Rick Mullin’s “Huncke”


Rick Mullin, Huncke, Seven Towers, 2010 £12.99

‘This isn’t going to be another sonnet’, we’re told by the last line of Stanza II, Canto Two of Rick Mullin’s epic in twelve cantos, Huncke; and indeed, this poem extends far beyond the ordered but tensioned miniature system of the fourteen-line form. Huncke is a huge, sprawling, diverse construction, epically struggling to contain within itself mutually-opposing dynamics which seem to stretch and bend the poem in different directions. And that is one of the things that the poem aims to be, I think: a text which attempts to represent the heterogeneity of contemporary American culture. The critical question is whether such an ambitious intention is matched by the result. This brief review can only point to a few of the elements of the poem’s representation of its chosen subject which might address that critical question.

The most obvious element of disparity within Huncke is that between content and form. The poem takes its name from Herbert Huncke, who was an icon of the Beat Generation, an American lifestyle and literary movement which valued the anarchic, the spontaneous, the disordered, and the unregimented in reaction against the conformist social values and behaviours of post-World War II America, with its McCarthyite sanctions against free thought and expression, and its short-back-and-sides, man-in-the-grey-flannel suit, lock-step uniformity. In literature, the Beat writers strove to break down received forms, styles and modes, replacing them with attempted spontaneity, free verse, absurdist imagery, cut-up and randomly rearranged non-linear texts, and so forth. Utilising this subversive, anti-establishment character of Herbert Huncke as its focus, Mullin’s poem cuts diachronically and synchronically through layers and dimensions of American culture and history. Yet in contrast to its anarchically-oriented subject matter, Mullin’s poem has the formal structure of an epic poem in the classical style, divided into traditional cantos, made up of ottava rima stanzas, a stanzaic form dating from the late Middle Ages. Here is an immediate dynamic of discrepancy: anarchic, avant-garde anti-formalist material levered uncomfortably (it would seem) into the confines of a conservative, traditional form; and this discrepancy undoubtedly generates much of the abundant electricity and tension of the poem, just as it is emblematic of the tension between heterogeneity and conformity in American cultural history.

Yet I would argue that Mullin’s marriage of avant-garde with traditional in Huncke is much more complex, and ultimately less incongruous, than this first approximation analysis would suggest. Readers of the poem are signalled from the first few lines that the ostensible formal model for Huncke is Byron’s comic epic Don Juan, and Mullin’s choice of intertextuality here is astute, allowing him to achieve the picaresque ambience which I judge to be an important element of his text. But Huncke has a less comic, more serious and celebratory major strand as well, and on my reading, the comic element undercuts, arguably a little detrimentally at times, the poem’s more serious business.

But let’s consider those elements of the Don Juan intertextuality which are effective. The characters of Don Juan and Herbert Huncke share qualities of the anti-hero; both critique the mores of their respective societies, explicitly and by failing to conform with them. ‘If Byron needs a hero, so do I’ writes Mullin at the end of his Canto I, echoing the opening line of Don Juan: ‘I want a hero: an uncommon want’. This close allusion clearly and formally establishes the underlying Huncke/Don Juan intertextuality; but it does more than this. Hadley J. Mozer has written:

In announcing his ‘want’ —i.e., his ‘lack’ or ‘desire’—of and for a hero, Byron is almost certainly parodying several types of early advertising and advertising-related discourse: namely, the newspaper ‘want ad’ and military recruitment propaganda … ‘I want a hero’ is the voice of one crying out in the dailies, the handbills, and the posters of early nineteenth-century England, advertising a poet’s ‘want’ of and for an ‘epic’ hero, not in the elevated diction of epic, but in the ‘vulgar’ dialect of advertising—an overture that advertises quite well what the reader can expect from the rest of Don Juan, which incorporates numerous languages and just about every kind of jargon and slang that John Bull might have heard spoken in Regency society. And what better way could Byron have possibly begun Don Juan, that multi-tongued ‘Babel’ of an epic poem so full of odd juxtapositions of high and low culture, and so replete with references to the consumer goods and oddities of the age, than to advertise for a hero?

(‘”I Want a Hero”: Advertising for an Epic Hero in Don Juan’. Hadley J. Mozer in Studies in Romanticism, Volume 44, Issue 2, 2005.)

