January 18, 2012

Michael Palmer (USA) 1943

Michael Palmer (USA)

Born in New York City, Michael Palmer received his B.A. at Harvard University, where he edited the small magazine Joglars with fellow poet Clark Coolidge.
     In 1963 he attended the famed Vancouver Poetry Conference which consisted of three weeks of workshops, readings, and discussions. At that Conference Palmer met and became friends with Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and other major figures who would be central to Palmer's writing.
     In 1969 Palmer moved to San Francisco, where he continues to live today. He was contributing editor to the magazine Fracture and worked closely with several choreographers, dance companies and visual artists, including Margaret Jenkins. Michaëla Henich, Sandro Chia, Gerhard Richter, Irving Petlin, and Augusta Talbot.
     In 1971 he published his first book of poetry, Plan of the City of O; and over the next decade numerous books followed, Blake's Newton, C's Songs, Six Poems, The Circular Gates, Poems, Without Music, Alogon, Transparency of the Mirror, Notes for Echo Lake and First Figure. Since those earlier years Palmer has continued to publish major works in Sun, At Passages, The Lion Bridge, and Promises of Glass.
     Palmer's poetry has often been associated with the "Language" poets, a relationship he admits occurred early on with his friendships with the San Francisco "Language" writers. But he admits some hesitations: "My own hesitancy comes when you try to create, let's say, a fixed theoretical matrix and begin to work from an ideology of prohibitions about expressivity and the self—there I depart quite dramatically from a few of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets."
     Palmer's work also shows strong influences from contemporary French writers, and he has translated poets from the French, Russian, and Portuguese—Arthur Rimbaud, Emmanuel Hocquard, and Alexei Parshchikov. Palmer was one of the editors of the Brazilian anthology, first published by Sun & Moon and later reprinted by Green Integer: Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets (1997, 2003).
     Palmer has also written radio plays, essays, and a short travel journal, The Danish Notebook.
     He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the American Award for Poetry, and the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America.


Plan of the City of O (Boston: Barn Dreams Press, 1971); Blake's Newton (Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1971); C's Songs (Berkeley, California: San Dollar Books, 1973); Six Poems (Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1973); The Circular Gates (Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1974); Poems (Berkeley, California: San Dollar Books, 1976); Without Music (Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1977); Alogon (Berkeley, California: Tuumba Press, 1980); Transparency of the Mirror (Albany, California: Little Dinosaur Press, 1980); Notes for Echo Lake (Berkeley, California: North Point Press, 1981); First Figure (Berkeley, California: North Point Press, 1984); Songs for Sarah (Annisquam, Massachusetts: Lobster Cove Editions, 1987); For a Reading (New York: DIA Art Foundation, 1988); Sun (Berkeley, California: North Point Press, 1988); An Alphabet Undergroud (Viborg, Denmark: After Hand, 1993); At Passages (New York: New Directions, 1995); The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 (New York: New Directions, 1998); The Promises of Glass (New York: New Directions, 2000); Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988 (New York: New Directions, 2001); Company of Moths (New York: New Directions, 2005); The Counter-Sky ([selected poems translated by Koichiro Yamauchi] Meltemia Press, 2007); Aygi Cycle ([poems inspired by the Russian poet Gennadiy Aygi] Ghent, Belgium: Druksel, 2009); Thread (New York: New Directions, 2011); The Laughter of the Sphinx (New York: New Directions, 2016); Little Elegies for Sister Satan (New York: New Directions, 2021)

Numerous poems, with Palmer reading, are available from PENNSound at the link below:

Winner of the PIP Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry in English

The Leonardo Improvisations*


Can the
two be

told the
two bodies

be told
apart be

told to
part can

the two
be drawn

the two
be drawn



What of the words reversed,
words meant

for mirror, words lost, voices
hear, mirrors

which return. What of the
body there.

the body which turns, the
face which

returns the gaze. What of
the backward

book, the hidden book, the
waves of

bent light in ascending air.
What possible

eye requires such blank signs.
What worlds

appear as more than real
reflected there.


First wrote of all water
in each of its motions

Then eddies of air
in the form of bell towers

Than a book of the building of cities
end the burning of cities,

book of the winged man and the hanged man,
book miter and argonaut, nautilus

double helix of the twin star,
book of the moon as mirror

and words made of mirrors,
book of the body and its memory, 

body as the measure and body as a question,
book which explains our shadows,

book of the ram's horn lute and monochord,
the intervals of light along its string,

book of the trace and book of the fragment,
book of the earth split in half


The measure of the actual body
is the measure

of the imaginary body
The body is encircled—

a circle is drawn—
circle that is impossible

around an actual body
body which tastes of salt

and does not exist
within the perfect circle 

it fashions around itself
and whose circumference it touches

with the tips of the fingers outstretched
and the soles of the feet at rest

The body is framed by mirrored words
It is not visible in the mirror

The circle and the body meet
on the plane of the imaginary page


Curl of leaf and wave
Curve of the neck and thigh

As much the unseen
as the visible

As much what has disappeared
as what remains

(Reprinted with permission of the author from Sulfur, 1993)

*These poems were part of a collaboration with the Italian painter Sandro Chia and were
first published in a limited edition by Edizioni della Bezuga as Improvvisazioni su Leonardo.

Copyright (c) 1993 by Michael Palmer

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