The adventures of Augie Kleinzahler


Latecomers to the warm fourth-floor lecture hall in Rosenwald sat eagerly on the floor, packing themselves against chairs and sofas, waiting for the poet to begin. The occasion was a Thursday afternoon Poem Present reading by August Kleinzahler. With works that are often tightly constructed and complicated but written in a stark vernacular, Kleinzahler has been prominent in the poetry community for decades and is considered a protégé in style and form of both modernists like Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and American beats like Allen Ginsberg.

English professor Robert von Hallberg introduced “Augie,” offering the titles of the 11 Kleinzahler books he owns: simple, evocative phrases like Sleeping It Off in Rapid City and Red Sauce, Whiskey & Snow. Von Hallberg noted how even in the colloquial poetry for which he is known, Kleinzahler’s use of the strange, complex names of chemicals and drugs creates a sense of the bizarre.

In “Retard Spoilage,” he uses this strangeness to describe the familiar. The poem features a couple sleeping even as the long list of foods in their refrigerator rots away: “mephitic flora” and “ladders of polysaccharides” in a “fetor of broken proteins.”

In his reading, Kleinzahler barely paused between poems, starting each one a beat after the last. He maintained his flow of speech through poems both short and long: a portrait of his mother in New Jersey in January, a monologue by an older dying poet, an ode to the workers who ride the corporate bus that runs from the bottom of the San Francisco hill where he lives to Silicon Valley’s Googleplex. Introducing the long poem that forms the centerpiece of his recent retrospective anthology, “Sleeping It off in Rapid City,” Kleinzahler asked if anyone in the audience had been to the South Dakota town. “It’s a weird town,” he added, and then let his poem explain how. He describes the city, which once housed the U.S. government’s missile defense program, and its truckers, hotels, and tourist attractions like the (relatively) nearby Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Kleinzahler paused in the poem’s middle: “I should have also told you that Rapid City claims to be 60 miles south of the center of the United States. If you count Alaska.”

Rose Schapiro, ’09

August Kleinzahler offers some of the finer things in life.

Photo courtesy Poem Present

November 24, 2008