07 September 2010

Mark Linenthal

I was very sorry to learn of the passing of Mark Linenthal, who, among many other things, was an extremely influential mentor to many Bay Area poets during his tenure at San Francisco State University. Mark was an accomplished poet and teacher who also happened to run the Poetry Center for many years (I copped the picture on the left from Laura's A Tonalist blog; Mark's front row center at a talk by Leslie Scalapino). I first learned of his fierce presence and extremely attentive reading practice through his lecture on George Oppen, which opens the volume of Oppen Lectures I've been editing for the past couple of years. Linenthal was married to the great Bay Area poet Frances Jaffer, who is remembered by SFSU's Frances Jaffer Poetry Prize (star recipients include folks like Cynthia Sailers and John Sakkis) and Kelsey Street Press's Frances Jaffer Book Award (which made possible first books by Carol Mirakove, Jocelyn Saidenberg, and Elena Rivera). Frances is perhaps best remembered, however, as one of the founding members of HOW(EVER).

I hope to print selections from Mark's Oppen Lecture later in the week, but I'll start this tribute with the full text from Rob Halpern's introduction to Linenthal's reading at the Last Laugh Cafe on January 12, 2008, which beautifully captures Mark's personality. Here's Rob:

Over the years, Mark Linenthal has cultivated a number of identities, all of which find elaboration in his writing: poet, teacher, activist, jazz musician, hunter, WWII navigator, and prisoner of war, among others.

Mark taught English at San Francisco State University from 1954-1992: during which time he married Frances Jaffer, who went on to become a remarkable poet in her own right. During that time, Mark directed the Poetry Center (1966-1972). He was also instrumental in organizing the Green Party of California. Mark is a saxophone player, and while he stopped playing in his combo a year or two ago, he continues to find in jazz a set of living metaphors and models for poetry and its sociality. He’s also passionate about hunting, as well as fly fishing, and while it’s hard for me to share the enthusiasm, Mark has written persuasively about hunting as an ecological and ethical practice within a Green political vision. (He was one of the early organizers for the Green party when it first emerged in San Francisco.) From this practice, Mark derives an equally compelling set of figures for being “in the field” of poetic composition.

From the serial poem, “Hunting” (The Man I am Watching), for example, Mark writes:

In this overgrown field words
falter as they rise

under it
all a steady breathing

And then there’s “Spring Melt,” a poem about both fishing and poetry (from Growing Light):

All winter waters
gushed under the ice

The fish slept
they grew thin

Now as spring comes on
we keep turning away

to those rich rivers
like language

to enter the rivers
to dance fine lies

through the foam
to drift over real fish

They are there
terse serious in the riffles

They flicker naked
at their ease

in the green pools

Mark’s poetry is an eco-poetry of encounter, one that locates itself consequentially in the space between “fine lies”— or the lures of language — and “real fish,” without drawing too much attention to itself.

In a more recent poem called “Out Here,” Mark maps the topology of his poetics like this:

Where words rule
things keep their dry distance
and may not meet without shame or struggle

Out here anything
can happen you hear them
old cypresses

Like the space between “real fish” and the “fine lies” that occasionally catch them, the space between “out here” and “where words rule” opens on a scene of wonder and surprise, where in a moment “anything can happen,” just as the world can come suddenly into stark focus, and a word make tenuous contact with it. Like his good friend George Oppen, Mark courts such moments of contact, always ready to be astonished, and this often yields moments of acute awareness that the world is really here, and that one is in and of it.

Mark delivered the Oppen Memorial Lecture in 1992. It was a great talk that considered Oppen’s “abstemiousness”—as opposed to “abstinence”—his humility and pride, his insistence on an imposing reality, as well as the importance of Oppen’s reading of Heidegger. It was a deeply personal talk—as well as interpretive—on the work of someone who was for Mark “a fundamental poet.” It’s hard for me to situate Mark Linenthal’s poetry without referring directly to Oppen, especially insofar as it is to Oppen’s poetry that my memories of Mark’s friendship and conversation consistently return. And he continues to cite Oppen with remarkable freshness on “the heartlessness of words”—how they always say too little or too much—and how “it’s possible to use words provided one treat them as enemies,” as if these ideas had only just yesterday made their consequential impact on him. “The thing only seems to exist because the word does,” Mark might quote Oppen as saying, insisting on the way language seduces belief that something is there, when in fact there may well be nothing.

