poem index

Out of the Schools and Into the Archives

Written by

Ammiel Alcalay


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Posted

May 05, 2015

Type

from American Poets
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On the evening of December 12, 2014, I attended an extraordinary gathering celebrating the life of painter Jane Freilicher at the Poetry Project in New York City, an event intended to mark her ninetieth birthday. She had planned to come and partake in the festivities, to watch old films of her unearthed from various archives, and be in the company of old friends like John Ashbery, Alex Katz, and so many others. But she died on December 9, just three days before the event. The crowd at the Poetry Project was young and old, filled with friends and admirers whose associations spanned the gamut of artistic lineages dating back to the mid-twentieth century and well into the twenty-first, from Black Mountain College to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, with much in between. 

Ralph Maud, a name most likely less recognizable than that of Freilicher, had passed on in Vancouver at the age of eighty-five the day before, on December 8. Born in Yorkshire, Maud’s scholarship began with work on Dylan Thomas but an encounter with poet Charles Olson at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1960s left him forever altered. He went on to become the most important scholar of Olson’s work and then, with a move to Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1965 (as a founding faculty member of the new Simon Fraser University), took Olson’s dictum of studying the local to heart, eventually becoming an authority on First Nation peoples of British Columbia, particularly the Salish. 

On December 10, a day after the death of Jane Freilicher, poet, novelist, editor, publisher, and environmentalist James Koller passed on. One of the last of his generation to continually crisscross the North American continent in the spirit of earlier luminaries, Koller is probably the name least recognizable in this particular mortal cluster. A glance at the finding aid for his papers, housed at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs (where one can also find the enormous Olson archive along with significant holdings by such writers as Bill Berkson, Tom Clark, Diane di Prima, Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Allen Polite, Tom Raworth, Michael Rumaker, Ed Sanders, and Aram Saroyan), reveals Koller’s correspondents, a roster that includes Richard Brautigan, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner, Anselm Hollo, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Duncan McNaughton, Eric Mottram, Jerome Rothenberg, Irving Rosenthal, Gary Snyder, John Taggart, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman, and Philip Whalen. The exchanges with each of these luminaries, some lasting for years, provide a completely unique perspective into a particular world of intersecting relationships and soundings that probes the very depths of the multiple layers that constitute our world of letters, ideas, poetics, and politics: our history.

I mention these recent deaths not just to acknowledge the passing of these figures but also to emphasize the fact that any single person or relationship mentioned in these three short paragraphs can open into a whole field of new research that would almost immediately contradict the ways this history has been codified and transmitted, usually in readily digestible and atomized categories that are easy to identify but more often than not hide more than they reveal. When I first started teaching graduate seminars in twentieth-century North American poetry, poetics, literary history, and cultural politics, I found that working with students primarily attuned to things contemporary proved to be challenging in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated. My own academic training was primarily as a medievalist, in which the palimpsestic nature of the accrual of texts, languages, influences, and erasures was simply a given in the course of study, and “thickness” of description and context were expected. But this was certainly not the case for students primarily concentrating on the present or the more recent past.

To begin with, many of the students had come to know the “noncanonical” twentieth-century poets through anthologies and, even when studying particular writers further, still tended to identify them according to a “school” or movement. Never having encountered the much denser terrain of little magazines and small-press publishing from which figures associated with the Objectivists, Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, New York School, Black Arts Movement or other configurations actually emerged, students were continually surprised—when I brought in stacks of books and magazines—to see writers they couldn’t imagine having anything at all in common between covers of the same publication. This surprise came about, of course, through no fault of the students, because the kind of rummaging through used-book stores by which you might actually discover or encounter something you weren’t looking for has become an activity confined to very few select locales. The order of things has almost been reversed in the digital age: it’s possible to find almost anything, but only if you know what you’re looking for. The archival encounter, on the other hand, can present—under the right circumstances—a much less mediated experience in which the pursuit of particular things (names, dates, titles, incidents), can explode a whole host of assumptions and received knowledge, creating a completely new set of relationships. 

