Fieldwork in New American Poetry: From Cosmology to Discourse
Abstract and Keywords
Often in close dialogue with the place-based poetries of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, the New American poets of the 1950s and 1960s sought to dismantle and reinvent the concept of history both by reorienting it toward notions of temporality borrowed from anthropology and by grounding it within concrete spatial locations. This reinvention at once mobilized previously excluded versions of the cultural past and authorized new modes of lived experience in the present, especially in the place-based rural social formations poets increasingly constructed. To frame these emergent models of living, poets reinvented themselves as “fieldworkers” in the dual sense of working with spatially specific locations and with the authority of the disciplinary fields that might explain or contextualize those literal spaces. Over the course of the 1960s the poetry of a lone researcher offering his results to futurity was no longer seen as sufficient. Poets sought, instead, to live the experimental polis now, to enact it in daily life. As they did so, they externalized many features of Olson's practice in particular—turning his personal cosmology into a range of more public discourses. This article traces this process by charting how transformative readings of Olson were crucial to two seemingly opposite discourses that emerged in the 1960s: the back-to-the-land ecopoetics of Gary Snyder, grounded in part in his familial compound, Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains; and the Black Nationalism of Amiri Baraka, grounded in the city of Newark, New Jersey.
[A] poet, now, must be as full a culture-morphologist as any professional.
—Charles Olson, letter to Louis Martz, 19511
Often in close dialogue with the place-based poetries of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, the New American poets of the 1950s and 1960s sought to dismantle and reinvent the concept of history both by reorienting it toward notions of temporality borrowed from anthropology and by grounding it within concrete spatial locations. This reinvention at once mobilized previously excluded versions of the cultural past and authorized new modes of lived experience in the present, especially in the place-based rural social formations poets increasingly constructed. To frame these emergent models of living, poets reinvented themselves as “fieldworkers” in the dual sense of working with spatially specific locations and with the authority of the disciplinary fields that might explain or contextualize those literal spaces.3 (p. 531)
The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.
If Williams and Olson established the dominant ethnographic and historiographic vocabularies for the poetics of place, they both accepted a division, however, whereby their own places—Paterson and Gloucester, respectively—did not yet embody the values they hoped to dredge up from the study of places in general, and theirs specifically. Over the course of the 1960s this changed: the poetry of a lone researcher offering his results to futurity was no longer seen as sufficient. Poets sought, instead, to live the experimental polis now, to enact it in daily life. As they did so, they externalized many features of Olson’s practice in particular—turning his personal cosmology into a range of more public discourses. This chapter traces this process by charting how transformative readings of Olson were crucial to two seemingly opposite discourses that emerged in the 1960s: the back-to-the-land ecopoetics of Gary Snyder, grounded in part in his familial compound, Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains; and the Black Nationalism of Amiri Baraka, grounded in the city of Newark, New Jersey. Though obviously Olson is not a single source for either of these poets, understanding their relation to him opens up one of the characteristic and central transformations of American poetry in the 1960s—the path from cosmology to discourse.
Understanding Olson’s influence this way would certainly have disturbed the poet himself, who was careful to frame his entire practice against such a movement: “discourse & has [since 450 BC] so worked its abstraction into our concept and use of language that language’s other function, speech, seems so in need of restoration that several of us got back to hieroglyphics or to ideograms to right the balance” (Olson, Human Universe, 3–4). But if Olson saw the singularity of speech opposed to the iterable abstraction of discourse, many of those influenced by Olson saw more of a dialectical relationship that allowed such singularity to frame itself culturally, discursively in part through its recalcitrant singularity.4 Which is to say that Olson occupies an interestingly ambiguous position between what Foucault and Barthes deem an author (a writer of individual works) and a “founder of discursivity”—one who produces not only texts, but also “the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts.”5 Whereas Olson, that is, preserves the occasion of his disjunctive thinking, speaking, and self-making-in-time in books of anticipatory Charles Olson studies (such as Reading at Berkeley and Poetry and Truth), other poets similarly interested in the ethnographic and historiographic substratum of Olson’s concerns channeled these more explicitly into a series of discourses—ecopoetics and Black Nationalism in particular—that could be detached from an individual cosmology.
