‘El corno emplumado’ and poetry’s hemispheric sixties

Image adapted from cover of ‘El corno emplumado’ 1.

Before he became Muhammad Ali, the boxer Cassius Clay wrote a few verses protesting the war in Vietnam. He sent them to a new magazine in Mexico City, El corno emplumado/the Plumed Horn, which had begun putting out bilingual issues of writing and visual art by writers from every corner of the Americas. The editor, Margaret Randall, turned down Clay’s “haiku-like poems,” a decision she came to regret. But like most of the work published in El corno emplumado, whose entire print run is now available digitally thanks to the Open Door Archive, Clay’s poetry lives on in the archival memory of the sixties — in the ring and in front of the microphone, instead of on the page. During the age of Aquarius that spanned summers of love and days of rage, the act of sharing poetry simply was “tuning in,” a means of mutual address and outrage (I almost said production), one powerful enough to connect the cultural icon, Ali, with an unknown, twenty-something expat poet.

When Randall decamped New York City in 1961, her infant son Gregory in tow, she had established herself in the downtown scene. A regular at the Cedar Tavern, she befriended abstract expressionist painters and Beat writers, reviewed for Art News, read Marx and the Black Mountain poets, and wrote poems while working as a gallery sitter. The onslaught of day jobs included work as a court interpreter for eviction cases in New York’s Puerto Rican community, and as a case worker assisting refugees of the Spanish Civil War. Randall’s exposure to the avant-garde became an education in the contradictions of counterculture: the growing prestige of her artist friends unfolded blocks away from segregation and poverty that belied consensus images of postwar prosperity, leading Randall to rethink her life as an artist. With Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Elaine de Kooning, among others, she authored a “Declaration of Conscience” supporting Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

The Cuban revolution gave focus to radical and student movements, anticipating the politics of multiracial solidarity in the struggle against Apartheid and US-led imperialism.Still, Randall lacked the ideological allegiances Baraka discovered in the Black Arts, and, as Baraka would several years later, she left Greenwich Village. By giving up the false “freedom” of bourgeois idealism, according to Che Guevara’s 1965 manifesto, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” Randall joined the “revolutionary generation” that was summoned in Guevara’s vision of the artist’s transformation from “a solitary being seeking harmony with the world” into the cultural worker committed to “the real problems of individual alienation.” Unlike most American leftists raised in bourgeois homes, Randall spent the period of neocolonial resistance not in the metropole but in the midst of the movement. She attended the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968 before moving to Cuba, living there for most of the 1970s, followed by a time in Nicaragua and returning to the US in the 1980s.

El corno launched soon after Randall arrived in Mexico City. In retrospect, it was a decisive event in broadening the horizons of US and Latin American avant-garde poetry to match the global dimensions of the era’s antiwar and decolonization movements. Spanish-language literature had been available in translation to periodical readers stateside since the late 1930s, in particular in “little anthologies” from New Directions, featuring early translations of César Vallejo in 1955, and in 1961, Jorge Carrera Andrade translated by Thomas Merton, and Julio Cortázar by Paul Blackburn. Despite this international turn, such collections conspicuously lack more than token representation of minoritized ethnic poets writing in the US. As Randall’s thinking developed over the 1960s, it became a conscious goal of El corno to counteract the chauvinism and racism of midcentury American letters, not just in the mainstream but in the predominantly white, male avant-garde. But in the early days of the magazine, whose title conjured a diasporic fusion of the jazz horn and the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, politics deferred to aesthetic questions of “form,” pre-Columbian culture, and the need for “good translation,” according to Randall. The first issue featured drawings by Elaine de Kooning and the British surrealist Leonora Carrington, an essay by the Mexican archaeologist Laurette Séjourneé, and work by Spaniard poet-in-exile León Felipe — Randall’s mentor — and the Nicaraguan radical Ernesto Cardenal, later to become a priest and outspoken critic of the Vatican.

