LeRoi Jones, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, 1965

The Berkeley Poetry Conference occurred from July 12 to July 25, 1965, organized by Donald Allen, Richard Baker, Robert Duncan, and Thomas Parkinson. LeRoi Jones was scheduled on the highest tier of participation, to deliver a lecture, a seminar, and a reading, but declined to participate and was replaced by Ed Dorn. I will investigate the divergence of thought of Jones and the Conference behind the refusal, and what might be achieved in thinking them in conjunction, by examining a contemporaneous recording of Jones, introducing his piece as “ideas I have about theatre circa January 1965,” with recordings from the Conference. I have focused on the recordings of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan for having the strongest social and political implications for this conjunction. The other available recordings are John Wieners, Reading, July 14; Charles Olson, Lecture, “Causal Mythology,” July 20; Robert Creeley, Reading, July 22; Creeley, Lecture, “Sense of Measure,” July 23; and Joanne Kyger, Reading, July 24. Wieners and Kyger are primarily concerned with imaginative musings of the self, Olson with socially disconnected myths, and Creeley with Williams’ aesthetics of measure and the interpersonal.

LeRoi Jones
Location unknown, January 1965?
The Revolutionary Theatre (Home: Social Essays, 1965)

Jack Spicer
Berkeley Poetry Conference, University of California, Berkeley, July 14, 1965
Excerpts from “Poetry and Politics” Lecture (start to 11:05) (The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, 1998)

Robert Duncan
Berkeley Poetry Conference, University of California, Berkeley, July 16, 1965
Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow (The Opening of the Field, 1960)
The Structure of Rime IX (The Opening of the Field, 1960)
The Structure of Rime X (The Opening of the Field, 1960)
The Structure of Rime XI (The Opening of the Field, 1960)
Apprehensions (Roots and Branches, 1964: “Roots and Branches (1959-60)”)
Osiris and Set (Roots and Branches, 1964: “Roots and Branches (1959-60)”)
A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar (The Opening of the Field, 1960)
The Continent (Roots and Branches, 1964: “Windings (1961-1963)”)
The Multiversity: Passages 21 (Bending the Bow, 1968)

Jones argues for an aesthetic concentration defined by public antagonism to whites, the West, and America in the service of social assault against repression. He argues for this with violent rhetoric: “White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them [….] They will all die because of this [….] People must be taught […] that the holiness of life is the constant possibility of widening the consciousness. And they must be incited to strike back against any agency that attempts to prevent that widening.” Despite the antagonism to the West, he references Antonin Artaud and Ludwig Wittgenstein approvingly, suggesting that there are materials of the enemy that can be seized and adapted, reflecting his own training in the white avant-garde. He sets the valorization of his aesthetics outside the aesthetic frame in “actual” revolutionary praxis: “The force we want is of twenty million spooks storming America with furious cries and unstoppable weapons. We want actual explosions and actual brutality.” The insistence on extreme antagonism to artists (“Most white Western artists […] whether they know it or not […] are in complete sympathy with the most repressive social forces in the world today”), to America (“Americans will hate the Revolutionary Theatre because it will be out to destroy them”), and to the audience itself (the final statement, “The heroes […] will be new men, new heroes, and their enemies most of you who are listening to this”) forces response, inspires self-critique and development, and permanently disallows a disabling by reformism, and the violent imagery forces open the imagination to the logical extremities and capacious possibilities necessary to destroy the enemy against subjectively delimited ethics. The piece is also impressive rhetorically, evidenced by the chain of moments of strongest response: “The Revolutionary Theatre must function like an incendiary pencil planted in Curtis Lemay’s cap. So that when the final curtain goes down brains are splattered over the seats and the floor, and bleeding nuns must wire SOS’s to Belgians with gold teeth” employs cartoonish violence and “The popular white man’s theatre […] herds bigcaboosed blondes onto huge stages in rhinestones and makes believe they are dancing or singing. WHITE BUSINESSMEN OF THE WORLD, DO YOU WANT TO SEE PEOPLE REALLY DANCING AND SINGING??? ALL OF YOU GO UP TO HARLEM AND GET YOURSELF KILLED. THERE WILL BE DANCING AND SINGING, THEN, FOR REAL!!” employs shock to soften up the audience, so that the affective space is cultivated for “There are more junior birdmen fascists running around the West today disguised as Artists than there are disguised as fascists. But then, that word, Fascist, and with it, Fascism, has been made obsolete by the words America, and Americanism” to receive wild applause.