In the same year as Donald M. Allen’s 1960 epochal The New American Poetry anthology the commercial publisher George Braziller would publish The Golden Age of American Anthropology, edited by Margaret Mead and Ruth Bunzel. Part of a four-volume series that also included volumes on history, philosophy and literature, the Braziller books might be read as part of a larger postwar American attempt to renegotiate its cultural status in relation to Europe by formalizing and disseminating canons within fields whose constellations of references had previously been in comparative states of flux.6 What is of interest here, in this gesture being applied to the field of anthropology at that moment, however, is that Mead and Bunzel (p. 532) consider this golden age not as a methodological breakthrough—as, for instance, when modernist anthropological methods began to be disseminated in universities, and Franz Boas’s students were sent to Samoa or elsewhere—but rather as a particular encounter between Americans of European descent and Native Americans, one that takes place while “the young science could still draw on the living memories of Indians and often on their still living practices and could use these to illumine the records of the early travelers” (Mead and Bunzel, 2). If modernist anthropology is central to this history too (Boas also trained many of the main anthropologists who worked on Native Americans, like Alfred Kroeber), Mead and Bunzel nonetheless present a wider, more capacious, historical canon of “anthropology”—one in which, for instance, many of the same Jesuit missionaries whose absence from American history William Carlos Williams had bemoaned could now enter a canon of the American past through the discipline of anthropology.7 In the scramble to consolidate a particularly American anthropology, those figures that seemed to threaten American historiography could now enter almost seamlessly into a history of fieldwork, or of “contact” as Williams termed it.8 Anthropologists therefore began publicly to ask Olson’s question of how one might “pick up these injuns—that is, as Stephens, Prescott, Parkman did not pick them up 100 years agone” (Olson, Mayan, 31).
By 1950 Charles Olson and Robert Creeley were using anthropology to brush history against the grain, turning in particular to Bronislaw Malinowski’s claim that “myth in a primitive society, i.e. in its original living form, is not a mere tale told but a reality lived” both to question historical accounts of “myth”—like Francis Parkman’s—and to underlie their own model of “process” (Olson, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 3:135).9 A myth-oriented poetry of process, then, was not just one that referenced a distant body of tales about creation but rather one that took its own self-conscious coming into being as poetry—its real-time, breath-based discovery of its associative materials—as a kind of horizon that could fuse present lived myth with its radically reconceived antecedents. It was in this sense that the poets sought to appropriate for their own process, and not just for distant narratives, Mircea Eliade’s formulation of myth as “the recital of a creation & [telling] how something was accomplished, began to be” (Eliade, 95).
During the early 1950s, then, and particularly in the practice of Olson (who both begins Allen’s anthology and is granted the largest number of pages), the model of the poet as ethnographer and experimental historiographer took on a new importance and a new set of cultural meanings. But beyond buttressing this new poetry by appealing to the authority of existing disciplines of anthropology and historiography (which did happen), poets more interestingly sought to revise and revivify these disciplines through radical new readings of their possible aims and methods. Seeking imaginative antidotes to what Nietzsche had called the “stifling of life by the historical, by the malady of history” (121),10 poets developed a historiography that not only revalued canonical figures but also challenged narrative itself as the primary frame for historical understanding. In the process, they emptied out sequence and progress into a range of thick presents or instances of becoming. These moments were in turn authorized, paradoxically, by an appeal (p. 533) to the authorities both of anthropological method and of often distant historical subjects: the Aztecs, the Samoans, the Presocratics, the earliest Native Americans. And when these were not historical but present subjects, poets sought out an anthropology that did not simply confront alterity but rather became it: not recording stories, but rather channeling and embodying them. After describing a six-day fieldwork session undertaken by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber with a Mojave informant, Gary Snyder comments, “That old man sitting in the sand house telling his story is who we must become—not A. L. Kroeber, as fine as he was” (Snyder in Rothenberg, Pre-Faces, 170).11
The journal or notebook of one’s trip to India, China, and Mexico (or to marginalized areas inside the United States, like Native American reservations) became a new, highly charged, and eagerly read genre from the 1950s through the 1970s, with Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Jerome Rothenberg, and many others publishing them.12 Poets sought these contact zones in order to perform historical revisions and expansions of the possibilities of American identity. Thematizing their concrete experiences in these locations, poets recoded travel writing (the journal, the notebook, the letter) as a form of cultural critique.13 In Olson’s work especially, this distant fieldwork, undertaken in narrative or epistolary form, was in intimate dialogue with a new, nonnarrative, increasingly anthropological poetry of place. That, during the 1950s and 1960s, poets “turned anthropologists, turned outward toward lost cultures, native chants, old irrational wisdoms—work of what [Jerome Rothenberg] calls ‘The Technicians of the Sacred’”—was, according to Hugh Kenner, “part of the Olson legacy” (Kenner, 181). And yet we might wonder why it is that many of those poets whom Olson inspired to turn to anthropology are more widely read today than Olson.
