A California Literary Time Line 1940-2005
excerpts from THE 1940S
QUOTATIONS FROM THE DECADE: DECADE MARKERS
“Roosevelt died and met Wilson; who said, ‘I blundered into it’”
“I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.”
“The bulk of the world’s fissionable materials would be forever assigned to destruction, directly and indirectly, and become a tool for political world-power jockeying, and would be completely or almost fully lost in their greatest potentials as effective substitutes for fuel, power, heat and medicinal cure.”
“A demon…may be almost wholly deprived of being in large areas in which theoretically he ought to exist, and at the same time may have achieved an extraordinary degree of actuality in the regions in which he does exist; and when this happens, his persuasive power, his possessive power, is enormous…Our only protection against him is the critical faculty, of which, I fear, we have far too little.”
“She was married and she was not married. She always stammered when they asked about her status.”
“I am touched by the marvelous…
the savage fruit of lunacy”
“O anxiety, abide with me! / Abide with me, anxiety!”
“So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”
“The dominant centers of publication were largely closed to us.”
“I read the wild wallpaper of my heart.”
Robert Hass writes that In What Hour “seems—with its open line, its almost Chinese plainness of syntax, its eye to the wilderness, anarchist politics, its cosmopolitanism, experimentalism, interest in Buddhism as a way of life and Christianity as a system of thought and calendar of the seasons, with its interest in pleasure, its urban and back-country meditations—to have invented the culture of the West Coast” [Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (HarperCollins, 1985)].
In The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (Cambridge University Press, 1991), Michael Davidson adds,
Although [Rexroth] had not been a member of the Communist Party (he claims to have become disaffected from official Soviet policy sometime around the end of the Bolshevik Revolution, when he was still a teenager), he was active in groups like the Randolph Bourne Council (an anarchist group), the John Reed Club, the Libertarian Circle, and the Waterfront Workers Association in San Francisco and participated in various WPA projects. For writers who gathered at his Friday evening “at homes” during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rexroth represented a continuation of a much older radical tradition that was part of San Francisco’s heritage. He served as an important model for poets like Gary Snyder, William Everson, and Robert Duncan, who were searching for a socially as well as intellectually committed poet.
The dominant politics of the Rexroth group took the form of anarchopacifism. A number of writers who met under this banner found themselves in conscientious-objector camps during World War II, most significantly that at Waldport, Oregon, where William Everson was interned. One of the first important small presses, the Untide Press, was established at Waldport under Everson’s supervision and produced numerous early books by conscientious objectors during the war.
In Literary San Francisco (City Lights Books and Harper and Row, 1980) Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters describe Rexroth’s home: “Certainly the most international literary soirée in San Francisco in the 1950s and early 1960s was that held almost weekly at Kenneth Rexroth’s large second-floor flat at 250 Scott Street above Jack’s Record Cellar on the edge of the mostly black Fillmore district”:
The halls of the flat were lined to the ceiling with apple boxes containing one of the finest collections of literature (Western and oriental, classical and modern, in several languages), much of it review copies in many fields (poetry, geology, astronomy, art, sociology, philosophy, political history, and radical thought in general)—the vintage harvest of many years of literary criticism for KPFA/FM, the Nation, Saturday Review, and the New York Times, among others.
Writers from many countries plus migrant East Coast and Northwest poets found their way to Rexroth’s where they encountered many of the resident San Francisco
radical community, the heart of which was made up of World War II conscientious objectors and poets active in the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s….
Here are some quotations from Rexroth (born 1905) himself:
Every day all states do things which, if they were the acts of individuals, would lead to summary arrest and often execution...What is called ‘growing up,’ ‘getting a little
common sense,’ is largely the learning of techniques for outwitting the more destructive forces at large in the social order. The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it.
An appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers. They think it is really like the movies...The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies.
Most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all.
I starve under capitalism, and I would starve under a dictatorship of the proletariat for the same reasons. After all I am interested in perpetual revolution in a sense other than Trotsky’s—the constant raising into relevance of ignored values. Poetry has for its mission in society the reduction of what the Society of Jesus named “invincible ignorance,” and the true poet is as much to be feared by the proletariat as by the bourgeoisie.
I came to California in 1927. The day I got into town, San Francisco’s leading poet,California’s leading poet, killed himself. George Sterling. He pretty much represented the California scene in those days ...The San Francisco literary world was dominated by people to whom the native son and daughter thing was all important, although most of them were not native sons and daughters...
It’s hard to believe now, with all the tremendous activity that has been in San Francisco, that San Francisco, when we came there to live, was very much of a backwater town...We met people who would say to you, “Who do you think is California’s leading writer?” And you would say, “Gertrude Stein.” They would say, “Who is that?” And then they would say, “Oh, yes!” They knew her, you see, her brother was in society on the Peninsula, but they didn’t know she wrote...We just didn’t have any competition. It was like Picasso dropping back into the world of Trollope.
Michael McClure: “[Rexroth] told us that we were part of the West Coast and we had more in common with Japan, China, Korea, than we did with Paris and London. New Yorkers related to the capitals of Europe; we could relate otherwise and be natural with Asian religious and philosophical ideas and ways of seeing and making art. As a person of the Pacific Rim, I could experience history in a different way....”
I saw my own personal life belonging to a larger human life that was foreign to the society into which I had been born, to the American way, to the capitalist ethic with its identification of work with earning a wage and of the work with a saleable commodity, and with its ruthless exploitation of human energies for profit. The years of the Roosevelt administration had seen the great increase of state power—an America that would overthrow Hitler’s State, taking its place and standing with the Soviet Union as an overwhelming contestant for world domination—and now, in these years as I began to write, from 1937 on, the Roosevelt panacea for the ills of the profit system, the Permanent War Economy, began to emerge as a reality that would take over. My deepest social feelings then were irregular…for I saw the State and the War as diseases, eternal enemies of man’s universal humanity and of the individual volition.
We lived in a middle-class parish, the parishioners of which were conventional Americans, and there is nothing remarkable in that; but to such a one as I, estranged from contemporary life by a profound cleavage of values, and nursing a deep-rooted contempt for all the effects of modern civilization—to such a one, everything about a middle-class American church can move to nothing but repugnance.
Later, after Baptism, I was to live in the poorest parish of Oakland, where the parishioners were largely of direct foreign extraction. In these people, for whom convention had not yet become a stultifying thing because it had been unable to crystallize in material possessions, I could truly delight. It would have been easier for me had I been able to make my orientation there…[M]y problem was not that of identifying with the dirty and disheveled, as it is said to be for the Protestant when confronted by that unmistakable Old World odor of the Church, but rather with the fashionable, the modish woman or the bustling business man; not to see Christ in the poor, for which I would have no trouble, but to see Him in the bourgeois, whom I despised.
