E-mail this site to a friend.
The events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. have already altered the ways in which we "do" retrospect. No more passive scannings of the recent past like some radar operator at a NORAD screen on the DEW-line, rationalizing blips that look unfamiliar as no more than bird migrations or "friendlies" off course. No more permissive glossings of past follies as well intentioned responses to "events out of control" or injustices needing redress and therefore beyond the pale of moral line-drawing. Names are already drifting back across our radar screens from our own not too distant past, resurrecting blips that should confirm the outsourcing of present incomings as having originated where in fact the invoices show they did. A lot of dues have piled up since we fell in love with radical movements, peasant uprisings, the cult of Che and of Franz Fanon; since we became fixated on the "radical chic" of klutz terrorists like the Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army here at home, while being inundated from abroad with press reports of stirring exploits by the German Red Army and Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Brigade, Carlos "the Jackal," the Viet Cong, Black September, the Sandinistas, the Abu-Nidal faction of Fatah, the Islamic Jihad wings of Hamas and Hezbollah; since we began romanticizing in print and stronger media the Moujahadeen, the post-Marxist anti-capitalist Left throughout the Third World; since we accepted without qualm the "Zionism is racism" mantra wafting noisomely over the U.N.'s General Assembly and refused to criticize (for fear of compromising leftist solidarity round the globe) the Baath Socialist Party that gave us Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, the Islamic radicals who bombed New York's World Trade Center and various American military installations in the Persian Gulf; since we began not listening to responsible liberal voices and turned instead to the deluded fascists on the
real right like Edward M. Said and Alexander Cockburn.
Yes, the dishonor roll of Western intellectuals who gave tacit, and sometimes vocal, support to so-called "liberationist freedom fighters" is virtually endless; and given the atrocities that have recently been perpetrated in this country by a whole rolodex of ghouls with pilot's licenses, a roll on which many names familiar to
us--few of which, apart from Said's, being Middle-Eastern--appear rather more than now and then. Without casting aspersions after the fact of 9/11, let's just say that the names in question belong to herdable mountebanks of good
will--and real hatemongers with good press
agents--who insist on the liberty of "freedom fighters" to blow up civilians in order that their right to enjoy a good book (a technical manual for nuclear triggers, perhaps) and leisurely
latte in an environment declared blessedly free of Jews (Judenrein to earlier Nazis) by whichever mullahs or ayatollahs as happen to have the removal of "undesirables" under their jurisdiction, continue uninterrupted.
The roots of our entanglement in this insidious karmic loop may be multifarious but they are hardly obscure. The late '50s gave us
The Ugly American in print and cinematic form, the latter casting Marlon Brando as the firewall against the arrogance and bad manners that only the U. S. State Department could sanction abroad. Audiences were supposed to bask in the self-gratulation with which a culture gone rancid proclaims its morality from the housetops for repudiating its image as a superpower used to throwing its weight around like Atlas giddy from too many endorphins. What mostly resulted from this orgy of self-loathing was that we became hopelessly ensnared in that least determinative of self-regarding clichés, the stereotype of a stereotype. And ever since we have have been eager to frontload, both in and out of the media, the blowback of our own superior inferiority; to wallow in guilt over American affluence experienced as a guilty pleasure; to bask in Third World resentment of us by buying into the publicity campaigns of national "liberationists" and
bombe plastique-wielding terrorists as Nelson Mandelas-in-the-making, despite their embattled edginess
"way overplayed by the media."
Luckily, we had the help of some expert professionals to get us over the rough spots. In the '60s and '70s we learned with Jane Fonda and others like
her--though, could anyone else really have been like
her?--How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Not Terry Southern's and Stanley Kubrick's Bomb, but the smaller and less splashy kind, exploded at a distance and in the front yard of deserving imperialists and the blood-drenched merchants of war who armed them. Long before Bill Clinton, the Viet Cong taught us how to feel their pain and to ignore that of the American 19-year-olds drafted to inflict it upon them. Likewise, commuting in our hearts the harsh measures leveled by the reactionary Pinochet regime against Allende's Castroites in Chile gave us the strength to condemn with as much self-righteousness as we could command their oppression by that regime carried out with CIA
(I should here like to state clearly that when I refer to "the Left" I am in no way impugning either the motives or the opinions of fair- and liberal-minded people anywhere in the world. No blanket acceptance of global or monopolistic capitalism should be inferred from any of my remarks about the evils of terrorism brandishing a "liberationist" or Gramscian "anti-hegemonic" rationale. The indictment whose bill of particulars I spell out in the pages that follow is intended to apply strictly to radicals, of whatever persuasion, positioned on the
extreme left--which rearguard, retrograde and in every way reactionary group consists, apart from a few honest-to-goodness bomb throwers, mostly of malcontents serving life sentences in many of our universities' humanities programs. These "fancy-fantastical" Marxist-Leninists talk the talk of real revolution but would never dream of moving beyond the "he Said--she Said" stage, if anyone suggested they walk the walk as well. If their knowledge of political philosophy was less scrappily dependent on what is so often inaccurately trumpeted as "praxis," they might be led to recognize some of the more virulent strains of the Stalinism they espouse so casually. Indeed, I think it's time the fair- and liberal-minded read some of these sandlot totalitarians the riot act. In a nice way, I mean--as the real Marx, Groucho, used to say.)
Now all of this has come home, as it were, to roost. The
dunghill has reclaimed from exile among the doormats and helots of the
entente that dare not speak its name the cock whose crowing brought a millennium's worth of militancy to the shrunken horizons of Islam's dispossessed. What we once sanctioned, and on occasion even sanctified, out of love of things Left has reshaped itself before our disbelieving eyes into something rich and, for Western secular sensibilities, more than a little strange: the avenging angel of the Muslim fundamentalist Right. But to us strangest of all, the flames of vengeance loosed by this angel have melted the heaven-taunting towers of our largest city and cut a trench of withering fire into the nerve center of our nation's military establishment. How did we get from
there--the glorifying of liberationist movements around the
world--to here (September 11th and its as yet unwritten aftermath)? It's a more or less straightforward path if we remain enclosed within the opportunistic walls erected by U. S. policy-makers in government and supernational corporations; it's somewhat less of an arrow's flight if we try to plot that same trajectory in poetry and the arts.
But even more to the point, how does the foregoing bear upon poetry anthologies published 30 or more years ago? Isn't poetry of all the arts the least susceptible to the ideological tail wagging the artistic dog? Yes, it is; but circumstances alter cases, as "To the National Arts Council" by Peter Schjeldahl, and appearing in
An Anthology of New York Poets, clearly shows:
Hello America let's tell the truth!
Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive.
And that's just a sample
Of what it's going to be like now that us poets are in charge.
