The Poetry Project

“the past zings through the present”

In Memoriam for Dick Gallup by John Godfrey

In 1966, I met Dick Gallup. I had read him in the journals of the mid-’60s and was keen on the works and ideas of the tight group of poets he had conspired with for several years. I was a new guy, shy and intimidated more than somewhat by the group’s quick and aggressive wits (dexedrine) but quickly felt the kindness and encouragement they offered to a “new recruit.” By the fall of 1969 I was in the East Village for good (forever) when the original clusters of poets were about to disperse. But from 1969 until 1973 or so there were occasions several times a week when all of us would be at an event or reading, and during those times I got to know Dick and, moreover, listen to him and his longtime co-conspirators discuss and debate many things—sometimes even writing.

Dick was exactly four years and eight days older than I. I was, so to speak, the freshman and he had just graduated. I must have been around him a lot. In recall I can see him, always with one or the other cap tipped back on his head, even at home. His face was expressive as was his voice. Poets had fun around each other. Dick’s facial flexibility was such that in 30 minutes you could read on it glee, disdain, indifference, interested warmth, disbelief. Dick was as masculinist as anyone else in those days, yet he also demonstrated caring sentiments.

I might be describing his poems.

Sometime before 1974 he departed New York and I can’t remember seeing him more often than the times he was in town to read. Those meetings were warm and happy ones. I missed out on some of his publications when he was in the Rockies or in the Bay Area. When the world is jumping on your trampoline it’s the longest friendships, which are few, that stay active.

Dick read at the Poetry Project shortly after the publication of the real subject of this piece, I think in 2001. I’m not sure I could have made it that night. In those days, at 8 p.m. I would be looking for a parking space and I would have been starving after a 12-hour day at work. But I certainly obtained the book of “new and selected.”

That book is Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things (Coffee House Press, 2000), which is available online, I just checked alibris, so get it. It is an ideal history of Gallup’s writing and gives an idea of ambitions he shared with longtime friends Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan and later with Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Brownstein. Tom Clark had been an ally for several years before his arrival in New York in ’67. He stayed for but one year and shared Gallup’s love of 17th century Romantic era poetry.

Shiny Pencils is put together to a great extent chronologically. In the front of the book are examples of early works by Gallup which are irreverent, disrespectful of traditional values of authorship, intent on insurrection, which was the underground post-‘50s thing. A lot of stealing went on, which today would be called, politely, appropriation. That kind of manipulation had been part of 20th Century writing among the Continental poets, too. Berrigan’s The Sonnets was a tour de force of collaging and shuffling of lines, but for the most part from a lofty (and wiseass) source, Rimbaud. Gallup had been a colleague of Berrigan’s since his teenage years. Berrigan was a major influence, in writing and attitude. Berrigan’s take on Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara and Denby was as influential as his own writing.

Those thefts were in fact acts of imagination. (No apps! No cut and paste! No Xerox!) Gallup was very amorous of 17th-18th English poetry, the meters and fastidiousness, and a lot of the first 50 or so pages of Pencils are gently larcenous. When I’ve read these poems over the years I sometimes believe Gallup made up himself what would otherwise appear to have been harvested. But he also is convincingly deep and it’s more than possible to see a serious “real poem” instead of a satire. I’m amazed each time I read “Life in Darkness.” Where is this “borrowed” material coming from? The Book of Job? Lamentations? John Bunyan? There seems to be a serious purpose to this long (11 page) poem, arising from a deep or unconscious sourcing. A driven “real” poem.

The middle 80 or so pages of Pencils remind me a lot of trends that began with the ‘70s. Gallup wrote then with the glibness that often was part of the era. But he demonstrates the talky, conversational manner, by then very well established, with a definite lean towards a fastidious and non-naturalistic style. Brash, blunt, and easygoing, yes, but with care in diction. His life themes, I guess, had set in. They are, pardon me, existential. Unhappiness and distress, often with himself. In my take, an out-of-place-ness, a loss of illusion with no small amount of bitters. There are sweet moments but not saccharine ones. The occasions of poems are aloneness, rejection, being eaten by reality. But in every case you read Gallup reacting to what he is writing by changing the tone strategically, especially with great inventions of wack images that amuse and, all the same, have accuracy. Feedback as he goes, from the poem in progress back to himself. Juggling a poem.

The last 40-50 pages of Pencils I find to be sublime. Gallup puts all his food on the same plate. The feelings are crystal clear and are served by all the compositional skills and habits he had incorporated. Flights of imagination, occasionally antiqued prosody, honest short of earnestness. A how-to, well earned, of moving “real” poems. On the one hand a diminished self presents and on the other a greater power of insight. Lyricism was in his skeleton and he used it confidently.

This is a time when sensitivities profit from the smartass, the tricky, the distrust of the sincere. Let’s get real, yo. Let’s get compositionally shifty. Let’s bring out the gray. Truth is provisional. We only live once.

Take Dick Gallup, for instance. Get Dick Gallup and his Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things.

#264 — Spring 2021