Alfred Young Fisher was the first husband of M.F.K. Fisher; they divorced in the late 1930s. He taught at both Occidental College in California and Smith College in Massachusetts. At Smith, one of his poetry students was Sylvia Plath, who inscribed a copy of the first American edition of her first full volume of poetry, Colossus, to him; the inscription affirms the importance of her former teacher to her understanding of poetry. These are some passages from The Ghost in the Underblows. Parts of this strange poem—note the British spelling of words like “realization”—seem almost comic, and it seems to be haunted by the imagery of war, though the bombing of Pearl Harbor did not occur until December, 1941. Fisher and his wife had lived in Dijon, where her love of cooking began to blossom.
The men going along straight in the winter air,
The soldiers in their blue,
All the color of the sky,
Like what is anywhere true
In heaven or close by.
The wagons here in Dijon pass me by,
Their drivers blowing on their mittentips;
War widows (whose husbands lived to die)
With chattering lips
On pious way
Are rotting in the sun of this wintry day—
Or do you say
But these are nothing, nothing at all:
It is the wintry brain
With lions torn by strong hands
In its forests, that will fall
With riddles and with wiles
With anything that time beguiles,
With mouth and white breasts pointing up
For one who though he must not
Still will sup,
Drink at the fountain of his mother’s heart.
But this too is nothing: not a line
Of these my words, not one word of them all
But shall like the others endure fall
With the crumbling helical.
And that is nothing: nothingness itself
Will one day reckon as a coin of human pelf
And tetter all around the lip and eye
Going into what only nothing must surely be.
Stifle to death your dreams with a white pillow
Laundered in poison
Or a coverlet soaked in the waters
Where lepers were once healed; stifle your vision
With anything you like, to fit the mode; with dusty sorrow
And it will come like dynamited stones down over your head
And kill you where you stand.
It will come up under the sidewalks of sleep
Like roots pushing gradually and sure
From the underground, for it feeds on air.
It will come like automobiles from the sides
At intersections; even in death dreams cease gradually.
Stifle these things under the brain if so you can,
And see them in the mirror of logic
When things are postulated for subject and predicate
And the conclusion, of no matter how abstract,
Leaves something over that cannot be forced down.
Or stifle by compression; put under your pneumatic hammers
The junk of the world for new metal;
Yet over its pounded being will still hover
Like vision, the memory of something which dies hardlier than substance.
Compress as one would an egg your vision
And it will rest ovoid and white, unbroken.
Or smash it, plant it all around a rosebush
To keep off ants and fertilise beauty.
Murder your dream; steal on it with garroting hands
Crushing its white swan throat
Until its eyes start out like bulges in an inner tube;
Or slit its wrists to watch a rosary of blood
Turn from one color to another with a dying prayer.
(But in a tube the blood, of no matter what age or species
Is evident; and murder cries on murder,
Blood will have blood. And never Adonis died
But he left flowers under his wounds).
Leaving me in the square of street lights,
Touch me to the quick of realisation;
The opening and closing of a door no less
Stir in my mind the time of adieu
And beginning; the parting guest
Who might have been a god in other apparel.
And when my brain opens and closes
Like a door admitting a guest gladly
And we share conversation over the board
I would not ask that he be more than a god.
The sheep may bleat outside
And in time if one have strength he may go
Into the wind to find the lost one; or he may
Sit by the last leaf of flame in the book
Wondering what might have been had there been more.
But now my hand is numb
As the place where an amputated leg was,
And I only know what I know for myself.
The ordeal of immigration and detention left an indelible mark in the minds of many Chinese, a number of whom wrote poetry on the barrack walls…When the center’s doors shut in 1940, one of the most bitter chapters in the history of Chinese immigration to America came to a close. The poems expressing the thoughts of the Chinese immigrants were locked behind those doors and soon forgotten.
See Angel Island entries 1970 and 1980.
The debate over the New Criticism is one which will occupy many California
writers and have many ramifications. In a review published in the San Francisco Chronicle of Robert Scholes’s The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline (Yale University Press, 1998), Thomas M. Leitch writes,
Scholes traces how English departments grew and prospered by taking over the moral and aesthetic function of the classics departments, which he is convinced they are now following to oblivion. But he strikes an important new note: the rooting of early English studies in rhetoric and oratory. Undergraduates studied great speeches to produce great speech of their own, or as good an imitation as they could manage. The early goal of English studies, as of rhetoric, was to produce articulate, literate gentlemen.
A fine mission for its time, observes Scholes, until two problems undermined its efficacy for our own. First, a succession of losses deprived literature of its queenly place among the humanities. With the rise in and democratizing of college admissions, English lost its rationale as aesthetic education for a privileged class. Also, in the 1940s the New Critics in England and America ushered in a concentration on literary interpretation that replaced the earlier emphasis on producing oratory and literary imitations with a more passive, remote study of masterworks by students writing interpretive essays. This shift made students critical observers of literature rather than participants in it.
These notions are also important in understanding the process of “canon formation” in literary studies. Scholes goes on to describe “the path from [T.S.] Eliot’s reconstruction of the canon of English literature in his early essays to the institutional underwriting of that very canon by the New Critics through such books as [Cleanth] Brooks’s Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well-Wrought Urn (1947)”:
What Eliot’s essays suggested and the New Critics instituted was the replacement of doxa with paradox. Under this regime, canonical texts were seen not as repositories of truth and beauty or touchstones of high seriousness [as in Matthew Arnold] but as embodiments of a discourse so ambiguous that it could not be debased and applied to
any practical or dogmatic end. The study and teaching of the new canon of specifically non-cognitive texts would of necessity fall to those trained not to extract truth from these texts but to show that they are canonical precisely because they resist any such reduction to doxa or dogma.
Those who understood this, either as teachers or students, became members of…an elite based upon a canon of texts that aspired neither to scientific nor didactic status but to a literary purity…[As John Guillory writes in “The Ideology of Canon-Formation: T.S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks”], “In teaching the canon, we are not only investing a set of texts with authority; we are equally instituting the authority of the teaching profession”…[Professors became] a clergy without a dogma, teaching sacred texts without a God.