Let me begin with Olsonian historiography. This is a difficult topic not only because of its corporeal and spatial dimensions. Certainly Olsonian history is bound up with breathing, speaking bodies and with particular locations—and it’s true that many complexities emerge through this intertwining. Still, what is most complex here is that Olson insists (as I will demonstrate in a moment) on staging his concept of history at the syntactical level of his sentences. Many critics simply lose patience and accuse him of being unhistorical: writing of Olson and Dorn as “mythologising geographers,” for instance, Terry Eagleton, in a rare article on American poetry, argues that, “by knotting, conflating and spatialising historical time,” the two poets “achieve a kind of global liberation won at the possible cost of a reverence for routine causality” (Eagleton, 234).14 Fewer commentators, however, have seen the terms of Olson’s process poetics as providing interpretive models, especially models that might extend beyond the domain of what I will call Olsoniana (the discourse that sprung up to describe his cosmology) toward the exterior modes of historiography and anthropology that Olson’s work engages.15
For Olson, as a new anthropological poetics derailed familiar narratives of myth and history, it not only challenged their valuations (as in Williams) but also exploded their syntax into a world of quasi-independent clauses—a real time of process like that Olson and Creeley identified in Malinowski’s account of myth.16 (p. 534) In the famous anthropologist’s version, which Olson quoted to Creeley in the same 1950 letter (appending his commentary in parenthetical phrases), myths
In Olson’s ritual performances, both live ones like his Reading at Berkeley and his various readings, and the Maximus Poems, a world of independent clauses was imagined as a space of both conceptual and bodily liberation, one in which the real-time speaking subject could, as he improvised with cultural/historical materials, continually break through into new quasi-epiphanic insights suspended from finalized narrative ends and thus more physically available and present (because now deinstrumentalized). This was where anthropology and history came together—both could be lived, rendered present, in performance. “The factual information of the poem,” as Barrett Watten argues, “is kept in the present by means of an ever-expanding sentence structure, with numerous digressions at the level of the phrase—but the sentence never arrives to complete its ‘statement’” (Total Syntax, 132).18 Or as Olson puts it in a section of The Maximus Poems that reproduces an exchange with the poet Paul Blackburn:
are not kept alive by vain curiosity, neither as tales that have been invented nor again as tales that are true. For the natives (ya, let’s name ourselves) on the contrary they are the assertion of an original, greater and more important reality through which the present life (how about that, R Cr) fate and work of mankind are governed (well, the verbal function, certainly, could be improved), and the knowledge of which provides men on the one hand with motives for ritual and moral acts, on the other with directions for their performance. (Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 3:136)17
Challenging the idea of a single subject, Olson positions the twisting associative logic of his project here against the frictionless train car, the Pullman, of historical narrative.
He sd, “You go all around the subject.” And I sd, “I didn’t know it was a subject.”
He sd, “You twist” and I sd, “I do.” He said other things. And I didn’t say anything.
