Thursday, January 01, 2009


The 1960s didn’t begin with a single moment. One can identify certain days & changes, however, without which what we know now as the Sixties, with all that implies, could not have occurred. The first of these was the inauguration of JFK in January 1961. The second was the arrival of the Beatles, which could be dated from either the marketing blitz that accompanied I Want to Hold Your Hand in 1963 or from the much quieter release of Please Please Me b/w Love Me Do the summer before. The third was the assassination of JFK. The fourth necessary moment was the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 4, 1964, which pumped an enormous amount of political adrenalin (and human blood) into what had been a civil war in Vietnam. Once those four moments were in place, the die had been cast. And the Sixties didn’t end all that neatly either – really not until the last Huey plucked the final stragglers off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975.

Similarly, the 21st Century did not begin with the non-event of Y2K night itself, but rather on September 11, 2001. And it won’t surprise me in the slightest if a century from now historians date the start of the Teens with the inauguration of Barack Obama in less than three weeks. My gut tells me that the Teens will be the most intense period of change in this society since the 1960s. What I can’t tell yet, however, is exactly what kinds of transformation that might entail. But it will be technological, social, political, whatever else you might imagine – be sure when you make your own checklist to include one box for “All of the Above.”

Some of this change is generational – my age cohort (Bill Clinton, George Bush & I were born less than seven weeks apart during the summer of 1946, all “victory babies” of WW2) has held sway over much of the public stage for several decades now, to the frustration no doubt of those somewhat younger, as well as to those of us who cannot believe that the best this generation could come up with as political leaders were Clinton & Bush.

Empires peak long before their inhabitants recognize or acknowledge the downward slide. In the past century we have seen Great Britain go from a major world player to something today that is closer to a European equivalent, say, of New Jersey. I doubt seriously that any future historian will place the first moment of the decline of the American empire any later than April 1961, with the failure of the Bay of Pigs. Since then, in spite of multiple wars, the U.S. has not once successfully bent any foreign power greater than Grenada (pop. 110,000) to its will. Our infrastructure today is best represented by the levees of New Orleans. Our economy … well, our economy has so completely collapsed that we have George W. Bush nationalizing one industry after another.

Poetry in the 1960s went through some rapid transformations as well. The New American poets of the 1950s really didn’t take off as a social phenomenon until the latter half of that decade, but they found themselves quite unprepared to handle the changes of the Sixties. For every poet who got groovy with the counterculture (Ginsberg, McClure, Snyder), there were others who flat out were appalled by it, such as Kerouac. And even tho the 44 poets of the Allen anthology were comparatively young when it first came out in 1960, by 1971 Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Lew Welch, Paul Blackburn & Jack Spicer were all dead. By 1971 Ed Dorn, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka from 1967 onward) & Denise Levertov have all abandoned the poetics of their youth for what each felt to be a truer, more political aesthetic – tho each had a radically different idea of what that “truer, more political” position might be. In 1972, Phil Whalen moved into the San Francisco Zen Center. In spite of the founding of the Poetry Project at St. Marks in 1966 & the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 1974 – and very soon thereafter because of the founding of these two institutions – the world as depicted in The New American Poetry was completely changed.

One impact of all these changes – several New American poets spent the last years of the 1960s jumping from one visiting professorship to the next, changing schools (and often enough grad student sexual partners) every single year until the end of the draft in 1973 put a sudden halt to the dramatic expansion of U.S. colleges that had been going on since the end of World War 2. Those that could hunkered down & got tenure. But there’s an entire generation of poets in their seventies working at Naropa, the college with the lowest average teaching salary in the country.

Where we are today is very different. Where there were a few hundred poets in 1960, and maybe 1,000 in 1970, we now have at least ten times that number, maybe twenty. There are at least 450 degree-granting creative writing programs, but less than 60 jobs for creative writing teachers that will come open this year. A majority of poets are women, something without precedent in the English language. But the distribution system is collapsing, as are such basic institutions of literacy as the library and daily paper. The internet has erased geography. The rapaciousness of the Bush regime has served as a pressure cooker for the entire society – it’s hardly an accident that somebody invented flarf, with its dedication to “bad art” and time theft on the job, and its favored device of Google sculpting, at this moment in history. Where conceptual poetics seems driven by a nostalgia that is its own form of denial as to how bad things are, flarf wants to convince you that it is capable of an infinite race to the bottom.

But a deep recession – a depression is not impossible – is about to change everybody’s idea of their relationship to a job. A president who is not a victory baby, and one who is not white and not stereotypically African-American either are going to change how everyone views government, not just the impressions of people abroad. I don’t think we can know just how profound those changes might be, but I look at polling that shows that people under the age of 30 have no problems with gay marriage, for example, and I realize why the far right is fighting so furiously on that issue right now. If they can’t put major stumbling blocks in place right now, then their world view will shatter in very short order – and they know this.

What I don’t know – I’m probably the worst person to ask – is what the other dimensions of this might be. Will Radiohead or Arcade Fire play the same role for the next decade that the Beatles did to the 1960s? Will there be a post-AIDS revival of the sexual revolution? Will there be changes in style – even in the function of style – in the next decade comparable to what occurred in the Sixties? What are the aspects that will be totally different?

One that I think is obvious is that globalization is much further along now than it was a half century ago. In my own extended family, I have nephews right now in Brazil, China, Cambodia & Germany. In two of those cases, this involves international marriages as well. My own sense of “our family” entails in-laws whose first language is obviously not English. And there are relatives who are entirely out of the closet as well. It’s not that there weren’t gay members of the family when I was growing up, but it’s not the secret it was then.

So I have no idea what the Teens will involve, nor even how long they might last. But I think we’re taking the first small step forward later this month – Rick Warren or no Rick Warren – and it promises to be one hell of a luge ride.

The poetry we will have once it’s over will turn out to be completely adequate to that world then. Which probably means that flarf will look quite dated & that conceptual poetics will be its own cul-de-sac of retro-sentimentalism. Langpo will seem as distant as Imagism. And the School of Quietude will act as if nothing has happened. But I think for any poet in their twenties or thirties – and for us oldsters who are still awake – there are tremendous challenges ahead. The Chinese may have intended it as a curse, but we live in interesting times indeed. And they’re about to get curiouser.

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