In 1975 poet Jerome Rothenberg will insist that “The act of sounding the poem…may (as in ritual or prayer or incantation) overshadow the urge to understand it”:
It’s no surprise...that [Cleanth] Brooks & [Robert Penn] Warren called their book Understanding Poetry, since the thrust was toward “understanding” as the main activity of the reader/listener: to exploit the need to understand apart from hearing or participation. (What do you understand then?) There’s a tremendous amount in fact that precedes “understanding” in that sense—particularly with oral poetry & poetry as performance. And there are poems not meant to be “understood,” so to speak, as much as presented: offered up. The act of sounding the poem, like that of making it, may (as in ritual or prayer or incantation) overshadow the urge to understand it. I’m certainly not ruling “meaning” out in saying this, but it does seem to me that an unbalanced emphasis on “understanding” is a Western hang-up that has too often, in Paul Blackburn’s words, “wracked all passion from the sound of speech.” And you find, in returning to the “oral,” in making the poem sound (& the listener hear & sound the words in turn), that if the mind is only tuned to understanding, it may miss the poem & its occasion in the effort to keep up. Poetry is too intense an event for the New Criticism to be more than peripheral. And I’m saying that, remember, as a poet mad for content—let me make that clear!
(Jerome Rothenberg, “A Dialogue on Oral Poetry with William Spanos,” Pre-Faces, New Directions, 1981)
The assumption that poetry is something to be “understood,” “explicated” is one that is also made by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers who will emerge in the 1970s.
In Trivial, Vulgar, and Exalted: Epigrams (Claude Fredericks, Pawlet, Vermont, 1957), Yvor Winter’s ex-student J.V. Cunningham adds an epigram to the debate about New Criticism:
Here lies New Critic who would fox us
With his poetic paradoxes.
Though he lies here rigid and quiet,
If he could speak he would deny it.
In 1941, Symmes is given a psychiatric discharge from the army because of his homosexuality; he writes, “Having secured a psychiatric discharge from the army, returning toNew York
in the summer of 1941, I ceased using the name of Symmes and took the surname of my birth,Duncan
.” Quoted in Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society (Black Sparrow, 1983).
(Bobbs, Merrill, 1929); A Winter’s Tide: Sonnets and Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1940); Dunkirk, a Ballad (Alfred A. Knopf, 1942); The Darkening Meadows (Alfred A. Knopf, 1945); The Green Leaf (Alfred A. Knopf, 1950); and The Married Man (Alfred A. Knopf,
1962). These Shelleyan lines are from “Diaspora Thou” from The Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1935):
, on a foreign shore,
So low, so low, that once was great,
What altars do thy sons adore?
The golden calf, the scarlet whore,
, no more
Shalt thou behold thine ancient state,
Or round thee in the cloudy gloom
Remark the heavenly advocate.
shrouds his fate,
The Lydian wilderness his tomb.
In his introduction to the book Nathan writes, “When I was young, I believed that music was song and poetry music. This book is small, but in so far as it is able it sings...I have never believed that size and art were one. Within the walls of the sonnet, as in the body of the violin, there is room for everything. It has its own music, perfect and inviolate.”
I smoke too much. I light a cigarette every time I want to touch someone. People do not want hands on them. They are afraid of the touch of their own hands. Some of you will hate my book, for I insist on touching you. Walt Whitman did not want to touch people; he wanted to paw over them. A man has a privacy and a woman another privacy. He did not know this because he always wrote as though he stood in a public room, a sort of bath house where fat men massaged slim youths. He spent his time putting soap on the backs of schoolboys, but he never rubbed them clean. I do not say that he was a homo-sexual: no, he was a homeless-sexual. Americans run to this sin. They slap women on the back and offer cigars all around. And she—guileless female— is forever lifting her dress at the wrong time: be patient, not now, that can wait until we are alone in a room with the requisite bed—we are, you know, not monkeys in a zoo, conducting all our affairs with our pants down.
I am physical. It is time
I feel the rain. to take
I feel the sun. these bastards
I feel the wind. into
I feel the snow. my confidence.
I am without blemish. They will
I fear God. love me
I fear your God. applaud me
I fear my God. hate me
I will shake your hand or cut your throat.
I bake poisonous fish in my oven. but they
Drink my blood. won't
Eat of my flesh. ever
I have power. forget
I have love. me.
I am a young man. I give
I am a thousand years old. them
I will not humble myself. a look.
December 7, 1941:Pearl Harbor
is attacked. TheUnited States
declares war on the Japanese Empire and enters World War II on the side of the Allies. NaziGermany
declare war on theUnited States
February 19: President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to define military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded as deemed necessary or desirable.” The only significant opposition comes from The Quakers (The Society of Friends) and the American Civil LibertiesUnion
. Two and a half months after Pearl Harbor, 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom areU.S.
citizens, are evacuated from their homes and relocated in a series of inlandU.S.
concentration camps. Since the FBI had already arrested individuals it considered to be security threats, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover argues that confining others is unnecessary. The President and the Attorney General, however, support the military assessment that evacuation and internment are imperative. Poets Violet Kazue de Cristofero (born 1917), Mitsuye Yamada (born 1923), Lawson Fusao Inada (born 1938) and Janice Mirikitani (born 1941) will spend part of their lives in these camps. Here are two poems from Yamada’s book,Camp Notes
. The poems inCamp Notes
were written during or soon after World War II but not published until 1976. Japanese-Americans were excluded from publication immediately after World War II and “Victory inJapan”:
As we boarded the bus
Bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson toTokyo
In our area
was a block head
who told us
in a warden’s helmet.
Turn off your lights
it’s curfew time!
I was reading
with a flashlight
under my blanket
but the barracks boards
in the hot sun
had shrunk slyly
bars of light
Off with your lights.
There must be no light.
This garish and red cover made me start.
I who amused myself with quietness
Am here discovered. In this flowery dress
I read the wild wallpaper of my heart.
to imagine the myths and tales of the Mediterranean region recreated [here], for the climate, the kinds of plants, the total landscape are much the same.’” This is her “Double Mirror”:
As this child rests upon my arm
So you encircled me from harm,
And you in turn were held by her
And she by her own comforter.
Enclosed, the double mirror runs
Backward and forward, fire to sun.
And as I watch you die, I hear
A child’s farewell in my last ear.