While many, for example, would be familiar with Donald M. Allen’s landmark anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960, published in 1960 when Allen was still an editor at Grove Press, there is much less familiarity with Allen’s subsequent trajectory as editor and small-press publisher through Four Seasons Foundation and Grey Fox Press, perhaps the most vital record of major strains of North American poetics in the decades following the publication of The New American Poetry. This was particularly true for his Writing Series rubric that published essential texts across decades, from Olson’s Proprioception to essay collections by Dorn, Whalen, and many others. In 1960 Allen’s anthology had finally made available work by poets that had previously circulated almost underground, in most cases through small-press editions of several hundred copies or, in some instances, as carbon-copy typescripts, something one can see referenced in the voluminous correspondence between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, in which a “new book” of the 1950s refers to a carbon copy mailed from reader to reader. The anthology was, in many ways, made possible by changes in print technology, allowing LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Hettie Jones to create Yugen, cheaply printed and quickly distributed, the first little magazine to consolidate all the poetic outliers flung across the country.

This explosion of work immediately took hold of a new generation of readers, making works available that had mainly circulated among people who almost all knew each other, or of each other. In its wake came The Floating Bear, initiated by di Prima, a mimeographed and stapled newsletter that set a new standard for speed of dissemination, enabling a major figure like Olson to get new work out to his known readers within a few weeks. While the Allen anthology irremediably changed the cultural landscape, it also fixed certain views, particularly regarding the geographies of activity and influence. Terms that existed in some form or were used more loosely got solidified, as readers were often much less discriminating than Allen himself in pointing out the porous nature of his arrangement: Thus labels like the Beats, Black Mountain, the New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance became understood to be much more monolithic than they actually were. A comment in class from one of my students remains indelible: “I can’t understand why it’s called ‘the New York School,’” he said. “These people are never in New York at the same time, all they write about is how much they miss each other and how far away they are from their friends.” Such a conclusion could only come after having spent countless hours in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, poring over letters written between key figures of the time such as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch,
John Ashbery, and others. 

Thus was born one of the first and still primary principles of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative: “Follow the person.” In other words, forget about what “school” or movement you think this or that poet belongs to; instead, actually go and look at the magazines such poets first published in, see who they appeared with, note down all the names you don’t recognize; look at letters, journals, or unpublished notes to see who they paid attention to, ignored, made fun of, attacked, loved: Try to map out to what and whom their attentions were drawn. Now into its fifth year, with an annual set of chapbooks and an affinity group of book publications under the Lost & Found Elsewhere rubric, the fundamental aim of the project—in addition to training students in the principles of textual scholarship—has been to encounter our history anew and wrest its vital materials away from a kind of tyranny that has continually worked to diminish the political and liberatory impact of our ability to inhabit and dwell within those materials. 

We should never lose sight of the fact that this great period of cultural activity—by musicians, painters, dancers, poets—took place at the height of the Cold War, and in a place of isolation so acute that, as poet Gary Snyder once remarked, “you would hitchhike a thousand miles to have a conversation with a friend.” As the administration of knowledge grew, with the expansion of universities and the military-industrial complex, artists struggled to redefine the parameters of knowledge completely outside the framework of official institutions and structures. Without enough money for long-distance phone calls or frequent travel, the most vital work of thinking in the United States following the Second World War took place through correspondence in letters, a venue that was also still fairly well protected during one of the ages of J. Edgar Hoover and the age of Senator Joseph McCarthy. While we have undeniably inherited the structures of the National Security State, we seldom stop to examine just how deeply its legacy taints our reception of the fairly immediate past.

Our adulation of the individual, tied to the destruction of any collectivity or commons, dictates that our cultural figures remain lonely, unmoored from friends, lovers, competitors, idols, or places of reference, unless some scandal or possibility of ideological hijacking might be involved. From our present vantage point, it takes more than some mental gymnastics to grasp the intensity, for example, of Jack Kerouac when he writes in a 1957 letter to Allen Ginsberg about how excited he is that Boston-born John Wieners, newly arrived to San Francisco following the dissolution of Black Mountain College, wants to publish a few of Kerouac’s poems in a new magazine Wieners had launched called Measure. Needless to say, most readers will never have heard of Measure, a magazine lasting three issues over a span of five years, but now they will at least be able to get a completely different perspective on the period through Seth Stewart’s edition of the complete letters of Wieners, originally initiated as a Lost & Found project. Ironically, while Wieners remained largely obscure in his lifetime, he was beloved by other poets and his survival depended on friendships, while Kerouac was turned into product, eaten alive by the relentless machinery of consumption. The return to materials that have been withdrawn, the creation of a world of beauty out of them, is a turn to what Olson called “the gold machine,” interpreted by Canadian scholar Miriam Nichols as “an alchemical trope that makes actual things rise up as concretely in situ as possible, thus to trouble generic representations—to throw the disturbance of actuality into the universe of discourse.”

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