Mozer’s comments illuminate, I think, some key aspects of Huncke. Mullin’s text, like Byron’s, engages with the pop culture and mass media of its era; it too is a “multi-tongued ‘Babel’ of an epic poem … full of odd juxtapositions of high and low culture, and … replete with references to the consumer goods and oddities of the age”. In Huncke Americans find their own versions of Byron’s consumer goods and oddities: the Internet, FaceBook, Wikipedia, cartoons, punk rock, crazy bohemians, Mickey Mouse, political campaigns, and so forth. However, Mullin’s poem takes this field of reference back through various eras of American culture: from 2009, through the 1980s, ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, the American Civil War, the War of Independence, assembling an appropriately chaotic collage of American iconography in a style which is suggestive of William Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ technique of narrativisation.

So Don Juan is a ‘multi-tongued’ text, and in that respect it prefigures the modernist and post-modernist heteroglossic narrative mode, which Mullin also deploys to structure his text; much of the significance of Huncke is represented through this device. Huncke’s framing narrative is based on an open-mic poetry reading in tribute to Herbert Huncke held in New York in 2009, but fictionalised for the purposes of the poem; this is an effective context for presenting the various personae that compose a mosaic of vocalisations and perspectives, to enact the representation of the sprawl of American histories and cultures. So we hear the various narratives of open-mic readers, such as the M.C. Morton, (who gives us back-story and context for Herbert Huncke), and a ‘white-haired stevedore’ who evokes the historic landscape of industrial struggle, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth; but spliced into these voicings are many more: we hear Mickey Mouse, Rudy Giuliani, Dr. Kinsey, Benjamin Franklin, Patti Smith, and Allen Ginsberg.

“It’s sketchy, but I do make out a scheme,”
sings Ginsberg. “Gadgetry no longer hidden
makes its way up Lexington to ream
the orifice of human soul. Forbidden
light, intelligence, and ardour scream
beneath the rigging of a profit-ridden
engine (Moloch!) in the stark alliance:
Government—meet Industry and Science!”
(Canto Seven, XIX)

Yes, that’s right—Allen Ginsberg in iambic pentameter ottava rima! Moloch indeed! This style of wicked humour based on incongruous juxtaposition is one of Huncke’s characteristic entertaining elements.

Behind these many voices is the über-voice of the unnamed dominant narrator, who, like the narrator of Don Juan, might at the superficial level be taken for the ‘poet himself’ but who is, in both poems, oddly hard to pin down. In Mullin’s poem the narrator slides between ‘I’ and ‘we’, at times seeming to represent the poet who has reluctantly attended the tribute, at other times the audience at the tribute, and at other times again some notionally wider, more universal ‘we’. This fluidity of narrative identity resembles Australian poet John Tranter’s methodology in The Floor of Heaven, a poem of similar epic length, scope and importance, which has other points of similarity with Huncke, particularly its constantly morphing polyvocality, and its tendency towards a very culturally-specific field of reference. In The Floor of Heaven much of the landscape and character typology is as particularly 1950s and ‘60s bohemian Sydney as Huncke’s is New York and America; for the reader unfamiliar with either, this may present some difficulty in parsing the gist, yet in both cases the parsing is well worth the effort.

The dominant (or framing) narrative voice of Huncke deploys romantic irony, following its model, Don Juan; indeed this is a foregrounded intertextual element. The effect of this romantic irony in both poems is to create a witty, satiric, comic context; after all, the narrator, constantly drawing attention to the fictive nature of his material, and even of ‘himself’, is inviting us to not take him seriously, to laugh with him at the intrinsic absurdity of roles, events and outcomes. For the purposes of satire in Don Juan, I think this mode works effectively indeed; in the case of Huncke its effectiveness is less clear-cut, because Huncke aims at something much wider than satire, tending to some degree towards a vatic endorsement and celebration of the ‘angelheaded hipsters’ of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs—of whom Herbert Huncke was the prototype. I read Huncke as being, although indeed satiric, much more affirmatory of its principal subject matter than Don Juan, and in that respect the impact of the Huncke-narrator’s romantic irony is, I think, a little less certain. But the romantic-ironic voice does help produce the impression of a god-like overview of the very broad sweep of time, place and society painted in both poems.