Other books by Ann Stanford include The White Bird (Alan Swallow, 1949); Magellan: A Poem to Be Read by Several Voices (The Talisman Press, San Jose, CA, 1958); In Mediterranean Air (Viking Penguin, 1977); The Countess of Forli: A Poem for Voices (Orirana Press, Canoga Park, CA, 1985); The Bhagavad Gita: A New Verse Translation
(Herder and Herder, 1970); and, as editor, The Women Poets in English: An Anthology (McGraw-Hill, 1972) and Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet (co-edited with Pattie Cowell, G.K. Hall, 1983). Holding Our Own: The Selected Poetry of Ann Stanford, edited by Maxine Skates and David Trinidad, will be published posthumously byCopper Canyon
Circle magazine began publication…while World War II was still going on. (Some of its first contributors still bore military titles.) Circle lasted for ten issues, edited by George Leite, with Bern Porter in some issues. It went out of existence in 1948 but in that brief period began a new synthesis of the arts and literature on the West Coast, the center of what came to be called the Berkeley Renaissance. Various elements born of the war itself coalesced here in a new postwar sensibility. Generally, the contents of Circle
expressed antiwar, anarchist or anti-authoritarian, civil libertarian attitudes, coupled with a new experimentation in the arts. (Circle was a natural predecessor to KPFA/FM radio inBerkeley
, and some of its contributors later became regular participants in KPFA’s programs.)
Circle had a definite international stance, looking to European avant-garde poets and painters, especially to French Surrealists in exile inNew York
during the war and former American expatriots [sic].
Circle is followed in 1947 byArk.
(See entry below, p. 52.)
In William Everson: The Life of Brother Antoninus (New Directions, 1988),Lee
tells the following story about George Leite:
During the last year of the war, [Leite] was working as a taxi driver in theEast Bay
. One night he allegedly took a drunk to a bar, followed him into the men’s room, and came running out fast. The drunk came lurching out, muttering that Leite had taken his wallet. A few days later the police arrested him and he was brought to trial for assault and robbery. He asked a number of his friends, including Lee Watkins, to act as character
witnesses for him, but he refused to take them into his confidence as to what he was charged with or as to his guilt or innocence. According to Everson, it wasn’t until they were all actually in the courtroom that they realized what was going on. The prosecution didn’t have, finally, enough evidence for conviction, but Watkins didn’t appreciate being manipulated in that way and after the trial he wrote Leite a letter telling him he wanted nothing more to do with him. Rexroth and his friends had been giving him much support, but because of incidents like this drew back from him.
I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.
Although…hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon “niggers,” critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said. Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that he was great despite his “perversion”—much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been had he not taken dope; or where it is possible they have
attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, defending the good repute of modern art against any evil repute of homosexuality.
Critics of [Hart] Crane…consider that his homosexuality is the cause of his inability to adjust to society. Another school feels that inability to adjust to society causes homosexuality. What seems fairly obvious is that Crane’s effort to communicate his inner feelings, his duty as a poet, brought him into conflict with social opinion. He might well have adjusted his homosexual desires within society as many have done by “living a lie” and avoiding any unambiguous reference in his work.
In the face of the hostility of society which I risk in making even the acknowledgment explicit in this statement, in the face of the “crime” of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources. I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm, a mysterious relation to society. Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first. I joined those who, while they allowed for my sexual nature, allowed for so little of the moral, the sensible, and creative direction which all of living should reflect. They offered a family, outrageous as it was, a community in which one was not condemned for one’s homosexuality, but it was necessary there for one to desert one’s humanity….
Almost co-incident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to the human race; the cultivation of
a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that is loaded with contempt for the human. They have gone beyond, let us say, Christianity in excluding the pagan world…It is hard (for all the sympathy which I can bring to bear) to say that this cult plays any other than an evil role in society.
[Homosexuality] was not a crime against man but a crime against “the way of nature,” as defined in the Christian religion, a crime against God. It was lit up and given an awful and lurid attraction such as witchcraft (I can think of no other immediate example) was given in its time. Like early witches, the homosexual propagandists have rejected any struggle toward recognition in social equality and, far from seeking to undermine the popular superstition, have accepted the charge of Demonism…[T]hey have become witchdoctors in the modern chaos.
What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being…and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, religions, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance.
These are excerpts from “An African Elegy.” The phrase “Negroes, negroes” is a recollection of García Lorca’s “The King of Harlem” (“El Rey de Harlem”)—one ofDuncan
’s favorite poems. (Another ofDuncan
’s poems from this period is called “King Haydn ofMiami Beach
In the groves ofAfrica
from their natural wonder
the wildebeest, zebra, the okapi, the elephant,
have enterd the marvelous. No greater marvelous
know I than the mind’s
natural jungle. The wives of theCongo
distil there their red and the husbands
hunt lion with spear and paint Death-spore
on their shields, wear his teeth claws and hair
on ordinary occasions. There the Swahili
open his doors, let loose thru the trees
the tides of Death’s sound and distil
from their leaves the terrible red.
He is the consort of dreams I have seen, heard
in the orchestral dark like the barking of dogs.
Death is the dog-headed man zebra-striped
and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion,
who is black.
Negroes, negroes, all those princes
holding cups of rhinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gatherd
and devourd her burning hands and feet. O Moonbar
there and Clarinet—those princes,
holding to their mouths like Death
the cups of rhino bone were there to burn my body,
divine the limits of the bone
and with their magic tie and twist me
like a rope. I know no other continent ofAfrica
more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.
Then it was I, Death singing,
who bewilderd the forest. I thot him my lover
like a hound of great purity disturbing the jungle.
This was the beginning of the ending year.
From all of the empty the tortured appear
and the bird-faced children crawl out of their fathers
and into that never-filld pocket
the no longer asking but silent,
seeing nowhere the final sleep.
The halls ofAfrica
we seek in dreams
as barriers of dream against the deep, and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.
There is no end. And how sad then
is even theCongo
. How the tired sirens
come up from the water, not to be touchd
but to lie on the rocks of the thunder.
And how sad then
is even the marvelous.
Now Willie was a man inAlabama
Was courting on a girl named Josie Lee,
One night he lost his way across the mountain,
And ended up inMemphis, Tennessee
He never made to wonder how he got there,
But settled by theMississippi
Poor Josie waited for her wandering lover,
But Willie never traveled any more.
He never failed to hanker after Josie,
He never failed to wonder and to fret.
Poor Josie up and died in ’ninety-seven,
But people say that Willie’s living yet.
It sort of seems as though he’d gotten parted
From what he’d all along been meant to be.
He left his heart behind inAlabama
Death never thought to look inTennessee
Kit’s father wrote to him fromColorado
“I was down to the Fork today. The river is dry.
A man is here with horses he wants to sell.
I got my eye on a mare. I aim to buy.
The price is right, I don’t think I’d be stuck.
You coming home? I declare to God I miss you.
Still on the whole I’m doing pretty well,
Though eggs are scarce and the price of corn is high.
