Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Returning to the Bay Area after a gap of a few years away & just under 17 since I moved to Chester County, PA, is a complex, often bittersweet experience. When I left in 1995 UC Berkeley, where I’d once studied poetry with Robert Grenier, James EB Breslin, Jonas Barish, Ed Snow & Dick Bridgman, had yet to invite me to give a reading, so I recall being quite amazed when both Temple & Penn asked me within six weeks of arriving in the Philadelphia region. Not quite two decades later, Berkeley finally caught up, thanks to CS Giscombe, with the aid of co-curator Rosa Martinez, my co-reader Jill Richards (who, as I noticed & several people in the audience made a point of reiterating for me, gave a terrific performance), Claire Marie Stancek (who gave me a generous introduction) & some others (David Brazil in absentia even). Wheeler Hall had not changed all that much in the 41 years since I last took a class there, tho what they now call the Maud Fife Room was a warren of grad student offices back then.

A walk down Valencia Street in San Francisco, my old stomping grounds in the 1970s & early ‘80s, was quite different. Other than a pair of taquerias near 16th Street, everything else was new & for the most part gentrified. New College was being gutted for some construction project, my old gym was gone & word has it that Modern Times, once the best bookstore on the sunny side of the City, is living at out of an old stockroom at China Books on 24th Street. Unlike when I’d noticed that Wheeler Hall, in a gesture of solidarity no doubt, had not cleaned the first floor men’s room since I’d been a student, I was not amused at seeing Valencia ravaged by late late late capital. I would have a similar reaction to seeing the Oaks Theater closed with a for sale sign on it on Solano in north Berkeley later in the week.

When I was a boy, I watched just how alienated & even stunned my grandfather used to seem on Shattuck Avenue, where not one business there in the 1960s was what he’d grown up with during the first decade of the 20th century. Now I’m getting the Comes Around-Goes Around echo effect of the same phenomenon. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” includes my world as well & should I live long enough, I reckon I will get to watch the rest dissolve into air as well. We visited a program that we’re thinking about for one of our kids that has offices in what I still think of as Hinks, a department store that has not existed on Shattuck in Berkeley for decades, but where once, as a boy, I could bring friends in to visit a great aunt of mine who would pop out her glass eyeball if you asked nice. For decades after that store closed up shop (there used to be a second branch in San Francisco right across from the Transbay Terminal), a theater took up the location. Now even that has gone.

It’s hard to envision the Bay Area as the cusp of the future when so much of it is so visibly the past. The ethos of entrepreneurship & innovation is little more than gold plate (silicon plate?) over one & one-half centuries of settlement, itself constructed over the remains of Costanoan villages that existed here long before Sir Francis Drake set foot on local sand. Just as, in Chester County, PA, I’m reminded that the Philadelphia Main Line – that side of the Philly region that presumes Philadelphia Story to be a documentary as distinct from the other competing neo-realist local doc, Rocky – was itself a Lenape walking path between the City of Brotherly Resentment & Lancaster, and that, before that, white-tail deer had no doubt first chosen it as the path of least resistance through the ridge that rims the so-called Great Valley. There is, once you begin to notice it, no end to the layers of the cultural onion that might be pulled back, invariably revealing fresh scabs below. Many Main Line residents today act as tho deer were giant rodents out to devour suburban gardens. Reduction programs are in place in several jurisdictions.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry. Nobody seems too terribly concerned that Ronald Johnson’s Book of the Green Man was a better application of Projectivist theory of the line than anything Charles Olson wrote. Not only do readers return, again & again, to Olson for such practice, raw as it sometimes is, but they take Johnson’s later writing, his use of erasure with Milton forming Radi Os out of what once was Paradise Lost, or his use of procedures in the construction of ARK, as being his more important work. Rightly so.

Long before language poetry became the avant-garde-that-wouldn’t-go-away or Kenny G declared nostalgia for Duchamp to be the Permanently New Thing, the problems of context & history bedeviled American poetics. The pre-Civil War debate between the Knickerbockers & the Young Americans that provoked Edgar Allan Poe to characterize the former as Quietists was itself a question of time & place and their meaning in writing. Did we compose poetry to demonstrate to our former British overlords that we could do it as well as they – still the underlying anxiety of formalist poetics in America (even if ironically it presumes the best of today’s Brits all to be Irish) – or does it presume that a new continent & context requires a poetics of the new everlasting, a tradition that starts really with Dickinson & Whitman, continuing onward through the likes of Spicer & Ginsberg (the Emily & Walt of their generation) to today’s conceptualism, vispo & what have you. Even before Dickinson & Whitman, you have Poe trying to play each side off against the other, hybridity at the moment of origin 80-plus years before Alfred Kreymborg felt compelled to create three tracks for what was then the “present” generation in his anthologies: modernists, anti-modernists & Other.

Reading Bill Mohr’s superb Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992, as decent a history of the poetry of that period as I’ve come across, whatever the focus, I cringe to see a chart like the one on page 23, breaking the verse of the first half of that period into four tracks labeled “Poets of the West Coast Poetry Renaissance, 1946-1966.”¹ Mohr’s four groups are Beats, SF Renaissance, Venice West & Mavericks. My problem is that what Mohr, following Davidson et al, lumps together as the San Francisco Renaissance, was itself at least four different aesthetic tendencies that lose their distinctness the minute you stir them into a single porridge.