Spicer also argues for a concentration: an antisocial poetry community. He deflates self-congratulatory ineffective praxis: “You’re not going to be able to do a good goddamn thing about Vietnam […] because President Johnson is not terribly interested in whether intellectuals don’t like Vietnam or not [….] The people who do these things are people like Lyndon Johnson. And, my poetry, no one’s poetry as far as I can see, is going to influence Lyndon Johnson.” He deflates the Free Speech Movement’s effects, to which David Bromige defends them by bringing up, “There was the picketing of the Oakland Tribune” (which regularly editorialized against civil rights and the Free Speech Movement) “to protest discrimination in hiring practices,” and Spicer replies: “You know damn well the Oakland Tribune is going to have its same subscribers as it had before [….] If you wanted to bomb the Oakland Tribune Building […] then that would make some sense.” Against self-congratulation, the only relevant concern is what is efficacious to be done next. Poetry is worthless praxis: “Of all the poems I’ve seen in the last ten years coming from this area, I haven’t seen one good political poem,” to which an audience member responds, “Would you recommend that he write it and throw it away?” and Spicer replies, “Yeah, or write a letter to his congressman or something like that. It’s just as meaningless.” Against this worthlessness, “if you’re poets, you ought to figure out what the power system is within your own community.” Poetry may be worthless in acting on society, but it is vulnerable to being acted upon by society: “Most people will exploit poets. They’ll exploit the older ones for the knowledge they have, and they’ll exploit the younger ones for the promise they have.” Against society he argues the importance of not selling out and admits the difficulty if not impossibility of total desuture from society because of society’s institution of money:

“There’s the individual and then there’s this society he moves in. Now, Mao Tse said once, you swim in it, like a fish. You swim in whatever circumstance you are in [….] These people—these Johnsons or these Olsons or these Kennedys or these anythings—they’re better than you are at it. What you have to do is to somehow or other figure out some way to swim in the thing like a fish but not sell out [….] I’m getting a hundred dollars to give this lecture, which is extremely generous. But I don’t know if I wouldn’t have stopped giving this lecture if it had been no money at all, because I just don’t know how this society can be swum in, like a fish, to use that kind of phrase.”

He warns about the allure of power: “[Olson] was in the same position in poetry as Johnson is in politics. And that’s not selling out or anything like that. But you get to be a power figure [….] You can get tempted with all kinds of power and I think that both [Allen] Tate and LeRoi [Jones] got tempted with it.” Jones was brought up by an audience member who notes that “Kenneth Rexroth said that there are no good poems about race […] including […] LeRoi Jones’s poems in which black could be erased and white substituted with no loss,” which is wrong, because white and black signify differently, but is also useful, in that it abstracts Jones’ program away from his assault on whiteness, as Jones himself later did in his shift from Black Nationalism to Marxism, into a model of relations for attack that can be adapted to other targets. Against society and its allure of power manifest in poetry, Spicer argues for a restricted poetry community: “A magazine is a society” (used synonymously here and in the next sentence’s quote with “community,” because he differentiates his terms near the lecture’s end that “[c]ertainly we belong to a community rather than a society, we poets”). He offers as a positive model “Open Space […] a magazine which went on for one year and purposely just for one year [….] [Issues] wouldn’t be given past the East Bay [….] [Open Space] was restricted and restricted properly [….] The community has been absolutely […] torn apart since Open Space stopped” and as a negative model Poetry: “If you publish in Poetry magazine, then you have to say, ‘Yeah I read Poetry myself […]’ which I don’t […] because I don’t believe in the society that it creates.” He limits the agency of the poem: “I don’t think that non-poets like/ought to read poetry [….] Poems give messages to the poet, to other poets” (the Peter Gizzi transcription in The House That Jack Built prints “like” but the recording strongly suggests “ought”—they serve the same overall function, with “ought” being more insistent). Poems are for poets and their utility is to construct communities. Spicer’s system is relational: the proposed community form is theoretically empty to be constructed with any content. He does not insist on the essentiality of revolutionary praxis as Jones does. But the co-presence in Spicer’s lecture of his criticality about efficacious praxis (these elements interestingly not selected for excerpt in the available recording) with poetry’s socio-political worthlessness suggests that if a poetry community form were constructed with revolutionary elements, the realization of these elements would have to exceed the activity of poetry that cultivated them.