If it be you get as far as Keokuk,
See can you make a deal with Andersen there
For two three tons of fodder to come by truck.
With which I close and sign myself, God bless you,
World War II ends. In a 1991 interview with Jack Foley, poet/critic Thomas Parkinson comments, “People were literally fucking in the streets.” Such Dionysian energy will soon find literary expression in the work of some writers of the postwar generation (Allen Ginsberg, for instance). Parkinson goes on to describe the entire postwar period as “elegiac,” however: “We were all writing of the things that had been lost in the world, and we were all writing out of a hope and belief that things would grow better. It was only by 1949/50 that it became clear that things were not getting better…Denise Levertov said of that generation of people, we were all writing elegies.”
My reaction from destruction was simply that I had to do something constructive with what limited talents and funds I had. This impulse was heightened by the realization that the bulk of the world’s fissionable materials would be forever assigned to destruction, directly and indirectly, and become a tool for political world-power jockeying, and would be completely or almost fully lost in their greatest potentials as effective substitutes for fuel, power, heat and medicinal cure.
[from James Schevill, Where to Go, What to Do, When You AreBern
Porter (Tilbury House, 1993)]
It was the beginning of a dynamic period for poetry in the Bay Area. Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser became friends and together they devised “serial form” for a series of poems linked by repeating themes.
HAND TOWARDS THE WALL BEHIND IT, and
uttered a melancholy cry
Ethel is going to let go tonight.
I made big about it, strutting
Down 5th eyeing the babies over,
Thinking they look like mudhens
Next to my little piece of tail.
She was hard to get. Her old lady
Was saving her for dough, but hell
I had class, want the moon, kid?
And I’d give it to her. Funny thing
Though, this is all a lie, I never
So much as touched her hand, she
Thinks I’m dirt, nobody else ever
Always got the wrong end of the stick.
I’d carry the mail for you, Ethel,
Stop running around with that pup,
He’s got a car, sure, and jack to throw
Like water but what does he want?
What do they all want? something easy,
Something that somebody else worked for.
Ethel, lay off rich kids, you’ll end dirty.
The slime is quiet tonight, along theJersey
The chippies discuss Democracy in awed tones
Breathes there a heel with man so dead…
Shoot the liquid fire to Johnnie, boy
With every rendezvous-with-death we are giving away
An autographed photo of J.P. Morgan taken in the frontline trenches
To a cellar thick with rats.
The guard gave him a cigarette
And slapped it out of his mouth.
Moral. Don’t ever knock off a cop.
Ethel, looking like a movie queen,
Descended on his cell in a mink coat.
When they fitted the black cap over his head
He knew that he’d never have another chance to be president.
Wikipedia on Kenneth Patchen: “Though he denied any direct connection, Patchen's work and ideas regarding the role of artists paralleled those of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Patchen’s ambitious body of work also foreshadowed literary art-forms ranging from reading poetry to jazz accompaniment, to the kind of poetry and prose identified as ‘Beat,’ to experiments with the oblique approaches to language found in post-modernism, to his late experiments with visual poetry (which he called his ‘picture poems’).
“Patchen was born inNiles, Ohio
. His father made his living in the nearby steel mills ofYoungstown, Ohio
. Patchen began to first develop his interest in literature and poetry while he was in high school.
“Patchen’s first poem was published in the New York Times while he was still in college. He attendedAlexander
for one year, then left school and traveled across the country, working itinerant jobs. He later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while still an undergraduate, met Miriam Oikemus at a friend’s party. Though they lived far from one another at the time, they soon fell in love, got married, and moved toGreenwich Village
, where Patchen struggled to make a living as a writer.
“A major tragedy occurred in Patchen’s life [in 1937] when he suffered a permanent spinal injury while he was trying to fix a friend’s car. This injury caused him an extreme amount of pain and required multiple surgeries. Although the first two surgeries seemed to help with some of his pain, a botched third surgery ended up disabling Patchen for life.
“Patchen and his wife also spent much of their lives inCalifornia
where Patchen became an integral part of the West Coast poetry scene. Then, in Patchen’s final years, the couple
moved to a small farm house inConnecticut
where Patchen eventually created his distinctive painted poems.”
Gidlow lived with her long-term partner, Violet Henry-Anderson—known as “Tommy”—for 13 years, until Tommy died of cancer in the late 1930s. Even in the pre-liberation era, Gidlow later recalled, “We were profoundly sure of our right to be as we were, to love and live in our chosen way, we were happy in it.” Several years later, Gidlow began a relationship with aCaribbean
woman, Isabel Grenfell Quallo, with whom she lived for about a decade. In her 70s, Gidlow had a shorter relationship with a woman some 50 years her junior.
Gidlow was as unabashedly open about her radical politics as she was about her sexuality. An activist on numerous fronts, she was a member of the firstU.S.
lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in the 1950s. During the McCarthy era, she was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee; however, Gidlow told the committee that she was an anarchist and considered Marxism an oppressive ideology.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Gidlow was an active participant in the psychedelic subculture, the antiwar movement, and the New Age and alternative spirituality communities, embracing both paganism and Eastern religions. By the time lesbian feminism emerged, Gidlow was already in her 70s, and was soon hailed as movement foremother; her standing was strengthened with the publication, in 1975, of Ask No Man Pardon: The Philosophical Significance of Being Lesbian (Druid Heights Books).
This is Gidlow’s “For the Goddess Too Well Known”:
I have robbed the garrulous streets,
Thieved a fair girl from their blight,
I have stolen her for a sacrifice
That I shall make to this night.
I have brought her, laughing,
To my quietly dreaming garden.
For what will be done there
I ask no man pardon.
I brush the rouge from her cheeks,
Clean the black kohl from the rims
Of her eyes; loose her hair;
Uncover the glimmering, shy limbs.
I break wild roses, scatter them over her.
The thorns between us sting like love's pain.
Her flesh, bitter and salt to my tongue,
I taste with endless kisses and taste again.
At dawn I leave her
Asleep in my wakening garden.
(For what was done there
I ask no man pardon.)
And this is “Constancy”:
You’re jealous if I kiss this girl and that,
You think I should be constant to one mouth?
Little you know of my too quenchless drouth:
My sister, I keep faith with love, not lovers.
Life laid a flaming finger on my heart,
Gave me an electric golden thread,
Pointed to a pile of beads and said:
Link me one more glorious than the rest.
Love’s the thread, my sister, you a bead,
An ivory one, you are so delicate.
Those first burned ash-grey—far too passionate.
Further on the colors mount and sing.
