A Time for Assessment—The Late 1970s-Early 1980s

Historical Essay

by Stephen Vincent, originally published in "The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language & Performance," edited by Stephen Vincent & Ellen Zweig, published by Momo's Press in 1981 in San Francisco.

Part V

Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Nancy Peters in front of City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, 1981; Photo: Chris Felver
Gradually the impetus, the energy of the early 1970s came to a stop. We are probably still too historically close to say what took the spirit out of the situation. Clearly much of the work had been animated by political turbulence, national and local. Perhaps it had been a circumstance of a unifying dream, and the dream had been broken. Certainly no energy could bring diverse poets together under the umbrella of "the big reading" for whatever progressive or funereal occasion. Fragmentation and separatism were in the air. A heated era, as they say, was gone. Or as one of my landlords said, "It's a luxury to live in San Francisco. If you and your family cannot afford it, you should move out."

It was time for a stop and a look around. As in the middle 1950s and middle 1960s, a certain number of poets had risen from the local to get national, or near national, attention. In terms of such success, it was clearly the woman's decade: Alta, Judy Grahn, Susan Griffin, Jessica Hagedorn, and Ntozake Shange all had gained national audiences and various kinds of critical acknowledgment. Among men, Victor Cruz and Andrei Codrescu both had national publishers and audiences. Though many of them would continue to read locally, to honor the audiences and sources of their power, their attentions and energies expanded East. (Ntozake, Jessica, Andrei, and Victor all moved to the East Coast.) No matter how interesting the work, the local media and institutions continued to provide only a minimum of support for local writers.

It was also a time for aesthetic questions. The poetry reading, no matter how popular as a format, often ended up putting real limits on the poem. Writing in response to events, or the presence of a large audience, made for a particular kind of poem, a kind of sound. "The disposable lyric," Keith Abbott called it. The work tended to become a commodity that the audience devoured and forgot. The movement of the voice, no matter who the poet, became a predictable lilt, or invective, or sincerity of tone. Part of the reason poets attempted to expand the form into music, plays, and so forth was to break out of these vocal binds. The poet's voice began to show its limits, especially as the social and political heat cooled. It became a time of parody, conscious or not. It was not that readings stopped entirely. They just became repetitions of previous readings. Steve Brooks, in his 1978 performance, The First Annual Perennial Lonely San Francisco Poets Festival, parodied fifteen different voices, introducing each as a different poet with a slightly fictitious name. Among them were the visiting Swedish poet and his translator, the surrealist expatriate writing in English, the feminist from Santa Barbara looking for love in North Beach, the pro-prisoner poet, the white Indian, and on and on. The Festival was a genuine celebration of the energies of the different poets, but, most importantly, it was a hilarious satire on the personal limits of the various writings.

By 1975 the National Endowment for the Arts began to grant money to writers, presses, and reading series throughout the country. The question remains whether or not the influx of money has had a healthy or divisive effect on the local writing community. The money, for example, established and maintains the West Coast Print Center, a low-cost printing facility for small press printers. The Center opened in 1976. On the one hand, it completely altered the economy and occurrence of poetry books in the area. Soon there were five poetry books where previously there had been one. The poetry book, whether by letterpress or mimeograph, lost the importance of its occasion. There were just too many books. Stores did not want them ("Nobody buys them"). Even the most open reader could not keep up with the saturation (especially if books from the rest of funded small presses in the country were included). The structure and expense of getting a book published had been broken, for better or worse, and a flood had taken its place. One of the first consequences was that the area's poetry letterpresses either suffered severe economic changes or were taken totally out of business. Clifford Burke left for Washington. Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers eventually stopped book job typesetting and printing. The other presses had to limit themselves to doing fine press work for well-endowed publishers or seek out grants to fund the making of their own titles. The art of printing, instead of poetry, often became the subject of the work. A lively, important, and powerful link between publishers, poets, and local printers had been broken. On the other hand, the Print Center could make the process cheaper and faster, and with the infusion of some of the local letterpress people, as well as outside criticism, the books typeset and printed there have improved greatly in the past five years.