The second issue published Allen Ginsberg in Spanish translation (a first) as part of an eclectic lineup that included Blackburn and the poet-translator Clayton Eshleman, the in-and-out-of-prison Beat poet Ray Bremser, and a letter to the editor from Waldo Frank, the philosopher and South American cultural ambassador during the era of Good Neighbor diplomacy. Subsequent issues ran letters from up-and-coming avant-gardists Jackson Mac Low and David Antin, recluses such as Ted Enslin, Thomas Merton, and Gary Snyder, and the young radicals Dan Georgakas and Todd Gitlin, who appeared later in the decade. El corno’s back matter contains countless such diamonds in the rough, a mini-archive unto itself of in-fighting, reportage and more-or-less personal correspondence. This is to say nothing of the Spanish-language section of the journal edited by Randall’s then-husband Sergio Mondragón, with its own ecology of taste and celebrity. When El corno folded in 1969, forced underground after backing the student uprising in Mexico City, the magazine had featured authors and artists from thirty-seven countries. Even Fidel was a reader.

Randall became a key postwar figure in her own right. Yet despite some ninety books and collections, including an autobiography published last year and a groundbreaking anthology of Cuban poetry testifying to more than half a century of translation and publishing work, Randall and El corno by extension remain obscure to Anglophone audiences. Randall’s poetic and political careers took her to the frontlines of feminist, decolonial, and human rights movements, part of a multiracial Left targeted during the Jim Crow and Cold War eras, as we’ve learned from Mary Helen Washington and James Smethurst. Given recent events in the US borderlands, heartlands, and Capitol, it doesn’t require a great sympathetic leap to grasp the threats of state and vigilante violence faced by boundary-crossing activists of the sixties. Randall’s itinerary was rare, however, for being tirelessly motivated instead of distractedly voyeuristic. The writers and modernists taking refuge in Mexico since the 1920s enumerate a who’s who of Anglo-American modernist and postmodernist canons. Surveying the crowd at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, Carol Bergé identified two camps, “the just-back-from-Mexico brigade; & the I’ll-be-living-in-NY-after-this brigade,” locating herself in the former.[1]

Most literary tales of adventuring in Mexico, to put it euphemistically, sideline Mexican writers and occlude the hemispheric history of the Americas, projecting imperialist fantasy onto nativist screens. The Mexican other in the American cultural imaginary, according to Roberto Tejada, haunts the edges of twentieth-century poetry’s national canon. Yankee poets journeying south appear comically provincial in retrospect, minor characters in a tragedy of white universalism — which, Tejada notes, displaces history “elsewhere.”[2El corno is remarkable in this light for pressing beyond national and linguistic differences in an effort to braid North, Central, and South American lineages, highlighting their aesthetic affinities and points of political solidarity. Featuring “Beats alongside Language Poets,” as Randall recalled, “guerrilla fighters alongside Catholic priests and mystics,” each issue’s bilingual organization declared its aim to be “a bridge: between cultures, ideologies, generations, language usage and ways of constructing the poem.” Noting that “relations between the Americas have never been worse,” Randall and Mondragón invited readers to consider “the fact that WE ARE ALL BROTHERS.”[3]

This editorial vision belied the parameters of the “WE” actually printed in the magazine. Had Cassius Clay published his haiku, it would have been a nontrivial increase in the number of Black voices. It was Randall who rebuked herself most sharply, observing how El corno “removed cultural expression from politics,” going so far as to call this “a distorted, elitist, and even racist concept of art for art’s sake.”[4] There is a telling distance between these comments from 1975, made in the context of Randall’s life in revolutionary Cuba, and her effort in 2015 to tease out the magazine’s aesthetic legacy from its political shortcomings. “I came,” she recounts of her arrival in Mexico, “from a nation rife with Cold War bias. … Except in places such as El Corno, creative people were hesitant to discuss the fabricated clash between poetry and politics.”[5] The conflict between art and ideology, in other words, had outlived the supposed death of modernism to shape the emerging postwar avant-garde. But it also served as a useful illusion for Cold Warriors who saw the threatening aspect of aesthetic autonomy in the self-determination struggles of Third World nations. Following the 1955 Bandung Conference, the spirit of liberation came to the Americas in the 1966 launch of the Tricontinental movement in Cuba, whose anticapitalist, global solidarity program foregrounded US civil rights.

