost-love: “My odes to love are all elegies / like the spider in the middle of the ocean / I’m all alone” (from “I Can Not Speak of Love”).
Clausen’s poems are grounded by his interest in Buddhism and in emancipatory left political traditions like democratic socialism and anarchism: “All that is standing permanent / will fall / All that is moving temporary / will always be here / Yes, Breath Inside the Breath” (from “Poor Man’s Vacana”); “Perhaps then, it’s 13 sacred cannons firing huge flaming / balls of redemption in our Path? / No! No, / It is just Gokyo Lake Breaking Up in the Sun”; (from Gokyo Lake Breaking Up in the Sun”); “Democratic Socialism! / That’s my cry from the Last Soapbox / The open poetry reading” (from “The New Architecture of My Town”); “I’m a Kropotkin Godwin Shelley Micheline / Emma Goldman kind of anarchist” (from “The War to Begin All Wars”). The poems are also grounded by his extensive travels across America, having lived for varying amounts of time in over half the states in the U.S., and by his trips throughout the globe, including time spent and poems written in Kathmandu, Nepal, India, Thailand, and Greece. He has also visited parts of Eastern Europe, where he saw first-hand the disappointment felt by many of those in countries like the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia who had lived under an oppressive Soviet-dominated system that many used to describe as “actually existing socialism,” a phrase meant to highlight the ways in which that system had strayed so far from the compassionate, ultra-democratic, and justice-filled ideas of socialism’s original and best thinkers.
After the fall of the Soviet bloc, beginning in 1989, many American activists sensibly advocated for a “peace dividend,” urging our government to take advantage of the historic opportunity by finally scaling back America’s exorbitant military budget and prioritizing long-neglected social needs like affordable housing, health care, education, and the environment. It was not to be. Instead, subsequent administrations right up through our current one continued to support the bloated military budgets and pro-corporate economic policies that had largely held sway throughout the Cold War era. After the atrocity of September 11th, 2001, George W. Bush was able, by cynically manipulating legitimate American fears, to accelerate those regressive social priorities under the guise of a loosely defined “war on terror,” which included an unwarranted and disastrous military conflict in Iraq—“Expect a harvest of cadavers / a deluge of grief & fears… / This war will last you… 100 years” (from “100 Years”). And under President Obama, we are still living in an age in which there is far too much poverty and violence, far too many unaccountable political and economic institutions, far too many violations of civil liberties and other human rights, and far too many fundamentalist groupings within too many of the world’s religions.
One of the later poems in Home of the Blues, with its cautiously optimistic title “We Could,” speaks powerfully to our times: “We wouldst rid the epic of slavery / for women and all others / We’d smash the caste system / We’d put aristocrats to work!…We’d give Shiva something else to do…./ We are sentenced / there is no back to return to / We lick the Jewel in the Lotus / till it is human / then / We eat God alive!” Here is an imaginative tonic to the planet’s dominant, rigid ideas about economic systems, the role of women, and the place of spirituality and creativity in daily life. Fundamentalism is challenged here not by metaphorically killing off the idea of an omnipotent, external god—or not by that alone—but by then taking the concept of a living, enlightened spirit and placing it inside each of us. Andy Clausen’s poetry points the way toward poetry’s liberating potential if only our dogmatic ideas and policies could be left behind, like the old, discredited idea of the Cold War.
More than three decades and a few thousand pages of poetry later, Andy Clausen has earned a distinctive place among the second generation of Beat poets, in a way that Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen had foreseen when I first saw him read at Naropa in 1980. And with so many of the original Beat Generation writers sadly no longer with us, readers interested in the Beat tradition, and in contemporary poetry in general, will find Clausen’s observations about our early 21st century politics and culture to be vital reading. In the book’s final long poem, “Insurgency,” he recalls the work of a wide range of historically significant writers and activists—Tom Paine, Martin Luther King, Allen Ginsberg, Crazy Horse, Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Buffy St. Marie, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, Pedro Pietri, and many others—in order to advocate nonviolent collective action that could finally turn this country and planet around: “Rise up O Uprising O Insurgency / Forget your solipsistic woes / Let your voice be heard! / Without Bombs! Let it be heard!”
In some pockets of literary America, poetry readers and listeners already know what Allen Ginsberg knew about the importance of Andy Clausen’s verse. The global insight, surprise phrasings, and linguistic energy of his poems almost always send readers into motion—thinking, pacing, planning, heading down to the nearest jazz cafe, rock and roll club, or political demonstrations for peace, social justice, and ecological health. Since our current, precarious world could certainly use more people stirred into constructive thought and action, it is a great time for the Museum of American Poetics (which also hosts one of our best poetry websites) to bring out this new volume of Andy Clausen’s selected poems, helping to share more widely the work of one of the most compelling American poets of our time.