Poetry In Memoriam
“The beauty of this world knocked me off my feet”:
The Poetry of Dick Gallup
If you read around in the afterlives of the New American Poetry, you’re likely to first come across Dick Gallup in The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan, where references to “Richard Gallup” and “Dick” are scattered across the sonnet sequence like a friendly, mysterious echo. “My dream a drink with Richard Gallup we discuss the code / of the west” appears twice, for example—a memorable set of lines that softly resonate, like so much of The Sonnets, with a kind of near-representational motion. We get so used to Gallup, or at least the texture and sound of his name, along with others like “Ron,” “Chris,” and “Marge,” that lines like “Saith I to Dick in the verge,” “Whenever Richard Gallup is dissevered,” and “I never thought Dick would be back at Gude’s” make us feel like we know, if not this person, at least something about the intimacy that makes him so prominent in his friend’s poems. In fact, Gallup is one of the most referenced poets throughout Berrigan’s work, appearing dozens of times in poems and titles, as well as a collaborator (as with the poem “80th Congress”) and a common dedicatee (Berrigan’s book Nothing for You is dedicated to him, along with poems like “A Boke” and “Many Happy Returns”). As is so pleasurably common in this network of poets, reading the work of one writer, so full of associations and the traces of friendship, invites you toward another.
Childhood neighbor and best friends with Ron Padgett after his family moved from Greenfield, Massachusetts to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1950, Gallup was seemingly fated for a life as a poet. He would go on to found and edit The White Dove Review with Padgett and Joe Brainard in high school, and become friends with Berrigan, who was then in graduate school at the nearby University of Tulsa. By the early sixties Gallup was living in New York on the Lower East Side with the rest of his friends, a group that John Ashbery jokingly dubbed “the soi-disant Tulsa School,” a riff on Ashbery’s own sense of aesthetic dislocation generated by the newly imagined “New York School.” This is the context where Gallup most often appears in literary histories, one name among many in lists of poets associated with the New York School, a writer whose work is in proximity to more well-known poets but hasn’t registered in a larger context. Yoked to the idea of a Tulsa School, which is itself embedded in the “complicated double-joke,” as Edwin Denby calls it, of the New York School, Gallup is more often a reference point than a poet to be read—or at least that’s how it seems. Though Coffee House Press published Gallup’s new and selected poems, Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things in 2000, the book’s lack of introduction or framing material makes it challenging to understand the trajectory of his work or to learn more about Gallup and his associations with other writers. The rest of his books are out of print. His presence in American poetry has remained, as he writes in the poem “Easter,” as ephemeral as the “[r]ustling in the light breeze / Which is my life.”
When I’m working in the archives though, there’s no ignoring Gallup. His poems appear in nearly every issue of Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry as well as in Aram Saroyan’s Lines, The Poetry Project’s The World, and dozens of other little magazines from the sixties. His work was pivotal within these avant-garde networks. One day I’m looking through a folder of photographs and come across a set of images of Gallup. In the first he’s standing in a circle of other poets at a party following Ashbery’s famous reading at the Living Theatre in September 1963. In another, a set of photobooth images in a folder labeled “unknown individuals,” Gallup is pictured alongside Brainard, Berrigan, and Patricia and Ron Padgett. It’s probably 1964, the same year he read at Wagner College with Berrigan, Padgett, Lorenzo Thomas, Peter Orlovsky, and Gerard Malanga in an event called “The New Decadents.” And then there’s one photo that’s just of Gallup. His name is written on the back in Alice Notley’s clean cursive handwriting. He’s climbing what looks like the side of a monument, looking down at the camera, all dark hair and big glasses, his hand gripping an ornamental frieze. The two horizontal stripes at the top on his socks are prominently exposed. He looks goofy, a little unsteady. He’s having fun.
When Gallup passed away in late January, I thought of this photo first. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it, especially compared to other photographs that situate Gallup so prominently in the social and literary networks of the early sixties. What feels important is that it’s just him in the photo.
Gallup’s first book, Hinges, was published by Berrigan’s “C” Press in 1965 followed by his three-act play The Bingo, published by Lewis MacAdams and Peter Schjeldahl’s Mother Press in 1966, both with covers by Brainard. A 1969 review of The Bingo in Chicago’s alternative newspaper Kaleidoscope describes it as “already an underground classic,” a piece of theater that is “a written analog of Zappa’s ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.’” When the play was performed at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street Loft in 1973, “a concealed object which George Schneeman had made but no one ever saw” called “The Bingo” was discretely passed back and forth by the actors. Following the recommendation of friend and Paris Review editor Tom Clark, Gallup’s second book and first full-length collection, Where I Hang My Hat, was published by Harper & Row in 1970. The book’s front cover, featuring a blank folding projector screen set on a blue background designed by Schneeman, is one of the most strikingly beautiful of the era.