Of poetry, at last (it's all we ever wanted, really,
But nobody would believe it), and from now on if
You want literature you'll have to come to us
And ask for it nicely, and with a ready checkbook,
And even so we may "not wish to be disturbed"--
Inconvenient, you bet, but then literature
Has always been an inconvenient business, especially
Since the 18th Century, and even in America
Our favorite country! It's true, we like it here,
So don't tell us to go back to Russia
Or Parnassus--those places mean nothing to us.
We'd prefer even Gary, or Mississippi, or
The Mojave Desert, where at least there are people
Speaking, seven days a week, the language we propose
To glorify; and if you like that, fine!
But you won't, or not much, because we reserve the right
To be the "conscience" of America, without (mind
You) being overly anguished about it, which means
We'll say embarrassing things habitually, not giving
A shit for "national unity" (the only "national unity" for us
Is the national unity of poetry, which is meaningless
But only us poets know in what way meaningless).
So you'd best get set to like it or lump it when I tell you,
Fellow Americans, that we are citizens of the stupidest
"Imperial power" in all history, still fighting that mean
And furtive little war for the Philippine Islands.
How can you get over, Americans,
That Aguinaldo once thought we were wonderful?
He couldn't believe it when we started butchering his men,
And now the whole world believes it only too well!
And only us American poets still see the pure heart
That beats in America, and profess it
While having none of its blockhead "policies." We're tired
Of being schizophrenic! Let America be schizophrenic for a change!
And if this nation should go down in flames, that's
Terrible! But there in the rubble you'd find us, not
Learning Chinese, but correcting our American cadences,
And if that isn't patriotism, America, What is?
Even tongue-in-cheek (as this plainly is), to upbraid "America the unbeautiful" for its international swagger and self-interested moralizing is representative not only of Vietnam War-era attitudes but of today's as well. The assumption that there is not only nothing wrong with using poetry as a bulletin board for protesting what is perceived as political and economic injustice wreaked upon the helpless by the world's most arrogant superpower, but that when not featherdusting their personal crises poets have an obligation to decry the existence of such injustice in no uncertain terms is still very much with us, if
somewhat more mutedly than before. If Allen Ginsberg first synthesized the tonalities by which poetic harangue of this kind airs its grievances, the most marketable of the apocalyptician-poets of the '50s and '60s, hands down, was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose poem "I Am Waiting," from the collection
A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), caught the sound Eliot's "trilling wire in the blood" makes when intimations of nuclear mortality flood the brain:
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the living end
and I am waiting
for dad to come home
his pockets full
of irradiated silver dollars
and I am waiting
for the atomic tests to end
and I am waiting happily
for things to get much worse
before they improve
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the human crowd
to wander off a cliff somewhere
clutching its atomic umbrella . . .
This is poles apart from Ginsberg's brimstoned take on "the fire next time" informing the strung-out vision of the American night and its horrors in
Howl and "Kaddish." The Ginsberg it chooses to emulate from among the thousand faces assumable by this Beat hero is not the "Dharma lion" but the
schlemiehl-ian Ginsberg of "A Supermarket in California" and "America." Both of these poems constitute a promissory note drawn on the Whitmanian afflatus by a persona stung into poetry by a uniquely American materialism and intolerance. Their appeal today continues benign, but only because the retrospection that informs them is distorted by ideology, a consequence of Ginsberg's celebrity having retrofitted '60s politics with a version of 20-20 hindsight that confuses clear vision with having the correct subject in the frame. No doubt '60s alienation, fueled by an unpopular war in southeast Asia, exacerbated the romantic fixation with the image of the Fidelistas of the Sierra Maestre campaign (already put in place by
Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960) and other such puff pieces of an American left increasingly dominated by the sociological propagandizing of C. Wright Mills and his clones in the Ban the Bomb movement) to the painful translucency of an exposed nerve. The war waged by Algerian freedom fighters against a France still reeling from the loss of its other major colony in Vietnam also fanned the fires of that alienation, but that is an alternative story for an alternative time. Yet, as widespread as Ferlinghetti's anti-capitalist mystique was among college youth from the late '50s through the late '60s, it paled in comparison to the magic wielded by that best of best-selling anthologies of Beat era verse, Donald M. Allen's
The New American Poets (1960). This robust sampler not only effectively showcased the Beats for the first time, it erected a Berlin wall that kept non-academic poets sealed off from their academic rivals for several decades. Intended as a
riposte--long overdue--by the "sandals" to the buttoned-down arrogance of the "tweeds," as showcased in their own watershed anthology,
The New Poets of England and America (1957), edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, it made no bones of the fact that it intended to introduce strong measures against strong measures. No more Mr. Nice Guy,
à la W. C. Williams and the Objectivists. No more "No ideas but in things"; from now on it was going to be "Get your thing away from my Idea." Allen managed to skillfully loop in a sheet bend multiple knot fully emerged Movement poets like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Snyder and McClure together with Black Mountaineers like Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Blackburn and Levertov; "New York" poets like Schuyler, Koch, O'Hara, Field and Ashbery; and less easily categorized figures like Wieners, Bremser, Meltzer, Perkoff, Whalen and Leroi Jones. And all without missing a Beat, for in the headiness of that singular moment, that was what each of them, irrespective of differences over how a poem came to be a poem, undoubtably was.
Not since the time of Blast and transition had the "defining" anthology of verse become such a hotly contested battleground for supremacy in the literary arts. The novel was simply too diffuse a medium to support such wranglings, and the art theatre, caught up in commercial reactions either favoring or recoiling from the culture of Broadway (not to mention the Godzilla-sized predations of the film industry) had too much turf to protect to permit any repeat performances of the Clifford Odets-George Jean Nathan theatre wars of the '30s. None of which should come as a shock, given the recognitional
frenzy--and Niagara of cash--the Beat Generation had Luced in the wake of the celebrity treatment heaped on "the holy
barbarians"--Lawrence Lipton's term--in the pages of Time and Life magazines. Such sudden notoriety had given poetry (other than the kind hawked by Hallmark Cards and Kahlil Gibran) dreams to dream and a power to affect the culture it had not dared to fantasize since Tennyson struck a nerve with
Idylls of the King a full century earlier.
Swelling college enrollments (peaking with the flood of young men trying to avoid the draft via student deferments following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964) would eventually blur if not totally erase the earlier distinction between so-called "Beat" and university-based poets. The temptation to ideologize literature and so create a rallying point for mobilizing against the war on college campuses proved strong, especially for professors of English who found poetry anthologies particularly useful for this purpose.
