Entry 2


There is a cunning of reason in the deployment of the negative, in that sooner or later it's going to all work out (or not). Having invested my '50s contribution in the spectral image of Bettie Page, I was able to recoup when offered a plenary role at the Poets of the 60s conference (2000) — and I decided to make maximal use of the occasion. Stopping off to visit Maria Damon on the road up to Orono, I remember telling her — as I previewed the documentary Berkeley in the 60s and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point — that I wanted to restage the '60s, as part of the conference. . . . I thought an immediate return to the politics of the '60s, in actual practice, was more than required (doubly so in the face of persistent demands by neoconservatives that it be eradicated from our history). In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry's "turn to language" in the conditions of of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.
          From the back row, Amiri Baraka launched an impassioned attack on my claim that the politics of the student movement was any kind of politics at all, and that went as well for the antiwar movement (which Baraka associated with his own debate with Allen Ginsberg). And the rest is history — Baraka and I agreed that we would hold an impromptu debate in a student cafeteria, which we located for an unauthorized event . . . . As it happened, the discussion turned into a high-volume, low-content wrangle, so that the tape recording my son Asa made of it is destined straight for the archival vault — there will be no transcription or circulating of that! In defense of this misfire, I can only say that I am sure Baraka and I had the same goal in mind — to encourage debate and to decrease fear of confronting, particularly, race as a public issue. Was I prepared to do so, at that level? Yes and no. I learned a great deal of what I did not know of the '60s and about race from the encounter.
          — from "Thinking Through Orono," Sagetrieb 20/Paideuma 40 (2013): 99-100

The first mail of the New Year brought the special double issue of Sagetrieb/Paideuma, a well-edited and moving festschrift in honor of Burton Hatlen, whose contributions to poetry are well known to readers. What is less recognized about Hatlen are his populist/Left sympathies, which helped overturn (or at least substantially rethink) the author-centered modernism of the Pound tradition, and that is not nothing for poetics. The lore of "the tale of the tribe," so stultifying as a context or tradition in which the so-called "New"is guaranteed to have occurred, transformed quickly into a real-time poetic community as the legacy of textual innovation. Literary movements "newer" than modernism, Language writing for instance, certainly were a part of this moment. My contribution to Hatlen's memory was to recount my experience of the first five "decades" conferences, four of which he organized: Poetry of the 30s, 50s, 60s, 40s, followed by Poetry of the 70s, after his death.

The issues of "presentism" and "historicism" are signally engaged in this series of events, with revisionist poetics as their platform--but with arguably greater stakes. A conventional definition of "presentism" is "the application of present values and perspectives to events of the historical past," while that of "historicism" is "the necessity for historical context and motive for interpretation." Books have been written on both topics, and I do not intend to rehearse them. The agenda of the Decades conferences, in their prime time, was clearly a mix of both. The canon was opening, the recovering of poetries that had been misunderstood, undervalued, and repressed was under way. These acts of recovery, at the same time, were being undertaken for present motives — for one thing, a more accurate view of the literature, culture, and politics of the given "period," and even more to the point the making of literary history "from below" — taking into account the interests of those who were not, in official verse culture or otherwise, represented. Race, class, and gender, in other words, were at the center of the Decades' presentism/historicism, not only leading to a revised account of literature and the arts, but opening the prospects of an "academy of the future" in which a much broader horizon of cultural politics is available and operative. That, in a nutshell, is my pedagogy.