Blood calls to blood. Blood always calls to blood. That happens whenever I read THE NAME IS DILLINGER. I promise myself to relax, to take it easy, breathe normally, just say the lines in a natural way but the last thing I can be is laid back when I read NAME. It’s like answering to a throwdown, a personal challenge, a psychic slap in the face, a long blood curdling yell from the void. I read the first line out loud and suddenly I am sucked into the current of the poem, in and down and around the roaring flow of the lines. Current and flow are words that apply because THE NAME IS DILLINGER is a big river of a poem, a tsunami of a poem. A torrential flood of a poem and all I can do is swim in the crowd of water, the overpowering rush.
Blood always calls to blood because a poem is made of breath and spit and soul stuff and come and THE NAME IS DILLINGER is the history of all those things plus dreams. Also, the history of the way the blood goes in the veins. The map and the history of the way the voice tries to crack a door in the void. The map and the history and the nightmare strut of my shadow while I try to read it to a wall or to a room full of people. Wall or people it doesn’t matter once I get into the rhythm and the motion of it because once in I am lost to everything but the words and whatever it is that pulses and shakes underneath the words. I get so lost there that I have to read my way out of it, I have to talk my way out of it, I have to chant my way out of it. THE NAME IS DILLINGER is a violent labyrinth of a poem that I have to dive into and then wander around in with exuberant fear, nervous ecstasy, and bushwhacked desire before escaping its hypnotic drag. And, escape is the only way out of NAME. Or, maybe release. The poem releases me, I never release it. I could never release it. It has that much power over me, over who I am, over the way that I am compelled to read it.
Release because the built up energy inside NAME is so intense that it has a way of holding me all the way through it no matter how many mistakes I may make, no matter how many lines I may have skipped or in my excitement have been totally blind to. Release because the pent up energy is so intense that it holds me the way ten thousand volts may hold an electrocuted man to the murder chair until the plug is pulled, the juice is cut. Release because during the reading or performance or whatever defines this intricate dance of words, I am tangled and tied to this blue volt forest fire of words.
And, when I am released, I am almost always exhausted. I can’t think of any other american poem of the nineteenth or twentieth century which is as intense as THE NAME IS DILLINGER. I write this not in arrogance, though it may seem so, but because for the last thirty plus years I’ve compared it to all of the best long poems that I know. I’ve even gone so far as to try reading SONG OF MYSELF aloud, to myself, and found that while it is and will always be the primal american long poem, SONG lacks the blood and breath intensity of THE NAME IS DILLINGER. SONG reminds me of a large gently flowing river, really the first river, while NAME is almost certainly the most violent of large rivers. SONG is a leisurely first stroll into the archetypal american psyche including and incorporating and naming practically everything. NAME is anything but leisurely. It roars through the smashed canyons of angst and rage; it slams the velocity of line against and through the reader’s blood, it is a nightmare longing for a nearly impossible outlaw lingo.
Of all the long poems of the twentieth century only HOWL might match THE NAME IS DILLINGER for intensity. But the intensity in HOWL is that of madness. It’s the madness of Munch’s SCREAM painted into words. It’s the madness of Goya’s black paintings splashed into an archetypal yelling. It’s the anarchic black pourings spilling from Jackson Pollock’s hands. Ultimately, HOWL is the human recoil from war, establishment, authority, nuclear weapons, mindless conformity, and money. HOWL is the sound of the human reeling from the wreckage of the contemporary world.
THE NAME IS DILLINGER is anything but a reeling back or recoiling from any of those things. NAME is the exact opposite of HOWL. Human beings react in one of two ways during extreme situations. It’s either fight or flight. HOWL may be many things, but it is the most extreme form of protest during flight. HOWL makes profound poetry and sublime noise in response to the craziness of the world. What else can you do when you have seen the best minds of your generation destroyed?