When the last bead’s painted with the last design
And slipped upon the thread, I’ll tie it: so;
Then smiling quietly I’ll turn and go
While vain Life boasts her latest ornament.
Among Elsa Gidlow’s books are Wild Swan Singing (privately printed, 1953); Moods of Eros (Druid Heights Books, 1970); Makings for Meditation: A Collection of Parapoems, Reverent and Irreverent (Druid Heights Books, 1973); Shattering the Mirror (with illustrations and calligraphy by Kathleen Roberts, Druid Heights Books, 1976); Sapphic Songs: Seventeen to Seventy (Diana Press, 1976); Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty, the
Love Poetry of Elsa Gidlow (Druid Heights Books, 1982); and her autobiography, Elsa: I Come with My Songs (Druid Heights Press, published a month before her death, 1986).
In his memoir, Coming Unbuttoned (City Lights, 1993), James Broughton tells the following story about Elsa Gidlow and “the imaginative playground ofDruid Heights
.” Broughton maintained the truth of the story, but it may be the record of a particularly vivid dream:
Since Alan [Watts
] insisted on my being present when he visited her house Elsa pretended to accept me. On one occasion, however, we did share a peculiar intimacy. At her annual Christmas night gathering I was stretched dozingly on her couch after a great deal of mulled wine. The only light in the room came from the flickering Yule log. A few snores reverberated in the corners. Suddenly I felt Elsa snuggling against me, rubbing my genitals. When she slipped my cock into her vagina I was astonished by the abyss it dropped into. After this holiday exchange Elsa expressed greater cordiality toward both me and my poetry.
“Despite [Elsa’s] customary sobriety,” Broughton goes on,
in those years became a center of revelry. This was fomented by Elsa’s neighbor Roger Somers, the other major inhabitant of the hilltop. If Elsa was the vestal priestess and I the joking minstrel, Roger was the master of the revels, and his revels tended toward the orgiastic…Alan treasured Roger’s merriment and adopted him as his Dionysian major-domo. Though he had maintained a continuing traffic in wives and lovers, Roger was temperamentally as unattached as Elsa and I. Alan considered our quaternity his special enlightened family.
Mass in a San Francisco cathedral, he undergoes a conversion experience which he will later describe in his memoir, Prodigious Thrust (Black Sparrow, 1966). He begins to associate with Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Thomas Parkinson, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and James Broughton. In William Everson: The Life of Brother Antoninus (New Directions, 1988), Lee Bartlett quotes Everson on the power relationships of the emerging writing community:
, [Kenneth] Rexroth was our group’s paterfamilias, but on theBerkeley
was its energy. He was indefatigable in his arrangement of poetry readings as our key creative outlet, since the dominant centers of publication were largely closed to us.
The magic in convolutions of our company
winks its lights. Its touch is slight
and vital. But we are bearish magickers,
makers of lightnings in half-sleep of furry storm.
It is the magic of not-touching,
not-looking sharpenings of the eye,
dim thunders of imaginings. Half-loves
kept short of love’s redeeming fire….
The deliberate holding back of erotic energy—“the magic of not-touching”—was immensely important to the group’s “magic.” Yeats’ concept of the poet as magician—as conveyer of occult forces—is at play here as well. Commenting on his early work in The Years as Catches (Oyez, 1966),Duncan
I took the art of poetry to be essentially a magic of excited, exalted or witch-like (exciting) speech, in which the poet had access to a world of sight and feeling, a reality, deeper, stranger, and larger, than the world of men’s conventional concerns, and I took the craft to be a manipulation of effects in language towards that excitation…Since I
believed from the first in the magic of the poetry of Ezra Pound, I would try again and again to find the efficacy of passages in the Cantos where I could not make my way…but it was Pound’s autohypnotic evocation of a world in which gods and elemental beings moved that I loved.
Ford. Between 1942 and 1944, partly in response to View, André Breton publishes another Surrealist magazine inNew York
, VVV: only three issues appear. Lamantia’s “The Touch of the Marvelous” appears in VVV, vol. 1, no. 4, 1944:
The mermaids have come to the desert
they are setting up a boudoir next to the camel
who lies at their feet of roses
A wall of alabaster is drawn over our heads
by four rainbow men
whose naked figures give off a light
that slowly wriggles upon the sands
I am touched by the marvelous
as the mermaids’ nimble fingers
go through my hair
that has come down forever from my head
to cover my body
the savage fruit of lunacy
Behold the boudoir is flying away
and I am holding onto the leg of the lovely one
called beneath the sea
She is turning
with the charm of a bird
into two giant lips
and I am now falling into the goblet of suicide
She is the angelic doll turned black
she is the child of broken elevators
she is the curtain of holes
that you never want to throw away
she is the first woman and first man
and I am lost in the search to have her
I am hungry for the secrets of the sadistic fish
I am plunging into the sea
I am looking for the region
where the smoke of your hair is thick
where you are again climbing over the white wall
where your eardrums play music
to the cat that crawls in my eyes
I am recalling memories of you BIANCA
I am looking behind the hour and the day
to find you BIANCA
Swift and subtle
The flying shuttle
Crosses the web
And fills the loom,
Leaving for range
Of choice or change
No time, no room.
James Broughton, who took Winters’ poetry course in the early thirties, disagreed with his teacher strongly. Broughton writes in his memoir, Coming Unbuttoned (City Lights, 1993),
I even concocted a spoof manifesto parodying Winters’ rigid diction in which I insisted that the only form of poetry appropriate to the present age was the Anglo-Saxon; therefore poets should write in alliteration and litotes about heroic couplings.
Winters asked Broughton to leave the class and told him, “You could not even rise to the level of Ella Wheeler Wilcox or Edgar Guest.”
In his poem, “Essay on Psychiatrists,” from Sadness and Happiness (Princeton
, 1975), Robert Pinsky gives a very different picture of his teacher:
The Old Man, addressing his class
On the first day: “I know why you are here.
You are here to laugh. You have heard of a crazy
Old man who believes that Robert Bridges
Was a good poet; who believes that Fulke
Greville was a great poet, greater than Philip
Sidney; who believes that Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Are not all that they are cracked up to be….Well,
I will tell you something: I will tell you
What this course is about. Sometime in the middle
Of the Eighteenth Century, along with the rise
Of capitalism and scientific method, the logical
Foundations of Western thought decayed and fell apart.
