I'm increasingly interested in the year 1960, and am toying with the idea of writing at length about it — the year generally (if such a thing is possible) and the year in American poetry & poetics more specifically. Certainly a turning-point year in the larger context, and probably in the latter somewhat more narrow context as well. Take a look at my 1960 blog.
I'm intrigued by the photo here. It's a shot of someone's father, a man named Phil — or "papa" according to the scant explanation I found randomly on someone's blog. The man's expression is, to me at least, completely ambivalent. It says self-satisfaction and it says major dread, both somehow. (Dread in the limit of the smile, the way the tie is tied or, rather, the posture of the neck, and in the way the left hand is tucked under the right in the pose.) The inscription on the back reads: Pop Je ne sais pas l’annee. The photo was taken February 1960, as marked.
An excerpt from my new book. Here I'm describing the anticommunist antimodernist who believed that modernism was the abruption of the alien Other onto the scene of natural human order. I begin the passage with Gilbert Neiman--poet lately turned novelist--who hadn't read Poetry magazine in a few years when he decided to pick up a copy in 1949 and see what contemporary poetry was all about at that point.
But what Neiman found, after just a few years away from verse, gave a "terrific . . . shock." The experience of reading Poetry he had craved produced the feeling of a homecoming—a return to privacy, a peaceful withdrawal, to a form of writing that "creates its own terms." To understand the political rhetoric here, we need go no further for the moment than Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), that unlikely model for understanding the poetry wars. The withdrawal Neiman covets when returning home from prose to verse, from social meaning to autoteleology, should be a repossession or restoration, comforting like the image of a familiar village. But as in the paranoid Invasion, nothing is as American as it seems. Re-reading Poetry in 1949 was for Neiman "like returning to the Old Home Town again, the same Main Street, only everything smaller. My life no longer depended on poetry. Just having finished my second novel, it was like descending from Mars. Only in reverse: it seemed to me that the poets were the supermen, and that I had been one of them once." Neiman could not tell who was Other, the modernist or himself. Likewise it was hard to know who, upon his own return home to poetry, had changed and who remained the same. Who disturbed the peace? Perhaps by now they had established the domestic tranquility, the sense of familiarity, and you were the one who seemed alien, awkward, not right. Which-—you or the alien-—was from Mars? As in liberal anticommunist science fiction, the aliens were far more terrifying and disconcerting than those in reactionary films, where the unknown intruder was unmistakably Other (thus easily targeted and destroyed) and we were unambiguously our loyal selves. Although increasingly isolated in our discernment of the awful problem of inauthenticity, we can tell, as the few patriots in Invasion's quiet town of Santa Mira can detect in others who had already been botanically overtaken, that "there's something missing. Always when he talked to me there was a certain look in his eyes. Now it's gone. . . . The words are the same, but there's no feeling." Not to belong to the town meant extreme alienation.
The distinctions were stark. In the eyes of those who enforced "adjustment," Joseph Freeman lamented, people politically tainted as radicals "d[id] not belong to the human race." The writing Neiman now found in modern verse implied to him the constructedness of the person. Here again anticommunist rhetoric was having its effect on varieties of antimodernism. If, in Williams's oft-repeated dictum, "There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words," and if, as conservatives assumed, "The Communist is made, not born," then unnaturalness could itself be a sign of subversion. Readers of Wings knew the ten modernist commandments, horrid Thou Shalt Nots, including the sixth, thus: "Thou shalt not express personal emotion." Douglas V. Kane in a bitter (though perfectly regular) sonnet tells the nightmarish tale of the inhuman modernist teacher etherizing a poet upon a table, passing across her once "smooth antique body" "the prodding scalpel of our modern views"; he urges his modernist acolytes to "Experiment upon her," and this seditious surgical pedagogy leads to the dehumanization of poetry as she "turns cold, with love and logic fled." "'Surreal,' we call her, without form or face!" Kane's poem is called "Poetry Seminar." The subversive person is grimly clinical in just such a way, wrote Frank Meyer in The Moulding of Communists, participating in a "narrowing of the area of awareness of men as men," in a project aimed at the "shifting of affect from real people and real situations to" abstract tenets. "All affect drains out of situations" not relevant to the mechanistic goals of these inhuman people.