Following hard upon two of the most famous anthologies of new American verse of the early
'60s--the Donald Allen and
A Controversy of Poets (1965), edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, are the three collections under review, which though currently out of print and likely to remain so, stand out as prophetic among other similar compilations of work by poets who came of age during the "down" phase of what culminated in the "down-and-dirty" '60's, or before the pill and the sleeping bag-for-two took the sexual revolution from phrase to fucking unbelievable. (A somewhat later anthology edited by Robert Berg and Stephen Mezey,
Naked Poetry , earned almost instant canonical status in creative writing classes all over the country when it proclaimed the revaluation of poetic values announced by the first two as a
fait accompli, but that needn't concern us here.) Each of the three in its
way--and they are by no means mirror images of one another in either format or editorial
conception--licenses a precision-order shaking of tail feathers by bantams keen to brave nakedness, but only when battling a very limited catalog of horrors. The associations with "full monty" are not out of line either, given the equipment on display in this highly gender-specific combing of cocks. The ratio of female to male poets included in the three anthologies is also instructive, not to say chastening: 1:9 in the Carroll; 1:5 in the Hewitt; and 1:27 in the Padgett and Shapiro. In point of fact, any significant straying from those dispensations, arrogations of poetic privilege, and modalities for "stepping out" and doing a number "on the town" that could be considered exclusively male is as rare in the pages under discussion as is the resorting to rhyme or metrically regularized stanzas by the poets who appear in them.
The wish list which the editors of these volumes draw upon for their rationale of what a young poets' anthology should attempt to be not surprisingly shows very little variation from preface to preface: each, for instance, exudes a Blakean disdain for craft that fails to pull its own visionary weight that echoes to a nicety the connoisseurship of chaos manifested in tracts such as Theodore Roszak's
The Making of the Counterculture. James Dickey, looking back as a "middle-aged poet" on opportunities dodged or otherwise miscalculated, admonishes younger poets in his Introduction titled "The Son, The Cave, and the Burning Bush" not to stint on passion:
. . .The aging process. . . brings to the poet the secret conviction that he has paid too much attention to the "limitations" that his contemporaries have assured him he has, as well as to literary tradition and the past.
He believes that either he has given unnecessary attention to these things or he has not learned to get the most out of them. The nearer he gets to his end the more he yearns for the cave: for a wild, shaggy, all-out, all-involving way of speaking where language and he (or, now, someone: some new poet) engage each other at primitive levels, on ground where the issues are not those of literary fashion but are quite literally those of life and death. All his lifelong struggle with "craft" seems a tragic and ludicrous waste of time; and he looks on the productions of the whole history of
literature--indeed, of all human communication and expression--as so much self-indulgent and irrelevant chatter in the unspeaking and accusing face of what
could be said, if someone had the luck, the vision and the guts.
On the whole, Dickey feels comfortable with the facility (if not always the quality) of the gifts on offer from the poets he was chosen to introduce. While he finds much of their verse besmirched by an "earthiness and vulgarity" that is not far from suggesting the mark of the beast, this could, he thinks, be chalked up to passions of youth and the indiscretions that drip therefrom. He is also inclined to feel that though ". . . the huge and ghostly figures of Eliot and Pound may hover around many of these poems in ways that the poets would be the last to suspect," it is clear that these writers are "attempting in a new way to speak with as much real boldness as they can summon of passion and involvement [. . .] ." Dickey does appear concerned, however, that "most of these poets do not seem to be as informed or well-read as some of the best poets who immediately preceded
them"--that is, the Jarrells, the Lowells, the Berrymans, and the Shapiros, all of whom, he is at pains to imply, knew a hawk from a handsaw, even when it pleased the prevailing winds to be a little less up front about where they were coming from.
Not to be outdone, Padgett and Shapiro ponder with burgeoning
ennui the burden of the "'New York School of Poets' label":
Are New York poets new realists, or dissociated from any sympathy for the wretched of the earth? Are they drifting into a penumbra? Or do their sleek attractive surfaces glide by in the light? Have they freshened up the diatribe? Have any of their collaborations produced beautiful corpses? Are New York poets a diploma elite that buries its children? Are they merely tasting the ripest apple on the table, in the air? Is it
dérèglement de tous les sens? Or has it become, peculiarly Americanized, only a "leaving-out business," a taking away process? Have they generated a whole vocabulary of forms, a new sestina, new collages, cut-ups? Is it "deep gossip"? Why have [sic] the old copula been expunged?
With a passage like this it's hard to know whether the burdensomeness is owing to rhetorical questionability or to pretentious questioning gone rhetorically awry, but burdensome it certainly is. The brief treatise on "Personism" by Frank O'Hara (which thankfully consumes several of the remaining pages of this "Preface") offers some relief from the above cited
melée of dangling posers, though even its aerated conscriptions of irony are powerless to lighten camp in so concentrated a dose.
In retrospect, the skein of attitudes rolling these poets up into a historically recognizable ball centers mostly on fear and loathing of one sort or another (the figure of "gonzo journalist" Hunter S. Thompson looms anticipatorily large over this period to an extent that is almost E.S.P.-ish): even poems ostensibly about love and its fall-out seem distorted by the psychotropic force of these bipolar pulls. "I'm Tired of Being Scared" by John Giorno encapsulates the fear component in this axis of contumelies marvelously well:
An unemployed machinist
who travelled here
from Georgia 10 days ago
10 days ago
and could not find
and could not find a job
into a police station
walked into a police station
yesterday and said
of being scared
I'm tired of being scared." (NYP, 267)
From the look of this it's clear that today's poets get less mileage out of language than those writing in 1968, when narcissism and the resoundingly obvious were more closely intertwined. Not infrequently, fear and loathing would veer politically (almost always to the left), tacking toward some
azur of sexually carbureted rage whose object would invariably recede like the horizon the more desperate the need to get a fix on it became. In "Nuremberg, U.S.A.," by a poet known simply as Saint Geraud, the fix and the horizon both claim middle-termship in the same wacky enthymeme:
In this time and place, where "Bread and Circuses" has
become "Bread and Atrocities," to say 'I love you' is
like saying the latest propaganda phrase . . . 'defoliation'
. . . 'low yield blast'.
If bombing children is preserving peace, then
My fucking you is a war-crime. (YAP, 358)
Within a decade or two, Andrea Dworkin and her ilk would pull all out all stops to give Saint Geraud's last line a final turn of the screw; but even within their own time-frame, poems like this
one--and there was no shortage of them in the Vietnam War
years--apologized to no one for either their righteousness or their intransigence. Like so many others at that time, both in and out of the arts, poets felt they had an incontestable corner on the truth and could therefore stall falsehood and
equivocation--particularly when wrapped in official sanction--at a four-way stop. They were at one in siding with the oppressed against the oppressor, who was easily identified in the late '60s as that overarmed Hydra, mummified and frothing in the stars and stripes. Sometimes the indictment was
direct--as in so many Ginsberg poems of the period--while at other times it was a riddle, wrapped in an enigma papered over by a conundrum Krafft-Ebing couldn't have run past Karen Horney:
Orpheus was a sadist.
He will tie your ankles to your wrists. With your hair
it is spring. He will make you unhappy. Let him.
His eyes are on the woman who is to come from the sea.
You are walking away from him. You are smiling
do you see now. This hell. Nothing
has changed. The siamese poet closing
on both sides
you are bald. & can be anything you want.
