The Language in Trouble—The Late 1960s

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 III

. . . Wednesday I was working again for Julia, and met Tim Reynolds. Later he gave me a ride to the Wednesday nite reading. Robert Duncan had been scheduled but decided for some reason to not be on the program, so it was Rexroth, and Antoninus. Ginsberg had been selected to fill the Duncan gap. He read first and it was nothing until he actually started reading a dream like poem he had written about trying to bumfuck LeRoi Jones and trying to get Jones to protect him in the coming racial war. Then esp-ically enuf, he read a letter he had received from Jones at about the same time he was having the dream that told him, "because of the fantasys you and other white Americans insist on having is precisely the reason why it must be destroyed." Ginsberg read this like it was a one liner, and everybody but myself guffawed. It seemed far too serious to me, and without time to think about it my mouth involuntarily opened and I bellowed, "RITE!"

This made the Glide very tomblike, absolutely quiet for a few seconds. Nobody knew who had hollared. I was barely conscious that it had been me. Then Ginsberg repeated much softer, "rite," then he said, "rong," began to waver between the two words like a metronome who simply didnt know. "Rite, rong, rite, rong, rite rong rite rong rite rong." I was annoyed with myself because I hate people who interrupt poetry readings, and now I had done it, not only had I done it, but I had done it to the most famous and least likely to be interrupted poet around.

Andy who was standing behind the seats, began to say, "its all rite," timed to coincide with the rite in the rite rong chant, which had begun to sound like a Tony Blank riff. "Its all rite, its all rite, its all rite with me," Andy crooned. After Ginsberg was off the stage and there was a brief break, I noticed Garry Grimmett and gave him a copy of the Bukowski book on my way up to apologize to Ginsberg. But I started talking to him about it, that it had been involuntary and so forth, even tho I did certainly believe the truth of what Jones had indicated, truth that these people had no business laffing at, and Ginsberg went into a, well then you get into absolutes, as tho absolutes were odious to him, and I just backed quickly off, he seemed so unimpressed with the foolishness of his position and out of touch generally. (From an episode at Glide Church in San Francisco during the Rolling Renaissance Readings in the summer of 1968, recorded in Valga Krusa by Charles Potts.)

Silliman 5603760968 d802055c1a z.jpg

Ron Silliman in public.

Photo: courtesy Silliman's blog

It's hard to define quickly the condition of San Francisco when I returned in late 1967. The public forms of poetry were in deep trouble. The Haight-Ashbury had become the temporary seat of the City, taking that status away from North Beach. Haight Street—still so quiet when I left, and noted for its paint, hardware, and barber shops; two gay bars; Connie's, a Caribbean restaurant; and Andy's, a Russian bakery and coffeeshop—had become an incredible din of activity. Anytime, day or evening, hundreds of young people were hanging out on the street or in the numerous new coffeehouses, head shops, record stores, and clothing boutiques. A new experimental movie house had backing from an LA investor. The local "B" movie theater had been renamed The Straight and remodeled with a performing stage and an enormous hardwood dancing floor. Laura Ulewicz's I and Thou coffee shop was running a regular series of readings coordinated by Bill Anderson, and David Gitin was just beginning another series at The Straight with a live radio hookup at KPFA. The Oracle, the often wonderful, multicolored, over-sized tabloid, was still coming out somewhat regularly and with work by Whalen, McClure, Welch, and poets I did not yet know; the poems were centered on mandalas, or set in the shape of mandalas, and splashed through with any number of colors. Clifford Burke had moved over from Berkeley to open his Cranium Press on Cole Street, just off Haight. With his own letterpress equipment, he was trying to popularize the fine press elegance and strengths of the work done by Hazelwood and Mackintosh. In addition to books and Hollow Orange, he would do innumerable broadsides (on pretty papers with colorful inks) that would be handed out free on the street and at anti-war demonstrations. (At about the same time, Graham published Richard Brautigan's seed book. Packed into a folder, the "book" was a collection of flower seed packets with a Brautigan poem printed on the back of each. Richard and Graham gave the books away to both friends and strangers.) Off the top, the City, especially surrounding Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury, still appeared to be a potentially powerful situation for poets and poetry.

Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, circumambulating Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, during the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967. c. Lisa Law. 0324 circumnambulation.jpg

Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder at the Human Be-In on January 14, 1967 in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Photo: Lisa Law

In actuality, it was the beginning of a long period of silence for local poets. Many things had happened since I had left in 1965. Jack Spicer had died (in August of that year), leaving White Rabbit Press in spiritual shambles. Robin Blaser, Harold Dull, Stan Persky, and eventually George Stanley had left to live in British Columbia. Lew Welch was in alcoholic straits, focusing what energies he had on Mt. Tamalpais rather than on the City. Philip Whalen, terrified of the increase in street violence, and Gary Snyder were either in or off to Japan.

In an odd way, the poets and the language that had given permission and form to the changes in the mid-1960s were no longer needed. The lone poet as performer and evangelist of personal, social, and political change had been replaced by the rock star and the group. Country Joe & the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead—let alone Bob Dylan—had clearly taken their impetus from the poets. But more than the loss of an audience to music or to the technologies of sounds and rhythms, the new emphasis was on experiences that were essentially nonverbal. Language, especially poetry, was seen as the back and not particularly important edge of what could be felt and envisioned on drugs, in the ecstasy of dance and sound, or, on a more worldly level, in the urgencies of political street action or the communal pleasures and pains of operating a collective home or farm. I remember once asking Max Finstein, a poet whose book Clifford Burke was publishing, if he were writing any new poetry. He had recently moved to New Mexico from San Francisco to join the New Buffalo commune; he was back in town for a short visit. He was kind of snitty. "It's a 103-acre poem," he said and got up to leave Clifford's shop. To say you were a poet was like assuming an unevolved or reactionary position.

By the fall of 1968, harsh and violent political struggles had replaced the pacifist and utopian anarchism proposed by the earlier poetries. The first trial of Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver's speeches, the State strike and its suppression, the endless demonstrations against the war, seemed to put poetry further on the back burner. It was a time of action and choice. Poetry was a refuge from the real. A speech in the park by Bobby Seale, then co-chairman of the Black Panther Party, contained the news, a combination of anecdotes, analysis, and vision of what was usually an amazing display of vocal fireworks. Before politics, he had been both a drummer and a comedian, and he was clearly a poet of revolution, though nobody called him a poet. Poetry in and of itself was now considered too personal, too indulgent, and too divorced from all the various collective callings. I remember when the poet Charles Potts flipped out, talking nonstop for days until Thorazine calmed him down. It's as if he thought everybody had stopped listening—that kind of despair.

In August of 1968, as a part of the Rolling Renaissance, a City-wide series of events commemorating the art, music, and poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s, a huge reading was held at Nourse Auditorium. Featured readers were Welch, Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, Brautigan, and Ferlinghetti. David Hazelwood sat in a big overstuffed chair on the stage; the event was partly in honor of the huge contributions of his press, and he was retiring from printing. The authors he had started with had been picked up by national presses. The spirit had been popularized. The reading was both a commemoration and, in part, a death knell to a generation's participation in the City. Welch, in fact, read his essay about the value of going to the country which would later appear in the digger newsletter. I left at intermission thinking the event would go all night. It was deadly.

The huge influx of people seeking Haight-Ashbury liberations, the huge consumption of drugs, combined with police and unsympathetic community reaction, had turned most 1965 visions on a downward spiral. Rapes, indiscriminate police street crackdowns on anybody who appeared to be under the influence, muggings, black anger at the apolitical and indulgent character of the hippies, the simple fact that many people freaked out behind the perceptions they experienced on drugs—all contributed. One day, a talented writer who hung out at the I and Thou, a speed freak, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived—one of the few to do so. He came back and wrote a good play about ping-pong as a metaphor for the going-public psyche. Many were just not able to survive. It was as if more was being released into the culture than could be dealt with, at least on the level of language. With the exception of the determination of Clifford Burke, most of the active publishers of the mid-1960s had closed down. Graham Mackintosh was about to move to Santa Barbara to start printing Black Sparrow's line of poetry books, and Oyez was heading for several years of quiet: Most of the mimeograph and offset publishers had quit or moved out of town. As Lew put it:

. . . the Meth Freak hippy pushers have got so big the Mafia is moving in and pushers in the Hashbury are getting murdered. Three at least. And the acid is untakeable because it may be STP (an Army drug developed to pacify or wipe out the enemy, the trip goes on for 72 hours and 4 of my friends, some of them very strong, are now in loony bins), not to mention the bad shit LSD with Meth in it. Gary, people, good ones, are blowing their minds irreversibly. Like, gone. Away. (Lew Welch to Gary Snyder in a letter, August 9, 1967, from I Remain: The Letters of Lew Welch & the Correspondence of His Friends, Volume Two: 1960-1971, edited by Donald Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox), 1980.)

A community had begun to disperse. Songs about going to the country, even if that meant Marin County just across the Golden Gate Bridge, became very popular.

A Personal Interlude

It's hard to convey the degree of distrust in language, especially the language of poetry, that occurred in the late 1960s. Between what were portrayed as the nonverbal visual and emotional powers of LSD and the lies that were perpetrated daily by the government in support of the war, words were simply seen as divorced from the reality of deeper events. As a poet, you could go two ways with language. One was underground journalism, such as in Bill Anderson's fine columns for the then-left-leaning Bay Guardian. The other way was to take poetry into a deeper and fuller association with the physical as a way of restoring its power. Silence was also a possibility: the image of Robert Duncan walking through Washington Square wearing a black armband in protest and holding a vow of silence could be poem enough.

Perhaps it's typically Western American to finally doubt language and to opt for the physical gesture as the only convincing form of communication. The book is often seen as beside the point, or looked upon with suspicion. And when the voice in the public poetry reading became questionable, it was natural to search the body as a way to insure, or to give testament to, the fact of the poem. In 1968, as the poetry reading scene disappeared, one of the ways to go toward a physical experience with language was to participate in Anna Halprin's Dancer's Workshop on Divisadero Street at the very foot of the Haight-Ashbury. Anna, I believe, was demonically pleased to have writers in her workshops and events. In her view, language was an art secondary to what could be discovered and experienced through movement, especially through contact improvisation.

That spring, she presented a ten-week series of Myths. Each Thursday night I went down to her studio feeling as if I were Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown going to join with the saints and the devils of my own unconscious and physical underworld. Usually on condition of participation in the event, the evenings were open to the public, and sometimes up to a hundred people were present. The instructions and structures were quite simple. Language rarely came into the events.

One night, Anna broke us up into groups of ten, giving each of us a blindfold. After putting the blindfolds on, we were told to hold hands in a line; the last person in the line was to move from that end to the front, while all the rest of us kept our hands gripped. We could make sounds, but we could not speak. It seemed simple, almost inconsequential, as she proposed the structure. In reality, after two hours, when the lights were turned back on, I realized it had been like experiencing a medieval allegory in all its aspects: only four people of the ten had made it through our line. Intense pain, ecstasy, boredom, loneliness, an absolute sense of connection, animal levels of ferocity, and angelic-seeming erotic levels of touch occurred through the hands I gripped on either side of me and through the various bodies that passed among us. They climbed up and down our legs and torsos as if we were tough mountains or warm valleys or as if, as in Ovid's Metamorphoses, they had been suddenly transformed into lions or goats. Alternatingly diverse and then communal sounds emerged from our various actions. The transmission of energy and the changes were enormous. Indeed, it was as if within the altering patterns and polarities of our line, the demons, the dreams, the whole residual history of the culture was simultaneously held and released.

