Kevin Prufer and Robert E. McDonough, editors: World'd Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2019)
3) Art should encourage mannerism. 6) … do not destroy a poem trying to make it clear. 13) Art does not have to convince. Its aim is largely AESTHETIC, not essentially informative or “problem solving,” or trying to “tell anyone anything.” – from Russell Atkins’ MANIFESTO, in 15 parts (Juxtapositions, 1991).
By 2013, when Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis edited Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master in The Unsung Masters Series published by Pleiades Press, Russell Atkins – “one of very few consistently experimental poets,” according to critic and editor Aldon Lynn Nielsen – had been largely forgotten, his only full length book of poems, Here in The (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) published way back in 1976 and long since out of print.
The new volume immediately renewed interest in Russell Atkins (1926-) among a new generation of readers. A 2014 ceremony at the East Cleveland Public Library, with a frail poet himself present, drew large crowds, according to Prufer and McDonough. Literary friends and admirers celebrated his 90th birthday with the publication In the Company of Russell Atkins (Red Giant Books, 2016), a mix of reminiscences and poems in tribute, edited by Diana Kendig and Robert E. McDonough. And in 2017 Atkins was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award.
And now Cleveland State University Poetry Center is back with World’d Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins, edited by Kevin Prufer and Robert E. McDonough, selecting about three times as many poems as the 2013 volume, the MANIFESTO mentioned above, and two short poetry-dramas, The Exoneration and The Corpse, with notes by Atkins on his ‘poems in play form’.
‘Mannerisms’. The first of several ‘mannerisms’ in the poetry of Russell Atkins is already there in the title (taken from a poem printed in the pamphlet 7@70, 1996): World’d Too Much – the apostrophe d (’d), verbalizing words that are not verbs – a favorite Atkins device.
Other ‘mannerisms’ of Atkins’ would include nonstandard grammar and diction (see for example Curious’d Garb – “a thrill of a poem” writes Cleveland poet Janice A. Lowe in her foreword) and innovative typography, sometimes with concrete poetry elements as in Spyrytual, quotation marks (‘’’ ‘’) ‘raining’ down the page with the words Oh, didn’t it rain (from the spiritual of the same name, on Noah and the Ark) appearing twice in the ‘rain’; Narrative (on abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, trying to ignite slave insurrections in the South), Night and a Distant Church and Trainyard at Night, the last two poems reprinted here in several versions.
Even as poet/critic Evie Shockley cautions us that ”Atkins’ particular brand of unconventionality, at its most distinctive, can be off-putting to readers unfamiliar with his work,” poet/literary historian Eugene B. Redmond (Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, Anchor/Doubleday, 1976) reassures readers: “Once Atkins’ technique is understood … his poetry can be enjoyed for its witty, wacky, yet serious philosophical musings.”
And many of Atkins’ poems are easy enough to read, like the delightful Probability and Birds:
“The probability in the yard:/ The rodent keeps the cat close by;/ The cat would sharp at the bird;/ The bird would waft to the water – / If he does he has but his times before./ Whichever one he’s surely marked // The cat is variable/ The rodent becomes the death of the bird/ Which we love // Dogs are random”.
Somewhat more challenging is It’s Here in The (on reading a newspaper article describing a train wreck), the title poem of the 1976 volume from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, a virtuoso performance and one of Russell Atkins’ best known works.
“Art … need not communicate.” Atkins’ protestations notwithstanding, his poetry communicates quite well on a number of subjects: nature (the weather, seasons), Cleveland and the urban scene (with native Clevelander Janice A. Lowe’s foreword as an excellent guide to both the literary and actual, physical city and its history), and social and personal problems (drugs, crime, urban decline, poverty, and illness and old age – see Irritable Songs and other poems), even as he warns us not to be “the casual reader” who “goes straight for the ‘sense’, or the ‘meaning’, behind the words,” like an alcoholic who must have his drink (MANIFESTO, part 10).
All his poetry-dramas – with the exception of The Exoneration, a ‘bona fide’ play on police brutality – are meant “to be set to music”, reminding us that Russell Atkins, having studied music at the Cleveland Institute of Music and elsewhere, started out as a composer, and that music and musical theory, the intersections of music and poetry, are important influences on Atkins, the poet.
And as co-founder and editor of the avant-garde Free Lance magazine (1950-1979), and later Free Lance Press, Russell Atkins’ influence reached out far beyond Cleveland, his hometown.
Although World’d Too Much reprints all 36 poems but one from the 2013 volume, Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master is still valuable for the editors’ introduction, for reprinting the poetry-drama The Abortionist and the contested essay A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition. And for six essays (the above mentioned Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Evie Shockley being among the essayists) beginning a necessary critical assessment of Atkins’ work.