Do you want to be a woman. Do not answer
Me. Answer the poem. Do you want to be
a woman. The poem is a woman.
She is only a different grey. Her hair
is growing back. Walk
toward her. Do you see yourself?
She is on her knees. She is waiting for you.
Corrupt her. (YAP, 456)
The varieties and practices of surrealism that were in place when this
poem--"Spring," by Allen Van Newkirk--was conceived have yet to be properly diagrammed and categorized. Critical studies of American poetry appearing in the '60s invariably mention surrealism but don't go much beyond affirming its presence in showpieces of the genre (and the "surrealist poem"
was a genre, not simply, as some believe, a "mode") like Frank O'Hara's
Biotherm and John Ashbery's "Europe." Surrealism proved useful in providing a cover for a type of poem (whose primary subset in those years was the anti-war philippic) that fell somewhere between the chairs of the shamanistic and the Grand Ecological. It allowed poets to be ironic without encumbering them with the risk of sounding urbane, a wipe-out of immeasurable severity in a counter-culture catering almost exclusively to the young. Coming on like a spinoff of
Le Chien Andalou allowed you, at virtually no cost to the war waged in your poems against ordinary sense (was not poetry for the Romantics a hinge of the extraordinary?), to appear to be avant-garde while in fact bringing up the
rear--a very tired rear--of a long defunct art movement. Not to mention the fact that you could "rage against the dying of the light" that others had kindled for you in expectation of shadow-boxing of a sort far different from that being done by you in appropriation of its glow.
The domestication of American surrealism has proceeded apace since then, with Ashbery, among others, having converted its formulas into a storefront (and wholly franchiseable) idiom accessible to all who would frolic in its paint-by-number
fumisme. Of course the game was learned from French and Spanish professionals of the '30s, like Federico Garcia Lorca, André Breton, Louis Aragon,
and--closer to the period of the anthologies under review--Jacques Prévert and Yves Bonnefoy. But being European, urbane, and almost always French to the depths of their wigs (styled like, but only sort of like, the real hair of Rimbaud and Lautréamont), those poets could distemper reality without invoking responses traceable to either their cultural politics or their depth of field. American poets, being on the whole much less worldly than their European
counterparts--and having to cut their teeth on a war climate like, but only sort of like, the Algerian debacle that had all but disemboweled the French muse a decade
earlier--had to re-learn responses to things going bump in the sociohistoric night not experienced since the Spanish Civil War:
His day closes like a dry mouth.
Next day the ropes are frayed
as usual but the sundial proves his innocence.
Generals play jumprope in the riverbed.
The garbageman approaches with the leash.
They will release him when it rains.
Section the grapefruit into shrapnel,
gaze upon it. Time is anything longer than short.
They have draped skin over the targets.
He is forced to shower while the armada sinks. . . .
("Getting Short," QAH, 114)
Some of these lines one can imagine Bob Dylan intoning: they have that wing-a-ding snap of the conjurer-minstrel's whip about them, the same whip that stung "Desolation Row," "Positively Fourth Street" and other pre-Woodstock hits into being. The crosstown coordinates of surrealism like this are three parts Lorca's
The Poet in New York and "theatre of the absurd" for every part American folk-derangement. Poets lock, not luck, into such a style; and after one calibrates various feeds for a desired mix, the product pretty much creates itself. (Is there anyone still around who believes that rock groups like the Byrds, the Animals, or Buffalo Springfield took in their endless stream of songs anything resembling Schubertian pains in the course of realizing their versions of
echt Wienische lieder?)
More and more, the distinction between European surrealism and the homegrown variety comes down to the difference between a philosopher's stone able to turn base psycho-political images into phantasmagorical gold and a delirium (largely willed) of psychedelic knockoffs trying to find its fire sale where rock-pile pragmatics and Horatio Alger mantras of success smother even the loudest keenings of Romantic yearning. In surrealist verse the political becomes almost a natural contaminant for the lyrical. All too ready when pressed by a cause assured of its moral rectitude to surrender its claims to heart and mind to give over, go under, and be swallowed by the One into which all lower cases flow, such poetry waxes where all but
flâneurship wanes. Unlike personal miasmas inevitabilizing the confessional, collective "awakenings to the abyss," though radiant with veridicality, droop depressingly like Dali's clocks and traffic shamelessly in Miltonic inflammations that, with something not unlike flippancy, read "darkness visible" as nothing less than the mark of Cain.
Here again, the figure of Allen Ginsberg looms as large on the American scene as any
doyen of the infernal, from Lautréamont all the way to Buñuel, ever did on the modern European. But he does so in a European manner and within a tradition that cleaves to the
Guernica as a locus classicus of its modernity rather than to, say, Patchen's
The Journal of Albion Moonlight or Berryman's Dream Songs. Perhaps this is so, to not put too fine a point on it, because the
Guernica was itself a part of the American scene for so long, having stared out from a wall of New York's Museum of Modern Art where it was sent to prevent its destruction by the Falangists in 1936 and not returned to the Prado in Madrid for nearly half a century. More than just a painting, it constituted a bridge between Old World savagery and American primitivism: the language it spoke, with graphic eloquence to spare, was one in which Moses and Grandma Moses might well be imagined holding converse in spectral harmony. So conjoined, neither whirlwinds nor burning bushes could stifle the "O my"s sighed by their prophetic souls or skew the doggerel by which such souls, even in remotest ethereal boondocks, are moved.
But there are modes of simplicity past which any legitimately modern poetry cannot insouciantly sail. Since Whitman, American poets can throw in their lot with straightforwardness, but if they want to hold on to their union card they cannot afford to seem uncomplex. Modernity is rooted in imperspicuity, in equivocality, in industrial-strength indeterminacy that even garden-variety ellipsis enshrouds in fogbank. Contrary to popular impression the last century inclined far more, typographically speaking, to the three dots of superperiodization than to the edge-city cliffhangings of the dash. As the manner in which surrealism made its way into our literary life shows, America naturalizes a way of seeing or mode of perception by first divesting it of all ideological cataracts attributable to its place of origin and then adapting it to spectacles that can transform the local scene. It also keeps adaptive eye strain to a minimum. In such absorptions the American passion for pragmatism rules, and with only a few blunt exceptions, such as Ginsberg's
Howl, American surrealism has ridden few political waves all the way into shore. Even in the realm of the novel, home-grown surrealists like the Robert Coates of
Eater of Darkness and the Anaïs Nin of Solar Barque prefer to ride gestalt psychology's boogie board rather than risk the crowds-and-power surfing spills of, say, an Elias
In his 1989 essay "'Poetry' and 'Politics'" Sven Birkerts (citing Terrence Des Pres's own "Poetry and Politics" as a corroborative source) argued that we here in America
do not look to our poets, even the best of them, for clues about how to live in the face of Fear (capital
F: the fear that makes all else in our well-appointed lives meaningless, that is, for our mad age, the alpha and omega of political reality). When the spirit feels the clutch of that fear, the hand reaches for Czeslaw Milosz, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan, Eugenio Montale, Anna Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky.