As committed writers sometimes are, Randall could be cagey (or simply impatient) when discussing her priorities. She made a key point in passing about “the fabricated clash between poetry and politics,” a formulation that asks us to root out radical truths. A classic Cold War tactic of divide and conquer, the false choice between art and commitment pitted activists against artists on questions of culture while diverting their natural alliance on the need to change the status quo. The full picture and lasting effects of this ideological confusion in the postwar American avant-garde — a self-deception, in Randall’s bracing account, at bottom “racist” — has become more familiar thanks to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s critique of poetry’s “mainly white room,” the history of contradiction in Language writing and the New Left told by Chris Chen and Timothy Kreiner, and, in a different way, the unprecedented range of Black authors in Kevin Young’s new anthology of African American poetry. The MFA industry wasn’t the only site of postwar poetic production. It is grant-funding and public institutions, as Evan Kindley shows, whose infrastructure houses most working poets in some way or another yet wobbles between retrenchment and extinction. Meanwhile, the homologous set of oppositions — art/politics; poetics/identity — are stumbling blocks, just as they were half a century ago, to challenging a status quo in which poets unmarked by race remain in the privileged position of formal innovators while minority poets give voice (that is, ethnically specific expression) to “content,” as Dorothy Wang shows of something as recent as twenty-first-century lyric studies.

El corno anticipates such an impasse, despite its transnational, bilingual, and multiethnic impulses. Self-aware verging on self-lacerating, Randall saw how the “cultural expression” of the sixties escaped the repressive fifties only superficially, “removed” as it was from the political struggles of the moment. It’s refreshingly blunt to call this “racist,” but from another perspective it collapses the tension between El corno’s stated aims and the historical reality. If there was a multiracial poetic culture in the United States circa 1960, it wasn’t found in mainstream venues, established avant-garde publishers such as Grove Press and New Directions, even in marginal enclaves. The notable exceptions who traversed color lines, such as Bob Kaufman, proved the rule of nonpublication underwritten by segregation. Long since dead were the Communist venues that offered a reliable if uneasy refuge for Black writers in the Depression and World War II eras. Meanwhile, veterans of the Old Left fled McCarthyism for Mexico. Some returned to safe harbor, helped, like George Oppen, by the privilege of powerful connections. The communist poet Ray Durem, a forerunner of the Black Arts, repatriated only to suffer political despair and obscurity. It’s well known that the Jim Crow color line in US culture lasted into the post-segregation era, but the wake of its devastation is traced most fully in cases like Durem’s — in books unwritten, careers foreclosed and lives unlived. When Randall was stopped at the US border in the 1980s, she had forged enough connections to put her on many lists, but lists of the wrong kind. Anthologies and mainstream publications since the 1960s have tended to overlook Randall along with many of the writers she published.

El corno emerged out of the Cold War fifties and not the late sixties; partly for this reason we forget the significance of the diverse poetic authorship it represented. In postwar poetry this was a road infrequently taken. Before the rise of forums like Detroit’s Broadside Press and New York’s Umbra Workshop, there was Russell Atkins’s Free Lance in Cleveland, a publication that would have been known to Randall via the poet and printer, d.a. levy, another Clevelander and El corno contributor. Before coediting the pivotal multiethnic venue Yardbird Reader with Ishmael Reed, Al Young sent poems to El corno from the Bay Area, declaring “The wretched of the earth / are my brothers.”[6] Clarence Major was living in Mexico City when he placed work in El corno, but his larger labor was The New Black Poetry. Major’s anthology was what Walter Lowenfels had in mind when he criticized the ethos of the “best poets of our generation” as a clubby vestige of the white establishment. “In the Lowell-Auden-Kunitz circle,” wrote Lowenfels in El corno’s October 1968 issue, “the Sonia Sanchez-Olga Cabral-Clarence Major circle doesn’t exist.” 