Nor do I know
that this is a rail
on which all (or any)
will ride (as, by Pullman)
Olson was the first among postwar poets to have the public role of a poet/ethnographer, in part because of his 1950–1951 archaeological digs in Mexico.19 The details of this trip were reported by letter to Creeley in what became The Mayan Letters (1953)—one of the first postwar countercultural recuperations of pre-Columbian history. Because of its staging in the field, we might read The Mayan Letters as the nomadic pole within Olson’s practice, the opposite end from The Maximus Poems, (p. 535) on which he was just beginning work. Ultimately his trip becomes an instance of Olson’s often-quoted definition of ’istorin, not as noun but as verb: “to find out for oneself” (Butterick, ix). Rather than critiquing the valuations of canonical historians like Parkman from the safety of his study in Gloucester, Olson wants to recover the “ground” of these valuations with an appeal to geography. His way of expanding and complicating American history and literature, and situating Gloucester’s status within world history as a fishing rather than religious settlement in the New World, thus emerges through a series of geographically based field trips that seek to uncover raw social and historical determinants in the landscape. Olson not only went to college libraries around Black Mountain—Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sondley Library (within Pack Memorial Library in Asheville)— but after moving back to Gloucester, he also, according to George Butterick, sought out libraries “up and down the Massachusetts coast between Gloucester and Boston,” consulting “town records in the vault of the Gloucester City Clerk’s office, deeds and wills among the county probate records at Salem, an account book at the local historical society, documents on microfilm, [and] family papers” (Butterick, xviii). In his A Guide to the Maximus Poems, Butterick describes Olson’s “progress of & investigation, [as an] act of history that will take the poet from [Samuel Eliot] Morison through John Babson and Frances Rose-Troup [historians of the Bay Colony, Gloucester, and John White, respectively] to the town records themselves and, in 1966, to England and the original records of the Dorchester Company and the Weymouth Port Books” (xvii).
Such accounts of Olson’s contact with the material residues of his varying “archives” have been crucial to the dominant version of Charles Olson studies.20 But rather than take them simply as proof of persistence and insight, it might be productive instead to read them as performing the authenticating office that fieldwork does for the anthropologist—performing, that is, a rhetorical as well as a would-be physical and immediate effect. Considering the relation between writing and fieldwork in anthropology, Clifford Geertz discusses precisely this contact effect: “The ability of anthropologists to get us to take what they say seriously has less to do with either a factual look or an air of conceptual elegance than it has with their capacity to convince us that what they say is a result of their having actually penetrated (or, if you prefer, been penetrated by) another form of life, of having, one way or another, truly ‘been there.’ And that, persuading us that this offstage miracle has occurred, is where writing comes in” (Geertz, 4–5).
What separates Olson from anthropologists, then, is that his writing imagines the clause—uncoupled from narrative completion, swirling in and out of connection with other clauses—as the immediate and even physical mechanism of this “been there” effect, this effect of contact. For readers wishing to make contact with Olson, then, his commitment to a world of atomistic references embodied in disjunctive clauses has typically involved the attempt to turn this vast intellectual terrain (itself expanded by his essays) into a unified cosmology.21 Coupled, then, with Olson’s drive to “find out for oneself” is the contradictory drive, within Olsoniana, to find out what a particular text meant for Olson.22 (p. 536)
Gary Snyder, Anthropology, Kitkitdizze
Basing itself in and rethinking an array of literal and disciplinary fields, Gary Snyder’s version of ecopoetics had an especially close relation to anthropology, using readings of early twentieth-century fieldwork, in particular, to open history to an expanded concept of daily life. This interaction ultimately helped build bridges between New American poets and New Left youth revolts of the 1960s (especially those involving back-to-the-land or digging-in movements, like the Diggers, with whom Gary Snyder was in close contact). Because they sought to denaturalize and de-universalize Western social and economic life, Margaret Mead’s anthropological writings on the culture of youth and adolescence were of special use. What is of importance in this link is not the celebration of youth per se but rather the resistance to ideologies of maturity that encode naturalized versions of successful acculturation. Poets sought to question such naturalized narratives of maturation in part through a place-based anthropological turn. And yet within the New Left’s return to place, understandings of what counted as a place oscillated, interestingly, between empirical sites and charismatic bodies, between geographically bounded spaces and exemplary beings, usually writers, who helped to focus the experience of those spaces.