After September 11th of this year we need hardly ponder what Dread, duly capitalized, embraces. We
know: as individuals, as objects of terror, as Americans schooled in the now not so liberal arts of fear and trembling. Ten or more years ago, commentators like Birkerts could view our immunity to the appeals poetry makes to politics as due to our naivete where devastation wrought by means other than civil war are concerned. Though he puts it well, there is little new in his list of exclusions, here quoted at some length:
. . Our national experience, Vietnam included, has always been . . . one of action at a distance. . . . What historical rhythm we have established does not include the shared memory of disaster, certainly not in this century. We have not been cursed with the calamities that . . . bind individuals across lines of caste, class, and family. We have known nothing like what the Poles experienced under Nazi occupation, or the Russians under Stalin, or the Irish under the enduring British yoke. In America, the sufferings of individuals, whether Vietnam veterans or the socially disinherited (now known as the underclass), have remained just that; and for that reason they have gone largely unrecognized. This is not because we lack the capacity for empathy. It's that we have no
reference for grief, terror, and privation. Private wounds elicit no larger public resonance: The individual's history has nothing in common with the tribal history.
All such bets are now of course off, though no one in his right mind would equate what has just happened in New York and Washington, D.C. with the Nazi occupation of Poland or the ancient English letch to wreak atrocity upon Ireland. At issue here is a question pitched on a much different plane of relevance and response: Will the spate of terrorist acts recently committed on American soil create an audience for European-style political poetry in this country? It's hard to imagine attempts to build such an audience not being made, but will they take? And then there's the problem of youth and immaturity. Earlier efforts to impose a political direction on American poetry were almost always fueled by young people caught in a paroxysm of empathy for the poor and dispossessed, whereas in Europe, the poetics of politics and the politics of poetry have always been the concern of the worldly-wise man or woman of letters. Even if such poets as Montale, Celan, Milosz, and Brodsky were not all that advanced in years when they hit their political stride in verse, they
seemed weathered on the vine (if not lengthily matured in the cask) when they enjoined their muse to speak beyond their immediate selves.
For the European poet, politics tends not simplistically to be an expression of solidarity with or against an economic
force majeure, a capitalist or globalist corrupter of innocence and obstructor of the fine arts and their funding by government. Or at least, not
merely that. In the work of a Brodsky or a Milosz politics seeps uncontrollably out of language, not into it, as the poet
willfully desires. The realm of politics is in the air he or she breathes: it's a quality, possibly even a consistency; but not a consummation to be thrust upon a body politic, alone and afraid, as the Meredith phrase would have it, in a world it never made. More often than not, American poets waxing ideological find their credibility with the public waning proportionately; as though tending the extremities of desire roped off for public use involved taking on more weight than their reserve of thrust even on their best day could bear aloft. It's not that American poets can't process ideas. It's that they can't contain them within a scheme of language requiring more than a journalistic nod to fashionable clichés and longstanding shibboleths to keep them in play.
But lightweight intellectuality didn't keep the majority of young poets noodling through the '60s and '70s from trying to square that particular circle in depressing poem after depressing poem. And doing it under cover of America's interminable joust with Vietnam and in a sort of
Bizarro parody of the reign of samizhdat that descended on at least that part of the world iron curtained-off by a failure to communicate that appeared more and more to be intrinsic to the System; in under- and above-ground journals like Clayton Eshleman's
Caterpillar and Theodore Solotaroff's New American Review, often hastily assembled and targeted at college students unaware of the potential explosiveness of the magazines that weighed so little in their hands. With the Kent State shootings and militant takeovers at Columbia and other universities roiling the media, poetry became the email of the oppressed elitist masses-or at least their masculine contingent-as fearful of being declared irrelevant past thirty as with being dragooned into Lyndon's safari band of fraggers, gunbearers (mostly black), and exemption hunters (mostly white).
To put it bluntly, this tohu-bohu of poets was a runaway youth cult adept at fashioning political coalitions with the shelf life of oysters and clams in a New York June or July. Its real glue, all agitprop to the contrary notwithstanding, was
sex--on the brain, on the hoof, and at each of the steaming quadrants cleaved to by youth lacking a compass and having no other means of navigating the deluge of a world gone mad than by glandular magnetism and lodestar celebrity. Not wanting to open old war wounds left over from the '60s, I quote the following from John W. Aldridge's
In the Country of the Young (1971) at some length as much for its plangency as a bolt from the blue as for how it, the youth-impacted zit that seemed to exemplify the period as a whole, struck a contemporary: Though a lot older than the poets being discussed, Aldridge was accustomed to sifting through the "afters" of lost generations on the assumption that where cinders are in evidence, fire once raged.
In ordinary circumstances, when they are not operating as a Tartar horde, the great majority of the young seem to be creatures of remarkably flaccid personality. One senses in them a singular blandness, even a temperamental nullity. Where tics and crochets ought to be, one finds vast reaches of spiritual moonscape, cold sunless, as vacant as space. Talking to them is rather like talking into an electronic box that takes messages for people who are not at home. Part of the problem is that so many of them are so entirely without self-consciousness and idiosyncrasy that it is immensely difficult to get any clear impression of the person behind the face. It seems that the fashion now is not to have a face but a façade, a décor personality to go with the décor costumery and consisting of features that are equally standardized. But where the costumery is at least flamboyant, the personality is so colorless that one is obliged to describe it almost entirely in negatives. It is possible to say that it tends to be basically insensitive, often as if under some kind of sedation; intellectually untidy, perhaps because the capacity of the paranoia required for intellectual precision is simply not there: frequently discourteous, although seemingly more out of abstractedness than any specific urge to be rude; as lacking grace and guile as a child of two, yet poised, relaxed, urbane, and always completely self-assured. There is much surface presence and internal absence in the type as one would expect to find in the most promising executive at General Motors. The electric, tense, exacting, cantankerous, abrasive, ambitious, and obsessively self-monitory personality so characteristic of past generations of rebels seems to have become as obsolete as the fat boy and the freckle-faced redhead with warts, and one very, very seldom encounters any longer a young person who is sufficiently maladjusted as to be shy, or who appears ever to have known what it is like to blush or tremble with stage fright when required to perform in public. The acting experience comes early these days, and whatever else the young may or may not be, they are the most confident and accomplished troupe of public performers in our history.