This critique of the critique of capitalism led Daniel Bell to see the dangers in modernism's "rage against order, and in particular, [against] bourgeois orderliness." Here precisely is where Bell pointed out that "if Terence once said, 'Nothing human is alien to me,' the Modernist could say with equal fervor, 'Nothing inhuman is alien to me.'"
J. Donald Adams, never as uncertain as the residents of Santa Mira in discerning a real, spiritually whole poetry criticism from materialist analyses (those who made poetry "a training-ground for science"), referred to "these strangely hybrid critics" who "dominated the field" and "retarded" the "revival of poetry" in our time. The weird hybrids were "bleeding it to death," he warned readers of The New York Times Book Review. Modern writers and critics, Ben Lucien Burman wrote in 1948, "avoid any appearance of humanity" and thus "outlaw the objective author who lets mankind reveal itself." William Phillips, influential co-editor of the Partisan Review, spoke of communist writers of the thirties as embodying "something alien, something inauthentic." Phillips blamed crude sectarianism, which had "squeezed" iconoclastic writers into the two-dimensional shape of the zealot; one could always tell the dishonest imposter for, try as hard as they might, the alien force (Euro-Russian Marxism) never could teach their American followers "to take on a native accent and thus [they] seemed all the more alien."
Which is to say-—in the case of writers-—you could tell their redness, thus their inauthenticity, by their mutant wording. By 1955 E. Merrill Root had completed his study of every issue of a collegiate communist magazine published in the late thirties and discovered, to his consternation, that the young editors chose to print poems that "combined," within the poem, avant-garde experiment and "Communist ideology." Thus Root worried that readers of a later time would miss the communism for the modernist linguistic surface. Perhaps such naïve people will "smile and say, 'It was long ago—and far away.'" Root wanted readers of this verse to be alert to the dreadful consequences of such tolerance of the thirties in the fifties: Yes, "it was 'long ago.' [But] insect eggs are laid long before they waken to devour the living host." Unless they are vigilant, at any rate, his readers might not realize that the deadly parasite here was political subversion expressing itself as modernism.
Phillips had engaged the trope of the alien as an anticommunist strategy in order to make a point about the failure of communist aesthetics. On the question of modernism, he was hoping for a middle way, convinced that the main lesson was that "the radical movement of the 30's broke the radical spirit of literature" and hoping for a return to modern writing that had had nothing to do with the Red Decade.
[Stanton] Coblentz, on the other hand, saw modernists and communists as aliens invading in the same forms, and he, moreover, was not just a poet and antimodernist editor and publisher, for if he had any popular reknown in his own day it was as a science fiction and fantasy writer, author of After 12,000 Years (1950), ThePlanet of Youth (1952) and other sci fi classics, and a winner of many prizes in these genres. In The Blue Barbarians (1958) he depicted a people for whom the world revolved around a green glass pointedly called "gulag." After 12,000 Years featured gigantic insects as soldiers in the war to control the weather. Yet it was in a book about modern verse that Coblentz wrote, "There may be mutants; let us fervidly hope and pray that they will be favorable mutants; but when they appear, they will be found to bear family resemblance to all the poets that have ever glorified the language of civilized man." Until such resemblance grows from these synthetic seeds (at which point we will be blind to all difference), we must be on guard to protect "the natural world" in which "no plant is disconnected from its past." To Gilbert Neiman, modernists' "gestures were alien, diminished in magnitude, false." He finally knew they were the invaders, numbly imitating humanity. But how would he be perceived by others?
Modernism was being accepted. The pod people had taken over the town—or had always been there. Would others believe him? The sci-fi-like confusion in this scene of prodigal return is even more pointed in Neiman's private correspondence with Poetry's editors: perhaps he had become the imperceptive one, he conceded. The opposites were dullness on one hand and the capacity for love on the other (precisely the extremes plaguing Santa Mira). It was "a great defeat to me," he wrote to [Poetry editor] George Dillon, "that I become dull to the loves I had once, Eliot, Tate, Auden, and naturally Stevens, Mina Loy . . . and Marianne Moore."