In the 1970s, like Padgett, MacAdams, and Thomas, Gallup worked as a poet-in-residence in public school programs in West Virginia and South Carolina, an itinerant teaching circuit that took him away from New York City, where he also taught. By the mid-seventies he had relocated with his wife Carol and two children to Monte Rio, California, and not long after that to San Francisco, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1976, Gallup’s third collection, Above the Treeline, was published by Bill Berkson’s Big Sky Books. He also started teaching in the annual summer writing program at Naropa’s newly founded Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. There are dozens of recordings of Gallup’s readings and classes available in the Naropa University Audio Archive. In 1980, he was part of the incredible teaching experiment at Naropa called “Rotating Shakespeare” where he, Notley, Anne Waldman, Clark Coolidge, Philip Whalen, Reed Bye, Larry Fagin, and Allen Ginsberg all taught classes on different Shakespeare plays. Gallup taught, appropriately enough, Richard II. The Boulder-based Smithereens Press published his last regular poetry collection, Plumbing the Depths of Folly, in 1983, which is dedicated to Berrigan.
Even with so much interconnectedness, Gallup’s poetry isn’t easily folded into the expected molds of the New York School. The poems in Hinges and Where I Hang My Hat do amplify a similar kind of collaged incongruity as work by Berrigan and Padgett, and lines from his poems “Ember Grease” and “Out West and Back East” are actually Berrigan’s sources for a handful of lines in The Sonnets. But Gallup’s early poems stand apart through their radical pantoum-like combinatorial methods and bent mythic structures that don’t cohere through a larger architecture, like The Sonnets, or stabilize in the absurd near-narrative scaffolding of Padgett’s In Advance of the Broken Arm. The poem “Pomp Ilk,” Gallup’s experiment with the homophonic mistranslation technique also used by Berrigan and Padgett, is a case in point. The opening lines of the poem read: “On past the combed buffer / Sword the kite escalators all unguent him and lest you / Waggle your nurse, rudely too.” Another early poem, “From the Beaumont Series,” reads like a John Donne poem crossed with an LSD-inspired pulp Western.
Age came not my conifer, O
Not my corall on the prairie
The Navy, some Noel port,
In Voguelion collars.
Vase knee lop, Unguented an’
Interred d’old tram are:
O Me! Lassoo dolent enter,
Come! O dig! So far!
As Gallup says in a 1966 radio interview on WNYC, “I’m not interested in having a line have a defined sense that is the only sense. I generally try to have a poem say something, but as to whether it makes sense, I really don’t know.”
At the same time, Gallup’s poems express a contemplative interiority and interest in descriptive vision that, as the jacket blurb for Where I Hang My Hat describes, “exists in the oblique and lyrical light of a very personal sensitivity.” The end of the poem “Riding Down Grandma’s Driveway” embodies this alternative first-person solidity: “A sort of psychedelic Republicanism reminds / Me to keep my eyes open to Frank O’Hara and America / Which streams by me in my head submerged / By all that hate.” A skepticism toward traditional politics and unease with economic inequity continue to reemerge in Gallup’s later work, like in “Two Bits Will Get You Four,” dedicated to Michael Brownstein.
Where we fail is in our desire for perfection
But it hardly matters
So many fail out of their desire for profit
Even social profit
Who gives a fuck?
Who really gives a fuck?
His incredulousness about bourgeois values matches a turn in his own career away from the cycles of visibility often mandated by literary publishing and teaching positions. When he moved to San Francisco, Gallup became a taxi driver, a job he continued for most of the rest of his life. Only a few years ago, in his late seventies, Gallup was still working the graveyard shift. As he wrote to me in late 2016, “Hard to find the time to get back to you. Work related effort seems to eat up everything,” a reminder that poets and artists who are remembered are often those with the ability to do the labor of remembering. “Hardly know where to start,” he wrote to me, “I don’t focus on the past much.” We never really got to catch up. As he writes in the poem “What, Frankly, Is So Hot About Intelligence?”:
It’s great to be alive
But there’s no way to do it
Life defies art
It will not fit
We did talk on the phone last July, though only for a few minutes. I regret that we weren’t in touch more. But there’s no way to do it.
It’s hard to describe a singular Dick Gallup style. His works range from the long, fractured, and almost proto-Language poem “Life in Darkness” in Where I Hang My Hat to the quiet, contemplative domesticity at the end of Shiny Pencils. The late poem “Democracy” is one of my favorites of these types. The way the enjambments of its final lines hinge the poem’s thinking together has this awkward rhetorical grace, leading us to these especially lovely last two lines, a reminder of Gallup’s crystalline syllabic ear.