On the other hand, Leslie Epstein, not quite up to "seconding that emotion," had this to say about disillusioned youth, in response to a symposium on "The Writer's Situation," conducted by
New American Review in 1970 (an extended feature which may have prompted Aldridge to accommodate those seeking a second opinion):
. . .[What] is there that does not disappoint? Drugs, I suppose, sex, politics,
therapy--each of which, like any art, transforms reality, except that in each there is no artist save the participant and his energy. That is why Woodstock had such an enormous impact on my students, even those who were not there. The music (unheard for the most part) was relevant only insofar as it provided an excuse for gathering. The sex and pot and touching allowed each man to be an artist, and the communal washing, the group sleeping, the hillside of people who were
themselves the festival, were a form of the huddling response on a scale so vast that the idea of loneliness became absurd and the elements were invited to do their worst.
Another critic, perhaps even more qualified to weigh in on these issues (being able to list book titles like
Being Busted and Freaks among his bona fides) was Leslie A. Fiedler, late of the University of Montana and, from the early '60s on, Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo. In
What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society (1982), a synoptic retrospective on all that went wrong with American literature when literary host and academic parasite became indistinguishable in the "university without walls," he writes:
. . . [Modernism] in poetry has reached a dead end and the attempts of the so-called poet-modernists to escape its limitations are doomed to failure so long as they continue to pursue originality, require irony in the place of pathos and forbid song in the name of "free verse," "breath rhythms," or visual patterning on the printed page. For a while in the heyday of the sixties, it seemed as if the irreverent youth audience that was imposing its taste on their scarcely older and less secure instructors in "literature" might succeed in closing the gap between poetry written for print and that intended to be sung. . . Over a decade later, however, it has become clear . . . that the taste of the leaders of that latter-day Children's Crusade was too chic and erratic to be effective. Moreover, their interest except the lyrics of rock music or soul or revived folk was too weak to make a real difference. . .
One cause of that failure lay with the youthful initiators of the Rimbaud cult themselves. Confident that drugs would keep them quarantined in their cocoon of thumb-sucking infantilism, they glanced at only the first half of Rimbaud's manual on do-it-yourself seer creation, that which the boy genius called
l'hallucination simple, brought on by intoxicants--absinthe,
hashish--and l'hallucination des mots, experienced through deep immersion in language's subterranean lake, or what he describes in his poem
"Alchemie de Verbe." Mainstream surrealism also for the most part ignores the second and substitutes for the narcotic ingenuities of the first a complex conversion chart out of Freud for making dreams the mantras of a new Book of the Dead.
Of the three compilations under review, Quickly Aging Here fed most literally on such essentialisms. But it tends also to turn a blind ear and a deaf eye to the
dérèglement de tous les sens raging all around it. If this volume had a rationale at all beyond the vague one offered in its Introduction, it was to fill the void left in '60s culture by the disappearance of various existentialist placeholders whose influence had seemed little short of monumental but a few years before. Generally it seems most intent on providing a rest home within which the emotions of readers "too old to wrench [their bodies] to the sounds of Purple Fig" can share aggressions without too much mental exertion. "What is needed," its editor Geoff Hewitt wrote in 1969, "[. . . ] is a poetry that not only cries out for, but begins to show us how to find, peace and justice." Even the breakaway humility gracing the verb "begins to show" falls short of conferring credibility on Hewitt's post-Blakean brief for a "committed" poetry. In the heyday of Kerouac, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), and the pre-"Wichita Vortex Sutra" Ginsberg, it was the existential commitment shown by the poet that mattered. In the ravenous maw of that
here in which aging is quick and the quick age rapidly--the Caesar salad days of Johnson and
Nixon--poetry was thought to assume a righteous stance with respect to world peace and justice for all quite independent of the poet giving voice to it.
A poem like William Hathaway's "Card Burning in Central Park" leaves none of the essentialist bases rounded by Hewitt untouched:
I open my family magazine, pretty
girls, whiskey bottles and then you.
I show my wife. She says you're a troll,
your teeth look crooked and why do I
run around with fuck-ups like you anyway?
Some questions don't expect answers.
Mountains and bad weather have done
something for me, I feel my Wheaties.
They're crunchy and the morning paper
clues me in on Ed Slocum's lost cows.
Last night a canyon wind blew over
gas war signs, drove magpies into town.
I know you're unfit for service,
even the cops won't beat you publicly,
but old-timers can pick out desperadoes.
Out there in the sheep meadow with
Mad Dog Anderson, your eyes like Saturday
night you cup the flame to a cheroot. (QAH, 149)
In typical '60s style, the lion's share of the work of meaning is shouldered by the poem's title, "Card Burning in Central Park," without whose palate-clearing taste of truth this exercise in free association would have remained so much unsavory mud. The mere act of
alluding to draft-card burning liberates the poet from having to either express lumpen resentment over the threat of having a life made holy by poetry and pot disrupted by conscription into "that man's army" ("this man's army" having disbanded forever after World War II) or describe an occasion on which such risky behavior went down. He or she can earn points for having broached a hazardous theme without actually having had to deal with its scummier ramifications-some of which, on other occasions, sent people to prison.
The style of the '60s: whatever the coordinates of this aesthetic Oz, this freak show as live-in mindset might be, they have proved wispy crosshairs on a moving target to critics trying to zero in on them. It's common to think of the '60s as having straddled history's war on common sense like an Antonine (the stoned martyr, not the "like a rock" Marcus) colossus; but if they did turn the watch pocket of reason inside out, it was only to make the charge credible (in a way that scientists could not) that time was running out on humanity's fragile occupancy of this planet. Postmodernism budded in the postwar period of repressive politics, during whose unwholesome melée involving anti-Communist troglodytes and in-denial Alger Hiss supporters it had either ducked and covered or lobbed pre-softened anarchist spitballs, like the young Kurt Vonnegut. But now it was in full bloom. In virtually every artistic bailiwick the dreamwork of meaning drove the analytics of form. Harold Rosenberg's "anxious
object"--the term given by the famous New Yorker critic to Duchamps's Armoury Show snow-shovel gone
generic--was everywhere, bemusing, befuddling, bewildering all but the artists themselves, who had learned from the Abstract Expressionist craze of the late '50s that audiences could be made to buy anything so long as its hype was in inverse proportion to its marketability.
In that time of imaginary Bastille storming, to be young was very heaven and to be a poet more heavenly than even heaven had a right to be. Burning one's draft card in Central Park (or anywhere else for that matter) ranked, on a nobility scale of 1 to 10, with Voltaire screaming
Écrasez l'infame! or Byron swimming the Hellespont with two
clubfeet--which is to say, a 9.5 at the very least. Unlike the '50s, when the pleasures of fiction were mostly identificational, the Swinging '60s saw the line separating fact from fiction shrink to a barely splittable New Journalistic hair. Factual states, the
hoi polloi were discovering, could be acted out within, as well as being factored into, any equation slamming fictional mien up against factional deployment-though of course only within the precincts of the poem where policing and policed were like suspect Siamese twins sharing the same mouthpiece.
