Friday, February 20, 2015

Doug Livingston and the Double Read

by Martin Hicks

Doug Livingston

Douglas George Livingston has been composing poetry for approximately fifty years. During this half century he's been a lifetime resident of the Lakehead, although the majority of his artistic sensibilities seem to lie elsewhere, especially Europe.

Douglas also paints and keeps extensive journals on artistic and other concerns. To date, he's published four collections of poetry as well as single pieces in periodicals; attended many workshops; and given countless readings. His publications are, respectively: A Butterfly Rides Her Horse (1982), The Perplexed Room (2003), Myoclonus (2012),and Kata Hodos (late 2014).

He's best known for his recitals at which the collective opinion of his audience is that they love the textured sound value of his work-it sounds so good! However, aside the same individuals invariably ask afterward “...but what does it mean?” Some hope that just one more reading and it'll all become quite clear. This doesn't happen. Livingston himself remarks that his compositions are the product of what he believes to be almost surreal automatism and thus he isn't quite sure-though their medium-what exactly such words convey, if anything.

Apparently there hasn't been a single article written on the subject over the past five decades to clarify this complex matter. Therefore, it's hoped that this belated sort of combined “four-in-one book review” may in part finally furnish the reader with one possible approach to appreciating Douglas Livingston's poetry. Even if you don't smoke, take out your meerschaum calabash and a goodly supply of tobacco and retire to a designated smoking zone. This imposing mystery is surely a two pipe problem, Shirley and Sherlock.

But before it's explained why it's two pipe, let's begin with what the poet asserts are the strongest influences on his own style of composition. These might furnish us a tiny lead to his own puzzling output. Douglas mentions most frequently in conversation they are the Beats, Arthur Rimbaud, and the Fifties and early Sixties post-War urban malaise. However, when investigating these assertions we soon discover several difficulties.

For instance, the co-founder of City Lights Bookstore and major promoter of the Beats during the period alluded to was Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-) who's still active as a poet today. His bestselling book, A Coney Island of the Mind, is aimed at the person on the street. Ferlinghetti believes poetry should be “open-ended” and easily accessible to everyone. Livingston's certainly is not.

Douglas also cites the French Bohemian poet Arthur Rimbaud as a major personal aegis. Here another problem is immediately evident. Rimbaud's reputation rests largely upon poems composed in traditional prosody [revived these days as formalist], unlike Livingston's vers libre style, including “Voyelles” and “Le Bateau Ivre.” Instead, Doug utilizes what he terms “word collages”. Actually, what appears to appeal to Douglas in Rimbaud's poetry is its overall heavy dark ambiance, such as “Un Saison en Enfer” and the poems-in-prose pieces Illuminations he read in translation when young. The mood therein is similar to the Fifties milieu Doug still identifies with and uses as his standard of present day reference, although such an era and its values seem often highly inapplicable today.

Occasionally, Livingston also mentions as mentors Allen Ginsberg of Howl and Sylvia Plath of Ariel fame, diverse mythological female personages, along with a bewildering assortment of philologists-psychiatrists-psychologists in order to elucidate difficult poems to already benighted non-scholarly listeners. The latter tri-grouping includes: deconstruction proponent Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, plus various Freudians and Jungians, ad infinitum, none of whom by profession are actual literary critics; and whose theories are even more esoteric to the general public than the content they're purportedly attempting to help explain [moan, groan].

By analogy, to the befuddled layman it's like someone using Egyptian hieroglyphics to translate some toe-scrawled squiggles of outdated Pitman shorthand. Not elementary, Doctor Watson, not elementary. All these references may or may not flavour Doug's lines but do nothing, alas and alack, to shed any  light on their underlying meaning. Thus such trails end up as a cul-de-sac in our investigation. Taken all together these distinguished figures appear to be for the poet mainly respected role models to emulate-almost revered household deities-not significantly involved directly in his own individualistic writing per se. Another approach to understanding is therefore necessary.