The first is a late modernism that fails (or refuses) to follow the Pound-Williams track, a tendency would include Brother Antoninus/William Everson & James Broughton (both of whom Mohr includes in his Renaissance grouping), Robert Duncan prior to his tenure at Black Mountain (likewise included by Mohr but sans acknowledgment that Duncan was a very different poet at different points in his career), Kenneth Patchen, Robinson Jeffers, Madeline Gleason, Ruth Witt-Diamant, Tom Parkinson, James Scheville, Philip Lamantia, Mark Linenthal, Kenneth Rexroth & conceivably George Hitchcock. Some of these – Patchen, Scheville, Rexroth & Hitchcock – Mohr includes under mavericks, alongside others such as Jack Gilbert, an arch-Quietist who was also a peripheral member of the Spicer circle, or Josephine Miles, an anti-modernist like Gilbert (& also like Thom Gunn, William Dickey, Yvor Winters & Louis Simpson, all of whom were active in the Bay Area during this period).

I would not include either these Quietists or the Activists around Robert Barlow & Lawrence Hart – a group that Mohr does mention in passing more than once – even tho both were present in the Bay Area simply because their anti-modernism poses each group consciously against anything that might be characterized as the SF Renaissance. But the strain of late modernist writing that is either outside of the Poundian frame or otherwise opposed to it is a visibly distinct strain, taking for example (as several of these poets did) the idea that modernist poetry begins with Yeats, rather than with his irascible red-headed secretary (& even the Pound version has different versions, depending on whether you read Eliot as being Pound’s cyborg or as a betrayal of Ezra’s deeper principles). I would argue for the presence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Helen Adam as instances of this late modernist aesthetic, although I can understand how they get grouped otherwise for what I take to be nonliterary reasons.

The Beat cluster is unavoidable even if it is most notably composed of writers from the East Coast who had at best a fleeting relationship with the Bay Area. There were Beats who had a longer, lasting relationship with the Bay Area, such as Bob Kaufman, Harold Norse & Jack Micheline (or somewhat later Neeli Cherkovski). Mohr includes only Kaufman in this grouping, albeit alongside others whose relationship to the Beats is either much more complicated (David Meltzer, Michael McClure, the aforementioned Ferlinghetti) or that strike me as belonging elsewhere altogether (Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, William Wantling). If Lamantia’s wife was a business partner of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, does that make the surreal Lamantia a beat? Not in my book.

A third distinct tendency of that would be the Spicer circle, consisting at minimum of Spicer, George Stanley, Stan Persky, Harold Dull, Joe Dunn, James Alexander, Ronnie Primack, James Herndon, Joanne Kyger, John Wieners when he was in town, Larry Fagin, possibly Ebbe Borregaard. The Spicer circle was the one tendency with a visible self-appointed gate-keeper unless you consider Duncan’s School of Himself, which only occasionally let in a second party. One of the most interesting writers of the period, Robin Blaser, seems to have tried to bridge the gap between Spicer & Duncan and been treated rather poorly by both as a result. Other former members of the Berkeley Renaissance of the late ‘40s & early ‘50s, such as Rod McKuen, Mary Fabilli or Landis Everson either were not publishing or, in the case of McKuen, transforming into something different altogether.

The last grouping is one acknowledged by neither Mohr nor Donald Allen, but which I’ve mentioned here before, New Western or Zen Cowboy writing that would include the three Reed alums (and former roommates there) Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen & Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger & several of the local poets from what became the Bolinas scene in the 1970s – one can trace Lewis MacAdams’ later work with the Los Angeles River directly back to his work on water issues on the Mesa – as well as several poets who responded to the anti-urban aesthetic quite literally: James Koller, Bill Deemer & Drum Hadley, to note the most obvious. While this group, to call it that, has been the one least often noted, in many regards it has been the most aesthetically cohesive over the decades, in its proximity to Zen spiritual practice, a valuing of the land (and not the cityscape), and an unrelenting resistance to leadership or manifestos of any kind. It’s the group of anti-groupness, a tendency that anticipates the politics of Occupy by half a century.

What, in the context of such different aesthetics, would be the meaning of a San Francisco Renaissance? Is it one of the above, some or all? My own feeling is that it’s none, at least when we talk about literary tendencies, although it might mean something in a broader & vaguer sense, that might be articulated as the transitional period when San Francisco ceased to be a backwater of American letters, the San Francisco of George Sterling & Ina Coolbrith, Witter Bynner, Jack London & Frank Norris. It’s in a parallel sense that Mohr makes best use of the phrase Los Angeles Renaissance to characterize a similar, if more modest, transformation there from 1970s to the present.

One of the driving forces for the poetry of both metro regions was of course extra-literary – the growth of the nation was enabled by changes in transportation and population migrations, the latter accelerated by the need to create a major industrial society on the West Coast in the 1940s from which to mount a war against Japan. Had not the war taken place when & how it did, and both regions remained so resonantly Other to the majority of Americans living east of the Mississippi, there is little reason to think that either SF or LA would be a more dynamic location for poetry today than Houston or Tucson or Portland – which is not nothing, but hardly the city from which to balance the New York-Boston corridor as a poetry hegemon.



¹I’m using a creative fiction here, as I know that there were problems with the tables in the edition, and that some got “edited” mysteriously in the typesetting process & were not fixed. I can’t really say how much of that chart is truly Mohr’s.