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This item is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

Paul Chowder, the ineffectual American narrator of Nicholson Baker’s new novel The Anthologist, has writer’s block. He is supposed to be completing the introduction to Only Rhyme, a formalist anthology, but he would rather do almost anything else. Underpinning his reactionary inadequacy is a surly triumphalism: the age of poetic experiment is over, the legacy of Modernism finally discredited. He says with a relief the author himself seems to share, ‘My life has been in vain and yet not in vain because I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the whole movement come full circle. I’ve lived through the thirty year ascendancy of chaos and tunelessness, and things are moving back now.’ Back to rhyme, back to traditional rhythms and lyric forms. Back to the small scale and the familiar… His nostalgia is eloquent and we are expected to cheer along with him.

The roots of the ‘chaos and tunelessness’ he derides go deeper than the haiku class he had to endure as a schoolboy, deeper too than his hatred for Modernism and post-Modernism, further back than thirty years from the recent ‘today’ of his novel. He hates Marinetti, Pound, Lewis, experimentation at large. The enemy was well within the gates in 1963 when (outside the world of Baker’s fiction) Professor Warren Tallman invited Robert Creeley to help him put together a three-week poetry course at the University of British Columbia. This became known as the Vancouver Poetry Conference, which Tallman called a ‘month long Götterdämmerung poetry klatsch’. Shortly after it finished he wrote with rueful relief to Creeley, ‘The summer was entirely too successful, i.e. created amongst the many drones around here the firm if covert conviction that they mustn’t let that happen again. So Vancouver as new frontier has closed up shop ... I stay home and listen to tapes; for which, praise be.’

Forty-six years later, Vancouver re-opened shop. The 1963 legacy was celebrated from 12 to 14 August in a gathering entitled ‘The Line Has Shattered’ and including a dozen of the 1963 participants: George Bowering, Pauline Butling, Clark Coolidge, Judith Copithorne, Maria Hindmarch, Robert Hogg, Lionel Kearns, Bernice Lever, Daphne Marlatt, Michael Palmer, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah. From the wan Paul Chowder’s point of view, this should have been more a wake than a revival, and the shattered line less that of traditional verse, more that of experimental Modernism.

The 1963 programme, some of the proceedings of which were recorded by Fred Wah and can be accessed in digitised form on the Slought Foundation website, included lectures, panel discussions, readings and workshops by writers who were already or would presently become significant names in the household of modern poetry. Creeley recalled how ‘a decisive company of then disregarded poets such as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Margaret Avison, Philip Whalen and myself, together with as yet unrecognised younger poets of that time’ came together. He protests too much. Olson and Ginsberg were hardly disregarded, even then; each had made a major mark, Ginsberg quite a public one. Still, the conference was seen, in retrospect, to have inaugurated ‘a truly transnational “North American” poetic’.

In 1965 a similar gathering at Berkeley, California, stole some of the Canadian thunder. The ‘poetic’ became less ‘transnational’, and borders that had been suggestively blurred in 1963 were firmly re-drawn. Certainly the impact of these poets - forceful speakers and performers all - did much to create the climate which Paul Chowder hopes has changed for ever, as though one could turn back the adjustments of feminism and the other -isms which have taught us to understand and speak differently, more fully, more musically, than we did in the traumatised ’fifties.

Fred Wah’s recordings of the morning discussions and the evening lectures make for slow listening: the sound of the room, the coughs and shufflings, phlegm and snuffles are there: a strong sense of the physical presences of writers listening, drowsing, containing their impatience, attaining small epiphanies which still communicate themselves to the patient auditor as epiphanies.

This was a conference in the manner of many modern literature conferences, the host institution and the structures - and therefore the outcomes - in important ways academic, pedagogically useful, attenuated, relativised. Some of the contributors were themselves already teachers, at home in the collusive, collegiate environment that the conference provided, expecting deference, attention and respect. Avant-garde poetry was, half a century ago, already on its way to being institutionalised. Professors were the catalysts, poets (some of them professors, too) the purveyors and students the engaged clientèle. It had long been the case that the kinds of poet Paul Chowder admired and anthologised had taught the formulae and conventions of lyric poetry in the universities. But for a time at least the avant garde resisted. Pound resisted, Lewis and Williams and Stevens did. The Vancouver Conference marked the end of that resistance: the walls of the classroom were pushed out to make room for so much new thought, so many new approaches, to be accommodated, but they remained walls, and the institution, however liberalised, remained an institution.

