Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 25 February 1937. Education: Lafayette High School, Brooklyn. Family: Married Kathleen Fraser, q.v., in 1961 (divorced 1970); two sons. Career: Worked as a shipping clerk, salesman, farmhand, steel mill hand, and deck hand; copywriter, J.C. Penney, New York; longshoreman, San Francisco. Taught poetry workshops at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1969–71, California Western College, San Diego, 1972–74, San Francisco State University, 1975, and United States International University, San Diego. Awards: Bay Area Book Reviewers award, 1984; PEN West Center award, 1993, for Sesame.Address: c/o Coffee House Press, 27 North Fourth Street, Suite 400, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, U.S.A.
The Darkest Continent. New York, For Now Press, 1967.
Bearings. New York, Harper, 1969.
Floats. Iowa City, Cedar Creek Press, 1971.
Surviving in America, with Anselm Hollo and Sam Hamod. Iowa City, Cedar Creek Press, 1972.
Bits of Thirst. Iowa City, Cedar Creek Press, 1972.
Bits of Thirst and Other Poems and Translations. Berkeley, California, Blue Wind Press, 1976.
Arriving on the Playing Fields of Paradise. Santa Cruz, California, Jazz Press, 1983.
Arabian Nights. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1986.
Sesame. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1993.
Chaos Comics. Tesuque, New Mexico, Pennywhistle Press, 1994.
Millennium Fever. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1997.*
Critical Study: By James Gurley, in Poet Lore, 89(2), summer 1994.
Jack Marshall comments:
Poetry for me is precise emotion and perception propelled.* * *
A reviewer has called Jack Marshall "an original voice at a time when many American poets are doing imitations of each other." This statement reflects a central bias of our time: throughout our culture we equate difference with worth. There is a mainstream practice in today's poetry, as indeed there has been in every period; each poet cannot be different from every other poet. It is true that Marshall's poetry is unusual, but it is not unique; others depart from the norm in similar ways. To consider his work, we need to define the ways in which it is distinct and try to evaluate them, rather than to assign merit to difference in itself.
One of the features of Marshall's poetry, especially in his early work, is a refusal of consistency, a lack of connection between words, images, and ideas, and a lack of narrative progression. The tendency is hard to illustrate without lengthy quotation, but it can be seen in a typically surreal stanza like this from Bearings:
Everywhere, the air priming.
in streetclothes, listen.
smooth wings play the sound of
The rejection of relationships between events in the poem is a refusal of movement; we are encouraged not to follow a thread through the work but to inhabit each dispossessed image, each word even, as a thing-in-itself. In this sense such writing is related to the contemporary mode called language poetry.
Marshall does not always write in this style. In the same volume he gives us more traditional poems like "Hitch-hiker," about a wandering poet who passes through "the festooned, blazing towns," wondering whether they are dreams. This statement, with its gorgeous image, might be taken as a metaphor for his less accessible work: a hitchhiker's passage through towns that blur into dreams.
Disconnectedness is still seen in Marshall's later poems, though not as urgently and not as often. "Dawn Notes," from the 1986 volume Arabian Nights, is a series of impressions that are internally consistent but only loosely related. Their separateness is emphasized by lines drawn between them in the text; they are like jottings in a writer's notebook. The influence here is oriental rather than surreal:
What leaves in the light
show red and gold
are in the dark
of the weak
feels like hauling
a whole unfucking week
Caw caw caw-high
in the trees, hooting
a train horn's far
Juxtaposition of apparently unrelated items can provide an exhilarating release from the drag of lineality and predictability, but for some readers deflected meanings and incongruities are a facile way to imply profundity. They suggest, as hallucination does, that because a thing is strange it provides clues to the unfathomable. Incoherence alone, however, does not guarantee hidden truth, and for some at least the truly profound rests within a meaningful universe.
Another feature of Marshall's work is the tendency toward rambling abstraction. He often employs a peculiar, clumsy syntax in stanza-long sentences that stumble forward and break off as if overwhelmed:
It's weird, that time—or gap in time—
midwinter seclusion, unending or starting
over, yourself nearly over-dosed
on cutting loose ego,
when more than ever in confusion comes hastening
doubt that from the start what you took up doing
was needed done, matters, that what you inherit
being alive needs realized desire to keep on
being alive and move you
on your way...
As it staggers into an ellipsis, this stanza from a poem in Arabian Nights is an attempt to reveal the process of poetry and of life, struggling forward in bewilderment and longing. The title, "Make, Not Have," suggests this, and the next stanza confirms it:
Now amnesia, aphasia, the breakdown
of brain cells all hoot
as you can no more hold
in sequence your last thought, next
move, how long since
in-breath, long drawn, long held,
let go, or bare skin felt mild
warm air bringing the far spring-cleanings
of childhood near, bringing you,
without a step, there...
There is a brave integrity here, a groping recognition that plays against the seamless assurance of polished poems. In this case the singular style is a necessity of the poem.
The valorization of idiosyncrasy is a symptom of the divorce between poetry and the community: the idiosyncratic vision is not the shared, public vision. Originality excites us because it is alien, like a foreign country. The question is whether an oddity is merely exotic or whether, like "Make, Not Have," it recovers something in our origins, a reality denied in the public version of truth.