Saturday, June 28, 2008

DC in the 1970s

Here is the substance of my talk during the DC panel at the Poetry of the 1970s conference at the University of Maine at Orono, somewhat extended.

I want to talk about validation.

I believe that during the 1970s we were the beneficiaries of a transition that had been going on for a long time. I’m talking about the shift from what had been an underground literature to what became an alternative poetry network. Among the crucial factors in this change were, first, a huge increase in the number of younger practicing poets during the 1960s, many of whom identified with the poetry and poetics that had been represented in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. Second was the continued rise in popularity of public readings, which had begun with the celebrated performances of Dylan Thomas in America, and had blossomed with the advent of the Beat Generation. Third was the development of new and improved publication technologies such as offset printing and Xerox. Fourth was the intense interest in community fostered by the counter-culture. No doubt there were other factors, also.
(I have always preferred the term “alternative” to others such as “experimental” and “avant-garde,” because it is not a critical term but a descriptive one, referring to the publishing apparatus that allowed an separate poetry network to develop outside of the literary mainstream.

This new population of poets formed communities in cities across America (and in Britain and elsewhere), as well larger national and international communities independent of what Charles Bernstein has famously called “official verse culture.” During the time of the Beat Generation, the term “underground” was used to describe literature that was outside of the mainstream, known only to an “underground” audience until something of its form or content or both lead the established literary world to pay attention. Quite often it was a term used in a patronizing manner, intended to put whatever potentially offensive material was at hand in its place. This was the time of literary trials, when the publishers of such works as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Howl and Lolita were prosecuted for obscenity. Validation at hat time came only via the established literary world, and was often critically qualified. By the 1970s, alternative poetry’s population was sufficiently developed to provide its own validation, with enough intellectual vigor and literary finesse to enter its own house justified.

It is impossible to talk about alternative poetry in Washington DC in the 1970s without talking about the Mass Transit readings above the Community Bookstore on P Street near Dupont Cirlce, and associated events and publications, such as Some Of Us Press and the reading series at the Pyramid Gallery, also on P Street, And it is equally impossible to talk about alternative poetry in Washington DC in the 1970s without recognizing the importance of Michael Lally, Lee Lally and Terence Winch, all of whom were crucial to the creation of the DC community, And it was at the time of Mass Transit in the early to middle 1970s that the poetry community was most closely aligned with the counter-culture. And it was the creativity and work of those involved at this time that made everything else possible.

What created such excitement and incredible energy during the 1970s in Washington was the fact that recognition and validation did not require endorsements from the established literary world. It was available through our own resources. Thanks to everyone and everything that had been represented in the New American Poetry we were all free of the oppressive conformity that had ruled poetry and writing previously. And as it was in Washington, so it was elsewhere in the US and abroad.

I believe that the alternative poetry network continued its transition to the point where it became to some extent a doppelgänger of the larger literary world. The enormous growth of Creative Writing programs at American universities created an ever-increasing flood of new, younger poets. The advent of Language Poetry with its emphasis on theory in some regards took alternative poetry back into the academy, previously one of the major resources of mainstream literary culture. As a result, alternative poetry has become a kind of demographic in which literary and academic careers are negotiated via alternative poetry publications, readings and so on. It is something of an industry now. This is not a complaint. I have the greatest respect for the younger generations of poets, those born in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. I think it is much tougher for them than it was for us who were born in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s there was a kind of intimacy in alternative poetry, a sense of shared projects and thinking, and even the illusion that one could pretty much have a sense of everything that was going on, and the knowledge of pretty much everyone who was involved. That was an illusion, of course, but it was possible to sustain it them. It would be nowhere near possible now.

As a footnote, I will say that my favorite personal account of the transition from underground to alternative poetry is in Aram Saroyan’s memoir, Friends in the World.
It was Aram who caused the most publicly dramatic conflict between alternative poetry and the established literary culture, when the latter was represented by President Ronald Reagan’s railing against “one word poems” being supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (soon thereafter to be eviscerated), because of his one word poem, “lighght.”

And as a footnote to my footnote, please know that Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

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