The author of the influential American and the New Era, Richard Flacks was a key figure in the early formation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).23 “The sixties youth revolt was in part,” according to Flacks, “about the possibility of redefining ‘adulthood’ in our society” (Whalen and Flacks, 2). This redefinition—with its critique of the supposed “ephemerality of idealism” (1), its contestation of normative concepts of adjustment, maturation, and success—was aided by a comparative approach to societies, one that could place Samoa and New Guinea next to Ann Arbor and Berkeley. If the anthropological underpinnings of ecopoetics were in sync with and extended the New Left embrace of youth, they also extended in a perhaps less obvious way toward the New Left goal of “making history.” The New Left version of “participatory democracy” was, according to Flacks, “a vision that addressed itself to a fundamental schism in American experience: the gap most people feel most of the time between their daily lives and history” (9).24 In most accounts of the New Left, including Flacks’s own Making History, this gap is overcome by democratic subjects intervening in the decision-making process from which they had previously been barred; it is overcome by increasing participation. What counts as history, in other words, is not at stake—only who makes it. Certainly new agents of historical action did make their way into most accounts of the 1960s. And yet, in a paradox of the New Left, the more the notion of daily life is recovered, rendered participatory, the more “history” ceases to be a self-evident or even a familiar category. We might therefore hear Flacks’s call to “make” history in relation to 1960s attempts to accord daily life a greater role in our understanding of what counts as “history.” 25 In fact, while it might seem at first in Flacks’s formulation like a secondary category (less important than history), daily life emerges throughout the decade as perhaps the most contested domain (p. 537) of historical representation—for many, indeed, the key to historical thought in general.26 If 1960s social activists popularized the importance of thinking globally and acting locally, so within historiography—including that practiced by poets—daily life became a new local, a new pragmatic and material base, from which to access, complicate, and sometimes contest accounts of vast diachronic change or decisive, singular events.27 For poets as for historians, then, the phase “making history” contained a generative ambiguity, pointing at once toward direct participation, by fiat, in the (typically mediated and imposed) decisions that most affect one’s life and toward a thorough rethinking of how the everyday basis of that life might be accounted for in historical writing.
Snyder engages these questions by at once rejecting and revising historical thought. We can trace this shift from the full rejection of history to its reformulation within the course of a single essay, his 1967 “Poetry and the Primitive: Notes on Poetry as an Ecological Survival Technique,” sections of which were later reprinted in Jerome Rothenberg’s Symposium of the Whole.28 “To live in the ‘mythological present,’” Snyder suggests, “in close relation to nature and in basic but disciplined body/mind states suggests a wider-ranging imagination and a closer subjective knowledge of one’s own physical properties than is usually available to men living (as they themselves describe it) impotently and inadequately in ‘history’—their mind content programmed, and their caressing of nature complicated by the extensions and abstractions which elaborate tools are” (Earth House, 118). By the end of the essay, however, this scare-quoted history will be replaced by a progressive version: “we are now gathering all the threads of history together and linking modern science to the primitive and archaic sources” (127).
Snyder’s revised concept of history, history of a thick present, is underwritten by a turn to anthropology—including Kroeber’s and Boas’s works on the Pacific Northwest.29 Anthropological history is thus paradoxical in that what it provides for Snyder is instances of rich historyless cultures in history—proof, that is, that the rejection of Western history could coincide with deeply immersive social possibilities in the present. Snyder double-majored in anthropology and English at Reed College; quoted Malinowski, Frazer, Kroeber, and Boas in his undergraduate thesis; and later spoke of anthropology as “probably the most intellectually exciting field in the university” (Snyder, Real Work, 58).30 Boas’s work also probably influenced Snyder’s second book, Myths and Texts (1960).31 But later, after Snyder settled in California, it was Kroeber’s work on the Native American tribes of California to which Snyder turned, in an attempt to “get a sense of that region,” relating Kroeber’s maps of Native Californian group and tribe distribution to “certain types of flora & types of biomes, and climatological areas & drainages” (Snyder, Real Work, 24). However, in the same works that include these maps, Kroeber also commented on the status of history for California Indians in a way that Snyder must have appreciated:
Though Kroeber does not comment here on the epistemological implications of this concept of time, it appears closely related to the rejection of “history” advocated by Snyder in “Poetry and the Primitive,” where full engagement with the present seems to mean giving up many of our most common markers of temporal succession: “Having fewer tools, no concern with history, a living oral tradition rather than an accumulated library, no overriding social goals, and considerable freedom of sexual and inner life, such people live vastly in the present” (Snyder, Earth House, 117). Certainly Snyder saw the work of Kroeber and other anthropologists as buttressing his claims, which he did not hesitate to align with modern science: “Science, as far as it is capable of looking ‘on beauty bare’ is on our side. Part of our being modern is the very fact of our awareness that we are one with our beginnings—contemporary with all periods—members of all cultures. The seeds of every social structure or custom are in the mind” (126). Evoking the work of Margaret Mead, Snyder continues: “College students trying something different because ‘they do it in New Guinea’ is part of the real work of modern man” (127).