When they fell apart, poets were left
With emotions and experiences, and with no way
To examine them. At this time, poets and men
Of genius began to go mad. Gray went mad. Collins
Went mad. Kit Smart was mad. William Blake surely
Was a madman. Coleridge was a drug addict, with severe
Depression. My friend Hart Crane died mad. My friend
Ezra Pound is mad. But you will not go mad; you will grow up
To become happy, sentimental old college professors,
Because they were men of genius, and you
Are not; and the ideas which were vital
To them are mere amusement to you. I will not
Go mad, because I have understood those ideas….”
He drank wine and smoked his pipe more than he should;
In the end his doctors in order to prolong life
Were forced to cut away most of his tongue.
That was their business. As far as he was concerned
Suffering was life’s penalty; wisdom armed one
Against madness; speech was temporary; poetry was truth.
David Yezzi’s “The Seriousness of Winters,” a 1997 essay written for The New Criterion,
The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve a kind of mystical union with the Divinity: this for example is the doctrine of Emerson. Literature thus becomes a form of self-expression. . . .
The theory of literature I defend . . . is absolutist. I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth.
Yezzi goes on,
[I]t is just Winters’s brand of seriousness and his emphasis on logic and reason in poetry that contemporary verse sorely wants. The current neglect may have as much
to do with the notorious critic’s crabbed, sometimes contradictory and dogmatic style. Winters’s stern call for a “moral poetry” was provocative, while his more cracked judgments earned him the opprobrium of many who, like Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision (1947), saw Winters as “an excessively irritating and bad critic of some importance”…
If Winters exalted some unexpected candidates to his personal pantheon, he regularly barred those generally thought to be of the first water. While by no means exhausting the list, René Wellek has compiled a roster of Winters’s broadest condemnations. A snippet from just those dealing with the nineteenth century argues that “Coleridge . . . is ‘merely one of the indistinguishably bad poets of an unfortunate period,’”; “Tennyson ‘has nothing to say, and his style is insipid’; Browning is ‘fresh, brisk, shallow, and journalistic’;Arnold
‘sentimental to the point of being lachrymose.’” Here one perceives the glint of genuine insight flashing from those bared teeth, though the uniformity of Winters’s denouncement of the nineteenth century is unlikely to find many wholeheartedly sympathetic readers.
Emerson was Winters’s long-standing bête noire, a propounder of such untenable notions as “no man, no matter how ignorant of books, need be perplexed in his speculations.” Winters characterized Emerson’s view of art as resting “on the assumption that man should express what he is at any given moment.” The dangers to poetry from self-expression of this kind are both technical and thematic: the poet is caught between the rocks of a first thought best thought brand of automatism, where every word is judged worthy that reflects a “spontaneous impression,” and the whirlpool of ideas linked only by loose association, where “extemporary performances” overbear the desire to deepen one’s understanding through carefully reasoned contemplation.
Emerson receives such exhaustive attention from Winters in part because he is American, and thereby a localizer of Romanticism, but Emerson is not the watershed of such views, merely a tributary onto native soil. Winters traces the antirational tradition—the genesis of which he places in the early 1700s—to two basic doctrines:
the sentimentalism of the third Earl of Shaftesbury (later summarized by Pope, along with other ideas, in the Essay on Man), and the doctrine of the association of ideas, a psychological doctrine having its beginnings in Hobbes and formulated by Locke, a doctrine translated into literary theory by Addison and discussed interminably in the eighteenth century.
To say nothing of the nineteenth, where, for Winters, such ideas undermined an entire school of poets who had turned away from the study of experience through reason. The rise of the subjective view of art in the eighteenth century was radicalized in the nineteenth as Romanticism, of which Emerson’s is an extreme American version. As
far as Winters was concerned, of the Romantic poets the less said the better—unless, of course, one spoke up to denigrate them.
Perhaps haunted by the madness and death of his friend Hart Crane (whom he called “a saint of the wrong religion”), Winters identified the psychic destruction at work on three centuries of poets:
From the eighteenth century onward, and not, so far as I can recollect, before, we have had a high incidence of madness among poets of more or less recognized talent: Collins, Gray, Chatterton, Smart, Blake, and others later; the same thing happens in other languages. A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt appears to be sufficient to break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.
In 1932, the same year [Winters’ friend Hart] Crane ordered a large breakfast before slipping over the side of an ocean liner, Winters published his only short story, “The Brink of Darkness,” which has taken on the resonance of a spiritual manifesto. In it he describes a “hostile supernatural world,” at once pernicious and unknowable, in which darkness hovers just beyond the illumination of the rational: “It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air.” This darkness he would later relate to such practices as hedonism, obscurantism, associationism, and incontinent emotionalism. In “Notes on Contemporary Criticism” (1929) from Uncollected Essays, Winters puts a diamond point on these “insidious” forces:
The basis of evil is in emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood. . . . the end is a controlled and harmonious life [italics mine].
For Winters, the purpose of poetry is to describe experience as precisely as possible. Connotation in poetry, then, acquires a “moral” dimension—to preserve clarity, connotation or “feeling” must be carefully controlled…The critic’s detractors who feel that Winters, through his adherence to logic, has squelched emotion have lost the gist…The “morality” of poetry as Winters understood it lay in how emotion was not obliterated but managed. Emotion in excess of the motivating argument was contrary to the purpose of poetry, as it obscured the experience under consideration: “In so far as the rational statement is understandable and acceptable, and in so far as the feeling is properly motivated by the rational statement, the poem will be good.”
Winters’ interest in “madness” is mirrored by many during this period—including Allen Ginsberg, whose poem “On Burroughs’ Work” includes the line, “Don’t hide the madness.”
“Emotion in excess”—a kind of madness—is the very basis of poetry for William Everson; and for Michael McClure poetry is the language of a state of “crisis.” When, in 1956, Stuart Perkoff’s wife Suzan “flips,” her behavior becomes a focal point for the entireVenice
community: “so unbelievably magic & meaningful for so many people around here” (see Perkoff entry, 1956).
Kenneth Rexroth was deeply aware that his friend Yvor Winters rejected what Rexroth called “Cubist” poetry because such work appeared to be “the deliberate courting of
madness.” Yet Rexroth insists in Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems (New Directions, 1969) that “when the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we assume to be the result of causal, or of what we have come to accept as logical sequence, and then an abnormally focused attention is invited to their
apprehension, they are given an intense significance,...they seem to assume an unanalyzable transcendental claim.”