Okay, let's work on the assumption then that, in the final analysis, for our intents and purposes, the method of writing in the four books and elsewhere is peculiar to Douglas G. Livingston alone and only an internal study of the poems themselves can explain their cryptic content. Therefore, we'll need in front of the magnifying glass a representative example of  Livingston's poetry in order to assess it properly...because there's nothing more annoying than having something being discussed that's nowhere nearby to refer to during the process. So here's a furnished entire poem chosen from Doug's first collection. The reason for this choice is it's short and self-contained, and deals with one of his main themes, an incarnation of the assertive feminine archetype:


with an arrow formed of winter wind                                 
and the bow of a summer afternoon
she guides her hunger through empty streets
she ascends the season of tarnished boughs

near a lake of many memories
she sees tomorrow's lightning flash
and darkness touches her pensive hills
with a heartbeat of lost slumber

a tower of transparent gold
with windows of new morning dew
was once her home and legacy

now clouds and shadows haunt her eyes
the seasons tremble round her footsteps
downward toward an ashen sea

 So where to begin in this particular case?  Well, in his introduction to Kata Hodos Douglas claims that his poetry may require, “slow reading, perhaps re-reading...” This statement is true although unintentionally somewhat misleading. Yes, admittedly Livingston's poems require at least two readings, but also two different kinds of readings.

Step One. This is where you light your  bowl for the first time during the two pipe problem. Read the poem aloud in the regular fashion as you would any material from left to right. You are reading for the overall effect only at this point, emotional intensity. This is a linear reading as in all living and classical European languages. It's the simplest part of the problem, the sound associations so lauded by Doug's listeners.

Step Two. Light your second pipeful. Don't read the poem but stand back and pretend the page is a painter's canvas...that you're looking at a Surreal painting, not a sheet of paper, with incongruous objects placed in close proximity, a technique well-known to Douglas. You're not told outright what the poem means. To obtain the answer you are required to do a little of your own private investigating. Like an eerie midnight auditor, you must tally the poet's presented subconscious images and arrive at the sum total picture afterward. You're replacing deconstruction here with reconstruction!

Adding: the title above, the arrow, and the bow when put together tell us the subject is the classical ancient Greek huntress Artimis [in antique Latin identified with Diana], a type above. The “pensive hills” are her breasts, emblematic of her gender. Furthermore, Artimis it turns out in the final audit is actually a constellation like her sexual counterpart, Orion in the zodiac. But instead of being a heavenly star cluster she's an Earthly one attached to Earth as Mother. This stellar configuration floats in a vague atmosphere of descriptive landscape to create a mood effect. It's fourteen lines and the divisions are similar to those of the French sonnet in structure...a free-floating sort of formation, not just free verse  stripped of capitals

The cold case has just been solved in a suggestive general, but not specific, fashion. The poet deliberately doesn't want to be too exact, too mundane, but mythic. Incidentally, the influences in “artimis” aren't any mentioned before but rather Shelley's ode in the first line and Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” in the ninth and final. Now that the method is known it can be applied to any such poetic work. Armed with this weapon, go forth  into the fog and toot-toot your whistle if you stumble upon something significant!

 Since sounds are so very apparent in Doug Livingston's poetry a few observations on them will be given  in passing after drawing attention to the fact that the word she repeats twice to drive home the point that the subject is above all else indeed a self-confident and assertive-albeit lonely-Amazonian. Notice her is deliberately used five times throughout in anaphora to emphasize her presence. The sibilant s continues throughout so each time the letter is heard it reminds us again and again of she. A string of s's at line-endings replaces rhyme, season turns subtly into seasons. There's other aural links as well. Study the interwoven w's and t's too. They're called consonantal groupings and weave an auditory texture throughout myriad poems and song lyrics. Similar linguistic devices are often used by poets intuitively, relying solely on an attuned, self-trained ear.

     Other sound associations are employed as well. Take The Perplexed Room. This is obviously a cockeyed mental interior throughout. Perplexed outside its common dictionary denotation suggests plexi-glass in this context, a transparent view of an inner cerebral space. Likewise tarnished  contains tarn associated with the following lake, and so forth. Look for words doing double duty. Myoclonus [an involuntary twitching] sounds really wrong for a book of poetry because  it's an obscure medical term, nor part of stock poetic vocabulary.

 A brief mention of Doug Livingston's constant use of the powerful independent “archetypal eternal feminine” as she's so-called. She appears in one guise or another throughout his entire output as an idee fixe  somehow tied in closely with his own personal life experiences  involving women. She is sometimes manifested as matriarch, goddess, witch, nurturer, and school teacher. Douglas' attitude towards her is highly ambivalent to say the very least, vacillating between diametrically opposed extremes from worship to loathing, his attitude never integrating  opposites in spite of his many claims to the contrary.