The California Indian did not record the passage of long intervals of time. No one knew his own age nor how remote an event was that had happened more than (p. 538) half a dozen years ago. Tallies seem not to have been kept, and no sticks notched annually have been reported. Most groups had not even a word for “year,” but employed & “summer,” or “winter” instead.” (A. Kroeber, Elements, 320)32
If Mead’s large print-run anthologies of American anthropology made a space for Williams’s heroes of American history like Père Rasles, her even more widely distributed books on Samoa and New Guinea lent themselves (at least in part) both to the New Left in general and to neo-primitive poets like Snyder in particular.33 Published initially in 1928 with a preface by Franz Boas, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was reprinted in 1955 and 1961 and then kept in print throughout the 1960s. In it, Mead—in her first work in the field—helped Boas extend arguments for cultural relativism by denaturalizing the mood of crisis often taken in the West as an essential feature of adolescence. Mead, on the contrary, asserted “that adolescence is not necessarily a time of stress and strain, but that cultural conditions make it so” (Coming of Age, 234). Similarly, after studying basically the same problems in the new location of New Guinea a few years later, Mead was “forced to conclude” in her 1930 book Growing Up in New Guinea “that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions” (Mead in Howard, 162). Snyder thus found a perhaps unwitting countercultural ally in Mead, who, by popularizing cultural relativism, aided the New Left’s reinterpretation of youth.34 While Mead’s work generated a heated debate among anthropologists, what’s interesting about Snyder’s position in this debate is that he, like Mead, is more interested in would-be timeless structures of variable cultures (or even human beings themselves) than in exploring the historical transformations (colonial and otherwise) that characterize these cultures.35 Indeed, Snyder’s reference to Mead hints at a move away from a strictly relativist anthropology toward a more essentialist position. This “work of modern man” that he links to “college students trying (p. 539) something different because ‘they do it in New Guinea’ is ultimately that of uncovering “the inner structure and actual boundaries of the mind” (Earth House, 127).
Like the human mind, physical geography in Snyder often has an almost timeless essence. It makes sense then that Snyder’s argument for a return to full embodiment, to a nonrepressed corporeal being-in-the-world, coincides with the desire for a return to a kind of geographical specificity, even a geographical determinism inasmuch as Snyder considers the watershed “the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable” (Snyder, Place, 229).36 Taking the watershed as the ultimate horizon of place, Snyder’s poetics of place jumps off from the ecological dynamics of the watershed: “Teaching should begin with what the local forces are” (Real Work, 16).37 Tapping into the forces of place, however, also involves an ethical imperative to examine the historical dimension of its oral culture, especially that produced by Native Americans: “you have to consult Indian mythology and ritual and magic of the area and try to understand why it was they saw certain figures as potent” (16). Rather than simply re-presenting this mythology inside poetry, Snyder wants more generally to collapse the distinctions between poetry myth, ritual, and practical knowledge.
As a mode of place-based history, Snyder’s writing differs therefore not just from dominant American historians but from the dominant American tradition of the poetics of place in Williams and Olson as well. Snyder re-explains the history of his own region, the Sierra foothills of California in a 1990 talk, for instance, by shifting emphasis away from “the brief era of the gold miners, the forty-niners, who tediously dominate the local official mythology and decorate our county seal” toward what he sees as a richer, more legitimate group of “teachers and spiritual ancestors”—that is, “the Nisenan people who preceded” white settlers and had “a rich culture, with stories, music, ceremonies, and a deep knowledge of plants and animals” (Place, 57).