But Mark is not an abstemious poet; his writing doesn’t reduce to bare materials. In the space between nothing and something—again, between the fine lies and the real fish—his poems open and expand. Following Stevens—that other “fundamental poet” for Mark—his poems are much less resistant to an affirmation of one’s being simultaneously in the world and in language, despite all the skepticism words inspire. Mark has often averred that Oppen’s and Stevens’s ontological concerns were more or less of the same Heideggerian kind: how do we know there is something rather than nothing? But whereas the space between something and nothing inspired in Oppen a kind of metaphysical vertigo (with real social implications), like Stevens, Mark can suspend his anxiety in that space, observing the “isolation of the sky,” and affirm that “deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries” (from Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”, another poem Mark loves to recite).

Actually, in the space between something and nothing, Mark would probably rather hang-out and tell tasteless jokes, or laugh at limericks. His sense of humor underscores a key difference between his poetic sensibility and that of George Oppen. It’s a difference Mark often refers to while juxtaposing himself to his friend. Mark might point to Oppen’s ontological insecurity, an insecurity that arguably necessitated Oppen’s writing insofar as the poetry was needed to testify to the world’s material being, or “this-ness”. By contrast, Mark will confess to his own grounded stability: “I’m not like George,” he’ll say, “I’m too ontologically secure to write poetry.” And yet, Mark’s two books of poems, Growing Light (Black Thumb Press, 1979, whose title refers to the phenomenon of literally “growing light” when fly fishing, that is, approaching a river depth where the body is lifted and carried by the current) and The Man I am Watching (e.g. Books, 1987), belie the comforts of any such security.

At a time when the idea of experience has come under siege, Mark’s poems score, with uncompromised lucidity, the movement of their own attention making contact with a world where experience is still possible. In this sense, the poems are instructive: they prepare, in language, the presencing of an “experience” that remains outside language. For Mark, small acts of attention become consequential for locating one’s place in a world where “place” goes on eroding. Rather than giving into the force of that erosion and the rule of words, the poems bear witness to the fragility of location where a concern with “what can be said” becomes the most serious of all concerns. “What can be said”—as both direct question and relative statement—conditions the poems’ formal possibility while delimiting their content. It’s in their faithfulness to “what can be said” that Mark’s poems enact the values of clarity and precision, against injudicious obscurity and vague impressionism. But to measure one’s sense of measure—honestly and accurately—by “what can be said” requires a certain lightness of touch, and like Lester Young, after whom he wrote a great poem called “Listening to Lester,” we can hear Mark in his poems, “learning to play so lightly / he could believe it.”

Listening to Lester

I give myself such good

I think of how in the yard branches
rest on air

how Bix and Tram were
telling some stories that I like to hear and
Lester carried that record around —

it was Singing the Blues
learning to play so lightly
he could believe it

how we are so frequently not so

how we are not wrong

that hunger heals

[End Halpern introduction]

And click here for a more recent video of Mark discussing comedy:


  1. Thanks for this, Michael. Mark was one of my first and marvelous mentors way back in 1962. He introduced me (us) to Robert Creeley and Theordore Roethke of who he and Jim Schevill produced a movie, In A Dark Time. Later would come both John Logan and George Oppen. I.e., he could be eclectic in his passions and combinations. He had a great wit, as well. The hilarious YouTube tape of limericks captures the edge of his wit and is doubly ironic, particularly with the one about Hitler & Co. - one of Mark's great poems is of when he is forced to parachute down over Germany in WWII - as a Jew it was a multiple anxious moment.
    Stephen Vincent

    In A Dark Time. Later would come both John Logan and George Oppen. I.e., he could be eclectic in his combinations. He had a great wit, as well. The YouTube tape of limericks is doubly ironic, particularly with the one about Hitler & Co. - one of Mark's great poems is of when he is forced to parachute down over Germany in WWII - as a Jew it was a multiple anxious moment.
    Stephen Vincent

  2. beautiful. thanks for posting michael.

  3. Thom, thank you for this. Mark was my friend, my boss (when I worked at the Poetry Center) my mentor. We had many an argument about poetry, about politics, about philosophy and all things under the sun. He and Frances (she for her feisty feminism, her devotion to HD, her own illuminating poetry) were my dearest family. Mark introduced me to the Oppens, and for that alone I am blessed, but there was always more. Now utterly gone. Beverly Dahlen

  4. Yes, Bev utterly gone. Wayyy back then when I worked for and with Mark and Jim and Stan and Buck at the Poetry Center, there was always thinking humor language learning poetry (and historic pictures falling off the Poetry Center wall). Mark and Frances came to see Buck and me in Spain twice--Mark once in the midst of a horrid spring pneumonia read Lorca to us literally by candlelight, Frances always putting things in fine perceiving. Today I gasped to hear of Mark's death. He was always considering, always being honest about that. I remember his inimitable ability to laugh, to see the comedic. What a living. What a beautiful vital knowing. Linda Chown