Monday, July 05, 2004

There is a wonderful evocation of a lost world in a 1980 note by Josephine Miles that serves as a preface to Genevieve Taggard’s To the Natural World:


In a legendary time in the Greek Theater in Berkeley at the end of the first world war, poets gathered around the visitor Witter Bynner with a great sense of inventiveness and praise. Names I have heard from that time were Genevieve Taggard, Hidegarde Flanner, Eda Lou Walton, David Greenhood, Jack Lyman. A decade later, all were scattered, and new figures were slowly appearing from a distance, Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood and his wife Sara Bard Field. Marie West. Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth, Lincoln Fitzell. There persisted a contrast between the poets in the Whitman tradition, trying their freedoms, and those who held closely to or were renewing a kind of neat quatrain power, as we could read elsewhere in the country in Millay, Teasdale, Wylie, for example. Bynner lauded both.


“There persisted a contrast” as indeed there did & does.* Miles’ portrait is intriguing, leaving out for example such major figures as George Sterling and Ina Coolbrith. And was Robinson Jeffers that far to the south? No more so than Sterling.


But other than Rexroth – somewhat – and Winters, principally through his student Thom Gunn, there is almost no way I can imagine any connection between the Bay Area poetry scene of my day, starting say with the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, & this “legendary time” Miss Miles envisons.


Some of this has to do with the nature of publishing, especially problematic at such a remove from the economic centers of an emerging corpratist trade book industry in New York & Boston. Lyman, whose actual name was William Whittingham Lyman, co-edited, with Vernon Rupert King, a volume called Today’s Literature in 1935. But there is precious little mention of him or it on the net & indeed, Miles’ own poem on the same page provides as much detail as you are apt to find.  


“A decade later, all were scattered,” Miles writes, a phenomenon not restricted to the poets of 1919. I suspect that the Bay Area – which has always had a highly mobile population, with a substantial portion of its citizenry having migrated from elsewhere** – has always had a transitory literary community. As noted in this blog before, the so-called San Francisco Renaissance figured as a major section of Donald Allen’s epochal The New American Poetry was, at least by contrast to its sections on the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School & the Beats, largely a fiction of editing. The Beats were, in fact, as much a phenomenon of San Francisco as the Renaissance, even tho most of them seemed to have been born on the far coast & their tenure in the Bay Area seemed all the more ephemeral, collectively identifiable as just a couple of critical years in the mid-1950s. In fact, Allen put Phil Whalen, Michael McClure & Gary Snyder all in his fifth or “unaffiliated” section, alongside LeRoi Jones, Ray Bremser & John Wieners. Yet how is one to think of them today? And why are Whalen & Snyder not in the SF Renaissance section alongside their fellow Reed College alum, Lew Welch (who spend a fair portion of his Renaissance days working in that SF suburb known as Chicago))?


What brings this to mind, curiously, is not just the depiction of a scene – two scenes, really, ten years apart in time – in Miles’ intro to Taggard’s book, but the announcement of a forthcoming conference on Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement, planned for November at UC Irvine. I know – by which I mean that you don’t have to tell me – that this is not precisely what the organizers, Carrie Noland & Barrett Watten, had in mind by the use of the term diaspora. But at some level, it very much fits.


If one looks back at the generation of poets in the western section of In the American Tree, for example, you can trace the migration patterns of a literary scene. In 1982, when the largest portion of the book was edited, 16 of the 18 poets grouped under West lived in the Bay Area. Had it been done a couple of years earlier, Erica Hunt would have made it 17 of 19. Today, just eight do. Of the ten poets in the East section who were then living in & around New York City, all of the nine still living reside at least within driving distance of the city, albeit Michael Gottleib’s ride in from the northwest corner of Connecticut must be quite a schlep. Indeed, of the twenty poets overall in that section, only two, Diane Ward & Clark Coolidge, have permanently moved to other parts of the country. It’s interesting – maybe even counterintuitive – that New York City proves to be (at least in this one instance) more stable a community over time than the Bay Area.


Economics obviously play a part of the equation – and a significant part – but I’m less sure that that was the case prior to 1950 & yet here are not one but two sequential generations of pre-WW2 poets who proved no more stable than the poets of the 1970s & early ‘80s. And while one can, I think, talk reasonably of the continuities of poetry in the Bay Area since the end of World War 2 – essentially since Rexroth & the New Americans came together – it’s the discontinuities that strike me most today.




* Tho, in the very next lines, Miss Miles – having known her somewhat, I cannot imagine calling her anything else – denies being able to hear it any more in the poetry of a quarter century ago.


** Indeed, I was always considered something of an oddity, having gone to high school just over the line from Berkeley in Albany. Yet, of course, there were other East Bay poets around as well, if one just knew where to scratch below the surface. Stephen Vincent, for example, went to high school in Richmond, Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino in Berkeley, Michael Davidson & Barrett Watten in Oakland.