The 1980s: Where We Stand

Poetry in the Bay Area continues to feed from two directions. One direction addresses the local, the West. In it you find the mountains, the Central Valley, the coast, the shapes that occur in the City. It's made up of a language of particulars; the words emerge out of surfaces, people, and landscapes. The poet, no matter his or her resources, responds to immediate conditions. The poem is a psychic perception of his or her occurrence within a particular context. This tradition is alive in much of the work of Rexroth, Snyder, Whalen, Welch, Everson, Kenneth Irby, and was the paramount mode of writing in the 1960s and 1970s. The poem's intention, performed or read, is to create a communion between the material of the poem, the poet, and the audience. The poet is a healing transmitter, shaping and relieving the audience with a language true to our natural selves and place. You can get a pretty good sense of the totality of this landscape and the people through much of this work.

The second tradition creates a poetry whose methods are not necessarily derived from local shapes, nor is geography at its core. Its forms are internationally derived. It's a writing that sustains itself on the revision of older forms, taking, for example, Greek or Latin analogues, the nineteenth-century romantics, or the modern work of European surrealists, or Gertrude Stein, H.D., Zukofsky, and Pound, and shaping that work into a contemporary resonance of speech or voice. The writing creates at least a partial echo with previous writing and does not necessarily take place within an immediately perceived space or experience. I am thinking again of the ’50s work of Duncan, Blaser, Spicer, and Stanley, writers of what I called "sacred texts." The world perceived is a pilgrimage of the spirit, a search for the appropriate spirit image. The quest of this work, especially with its particular attention to history and language, was not popular during most of the last two decades. Its evasion of immediate details was considered histrionic. The historic obsessions seemed aimed at increasing the size of the library. It proffered no secular cure.

It is the tension between these two traditions that impels much current writing. One direction moves toward defining what it is to be Western; it attempts to articulate what it is to be here in this ultimate refugee center. Is it East Asia, Northern Mexico, Indian territory, or a fringe extension of Western Europe and its various histories? ("This is the last place. There is nowhere else to go," as Lew Welch phrases it in "The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings".) The unstable immediacy of our identity, I suspect, will always provoke a poetry immediately responsive to place. And the myth of the West, of loners and mavericks, of rebellious anarchists and pioneers, continues to make the work open to the radically political, ecological, social, and sexual. The poet remains a maker of movements.

Ron Silliman; photo: courtesy Silliman's Blog
The other direction insists on examining, making use of, and revolutionizing the various formal inheritances of the globe. Its impulse is to create a language that rises above the local context in such a way that the poetry resonates with an independent force and significance. Its intentions are genuinely international without any particular responsibility to the day-to-day local. The work has been recently most manifest in the "language centered" writings of David Bromige, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Michael Palmer, among others. The primary loyalty of the writing is to the making of literature. Though quite diverse as writers, their obsessive attention to formal and aesthetic questions makes the group the most active descendant of the groups that surrounded Duncan and Spicer in the 1950s.

In the next several years, I expect the work that will speak to us with the most validity will be possessed by the double edge of both traditions: the secular local and the international formal. There will be a continued obsession with what it is to be Western, what it is to be alone in a totally fragmented history without a prescribed identity. The poetry will work to forge a character and community out of that huge loss. Simultaneously, in awareness of that loss, the work will actively explore and make use of international materials. The myth and excitement that surround the Western loner will be seen as painful limits. (Lew Welch, in a sense, is a personification of that pain and failure.) Emerging out of both traditions, the poetry will be built from multiple resources. The mix of secular commands and aesthetic materials, through a constant source of acrimony and division, will create a writing with a much richer and more powerful formal identity. The public reading and the local publisher will make it possible for the argument to continue to unfold. It will be in this process that the writing of the 1980s will actively engage the crisis of the local, as well as resonate with our larger historical and global occasion.


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