However salutary, these were the comments of a white critic speaking to a largely white magazine. While aesthetic concerns cut across the circles Lowenfels distinguished, this was a no-win situation for minority writers. As the sixties wore on, Black presses such as Broadside and Third World arose from the need for self-determination that aesthetic autonomy didn’t provide. El corno straddled these worlds, publishing, on one hand, only a short list of Black writers, yet on the other, served as an alternative to “the spirit of desolation” that Al Young diagnosed in the “so-called avant-garde publications” of the contemporary scene (Young’s own zine was called Loveletter).[7] While there was plenty of crossover between this “so-called avant-garde” and El corno, a similar refusal of despair inspired Randall’s editorial vision, anticipating the changes in the status quo that became possible once “it was no longer a secret,” as Young noted, “that what officially passed for literature in the United States was really only representative of a select monoculture.”[8]

Thanks to the archival, critical, and institutional apparatus built by Harris Feinsod, John Alba Cutler, and the staff at Northwestern University, where Open Door Archive is housed, “the reality of the magazine,” as Randall saw it, now approaches the scale of access and circulation she could only dream of.

When I think about what communication was like back then, it’s hard to recreate a sense of its ponderous rhythm. A letter or envelope of poems typically took three months to travel from Buenos Aires or New York to Mexico City. Postal costs meant that heavier packages traveled by ship. … Long distance telephone calls were out of the question. Email was beyond our wildest imaginings.[9]

Compressing the errant slowness of print, the digital format risks removing El corno from the media environment of post-McCarthyite censorship, pamphleteering, and paperbacks that goosed the wide-awake consciousness of a generation. Those who want to put their hands on a facsimile of the magazine may purchase a selection of El corno from CUNY’s Lost and Found series. What the online portal loses in musty authenticity it gives back in accessibility, allowing us to scroll issues smoothly (and perhaps as quickly as we would skim any other feed). I am tempted to stop here and bid you happy browsing, but given Open Door’s growing archive (a recent addition is Mandorla, the transhemispheric journal founded by Tejada in Mexico City in the 1990s and published through the 2010s), I’ll sketch a few points of entry.

By the mid sixties there was greater ethnoracial diversity in mass market venues, especially the anthologies of Black, Indigenous, and Third World writing edited by Lowenfels. Besides the strong showing of Antillean, Central, and Latin Americans in El corno, whose ethnic identities arise from an internal field of distinctions and colonial history distinct from that of the northern Atlantic, the magazine featured few authors identifiably of color. The metonymic politics of race, as Anna Mahler shows, connected Jim Crow to the emergent Global South. Key for understanding the revolutionary politics of Tricontinentalism, the alliances built by culture workers such as Randall ought to reshape our picture of postwar poetry in the Americas. This would require, first of all, shifting or perhaps abandoning the national canon of US poetry as a category of aesthetic lineage and historical study. The most promising alternative is “the new inter-American poetry” traced in Feinsod’s 2017 book, The Poetry of the Americas. Documenting the hemispheric networks that helped (most) poets survive the Cold War era’s state violence and geopolitical brinksmanship, the book is pathbreaking — not just scholastically, but in the sense of criticism so well-written you want to follow Feinsod with genuine curiosity.

As the magazine matured, Randall’s editorial stance aligned with the rising tide of Third Worldism in revolutionary movements across Central America, Asia, and Africa. Soon after the Tricontinental conference in 1966, Randall visited Havana, meeting with artists and women revolutionaries and finally locating in Cuban society the milieu she had traversed throughout her life, first in Spain where she smuggled contraceptives to women in need, in New York where she was sidelined in a chauvinist village poetry culture, and later as a radical feminist who grew disillusioned during her time in Cuba and Nicaragua. She likely had copies of El corno in tow during her first Cuban sojourn, for when Tricontinental Magazine was launched, it bore a family resemblance. When the Mexican state crushed the student uprising in 1968, El corno lost its major patrons and government funding. Randall fought to keep publishing until the bitter end. “The reality of the magazine,” as she put it, encompassed translation, layout, and distribution under adverse conditions, like the local printer who, offended by the graphic sexuality of Randall’s 1965 book, October, tossed the proofs into the street.