The year before the Vancouver Conference, in Kennedy’s White House, another poetry event took place, more widely reported and more conclusive in its aims and ends. Randall Jarrell delivered his lecture ‘Fifty Years of American Poetry’, and poets of his and the preceding generation - many of them institutionalised both in a different and in the same sense - were celebrated. How remote the language and orientation of that lecture is - drafted and redrafted, certain in its understanding, judicious, brilliantly intolerant - from the unrehearsed exchanges of the Vancouver proceedings. The critical high ground, the establishment, was in Jarrell’s hands; and yet the creative high ground seemed to be exposed, accessible to Olson, Ginsberg and their comrades. (Nowhere here do the names of O’Hara or Ashbery, Koch or Schuyler figure: a generation waiting to happen and quite remote from White Houses and conferences, yet already at work.)

Of all the poets at Vancouver in 1963, the most uncomfortable was Robert Creeley who helped organise the event. Tallman records the nature of his unease, and one senses the different voltage, the different kind of integrity, his presence expressed. He hated the morning discussions: they

formed a ‘context that I distrust with all my nature’, and throughout he was a kind of embattled Alamo in his at times embattled insistence that persons, their speech and their poems be indivisible. Thus when asked, ‘who are you’, he instantly replied, ‘I’m right here’ and if asked ‘what is poetry’, his natural response would be to read a poem, the assumption in both cases being that if you reduce water to its component parts there will be nothing left to drink. Because of his extreme emphasis upon speech as its own ‘sudden mirror’ or ‘pool of darkening water’ his transitions from talking to writing to reading what he had written were negligible, different ways of doing the same thing.

Poetry and criticism, expression and assessment, the same thing? Jarrell would have had trouble with that notion; and among the Vancouver poets Olson, Duncan, Levertov and others, sympathetic au fond with Creeley, would have distanced themselves from him in practice.

Tallman later in 1963 gave an account of the readings that the major poets gave. What impressed him profoundly was the physical presence of the poets and the different ways they used that presence. Their poems depended not only on being heard, but on being authorised by the poet’s voice itself. There is hardly a mention of textuality, of print, in his account, though the human body and the human voice remain in sight with each performer. Robert Duncan’s presence is of one kind: ‘As he warms to the reading an almost Orphic ground sense or swell enters, as though his voice is not so much in the midst of a room as in the midst of a life it knows.’ Contrast this with Ginsberg, ‘Given this extent of physical presence, the exceptional amount of body English - body articulation - he exerted when speaking or reading was inevitable.’ Denise Levertov required him to reach further for metaphors: ‘But when she read, when her voice reading became the measure of the evening, it was National Velvet for sure, an exceptionally clear and careful body tone that opened out, as the reading progressed, into a voice tree.’ Most powerful, even Emersonian, is Tallman’s
evocation of Olson:

Only the quick can catch the quick. And Charles Olson is, in the dictionary and not the Hollywood sense of the word, phenomenally fast, bearing as he does the gift of a phenomenal intelligence that can match that can catch the minnows, dolphins and flying fish that are always darting about, rising from, and skimming over the swift currents that are always flowing in the always momentary seas of human life.

This is a critical language open and opening, an idiom that another Canadian, Hugh Kenner, deployed with great precision when exploring Pound and other modernists. 1963 is not a time of texts, however, but of voices, when ‘the voice bridge is recognised as actual dwelling locale, something like Henry James’s “Great Good Place”’.

Whether it is Duncan’s ‘torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre’, Creeley’s ‘I will go on talking forever’, or Ginsberg’s ‘poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years’, the reversal is the same. Wisdoms, truths, experiences, memories, moralities, realities become not end points but food, meat, manure, lending nurture to that living tree of breath called speech. And if you think it isn’t so only imagine what baffled and gasping ghosts in limbo we would all become if the words were taken away and what baffled and gasping ghosts in limbo words would be if the voice were taken away.

Would Paul Chowder understand a word of this?

And what better gathering place for the gods that mortal beauty chases than the voice tree, from which everybody can steal everybody else’s apples, peaches and plums, not to mention cherries, without loss of a single sparrow.

No, cries Chowder, no! This will never do. And of course in a sense it won’t, and yet there is so much more life and possibility - and poetry - in it than in what will do in the way Chowder intends. Sometimes, reading contemporary fiction about contemporary poets, one is filled with an overwhelming nostalgia for the 1960s.

Yes, another voice insists, but it is nostalgia, similar in kind to Paul Chowder’s. It’s time for something - else.

This item is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

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