In the newish world of communication-over-a-distance, there are now a number of synchronous media. But for a number of reasons I prefer the asynchronous. Put a small or large number of people (by way of their electronic mail addresses) in a mailing list - a listserv - and you've got, potentially at least, a community that soon or eventually creates a shared language. For teaching there is nothing better as a supplement to the physical meeting of people in a classroom. Some years ago I was interviewed on this topic. My responses might seem somewhat dated now, but I think the gist is still relevant. Here's a page that outlines the presentations and gives links to the RealVideo files that form this interview.
During the Cold War an unlikely coalition of poets, editors, and politicians converged in an attempt to discredit—if not destroy—the American modernist avant-garde. Ideologically diverse yet willing to bespeak their hatred of modern poetry through the rhetoric of anticommunism, these “anticommunist antimodernists,” as Alan Filreis dubs them, joined associations such as the League for Sanity in Poetry to decry the modernist “conspiracy” against form and language. In Counter-revolution of the Word Filreis narrates the story of this movement and assesses its effect on American poetry and poetics.
Although the anticommunist antimodernists expressed their disapproval through ideological language, their hatred of experimental poetry was finally not political but aesthetic, Filreis argues. By analyzing correspondence, decoding pseudonyms, drawing new connections through the archives, and conducting interviews, Filreis shows that an informal network of antimodernists was effective in suppressing or distorting the postwar careers of many poets whose work had appeared regularly in the 1930s. Insofar as modernism had consorted with radicalism in the Red Decade, antimodernists in the 1950s worked to sever those connections, fantasized a formal and unpolitical pre-Depression High Modern moment, and assiduously sought to deradicalize the remnant avant-garde. Filreis’s analysis provides new insight into why experimental poetry has aroused such fear and alarm among American conservatives.
The illustration above will appear in the book. It was drawn by Howard Sparber for a conservative antimodernist diatribe written by Stanton Coblentz and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1946.
"Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image." That's Jack Kerouac.
My Jack is the writer and voicer of babbleflow, e.g.
Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words-- I'd as rather be permiganted in Rusty's moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you'd soon's you's ready's as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don't hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give--dgarette Sop of Arab Squat
--not the novelist of themes (wanderlust, national anti-identity, discovery of the true self). So it baffles me a little, or anyway bores me, when celebrations or indeed criticism of Kerouac focus on the new teen generation's response or indifference to On the Road.
This past year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book. We at the Writers House staged a marathon reading of the novel from start to finish. I participated, reading a passage for a half hour or so. As I read myself, and listened to others, I could hear how right I and others have been to conceive of this project as most interestingly a wordy, languagy thing.
What's important is language's own performance--its thingness.
But then there are the journalists, "covering" this 50th. And of course form doesn't sell newspapers.
I'm sure that when the Philadelphia Inquirer's reporter interviewed Erin Gautsche, our amazing Program Coordinator, she told him all kinds of things about the sound of the language, about the experience of reading the novel aloud as a community. But the reporter's angle was the usual topical thing, and in this passage he's writing about how and why today the book doesn't quite have the grip it once did. Here's a passage (and here's the whole article):
These days, though, kids don't react the same way. "They're more detached from the book and its message than students before," [Hilary] Holladay [director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell] said. They are not gripped by the romantic notions that fevered Kerouac's brain. Could that spell an end to On the Road's relevance?
Certainly, the political incorrectness of the writing seems dated to today's young readers. For others critical of the book, there is a sense that it has been overrated through the years, and that there are better novels with better stories to tell.
To today's readers, parts of the book seem immature, even ridiculous, said Erin Gautsche, program coordinator of Kelly Writers House, a literary arts organization housed at the University of Pennsylvania.
The group did its own celebration of the book's 50th anniversary earlier this year.
"When you read Kerouac's descriptions of sharecroppers in the South and people in Mexico, he has an old-fashioned idea of race: that of the noble savage."
Kerouac saw poor minorities and other impoverished types as holy innocents untouched by the "dirtiness" of capitalist culture, Gautsche said. "They were shown as peaceful, happy, simple people," she added.
Also, as some readers have learned in dismaying second reads, a good deal of the book is simply about boorish guys looking for sex from disturbingly young, poor girls.
Here's Clark Coolidge on the topic of Kerouac's babbleflow.