Chapter 2 of my current book project — titled 1960: The Politics & Art of the Avant-garde — is about the delayed (post-traumatic) response to the mass killings of World War II precisely fifteen years later. Here, in presenting one section of this long chapter, I'm not going to describe in any detail why I think it took fifteen years before such a reckoning could occur. As I did my research and reading, I did discern such a rather sudden interest, saw it in fact everywhere. In this section I turn to a certain revival of Kafka in 1960. From this one can probably get a sense of the larger argument.
Note: the audio linked below is temporarily unavailable.
Thanks to George Drury and Lois Baum, PennSound has recently added a stunningly good cache of audio recordings from the “Word of Mouth” series, originally aired on WFMT at Loyola University, Chicago. Among these recordings is a conversation among Langston Hughes, John Sellers, James Cotton, and Otis Spann, moderated by Studs Terkel, at Roosevelt University, aired on WFMT on July 15, 1960. Here is your link to the forty-seven-minute audio: MP3. (We are in the process of segmenting this recording by topic. Stay tuned, as it were.)
What follows is the text of a talk presented in honor of Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday, at an event held at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, on December 9, 2011.
If you were looking one way for new Americans in 1960, they would of course be found in Allen’s The New American Poetry. But there was another way. Jerome Rothenberg’s first book, New Young German Poets, published by City Lights in 1959, introduced American readers to a postfascist antifascist avant-garde that successfully “oppose[ed] the inherited dead world with a modern visionary language,” crucially among them, Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.
I'm fascinated by the “Visionary Architecture” show put on at MoMA in the fall of 1960. The exhibit consisted of materials (photographs of models, plans, drawings) from 28 ideas for cities and urban structures “considered too revolutionary to build.” “Ideal projects,” writes the show's curator Arthur Drexler, “afford the sole occasions when [the architect] can rebuild the world as he knows it ought to be.” And: “When ideal projects are inspired by criticism of the existing structure of society, as well as by the architect’s longing for a private world of his own, they may bring forth ideas that make history.” Theory and practice — vision and realism — merge in this presentation. “Today virtually nothing an architect can think of is technically impossible to realize.” Here, then, comes a definition: “Social usage, which includes economics, determines what is visionary and what is not.”
Buckminster Fuller's project on display here was brand new — done in 1960, just before the show opened. The wall label from the MoMA exhibit is reproduced above. This is vintage dome-obsessed Fuller, but now with a hint of ambient-coverage aesthetic the manner that would emerge with Christo and others. A dome over “a large part” of Manhattan.
As the symposium has suggested, there are a number of 1960s: a year in which work from the 1950s appeared in print (the physicality of print technologies involving a time lag); a year in which the social and political landscape silenced some, even as what was published has an energy still present in 2011; the year of the NewAmerican Poetry, 1945–1960 (the subtitle, worth underlining), by now surprisingly both capacious and ordinary, closed and defying aesthetic
Nicholas Joost had been a Chicago-area professor and, for several years in the early 50s, was an associate editor at Poetry magazine. After a while his main interest became The Dial, the avant-garde magazine whose heyday had been the 1920s. Eventually he would write several books about the Dial but first, from 1956 through 1960, he helped prepare a major exhibit on the Dial put on at the Worcester Museum (in Massachusetts). Joost's manuscripts (at Georgetown) include correspondence of the late fifties and they seem (to judge from the finding aid) almost entirely taken up with the Dial exhibit. I haven't seen the exhibit catalogue for the show, which opened in '59 and ran through part of '60, but I'm soon going to be in touch with the folks now at Worcester, get a copy of the catalogue and find out what institutional records they have kept. I've long been curious about specific reasons why the 1920s were so much the rage in the mid and late 1950s, why specifically Fitzgerald's fiction had such a comeback, why American modernists circa 1925 was of such great interest. This Dial show and its reception will, I think, give me some further clues.
Two months before 1960 commenced, Stanley Kunitz in Harper’s Magazine redefined the word “experimental” to mean the inevitable resistance to any prevailing style for the sake of “keep[ing] it supple.” Yet at the time of his writing, the turn of this new decade, “the nature of that resistance is in effect a backward look.” The recent Pulitzer Prize winner added: “This happens not to be a time of great innovation in poetic technique: it is rather a period in which the technical gains of past decades, particularly the twenties, are being tested and consolidated.”
Editors’ note: This is a transcription of the discussion that immediately following the short presentations on December 6, 2010, at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. If you check these words against the video or audio recordings, you will notice that the participants have slightly corrected or otherwise revised their comments — for style and clarity, we would say on the whole, rather than substance.
The 1960s Symposium at the Kelly Writers House happened last December and featured a varied list of speakers. Each one addressed the 1960s moment in American literary history, which could best be summed up by the books published around that time. It seemed like a fabulous event and I could certainly comment on every last minute of it. Below are just some of my thoughts on two parts: Al Filreis’s introduction and Erica Kaufman’s discussion of Barbara Guest’s book, The Location of Things.