On the level of formal technique, the apparent lack of seriousness of the narrative über-voice in both Don Juan and Huncke is further embodied in (amongst other things) the deliberately slap-dash use of rhyme, with forced, macaronic, broken and slant rhymes, in the improvvisatore tradition where the author affects a spontaneous carelessness, an aristocratic disdain for the try-hard conscientiousness of more earnest rhymesters. This pell-mell rhyming both creates and is supported by a tone of lazy but exuberant colloquiality. In Byron’s poem the attitude embodied is that of the Gentleman rather than the Player—only someone forced to be a professional would bother too much straining to rhyme those damn’ verses seriously. Taken together with the romantic irony of narrative, the hit-or-miss rhyming serves to distance narrator and reader from the material, suggesting thereby a more intellectual, less emotionally-engaged stance. It also invokes a sense of poetic instability deriving from the potential wayward randomness of the rhymes. In Mullin’s poem the device allows a similar casual and colloquial distancing, and more importantly, creates a ludic effect, an exhilarating joy in the verbal play:

“There you have it.” “Deus ex machina,”
says Ginsberg. “I’m not buying that today,”
says Jack, “the brother seaman’s packin’ a
syrette for self control. I look away
and see it coming.” “Yes, but Jack, in a
redacted universe …” “That’s what you say.”
“You thoroughly agree, I’ve seen your files.”
The trumpeter upstaging this is Miles.
(Canto Nine, XVII)

The rhyme series of ‘…Deus ex machina’/ ’…packin’ a’ / ’…Jack, in a’, along with the deliberately imperfect metric scansions of some of the lines, deftly catches the colloquiality of the excited and natural direct speech represented in this stanza. These forced and broken rhymes gesture away from the basic strictures of the poetic form towards the unconstrained free verse that Ginsberg and Kerouac favoured, and contribute much to the satiric and polyvocalic qualities of the poem: within the stanza’s eight lines we flip back and forth between the colloquy of Kerouac and Ginsberg, and from them slide to the voicings of Miles Davis’ trumpet.

Huncke is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a big poem. It covers a very great deal of cultural and historical ground with an at times bewildering range of allusions, some of which are mainstream and recognisable to the general reader of poetry; others of which seem very specialised indeed. Mandelbrot, Mischianza, Trenton, and Probst, for example, had me scurrying to Wikipedia ‘to bone up’ as Canto One, III would have it.

As is inevitable in such an ambitious piece, some sections will read more strongly than others. I best enjoyed the section in Canto Six where Mullin represents some of the painterly denizens of his huge constructed world, and deploys well-executed, vigorous visual imagery in that context. Perhaps Mullin’s background in art has made the visual aspect of his work particularly strong, and certainly Huncke—in essence a visionary poem—is a poem dominated by visual images, rather than those drawn from the other senses. The dominant visualisations of the work are amplified by Paul Weingarten’s very apposite illustrations, which emphasise a kind of hypnotic, dark radiance permeating the book. These verbal and graphic visualisations together evoke a dream-like transitional state, a journey through existential bardos, reminding me somewhat of the filmic style of David Lynch.

It’s certainly a very U.S.-American-centric poem, and that will mean some hard work for readers not immersed in the U.S. cultural stream; even for many within it, I imagine. Yet any good poem requires work on the part of the reader, and the residual effect of Huncke is a sense of having been enriched by the range of voices and insights that the poem presents, and enriched too by the sharing of a vision, not just of America, not just of the first decade of the 21st century, but of vistas stretching beyond. The reader has moved with that somewhat slippery narrator from his reluctant acceptance of the quest on the dubious imperative of poetry-biz quid-pro-quo (‘I’d never been particularly keen / on hipster scribblers, but, you see, I’d sent / out invitations to my own event … ’), through a bizarre but remarkable journey towards a more elevated revelation, where ‘up on Bowery, ghosts and angels play / the networks of America at night’, and where the narrator can ask, ‘is Brooklyn hinting at the light?’ Despite—because of?—the exigencies of its journey, this odyssey, ‘setting sail / across America’s agenda’ achieves, finally, a visionary luminescence.

This is indeed a very ambitious poem. Full marks to Rick Mullin for attempting it, and for pulling it off so spectacularly. Huncke will take its place amongst the more important large-scale works in the American poetic canon.