Though we believe it all ties in
We can’t say how, can’t string it out so
It gives the same boost to everyone, regardless
A little affair conducted in gestures of the utmost subtlety
In a fine rain during a balmy September
There’s also something utilitarian about his poems, as if they’re machines where Gallup is documenting what it’s like to think and feel in syntax. The lush fragmentation of the early poems increasingly shift toward a recording of everyday tensions entangled in larger losses, beautiful moments, but with a resistance to easily consumable profundity. Sentimentality is cut through with a welcome strangeness, like in “Destination Moon,” another of my favorite Gallup poems, also dedicated to Berrigan, in which “Leaving is hard to do / It breaks your heart open / And fills it with oatmeal.” The poems ends
Trees grow in the wind
Sweet grasses of the plains
Clarity in the mountains
A red bush in a dark field
Soon I’ll hold the syntax in my head
Under a roof with a sky above
Instead of friendly human soot
The way these lines hold an attention to a living landscape, turn to an interior space—both physically and mentally—and cut away from epiphany with something dirtier, less resolved, is a good measure of Gallup’s poems, especially from the mid-seventies onward. The explosive and complex linguistic works of the sixties are welcoming in their tonal variations, humor, and collage of genres and forms, though one gets to sit a little differently with Gallup’s later poems. It’s hard not to relate to lines like “I just get older and a little more desperate / To find something worth celebrating / With a good cup of coffee.” The five-line poem “Things To Do,” a variation on the form popularized by Berrigan and other New York School poets, lays out a version of this aesthetic practicality.
Modulate your feelings
makes the spaces real
keep the intellect in tune
charge your batteries regularly
remember what happens
Inside this straight-forward utilitarianism, there’s clearly a tension between buoyancy and struggle, the search to stay calibrated within and against a not-always-so-easy-to-live-in world. This need to maintain a kind of fragile balance is inscribed in so many of Gallup’s poems. Sometimes it’s the mundane rituals of city life, like “Trying to park across the street / For about 90 minutes” from “40 Acres and a Mule”; other times it’s the ontological confusion about what it means to speak or write at all, as in “8 October 1978”: “There is so much noise / In the world and I / Always make more / To keep between me / And the silence.” It’s reassuring to come against Gallup’s darker edges, his sense of disquiet and anxiety, which make both the joys and angers of his work that much more vivid. Gallup’s common-sense vision loops back in “Sounds Like You Had a Pretty Good Time,” but is cut through with wildly imaginative color.
In real life there’s no need
to say “real”
You go out on your first date
And kiss a Burmese tiger
For the benefit of all sentient beings
In the Holly Solomon Gallery records at the Archives of American Art, there’s a fantastic black and white video recording of a reading Gallup gave at the 98 Greene Street Loft in the early seventies. The video opens with Gallup sitting on the large podium at the front of the gallery while strumming a guitar. His hair is long, down to his chest, and he’s wearing a flower-clad shirt and amazing vertically striped pants. He looks like a poetry folk star. The poet Ted Greenwald, who hosted the series, comes up to the podium, and he and Gallup talk for a moment, both smiling. His voice is kind and warm as he addresses the audience, joking that “I’m a first-rate poet but an eighth-rate singer,” so he’ll start the reading by playing an original song called “The Commune Blues.” It turns out to be a funny, bluesy country tune about the pitfalls of pastoral utopian living. “I wish I was back in my old city home,” he sings, “This country life well it’s breaking my hope / Don’t want no more horses, no cows and no pigs / Don’t really care if the sky is so big.” Even if the song is ostensibly about how utopias don’t work out, you get the feeling that the group gathered at 98 Greene Street is its own sort of utopian community. The audience laughs through the song. A young child is playing in front of Gallup while he performs. Everyone is just hanging out. It’s such a good and unpretentious social moment—another kind of history of the New York School that describes how these artists were a community of people who loved and took care of one another.
In another video in the Solomon records, a documentary called 98.5 made by Solomon and Bert Spielvogel, the last ten minutes of the film are shot inside George Schneeman’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul is playing in the background while Gallup and Harris Schiff sit across from one another nude. Schneeman is just starting to sketch the outlines of their portraits on a large white canvas. Little happens over these ten minutes. Katie Schneeman and Holly Solomon play cards. Schiff, Gallup, and Schneeman are all smoking. They chat about this or that. Anne Waldman and Bill Berkson come in briefly, giving hugs. Schiff’s and Gallup’s bodies slowly materialize on Schneeman’s canvas. As the scene ends, a song by Gallup, now sitting on the couch playing guitar, is laid over the film. It’s totally lovely seeing into this moment of making art among friends, so many of whom are now gone. One of the few biographical prose statements that Gallup ever published is dedicated to describing his memory of working with Schneeman in moments like this one: “I seem to remember sunny afternoons, hard winter light with lots of blue in it, and smoke-swirling late nights while the object of our attention threatened to self-destruct at any moment. For myself, I just tried to give my best effort, remembering that wishing doesn’t make it so, and George, I’m sure, did likewise, which is what made it so much fun.”
Dick Gallup’s poems are fun—and funny—in this way, a subtle, spontaneous, engaged personal vision of what it looks like to create a life’s work in language, and softly so, though with a sharp desire to absolutely and always make a ruckus, and leave your mark, on the way out. As he writes in “Watch the Fish”:
The beauty of this world knocked me off my feet
First time I came out the front door
I’m going to try to get back up now
And give it a smack in the face