If HOWL is flight, THE NAME IS DILLINGER is all about fight. Dillinger refuses to be Allen Ginsberg. Dillinger refuses to be Franz Kafka’s Joseph K. Dillinger refuses to wait for that ominous knock at the door or go howling through the streets, a dark voice in tatters. He’d rather blow the shit out of everything. For every Joseph K. there has to be a John Dillinger. For every HOWL there has to be THE NAME IS DILLINGER. These two poems stand at opposite poles, the extremes of the american psyche. They help us understand what it really means to be an american.. They define the edges of the american dream and the american longing.
Except for SONG OF MYSELF’s primal long chant and HOWL’s white heat of madness, there are no other poems that match THE NAME IS DILLINGER for its careening intensity, its violent and unrelenting bravado, its primal sense of murder danced in and out of words, its complex rage.
I remember the whole time I was writing THE NAME IS DILLINGER it felt as though some unseen presence had grabbed me by the shirt front, by the lapels of my coat, by great handfuls of my hair and skin and was shaking me so hard that all of the breath had just about come out of me. Was shaking me so hard I could barely speak. Was shaking me so hard that I could almost taste the salt and spew of blood at the back of my mouth.
And, while I was writing, I could feel myself shiver but the shiver was going in and not noticeable from any outward appearance. The chill must have resulted from going into the darkness of the blood and the dream. And, I could hardly get the words down because it felt as though my hand was about to jump away from the pen I was holding. And, the times I was working on the old black steel Royal typewriter my hands were almost frightened of the words that were pouring out of them. It felt like a double shot of exultation and enormous fear.
Was it exultation and fear that Rachmaninoff felt when he was composing his third piano concerto? Was he shaking and sweating into the cadences of his nightmare crescendoes?
Aside from HOWL and SONG OF MYSELF, the only thing that can stand up to THE NAME IS DILLINGER for the sheer sake of spiraling intensity is the Rach Three. The violent lyricism of it. No other poem in English from the twentieth century that I know of can equal NAME in this way. Not THE WASTE LAND. Not PATERSON. Not LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND. Not MAXIMUS. Not THE DREAM SONGS. Not even any part of THE CANTOS. Maybe Vicente Huidobro’s ALTAZOR. But that’s a poem written in Spanish. Still, I wonder.
I sometimes wonder what it could have been like reading THE NAME IS DILLINGER against Walt Whitman reading SONG OF MYSELF. In his prime, maybe down on the seashore with the waves rushing in. He could read a part of SONG and I could read a part of NAME, against ourselves, against each other, and against the ocean. And, we’d go back and forth mano a mano with the wind trying to one up everything. Or, in his stead, Ginsberg could read HOWL. At Vesuvio’s. Or, at Six Gallery if there is a Six Gallery anymore. Or, how about City Lights Bookstore for one last go round? Let her rip and let it be total war during the reading. Make it a reading with all of the stops pulled out. A reading with no time limit. And none of that cheap slam third rate acting bullshit. This would be several notches above amateur night. All we’d need was just the frenzy and the fury of the human voice where the vocal chords nearly crack in two. And then, make it a draw. Because it has to be a draw. Because between them both poems form the equivalent of the american psyche.
I haven’t read THE NAME IS DILLINGER much lately, though there are times when I ache to hear it echo all the way through me like the deepest dream voice I’ll ever know. It isn’t because I don’t love it. I love it the way Beethoven had to love the Ninth, the way Goethe had to love Faust, the way Shakespeare must have loved Hamlet, the way Mozart had to love Don Giovanni. I don’t read it because it is like wrestling with a monstrous demon. It is like getting into the worst of fistfights with someone who is eternally young and undeniably strong and unbelievably quick. I rarely read THE NAME IS DILLINGER anymore because it is a power source that I normally think twice about before tapping into.
It is said that Lorca, before giving a reading, would invoke the duende much the same way that a shaman would call down the energy for a healing ceremony. When I read THE NAME IS DILLINGER, I never have to do this because NAME is all duende. And, except for THE CORPSE IS DREAMING, it is a poem that is directly hooked into what Ted Hughes has called “the elemental power circuit of the universe.”
The thing is it doesn’t matter whether or not I read THE NAME IS DILLINGER. The fact that I wrote I means that somehow or other I will float in that river of energy forever. And, it is there that blood will always call to blood.