In Two Ways Out of Whitman: American Essays (Carcarnet Press Limited, 2000), British poet-critic Donald Davie—deeply influenced by Winters and a close friend of Edward Dorn—suggests that “Edward Dorn and Yvor Winters, neither of them Westerners by birth, choose to live in the West and to celebrate it in their poems, not at all because they had chosen to sink their roots there (as Wordsworth chose to root himself in the English Lake
District), but because the history of the Western States—both the brief recorded history, and the much longer unrecorded history of the indigenous Indian peoples—is a history of human movement; and the still largely empty landscapes of those territories are images of nomadic life, an arena for human life to which the imaginative response is still (as it always has been) to move, to keep moving.”
See also Thom Gunn’s assessment of his old teacher in The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, originally published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber in 1982:
I had come toCalifornia
armed with a bunch of conclusions that I had arrived at over the previous three or four years. They derived partly from my decade of the twentieth century, partly from myCambridge
education, and partly from my own observation and reading. Many of them implicitly contradicted one another, but I saw no
need to reduce them into consistency, since I wanted above all to keep myself open to books and experience—and in particular to poetry and its experience—that might present something to me I had not previously envisaged. The first course of Winters’s I attended, on “the criticism of poetry,” was an immediate shock to my assumptions, in that he set about the systematic demolishing of my favorite twentieth-century poet, Yeats, in ruthless detail. After Yeats the chosen victim was to beHopkins
I have…a clear picture of him securely in my mind, which I will keep there till the end. Rather than a single memory, it is probably a composite made from a series of memories. We are sitting in his front room or on seats under the trees, drinking wine and talking; he sucks on his pipe during repeated silences; but he speaks at times, measuring what he says—he speaks of poetry with a peculiar intimacy and dedication for the art about which he had more to tell than anyone else I have known.
[Kenneth] Patchen was begging money from everyone, and I had none to give. So he appealed to Henry [Miller], who sent him money only to turn around and ask more of me, so that when Patchen asked me for Henry’s address while he was traveling I would not give it to him…
]…divided himself between identification with me (his feminine self) and identification with Patchen (his masculine self). He felt that if I loved Patchen the two sides of himself would be in harmony…We would form a close triangle. But aside from the fact that I was overburdened (and Robert knew just how much) I did not believe in Patchen nor in his work. This disturbed Robert.
Robert felt that we should all be sacrificed to Patchen.
“I am giving enough,” I said to Robert.
He felt guilty even for the fact that any time he had no money he could come and eat with me. But he knew all the time that I was in debt and I could not understand his insistence that I should be responsible for Patchen.
Robert stands nearest to me at the moment, and the clearest. At first, I did not entirely hear him. When I first met him at the Cooneys his eyes did not seem to focus, and neither did his words. He was wrapped in a nebula of chaos. But he moved in the same world as Jean Carteret, without the luminous precision and cohesion. But we would talk. The miraculous understanding came with his diary. His diary was a complete emotional revelation.
He came at first as l’enfant terrible, perverse and knowing. But in the diary he grew larger, stronger, firmer. He is physically beautiful. He talks as if he were in a trance. He talks flowingly, like a medium. His voice remains on one tone, as that of a somnambulistic monologue. At such times he does not hear anyone. At other times he is open, absorbing, aware.
In his diary there was a human warmth which he did not show in life. By an exchange of diaries we entered each other’s private life as we could never have without them, for he goes from me to young men and our love is purely fraternal. He has great charm, seduction. His features are delicate, he has a slender Egyptian body, the shoulders very straight, the waist narrow, the hands stylized.
With me, he is firm, definite, boyish. He never shows me his feminine side. This I can see only in public, in the presence of men. Then he becomes pliant, undulant, flexible. He deploys coquetries, oblique smiles and oblique phrases. I see the body soften, become woman right under my eyes.
When he talks about his consuming hunger, his “children” (those he protects), his renunciations, his quest for the father, his need of love, I hear my own words. At night, after writing in his diary in my studio, writing poems at the same table at which I work, he goes to friends. He always returns still hungry for something they do not give him. He lives penniless. He gives whatever he has. There is a demon in him, a poet seeking tension and intensity. He does not stay in the paradise offered to him by his lovers as they are offered to a woman. He seeks violence, and fire, and renewal. When he seduces someone he has a gleeful expression, as a woman might. He is vain of his power, triumphant, celebrating his power. His feminine ruses, tantalizing advances, elusive retreats. Games.
In our talks he is completely free, open and flowing, recounting his life, love scenes, dreams, analysis, memories, future poems.
He lives close to woman. He does not seem to have any hostility or revengefulness towards woman.
comments on Nin’s characterization of him in Caesar’s Gate (Sand Dollar, 1972):
She sees me throughout in my amorous flirtations not as a man seeking the definitions of a male attraction to men but as a female impersonator, not only a rival but a cheat at that: “Why do men love this travesty of woman and not the real woman?” Beneath her question, there seems to be a phantasy of my somehow invading her realm.
In the revolution of her love, Anaïs Nin had come to a revolting vision of my character, and that revolting image, in turn, came close indeed to the commonplace American stereotype of the faggot. The amused tolerance and affectionate condescension of the Parisian woman of the world, when it was sorely tried, could show its underlying attitude to be not too different from that smalltown bigotry I had known growing up in my early teens inBakersfield
. She makes it clear that this very realm of my falling in love and seeking to find a lover was ultimately unmanly, fraudulent, and, never to lead to “a magnificent fusion,” doomed to an empty facility.
Twenty-three years old, she was known as Candy; she stood five feet five inches tall and had a fair, freckled complexion. Her slant blue eyes, “giant red lips” and burning red hair made her the center of attention wherever she went. Born inBelle Plain, Iowa
, her childhood had been far from innocent; she told stories of train hopping and midnight trysts. Robert Cornog remembered her unsettling reminiscences: “Girls had crushes on her and had committed suicide [over her] in her home town.” During the war she enlisted as a Wave, a woman serving in the United States Navy, and was assigned to the map room of the Navy Chief of Staff inWashington, D.C.
went AWOL and was discharged from the service…Candy was now living as an artist, supplementing her unemployment benefits by drawing fashion illustrations for ladies’ magazines.
Upon meeting her, Parsons writes to Aleister Crowley, “I have my elemental! Fiery and subtle, determined and obstinate, sincere and perverse, with extraordinary personality and intelligence.” Parsons envisions Cameron as “an actual goddess on earth, a female messiah named Babalon” (Crowley
’s spelling ofBabylon
). He will die in a tragic explosion in 1952. Cameron’s image will be used by Wallace Berman for Semina 1, and she will appear as the Whore of Babylon in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Her
Peyote Drawing, part of Wallace Berman’s show at the Ferus Gallery in 1957, will lead to Berman’s arrest on charges of pornography.