Scene4 Magazine:The Poet Robert Stock | David Wiley | June 2013 |

David Wiley


June 2013

There are some writers, usually those who practice the autobiographical approach, who can provide their readers with an enriching and useful education. This phenomenon is fairly rare among poets. Chaucer, for one, gives us a nearly complete picture of life in the 14th century. This gift of teaching on a broad scale is unusual among modern poets. Robert Stock (1923 - 1981) is one of those unusual poets. Eschewing the often frantic, harsh and highly individualistic style of his contemporaries, many of whom were his friends, Stock preferred to swim in those timeless poetic oceans where his explorations, and the attempt to familiarize himself with a large number of selected species of those waters, led his imagination to places where the unknown is revealed in oddly illuminating ways, and the known becomes extraordinary once again.

Defining the essence of Robert Stock's poetry is an almost hopeless task. He puts things under a magnifying glass, and examines them prismatically at times, but reading his work tends to expand the consciousness more than to focus it, although it does that too. This poetic ocean he swims in, freely and fearlessly but with great respect, is full of strange and fascinating things, the building materials of a poetic universe. While reading Stock's parade of imagery and metaphor one feels immersed in poetry, in the Aristotelian sense, that is, poetry as the mysterious spirit which lives in all great works of art. Stock lays a feast before us and invites us to partake of its diverse and exotic dishes, some of which may be unfamiliar to us. Having tasted these little-known delights, however, we feel grateful for having had the curiosity to pursue and enjoy them.

There was a great deal of literary excitement in the air of San Francisco in the 1950s and Stock was there in the midst of it. He was one of the founders of the Anarchist Circle, along with Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia and others. It would seem that he was not so much "of the period" as the poets around him, but Stock was, in his own way, a revolutionary who produced a new kind of all-embracing poetry that appealed to the mind, the senses, the emotions and the imagination simultaneously. Part of his gift was his total absorption in his art. He was a lifelong practitioner and student, not only of poetry itself but also of many other fields of study and inquiry that defined and peopled his poetic landscape. One of the things that set him apart from many of his contemporaries was that he did not depend, like Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti for example, on the socially and politically rebellious feelings of the time. He was neither surrealist nor beatnik, though he was certainly a familiar of the milieu. Stock's work was meant for serious lovers and students of poetry, including the history of poetry. Opening the gates of his vast poetic treasure trove was a laborious process, which had the virtue of weeding out those minds and hearts insufficient to the task. Kenneth Rexroth said of him, "Stock is the rarest. In 1967 his work towers like Aconcagua, but Aconcagua inside a thick fog. Most readers today, most poets even, would simply crash against it, never knowing the greatness they had struck. His work embodies greater erudition, greater inventiveness, and probably more imagination than any American contemporary's I have read."

My own experience with this poet began in Veracruz, Mexico in 1976 during the Mardi Gras. He was living in Veracruz with his wife, Harriette, and two of his teenage sons, Christopher and Julian. They were acquainted with the old friend I was staying with in Veracruz, Carlos de Leon, and it was through him that we met. Sometimes, during the months following Mardi Gras, the Stock family would come to Carlos's house, and frequently I would walk to their house, not far away. On every visit I would find Bob either writing or reading. They had brought themselves and all their belongings to Mexico in a medium sized car, but they had managed to find space for a large number of books. Bob's family all understood that poetry was his life's work. They believed in him and supported him in every respect, knowing somehow that their destinies were all entwined in Bob's art. They had lived in Brazil for four years. They had lived in Costa Rica, New York, San Francisco, and other places. It was not a life of luxury, but it was a life filled with riches of a different sort. Right away I began learning things from Stock. He told me about their friend the Brazilian poet Mario Faustino. We discussed Alfred Jarry, Blaise Cendrars, and Gerard de Nerval. We discussed Latin American writers such as Borges and Cortazar, and poets such as Carlos Drummond Andrade (one of Stock's favorites), Nicanor Parra, and Ernesto Cardenal. Situated in the midst of books and various pieces of paper bearing his poetry, Stock resembled a sort of literary altarpiece. He always had a certain playful glint in his eye, a playfulness that was evident throughout his poetry. He had a predilection, like Nabokov, for games with a literary application. It was in part this love of riddle making and conundrums that enabled him to expand the boundaries of rare poetic forms. I was often reminded while reading Stock's poems of the saying that freedom is having the inner workings and precision of a fine Swiss watch, combined with absolute recklessness.

It was his habit to write and read many hours every day, often sleeping in the afternoon when the heat was oppressive. Having spent quite a few years in hot lands, he and his family knew the drill. If it was too hot to work in the daytime he would work at night. His dedication to his art sometimes made me question my own seriousness as a writer. In any case, his example was an inspiration.

After Veracruz we corresponded for a while, but I was never to see Robert Stock again. Recently I visited Harriette, who now lives on the banks of the Russian River, with some of her family nearby. I was happy to see Julian again after 36 years, and Bob's daughter Sharon very generously presented me with a rare copy of Bob's first book, "Covenants." As we sat in Harriette's kitchen looking out the windows at the river, I was reminded of one of Bob's poems, one that had helped start me on my explorations of those rivers, oceans, continents, and worlds of poetry he brought to life.

    Several Large Rocks In A Swiftly Moving Stream

    That the stream should tremble
    with timber and fern reflections
    seems no less substantial
    a fact than blood in my veins.
    But what of the interplay
    of sun and orange agaric
    in whose tension each rock
    shudders like a stage-propped
    reality. It's somewhere
    between El Greco's pure
    stone transparencies,
    so otherworldly,
    and Dr. Johnson's proof
    that experience is brutal
    and nothing's insubstantial.
    That somewhere's hard to place.
    I'm tempted to call it blue.
    But what of the ghostflower
    with the hot orange blush
    across its pallor, its face
    lit by the rocks, its shudder
    jellied in the hiatus
    of a desperate rush,
    lost in an ardent hush.


Books by Robert Stock:
Covenants, Trident Press, 1967
Selected Poems 1947-1980, Crane & Hopper, 1994

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©2013 David Wiley
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

David Wiley, painter-poet: graduate of U. Kansas; studied in Mexico and with artist Ignacio Belen in Barcelona. Widely traveled, he exhibits throughout California and abroad. Wiley has published two volumes of poetry: Designs for a Utopian Zoo (1992) and The Face of Creation (1996). Ongoing since 2005, Wiley has received mural commissions in Arizona, Mexico and California. A book about his work, The Poetry of Color, is in progress.


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June 2013

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