When Russell Atkins was moved in 2014 from his apartment in downtown Cleveland to a nursing home in the suburb of Oakwood, several boxes of his papers were lost and destroyed: handwritten musical compositions, poetry drafts, photographs and other memorabilia, including letters from poets Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore, among the early champions of his work.
Critics mention several poems not included in World’d Too Much, pointing towards a possible future Collected Poems (and Plays), once what is left in surviving boxes have been examined.
For now, Kevin Prufer and Robert E. McDonough report (see Editors’ Note, written 2018) that the (then) 92 year old Russell Atkins “is enthusiastic about this selection of poems entering the world.” As his readers, so are we.
UFI // 20 January 2020
The editors have chosen to present the poems in World’d Too Much in alphabetical order by title (noting the year and title of original publication for each poem) to allow readers to see several versions of a poem side by side.
A different way of organizing (and reading) the poems might have been to reprint poems book/journal by book/journal chronologically by year of publication, as follows:
From: Beloit Poetry Journal, 1951 (1 poem)
From: Experiment, 1951 (1 poem)
From: Free Lance, 1955-1970 (4 poems)
A Podium Presentation, Poetry Seminar Press, 1960 (3 poems)
Objects, Hearse Press, 1961 (11 poems)
Phenomena, Free Lance Poets and Prose Workshop/Wilberforce University Press, 1961 (1 poetry-drama)
Objects 2, renegade press, 1963, revised second printing 1964 (14 poems)
Two by Atkins, The Free Lance Press, 1963 (1 poetry-drama)
Spyrytual, 7 Flowers Press, 1966 (1 poem)
Heretofore, Volume seven, the Heritage Series/Paul Breman1968 (7 poems)
From: Everyman, 1974-2001 (3 poems)
Here In The, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1976 (39 poems)
Whichever, The Free Lance Press, 1978 (12 poems)
From: The Chesnutt Record, 1988 (1 poem)
From: Art Crimes, 1989-1991 (5 poems)
Juxtapositions, self-published, 1991 (4 poems and 2 essays prefacing poetry and poetry-drama section, respectively)
From: House Organ, 1993-2007 (8 poems)
7 @ 70, Heritage Black Poetry Pamphlet 4/Paul Breman, 1996 (4 poems) From: In the Company of Russell Atkins, Red Giant Books, 2016 (1 poem)
Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s own Here In The, 1976, supplies about one third of the 121poems (including 11 alternative versions and 2 short poetry-dramas) in World’d Too Much, followed by three “micro-press” volumes: Objects (1960), Objects 2 (1963), and Whichever (1978), and the two books from Paul Breman’s Heritage Series: Heretofore (1968) and 7 @ 70 (1996).
The bulk of Russell Atkins’ poetry included here is from the 1960s and 1970s, only a few poems reprinted being from the 1950s, and poems from the 1980s and 1990s being more sporadically published. Note also that almost one fifth (24, including the last 2016 poem) of the poems selected are from journals, previously uncollected.
Appendix 2 (for the nerds)
To make it easier for me to follow my own advice of reading the poems a second (or third) time in chronological order, I made the following list for myself. Having done so, let me share it with you:
From: Beloit Poetry Journal, 1951: Nocturne and Prelude, page 130-137 // From: Experiment, 1951: On a Neglected Monument, p. 147 // From: Free Lance, 1955-1970: How Would I Come Upon a Corpse, p. 75 (1955), May Twenty-Second, Nineteen Sixty-Seven, p. 111-116 (1967), The Sabbath, p. 160 (1955), Travel, p. 180 (1970) // A Podium Presentation, 1960: (the L L L), p. 92, Lines in Recollection, p. 102, Three O’Clock, p. 174-175 // Objects, 1961: Elegy to Hurt Bird That Died, p. 49-50 (1st of 2 versions), Four of a Fall, p. 64-67, Furious’d Garb, p. 71, Lake in a Storm, p. 93 (1st of 2), Night and a Distant Church, p. 123 (1st of 4), Now Sweet Cathy, p. 140, Objects On a Table, p. 142, On Seeing Cynthia Again, p. 149-150, Prelude: Dawn, p. 155 (1st of 2), There She Sits, p. 172-173, Trainyard at