But when it did go to press, El corno was a top-shelf product of the mimeo revolution. The art spreads are exquisite, the design clean without being precious. Covers advertise the names of contributors, national origins, and aesthetic movements in colorful monoliths; later issues featured paintings, woodcuts, documentary photography, and satirical cartoons, indicating the magazine’s growing reputation. Unlike peer venues whose exteriors elicited highbrow seriousness (Black Mountain Review, Origin), underground knowingness (The Floating Bear, Intrepid, Fuck You), and a challenging affect to match their content (Kulchur, Yugen, Umbra), in its first half-decade, prior to Randall’s radicalization, El corno wore the aspect of an older guard exemplified in Evergreen Review’s aspiration to cosmopolitan, if not mass-market, modernism. While geographically removed, the magazine never lost touch with hotbeds of counterculture and activism in San Francisco, Detroit, and Los Angeles. A radical named Dan Georgakas, whose book about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers continues to reach a wide audience, corresponded with El corno from the frontlines of the antiwar movement, describing in one letter a weeklong mobile happening in which poets read from the back of a truck driving around New York City. Mark Rudd, later of the Weather Underground, sent updates from the student strike at Columbia.

Nonwhite poets entered this scene at the margins, and as the sixties wore on, they increasingly turned away from the interracial counterculture to establish their own institutions and practices. El corno registers these tensions obliquely. A poem by Panamanian American poet Lorenzo Thomas describes riding the subway past the Columbia campus, the young Black poet reminded of his outsider status by the subterranean poetics of his transit. Clarence Major published two poems in 1968, one of them, “Down Wind, Against the Highest Peaks,” folding together situations of revolutionary failure with images of police violence to create through asynchrony a sense of the historical conflict between the (Black) self and the state. The same issue features Al Young’s lyrics of alienation and desire, odes to the comparative freedom of Black writers in Europe. El corno aspired to address the “we” invoked in Che Guevara’s 1967 message to the Tricontinental, “a nosotros, explotados del mundo” (we, the exploited peoples of the world), and besides Neruda and Paz, featured Spanish-language poets such as Rafael Alberti, Nicolás Guillén, José Lezama Lima, Gabriela Mistral, Nicanor Parra, and Cecilia Vicuña. Up-and-coming women poets from the US included Carol Berge, Kathleen Fraser, Rochelle Owens, Susan Sherman, Diane Wakowski, and Hannah Weiner.

What’s apparent from these examples is the homogeneity of El corno’s contributor list. The militancy of Randall’s editorial forewords tended to recede by the letters section at issue’s end, “a place where poets could express opposing views and defend ideas about art and society.” Contributors focused their debates on the former term at the expense of the latter. A 1967 letter from Denise Levertov assumes not only that we know the difference between art and society but that we do intuitively. “What is wrong (and ultimately useless) is the deliberate use of something that seems to be poetry (but isn’t) for propaganda purposes.”[10] Explicit dealings with “society,” on the other hand, tended to mix righteousness with snark. Just getting by, for many poets, came before getting with the political program. Even when Randall injected au courant Dharma sensibility, defining a poemas “a small bit of positive energy creating an echo somewhere” in issue 15, it betrayed the aesthetic basis for her commitment “to printing that energy, apart from its value of form, line, meter.”[11]

All of this was more antinomian than agitprop, explaining in part why El corno holds up for readers fascinated by the postwar avant-garde’s relentless and not-always-charming way of declaring ruptures with the past only to return to origins and sources, of forecasting emancipation in a future that often seems to already be happening, here and now. Hewing to the universalist vision of a revolutionary transformation in consciousness — the New World of Che’s New Man — the magazine ended up with a more conservative editorial vision than contemporaries such as Free Lance, Griot, and Kauri. Not a little ironically, the greatest overlap was perhaps with Don Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry. El corno featured most of the big names in Allen’s roster, those hailing from the West and East Coasts as well as the burgeoning scenes in Buffalo and Vancouver: Philip Lamantia, Robert Creeley and Levertov, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson. All had found in Mexico, as Feinsod observes, “a key site and source of poetic material,” and all were profoundly North American, not to mention mostly white and male. As historians have remarked of the New Left, the perceived radicalism of the postwar poetic avant-garde pales considerably when we remember that its members wrote sparingly about civil rights, much less about the long decades of civil war, uprising, and counterrevolution in the Americas, from the Cuban revolution of 1959 to the crushing of socialism in Chile in 1973.