The Myths were a high-risk situation; eventually and unfortunately there would be physical violence at the Workshop (almost as if it were inevitable that the "outside" horrors of the culture had to break through the liberating structures of the rituals). But in terms of poetry, The Myths, as well as many of Halprin's other exercises, proposed a place where the language of the body could become the poem, where what was experienced as flesh could become sound, could become word. Instead of an external occurrence or sign, the poem could be felt and realized as a part of a healing ritual, where the language vented and mended the personal and community cracks. In turn, the audience's experience of a poem would be felt as a full physical and vocal exchange. Going back to Olson's proposition in "Projective Verse," the line could move according to the intelligence of the total organism (psychic, physical, and mental) in the making of the poem as well as in the listening. It was a way to create community when there was little or none.

The work at the Dancer's Workshop, which included beginning to take regular "movement" classes, had a huge effect on my own work, especially as a teacher. I was leading the Poetry Workshop, sponsored by the San Francisco State Poetry Center, at the Downtown Extension in a basement auditorium in the old building on Powell Street. The place became the center of many writing experiments involving movement, sound, and language. I was insistent on finding how a poem could be created and then both perceived and integrated fully into the response of the listener.

Sixteen students attended the workshop. We usually began with exercises that focused on one word. Fruit, because, I think, of its sensuality and seeming innocence, was popular. We took, for example, the word apple. Standing in a circle we went around one by one, repeating it over and over again. High pitch, low pitch, soft, quick, hard, or very slow. One person said it, and the rest of us echoed, in an exact-as-possible imitation. Then the vocal gesture became physical. Arms opened and closed to the rhythm and sound size of the syllables. After five or sometimes ten minutes, the process came to a close with a definite collective sense of a particularly known and shared apple.

Then I took fresh apples from a bag, giving one to each member of the circle. One by one, we placed the apples into a pattern on the hardwood floor. Everyone worked on the pattern, adjusting it until we were satisfied with its shape. Then came a new period of naming in which the ground rule was to be factually specific as to what was there in front of our eyes. Metaphors were not allowed. Green. Red. Stem. Black. Brown. Bruise. Dimple. We stayed as close as possible to the actual, letting the simple phrases and words adjust to what was there. Gradually a vocal shape emerged, a complete picture, and then silence. We broke and then ate the apples.

Denise Levertov

This process, after we had written from the outside and then the inside of a particular apple, led into a similar exploration of poems. For example, one night we took a poem by Denise Levertov of exactly seventeen lines, one for each of us, and each person was responsible for repeating his or her line from memory. We were in a circle. I turned off the lights. We went around seventeen times, repeating the poem from memory. At first the individual lines sounded stilted and tense, much the way language can sound at cold poetry readings. But gradually, through the process of repetition, the poem began to assume its own independent shape and sound, where the integrity of the actual work seemed to take on a life of its own. The sound was specific to us and what we brought to the poem. If it were raining outside, or spring, or if someone close to the group had died or given birth, these events would undoubtedly influence the shape and tone of what happened.

When the saying of the poem came to a completion, we turned on the lights and wrote, each person using his or her Levertov line as the first phrase from which a poem or paragraph would be improvised. After half an hour, when that was finished, we read the Levertov around again, this time adding the new lines. At the end of this reading, it was as though the Levertov poem, at least in this context, had extended into the life of its listeners as far as it could go. In the process, the poem managed to elicit the creation of a mythology and a strongly felt, though momentary, community.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this kind of vocal and movement exploration with audiences at public readings was practically impossible even to consider, at least in the Bay Area. The political turmoil of the time was the overwhelming preoccupation of both public and poets. Media drama, center stage, was a country falling apart. Experimenting with language, movement, and sound to create environments was seen as apolitical and indulgent, no matter what the actual content. There was a vulnerability about the process that was probably too scary for the time. (The Living Theater, which incorporated many of these techniques of ritual and audience contact, is an obvious and remarkable exception to this view.) When the poet was invited, no matter how physical his or her presence, the poet remained in the pulpit. A poetry of statement was primary. Not until the late 1970s with the emergence of sound poetry and performance art did some poets begin to cross these boundaries.

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