Duncan’s reading enacts an infinite structure of knowledge to be explored and utilized that is also sensitive to the importance of local phenomena within that structure. He begins with his major philosophical poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” which constructs the relation between the transhistorically encyclopedic “eternal pasture folded in all thought” and the humbled self that sometimes is permitted access (“so that there is a hall therein […] created by light / wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall. // Wherefrom fall all architectures I am”) and a dialectic between the ontology of “a disturbance of words within words / that is a field folded” to the eternal pasture of all thought. From the meadow falls forth Duncan’s “The Structure of Rime” sequence, which can simultaneously think mythic figures and archetypes and material phenomena (“I crave the visible disturbers – lightning, the naked gods, the falling of buildings”), and “A Poem Beginning With a Line by Pindar,” in which a single line by Pindar produces forth complexity through Duncan, including Walt Whitman put into the service of the condemnatory litany of American Presidents. Duncan introduces “The Structure of Rime” as “literally continuous, it has no terminus point at all,” and the trajectory is furthered by “Structure of Rime XIV,” embedded in “Apprehensions.” “Apprehensions” develops the importance of the self’s active perception for textual production toward accessing the meadow: “Sometimes I am not permitted to read. // O I know the cards like an old poet knows his images, / but when I am not able to read they are only / numbers and faces, there are no moving pictures.” “The Multiversity” is one of Duncan’s poems most sensitive to the phenomenon of local political struggle. It represents material power structures and the falsity of their proffered text:

“here: Kerr (behind him, heads of the Bank of America

                        the Tribune,
                                 heads of usury, heads of war)

        the worm’s     mouthpiece     spreads

                                     what it wishes       its own

false news: 1) that the students broke into Sproul’s office, vandalizing, creating disorder; 2) that the Free Speech Movement has no wide support, only an irresponsible minority   going on strike”

It abstracts material power structures to a philosophical/mythic structure and employs William Blake’s representation of power structures in his uncompleted poem about “old Nobodaddy” to understand the material power structures:

“In this scene      absolute authority

     the great dragon himself so confronted

     whose scales are men officized —ossified— conscience

             no longer alive in them,

the inner law silenced,          now

                    they call out their cops, police law,
                      the club, the gun, the strong arm,
                      gang-law of the state,
                      hired sadists of installd mediocrities.”

   “in Blake’s day    ‘old Nobodaddy’

                         in whose image, reduced in spirit

This framework enables what is philosophically at stake in the phenomena of local struggles to be seized:

              Where there is no commune,

                         the individual volition has no ground.

              Where there is no individual freedom,   the commune

                         is falsified.

Duncan’s system is a model that can be adapted to bring the entirety of knowledge to bear in the poem to work on a reader as a site for thinking the implications and relations of the most local phenomena to the most philosophical concepts, which is especially fascinating as embodiments of the concepts of authority and freedom are erupting in struggles right now.

Jones, Spicer, and Duncan all make powerful propositions in the urgency of their moment. Following any proposition strongly does disallow the simultaneity of strong strides of the other propositions, such as the contradiction between Spicer’s antisocial community opacity with Jones’ socially valorizing aesthetics, but perhaps the propositions can be constantly modulated and adapted in shifting proportions and principalities based on the urgencies of any given moment.

Next Sunday: Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein on Susan Howe’s WBAI-Pacifica radio show, March 14, 1979.