Night, p. 176 (1st of 3) // Phenomena, 1961: The Exoneration (poetry-drama), p. 206-217 // Objects 2, 1963: Achievement, p. 28, After (2nd edition, 1964), p. 29, Anxieties, p. 33, Elegy to Hurt Bird That Died, p. 51-52 (2nd of 2), Evening Reflections in a Birdbath, p. 53 (1st of 2), Irritable Song, p. 84-85, Lamps New-Lighted, p. 99, Night and a Distant Church, p. 124 (2nd of 4), Of Photograph of Flood, p. 144, Prelude: Dawn, p. 156 (2nd of 2), Tempest, p. 171, Trainyard by Night, p. 177 (2nd of 3), Waterfront, p. 184, X,, p. 196 // Two by Atkins, 1963: The Corpse (poetry- drama), p. 218-235 // Spyrytual, 1966: Spyrytual, p. 167 // Heretofore, 1968: Front Page, p. 70, Lakefront, Cleveland, p. 95-96 (1st of 2 different poems w/same title), Lisbon, p. 103-104, Narrative, p. 119-120, Night and the Distant Church, p. 125 (3rd of 4), On the Fine Arts Garden, Cleveland, p. 151, Trainyard at Night, p. 178 (3rd of 3) // From: Everyman, 1974-2001: Garden, p. 72 (2001), Inner-City Ballad, p. 82-83 (1979), Lost Scarf, p. 106-107 (1974) (1st of 2) // Here In The, 1976: Abstractive, p.27, Air Disaster, p. 30, Angles, p.31, Basement, p. 38, (birds), p. 39, Coffee, p. 42, Correspondent’s War Diary, p. 43, “Divinely Sensuous,” She Said, p. 46, Evening Reflections in a Birthbath, p. 54 (2nd of 2), Flu as an Old War Movie, p. 61, Football Practice in Woodland Haven, p. 62, For a Neighbor Stricken Suddenly, p. 63, Idyll, p. 76, In Memoriam, p. 79, Irritable Songs, p. 86-90, It’s Here In The, p. 91, Lake in a Storm, p. 94 (2nd of 2), Lakefront, Cleveland, p. 97-98 (2nd of 2 different poems w/ same title), Locusts, Crickets This Summer, p. 105, The Lost Scarf, p. 108 (2nd of 2), Magic Gardens, p.117, New Storefront, p. 121, Night and a Distant Church, p. 126 (4th of 4), No Return to Canada, Nor Will He Buy a House, Drive an Automobile, or Have a Swimming Pool, p. 128-129, Nothing Dependable, p. 138-139, Nun’s Pitcher, p. 141, On a Distant Catastrophe, p. 146, On My Photo, p. 148, Out of Patience at the Out-Patient Clinic, p. 153, Probability and Birds, p. 157, Rehabilitation Bldg. Entrance: Four O’Clock, p. 159, School Demolition, p. 161, Shipwreck, p. 162-163, Spectres, Spectres, p. 164-165, Travel in Ohio, p. 181, Weekend Murder, p. 185-187, Where There’s Water, p. 188, While Waiting for a Friend to Come to Visit a Friend in a Mental Hospital, p. 189, While Waiting in Line at the Bank, p. 190-191 // Whichever, 1978: Another Birthday, p. 32, Apparition, p. 34-35, At Night Keep Still, p. 36, Changing Season, p. 41, Exclamations for Grey Hair, p. 55-57, Imaginary Crimes in a Real Garden, p. 77, Late Bus, p. 100-101, Old Man Carrying a Bible in a High Crime Area, p. 145, Out of Joint, p. 152, Stepmothers: Grimm Bros. Re-visited, p. 168-170, A Winter’s Walk, p. 192-193, You Are Enthusiasm Until Then: Disco, p. 197-198 // From: The Chesnutt Record, 1988: Homeless, p. 74 // From: Art Crimes, 1989-1991: Backyard, p. 37 (1989), Ninety Kilocycles, p. 127 (1991), Public Square, p. 158 (1991), Spring’s Generation Gap, p. 166 (1989), Transit, p. 179 (1989) // Juxtapositions, 1991: Exteriors, Interiors, p. 60, Ghastly Cuisine, p. 73, Over His Dead Body, p. 154, Ventilating Day at the Mall Down by the Lake, p.183 // From: House Organ, 1993-2007: Bus Stop, p. 40 (1993), Dust at Home, p. 47-48 (2004), (Impromptu on “Oft-Thought”), p.78 (2006), Inhibited Breakfast, p. 80-81 (2001), Mad Meg (after Breughel), p. 109-110 (2007), Moon Weird’d Its Full, p. 118 (1993), News as of Now, p. 122 (2004), Of Depression, p. 143 (2000) // 7 @ 70, 1996: Exclamation’s Gauntlet, p. 58-59, Friend Lying in a Hospital Bed, p. 68-69, Trying to Get Somewhere On Time, p. 182, World’d Too Much, p. 194-195 // From: In the Company of Russell Atkins, 2016: DAWN Rest Home, p. 44-45 //
NOTE: Facsimile copies of all of Russell Atkins’ poetry collections are available for reading/ download in poet and scholar Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse Archive (www.eclipsearchive.org), as noted by the editors of World’d Too Much.
UFI | 01/20/2020