New York poets tended to be the most persnickety when it came to keeping political cant from multitasking favorite ironies, as "Decoy" by John Ashbery poker-facedly demonstrates:
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That ostracism, both political and moral, has
Its place in the twentieth-century scheme of things;
That urban chaos is the problem we have been seeing into
and seeing into,
For the factory, deadpanned by its very existence into a
Descending code of values, has moved right across the road
from total financial upheaval
And caught regression head-on. The descending scale does
A corresponding deterioration of moral values, punctuated
By acts of corporate vandalism every five years,
Like a bunch of violets pinned to a dress, that knows and
ignores its own standing.
There is every reason to rejoice with those self-styled prophets
of commercial disaster, those harbingers of gloom,
Over the imminent lateness of the denouement that,
advancing slowly, never arrives,
At the same time keeping the door open to a tongue-in-cheek
attitude on the part of the perpetrators,
The men who sit down to their vast desks on Monday night to begin
planning the week's notations, jotting memoranda that take
Invisible form in the air, like flocks of sparrows
Above the city pavements, turning and wheeling aimlessly
But on the average directed by discernible motives. . . .
Though weighty with promise of things to come, such headlong ejaculatio is still, relatively speaking, Ashbery
praecox; he would soon learn to adapt jargon's centrifuge to the frothing of
gelato far removed from the Dairy Queen cut-ups (on view here) by which the runny confections of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, the slushmouth "that no one knows," David Schubert, and Ashbery's own are marbled and rectangulated into a single Neapolitan brick. Nonetheless, the point is
made--almost with a stickler's dotty eye--that no politics other than the sexual are to be countenanced in the New York schoolyard. For these poets, "issues" are not so much fodder for engagement as put up for the weekend, like out-of-towners in for some quickies and maybe a circle jerk. In general they are filtered out of poetic discourse and reintroduced only as color values in an abstract painting of a less than lucky
instancing--forgive me, Samuel Beckett--of life's "quaquaquaqua" seen from "heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia":
The sky is cut into sections and put on a frame.
Part of the sky is covered with clouds.
Machines rise and descend.
The sections of the sky blend together.
The plot requires a flowing river.
It comes down from the mountains.
A road winds parallel to the river.
Fish are set in motion.
The people in the shops and on the streets move.
The clouds go from one end of the sky to the other.
The arms and the hands are loose and relaxed.
Conversation comes spontaneously.
It is a few years later.
The next four years show great improvement.
The remaining years are disappointing. (NYS, 104)
Thus, Tony Towles's poem "Poem" is put through its Brownian motions, utterly shorn of affect and with little more than the smoke of its own mereness to mark its passing. Note how rackfuls of Ashbery knockoffs are anticipated in the flip congruencies of the magic lantern
paysage spreadeagled and frisked, and the time-lapsing of mindscape with its own unsuccessful rehab. If "Poem" is in any way notable, it is for having been among the first recognizable rubbings taken of the magisterially goofy process by which the double dream of spring fades to a self-portrait in a convex mirror. But hearkening to a future yet unread, while earning points with graders of hindsight rather than separators of gold from dross, lands the health of poetry on a snake, not a ladder. As with so many of these "'poems' without portfolio," the image conveyed by its sagging joists is of a body of words in a vegetative state and on a respirator, awaiting the ruling that will determine if its plug should be pulled. Nothing here is political, and yet everything is
political--to the same extent that God may be more accurately said to dwell in the angry disavowal of an atheist than in a string of rosaries given perfunctory mouthing in a wilderness of knees.
But such politics are from the womb of relevance untimely ripped, and therefore are politics detached from the wellsprings of public emotion out of whose depths news likely to stay news issues forth frothing and foaming and demanding to be taken seriously as
issues. To claim that much of the work turned in by poets of the '60s, both tried and untried, lacked serious historical dimension is not to criticize it for being apolitical in a rabidly political time, but rather to acknowledge that the "personalism" espoused by many young poets reflected a flight from seriousness more than it did any glorying in an infinitely documentable self. Such avoidance can be the result of panic; and poets trying to be heard over the electric din, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer descant of sensory chiropractic, (ear-blowingly audible wherever voices were breaking or cracking
circa 1969) had much to panic about. Not since the Age of Sentimentalism of the mid- to late 18th Century had "serious" poets encountered such stiff competition from the Great Unwashed, who in aggregates of four (three electrified and the fourth in charge of skins) claimed the authority to speak for, argue for, sing for, and in general feel for that tear duct of Rousseauvian solicitude, "the people."
These legatees of Rimbaud, psychedelic mascot to the Paris Commune and modernism's first rebel against Because, seemed to have hogged the poetic stage in ways not even the youthful horde of German jihadists bent on martyring themselves
à la Goethe's Werther could have Nostradamized. We are talking here of a time in which a poet like Gary Snyder or Robert Creeley could pack a college auditorium, but only if Bob Dylan or Donovan were not performing at a venue a two-day's journey away, or less, by car. If during the '50s the Beats had loudly proclaimed the banns giving poetry
droit du seigneur to climb into bed with recorded jazz, its wrong-side-of-the-tracks consort, the yippies, hippies, and bettors of sweet bippies had by the mid-'60s exchanged their printer's devil for a recording angel. The middleman of "literature" having thus been dispensed with, poetry was free to be drawn into a black hole where nirvana was parcelable out in neat 4/4 chunks, with claims of maximum "heaviness" and "far-outness" being made for hybrids that could yoke Emerson, Lake and Palmer daisy cutters and Kubrick's borrowings from Strauss's
Also Sprach Zarathustra for the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey heterogenously together in deafening homage to Edgar Varèse, or whomever else could be dragooned to endorse melting ear wax with walls of sound.
What goes around, it was often repeated at this time, comes around; which, in the case of the poetic voice in rock music being reduced to an unprivileged component of what is in essence a collaborative eurhythmics of pure
sound, mounted a return of the repressed in the form of a lyric impulse long dispersed to the four corners of the free verse plenum occupied by the Objectivist poets, and especially by this movement's most venerated practitioner, William Carlos Williams. With rock lyricists continuing to stress rhyme as though it had never gone away, the apostasy of "print poets" from conventional lures and crutches for the ear (as opposed to the eye) drew an even deeper line in the sand purporting to distinguish the recording angel from the more down-to-earth bulletineer who chooses books over hi-fi's to disseminate his message. Rock poets could play at surrealism in ways that were unavailable to poets of the page. With all due righteousness they could rage at horrors accumulating proof as the passing scene distilled itself ever more intoxicatingly into
grand guignol and never once have it cross their minds that the "Jeremiahs
sans frontières" credentials they were flashing might at some point be challenged or even disallowed altogether. But print poets were held to a higher, more posterity-minded standard. Or so the folklore, serviced from lip to lip on floors of Manhattan buildings too close to heaven for the prognoses plainly written in the stars to be read with any accuracy, frequently went. That hardly anyone had the temerity in those years to question that assumption is why Bob Dylan continues to pack giant arenas with the change-of-life crowd, and their extended families, while the majority of contributors to anthologies such as the three under
review--poets whose services in bringing history and serious poetry in the era of Woodstock to the same world-altering bed these collections sought, however naïvely, to
procure--today share a culture of anonymity as encompassing as the kind sleeper agents of the Al-Qaeda network seem intent on cultivating.