Sometimes she's incarnate as the kind of deity Robert Graves of The White Goddess would have highly approved of, such as giver of occult Wisdom, Sophia or Pallas Athena...or her contrary, abuser of entrusted power. Here's a depiction of her in the role of school teacher, withering the green, adolescent male:

two faced
she smiles
over student dreams
brings death
with her double tongue
to budding thought
to perception's
first flowering
a classroom purview

Who'd want to linger after class as this teacher's pet unless to bring her an apple-poisoned!

Continuing further, the womanly embodiment  appears indirectly in even the title of Doug Livingston's first collected poems, A Butterfly Rides Her Horse. What's this nonsense, you scoff! It's such a ridiculous rubrique, completely silly! But not so much so if you think about it for a moment. The large, strong stallion is a male symbol and the delicate butterfly a female one. They complement each other, make each other complete Ying-Yang-like. Together they form the winged horse, Pegasus, the traditional symbol of Poetry itself. But why is it that the tiny feminine symbol is mounting the big masculine one, not visa versa? Isn't that odd!

Moving right along. As mentioned before Douglas calls his poems “word collages” composed by putting words together on paper without much regard to their common meaning [though Douglas is an incessant user of lexicons and knows them]. This is also misleading. The very word “word” itself at the start makes his reader think of dictionary entries; when standardized definitions aren't found in numbered listings, his poems are immediately dismissed as nonsense. But if we replace “word collage” with “sound collage” Livingston's poetry becomes very akin to Zaum. Zaum is a portmanteau word from Russian meaning “beyond reason” or "beyondsense" where woven sounds by themselves compose a symbolist tapestry of indeterminate aural associations, but possess no concise meaning  you can reference anywhere.

“Word collage” doesn't work well as an explanation for another obvious reason. When we're reading along in Livingston's books sometimes we come upon substantial passages more than just a rush of word glue composite. For example:

day was brief
a glorious sun
of dawn and noon
youth too soon
sees sun to set
as night comes on
no moon
but heavy clouds

This surfaced chunk is a fairly-sizable autobiographical reflection on the poet's life at seventy-one years of age.

 Even so, throughout all four books there are long poems with phrases taken from the text body  and used as headings. These don't mask the blatant fact that it seems Douglas G. Livingston is composing a single, continuous lifelong poem to put Ezra Pound's epical Cantos to shame. It's difficult for even a persistent reviewer to sustain interest over such protracted length. Replacing  James Joyce's Stream of Consciousness here we have an unwinding skein of what can be termed Stream of Subconsciousness with the poet still unaware of the message's content even long after the aforementioned automatic writing,  However, don't panic at the confounding, never-ending hints  and go running out hailing a hansom [more likely, Roach coach] in bewilderment and dash from 221b Baker to 22 Banning St where Mr. Livingston resides chain-smoking in his subsurface study amid piles of  books and more ashy fallout than from Vesuvius and Krakatoa combined. It will be of no avail. Seated, lighting rollies, he'll be deciphering elusive Meaning himself.

With these factors considered, it seems Douglas Livingston has long-since proven what his style of assembled “word collages” can accomplish and so should challenge himself further with other literary projects, such as articles based on his extensive study of schools of  painting and various writers. In the future, of course [like Kata Hodo],“down the road”. Such  topics would come as a welcome relief from the spruce-moose-goose subject matter readers are so often force-fed in our area on a daily basis. In any event he wins points for endurance for fifty or more years at his craft.

      Douglas Livingston's first review is finished. You must be completely puffed out by now by such a grueling exercise in futility. But hold on before you leave! In closing consider this peculiar possibility. This whole “four-in-one review” may be itself merely another exercise in automatic writing and does no more to explain the meaning of Mr. Livingston's poetry than at the two pipe problem's enthusiastic outset. If such proves the case and if the internet and biosphere don't collapse by then, wait another fifty years and maybe somebody will compose an automatic article to explain this somewhat autonomic effusion. Then in fifty more years down the road... End        
-Martin Hicks

Books by Douglas G. Livingston, Martin Hicks,  Alexander Kosoris, along with other fine Canadian authors are available at the new-managed Book Shelf & Game Shelf  behind Mr. Sub off  Memorial Avenue (not to be confused with the store of the same name formerly located at the corner of  May & Miles Street). Ask for Dave.

Doug Livingston and the Double Read

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