1960: A first remembrance

On the New Year’s Eve between 1959 and 1960 I met Diane Wakoski — a night spent between Armand Schwerner’s place, whom we knew, and LeRoi Jones’s, who was still remote from us.  I had begun to move beyond my familiar New York quarters the year before — a trip by bus and car to dazzling San Francisco — and found a poetry world there (a world, in short) that beckoned us to enter. My first real book — translations, to start things off — had been published in 1959 by City Lights, and traveling home from San Francisco, I looked through the rear window of the bus and saw what seemed like a white sun, flat and cold, overhead. That was enough to serve as a title for White Sun Black Sun, a first book of my own that I would publish in the new year — 1960 — through Hawk’s Well Press, cofounded with David Antin a couple of years before. It was also the year in which I published Jess’s O!, having met him and Robert Duncan the year before in Stinson Beach, California, followed shortly thereafter by Robert’s visit and monthlong sojourn at our apartment in New York.

A year of expansions, as I remember it, when expansiveness was possible, even while holding one’s own ground, or trying to. There was an inner circle for sure but its boundaries were increasingly permeable. The ones I worked with most closely were Antin, Robert Kelly, Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski, all of whose first books I published. Kelly and George Economou (another key figure) were then publishing Trobar, and my own magazine of that time was Poems from the Floating World, which I subtitled “an ongoing anthology of the deep image.” And in 1960 we were joined, significantly, by Clayton Eshleman fresh in from Indiana, Paul Blackburn, connecting us to the poets of Black Mountain, and Jackson Mac Low, then operating near the heart of Fluxus. Their part in the discourse — each in his own way but ultimately connected — led us into enough new directions to last a lifetime.

“Deep image” was a rallying cry for several of us, more questionable for several others. It was a term of my own devising, a cover-up perhaps for the continuity of a way of writing and thinking characteristic of French and international Surrealism. Thinking back to it now — a half century later — what seems most meaningful was how it led us into ethnopoetics, the search for a new/old poetics related to or imbedded in the deepest and most distant of human cultures and languages. In the third issue of Poems from the Floating World, I made that search explicit (as Kelly and I had both done in Trobar), and started on the road to Technicians of the Sacred at the end of the decade — not as a way of writing, Tristan Tzara had once taught us, but as a state of mind (esprit).

What was truly remarkable here — at least for me — was how our different pathways, our different means as poets, converged once origins were summoned, and how much depth of human experience those pathways shared. David Antin catches that later in an account of how our ethnopoetics, rather than a yearning for the past, “provided a lens through which it became possible to see some of the possibilities of a truly Postmodern American poetry.” If we hadn’t gotten there yet by 1960, if there was still a way to go toward anything like fullness/wholeness, the participants were already in place, and the battle, as Picasso said of his own collaged beginnings, was now engaged.