But that, when you come right down to it, is neither here nor there. Far from certifying the right of unamplified poetry to play by different rules of engagement, the work of many of the young poets featured in these collections denies the imperativeness of the categories in which any of the distinctions plying between verse that is plugged and verse that is unplugged must be grounded. Editor Geof Hewitt's already cited hope that real poetry would outlast the unreal (whose resurfacing would be restricted to Golden Oldie loops and
Muzak--which in fact much of it, as has-been vocalics, has been) was proffered, one would think, more as a consummation devoutly to be wished than as an article of faith having slogged the slough of despond from indefinite to definite. If there is evidence of some of these poets working the overlap between solo poetics and group declamation to music it is to be found less in the thematics that crisscross zones of melodramatic self-assertiveness than in avoiding the archness that plagued the work of Auden and his imitators. Remove the latter from the equation and there is little to impede the absorption of their more lyrical efforts such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" or "As I Walked Out One Evening" into the songbooks not of Ned Rorem but of Simon and Garfunkel or the Grateful Dead. Deep in their hearts many educated readers under 40 probably agreed with voices like Hugh
Seidman's--himself a practicing poet--when he wrote in response to a New American Review symposium on "The Writer's Situation" that
. . . [It] is dangerous to confuse the task and assumptions of a mass phenomenon like Bob Dylan, and that of a poet. Dylan is certainly a genius of a kind, but one would have to push hard to justify his songs as poems. I do not think we can escape the conclusions that poetry, in this civilization, can never be a mass art, although the values with which the poet is dealing may eventually overcome vast numbers of people in the same way that the ideas of a single isolated individual may prove to have more force than those of a movement.
But they would have found themselves drawn, willy-nilly, to the siren call, growing ever louder and more persuasive, to get it on; and for many the only mast available for self-lashing was the erection they stared down at when rock 'n roll throbbed and miniskirts inched higher.
Still, there were two distinct realms, and by far the most talented straddler of them both was the Canadian poet and song stylist Leonard Cohen. Having first kicked around the legitimate poetry scene for some 15
years--his book Let Us Compare Mythologies had been the prestigious McGill University Poetry Series selection for
1956--he transitioned around 1965 into recording poems like "Suzanne" that on the one hand showed signs of having been gussied up for guitar-and-vocal rendition, and on the other of having been shaken metrically to the point almost of a deciduous nakedness. When he came along, as a one-man mop-up operation after the lengthy barrage academic verse had lobbed at it by Dylan and his epigones, many thought it was game, set, match: Troubadours over the Ronsardists. Since only being young mattered, could the puzzles of a Richard Wilbur or an Anthony Hecht compete for their attention with such exhortations to sexualize as are blatantly at work in, say, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," by Crosby, Stills, and Nash? Not only did Cohen, as W. B. Yeats put it, "have the song," but he had a string of hits to prove it, and even better poems left unsung to authorize his conversion to Pied Piperdom and the possibility of combining the problem of rats in the pilings of Western materialism with a desire to lead the American equivalent of the children of Hamelin, their long hair trailing in the wind, over the cliff of forbidden knowledge into the only patrimony worth the bequeathing: repression abolished and the Polymorphous Perverse. To a rich and studious businessman's son, having parlayed a love of sex and a no less breathless veneration for esoteric Judaism into the highest honor his native Canada could confer on a young poet, the Governor-General's Medal for Poetry, so much adulation beamed from the conning towers of those who trafficked in vinyl and tape must have
seemed--well, unreal--though doubtless it would never have occurred to the moguls of raw spewage to market Cohen's earlier warblings as music-plus-one. These, for instance:
When you kneel below me
and in both your hands
hold my manhood like a sceptre,
When you wrap your tongue
about the amber jewel
and urge my blessing,
I understand those Roman girls
who danced around a shaft of stone
and kissed it till the stone was warm.
Kneel, love, a thousand feet below me,
so far I can barely see your mouth and hands
perform the ceremony,
Kneel till I topple to your back
with a groan, like those gods on the roof
that Samson pulled down. ("Celebration" )
Reading this, credibility is hardly strained as to why they went for the more raucously self-revealing of his rock lyrics, and particularly those all-out assaults on personal reticence of which "Dress Rehearsal Rag" and "Bird on a Wire" remain among the better known. Like smoke-rings calculatedly blown from a Sherman cigarette whose product logo is blatantly displayed, these and other lyrics like them are distinctively Cohen's in that they retain their toniness while befouling the very delicacy they affect to trade on. Still, for all their Hydra-headed charm and
Ich bin ein Ost-Berliner chic, they stand out from the "trust no one over 21" crowd and its amplified shrieks like a smoker's cough at a falsettos' convention. Superb achievement of countercultural jiu-jitsu as it was to have hijacked the music industry's clout to prove that the flip side of Rimbaud was Bogart, it was nothing less than genius to have Pied Pipered millions into a drunken boat sounding suspiciously like the African Queen. Not that Cohen had a caterer's monopoly on this moveable feast; but as a Noel Coward for jaded heteros he gave promise at least of eventually securing a niche among the Krauses and Brechts of the New Amerikan Cabaret. How could he not, when everywhere one looked operas not worth three cents were peddled like yardgoods by the curt and the vile?
But by 1975 or thereabouts, the '60s ethos had clearly run its course, having petered out just as the crescendo of Watergate hearings and Church Committee investigations into abuses by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. was reaching nation-roiling levels of contumacy. The tenor of the times (coincident with the concocted "victory" of American forces in Vietnam) was reverting to a more adult-sounding baritone, and poetry
sans musical processing was back (with a little help from its friends perched high in university creative writing programs, and low on disco dance floors in glitter makeup), bigger than ever. Even verse emanating from the distaff side had managed to darken its tone in the interim. This was no doubt in keeping with the butchier strains of feminism that had been lately making their appearance in company with the souffléed Dworkinisms (Andrea's, not Ronald's) that Adrienne Rich, among others, was then espousing: a spiky assertiveness which left the queens not beloved by the left--i.e.,
hausfraus of flayed plangency like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath--free to resume their place "at the back of the anthology," as it were.
In other words, the culture moguls could stop holding their breath. The cynicism of Geof Hewitt and his cohorts who bet on the short attention span of fundamentalist liberals and friends of the National Endowment for the Arts proved indeed prescient, but only because they had the presence of mind to stow their academic oxfords where they could retrieve them whenever they went out bugalooing with Jackson Browne and Creedence Clearwater Revival.