Following the long summer of 1967, El corno ran cover art by the street photographer Larry Siegel that reflected that hardening reality. In Siegel’s portrait of three young Black men looking back at the camera from behind a metal fence, as if gazing through the artifice of the encounter, there is directness but also remove. The chain link grid of the photograph calls attention to the fence between camera and subjects as both medium and barrier. The cover would seem to promise a head-on approach in the magazine’s contents. But Che Guevara had been murdered, prompting an issue dedicated to his memory. Randall published part of Ernesto Cardenal’s “Zero Hour,” the long documentary poem about Cardenal’s revolutionary activity in Nicaragua a decade before. Somoza’s dictatorship was entrenched, backed by US geopolitical power and capital invested in the United Fruit Company. The refrain of Cardenal’s poem signals the Biblical darkness of “Hora 0”: Watchman! What hour is it of the night?[12] A trope for the times, immortalized in Bob Dylan’s song and Jimi Hendrix’s riff, the watchtower is a topos for neocolonial violence, counterrevolutionary terror, and the grim dawn of a new world. MLK would be assassinated a few months later.

Against the backdrop of an embattled civil rights movement and brutal police suppression in Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles, the representation of race in El corno remained largely symbolic, expressed in broad statements of solidarity and outrage. The “joining of poetries” that January 1968’s issue imagines between South and North, English and Spanish, came at a time when Black nationalism eclipsed the integrationist ethic as the most plausible way forward in the struggle for racial justice, its cultural vanguard the Black Arts Movement. Again, this isn’t to tar El corno with the “lily-white” brush of official verse culture, to meld terms of opprobrium from Walter Lowenfels and Charles Bernstein. Randall obviously meant to break down barriers in the “joining” she envisioned, not leave them standing. Rather, it’s to see how it was possible for US poetry to align with radical cultures that scarcely overlapped with the avant-garde then prevailing in the anthology wars, and thus pointed to the deeper clash with a literary culture that had only begun to desegregate. Among little magazines of the 1960s, El corno was slower to cancel its debt to modernism, but as a result achieved something more deliberate. Crossing instead of abolishing the boundaries between poetics and politics, self and society, Randall’s magazine reveled in the autonomy rather than the alienation of cooperating on the work of art.

1. Carol Berge, Vancouver Report (New York, NY: Fuck You Press, 1964), 1.

2. Roberto Tejada, Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness (Blacksburg, VA: Noemi Press, 2019), 43–78.

3. Sergio Mondragón, Margaret Randall, and Harvey Wolin, El corno emplumado 1 (January 1962).

4. Margaret Randall, “El Corno Emplumado, 1961–1969: Some notes in retrospect, 1975,” in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, eds. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers, NY: Pushcart, 1978), 410.

5. Margaret Randall, “Remembering El Corno Emplumado” (2015).

6. Al Young, “I Arrive in Madrid,” El corno emplumado 28 (October 1968), 85–86.

7. Al Young to Walter Lowenfels, April 15, 1968, Walter Lowenfels Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, New Haven, CT.

8. Al Young, introduction to Yardbird Lives!, ed. Ishmael Reed and Al Young (New York: Grove Press, 1978), 17.

9. Randall, “Remembering.”

10. Denise Levertov, El corno emplumado 21 (January 1967), 197.

11. Sergio Mondragón and Margaret Randall, El corno emplumado 15 (July 1965).

12. Ernesto Cardenal, Zero Hour, and Other Documentary Poems (New Directions, 1980), 1.