Snyder’s admirable ecological activism and his expanded place-specific historical poetics run up against a limit, however, inasmuch as he presents these goals as a fixed interpretive framework that a responsible poetics of place must confront—a research recipe with preestablished orders and hierarchies. More, while he is infinitely particular about the flora and fauna within his watershed, he intentionally generalizes about his experience in urban centers—referring, for instance, to an interview as taking place “in an office building labyrinth somewhere in Manhattan” (Real Work, 31).38 Here his affected disorientation is precisely the point: cities, he implies, do not reward (or even allow) the kind of attention he lavishes on subsections of his watershed.39 And yet the history of place-based writing has certainly demonstrated that cities too must qualify as possible places, that the watershed is not the only or ultimate interpretive frame for an environment, and that a place’s commentators need not be ranked by their length of residence.
It was a perceived failure to operate by such standards that set Snyder against many versions of the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s. Snyder’s was indeed a more rigorous version. And his intense embodiment of this in a built structure may partly explain his visitors’ strong reaction to Snyder’s house—Kitkitdizze (p. 540) (the name comes from a Native American word for an indigenous groundcover), which he began building on the south fork of the Yuba River near the town of Nevada City in 1969, and which Snyder clearly intended as an essay on place-based living, an enactment and grounding of his own theorization.40 “It was a simple but eloquent statement of Gary’s philosophy of life, expressed without an excess syllable,” says Coyote (Snyder and Coyote, 160). In particular this involved a literal attempt to live in tandem with the animals and insects that already inhabited the spot; toward this end Snyder consciously avoided enclosure—doors, windows, screens. “We came to live a permeable, porous life in our house,” says Snyder (Place, 195). This means, in addition to seasonal struggles with yellow jackets, that “ground squirrels come right inside for fresh fruit on the table, and the deer step into the shade shelter to nibble a neglected salad” (196). Here is Peter Coyote’s description:
From the hill just above the clearing, the house radiated a sense of unmistakable, timeless gravity. The thick, orange clay roof tiles were supported by heavy, hand-hewn lintels and posts. Between these, adobe walls or small-paned windows lightened the feeling of the house’s massive construction. The house gave the impression of being fastened in place, as if the trees supporting it had not been cut down, but simply peeled and pressed into service where they stood, with their roots still gripping the soil. It seemed then, and still seems today, to be a house that is exactly right. (Dimensions of Life, 160)
In a hallucinatory countercultural image of architectural symbiosis that seems to locate Snyder’s construction on a Roger Dean album cover or a J. R. R. Tolkien illustration, the house is not so much an intervention (however mild) in a setting, as a greater realization of it, its trees “simply peeled and pressed into service where they stood, with their roots still gripping the soil.” For Coyote, this capturing of the genius loci, this seriousness and gravity in living in place, calls into stark relief the fact that his own attempts to return to the earth, his own “vision of ‘the timeless present’” was sadly represented in “an abandoned cow shed covered with tar paper and old rugs” (162). But Coyote takes his reading of Snyder’s house even further. The house does not merely capture its setting, it also enacts or embodies Snyder—in a way that would seem to encompass Snyder’s whole being, writing included: “Every time I asked myself what he was about, the answer appeared self-evident to me. He was about his house; part Japanese farmhouse, part log cabin, part Indian longhouse; highly civilized, elegant, refined, and comfortable, and obviously efficient” (161).
Perhaps stated here in its most extreme form, Coyote’s impression of Snyder’s house merging with the landscape, and his self merging with his house, is actually consistent with an ongoing pattern in Snyder’s reception—one in which Snyder is seen as quite literally embodying place-based values—at the scale either of the specific locale (like Kitkitdizze) or at that of the larger region, as in William Everson’s reading of Snyder as the embodiment of West Coast poetics. Painting California as “the sundown quarter,” haunted both by a “masculine penchant for violence” and by a “softer, feminine side” that shows itself in the “touch of Lethe” (Everson, 60–61), (p. 541) Everson sees Snyder as representing “the terminal literary situation of the archetype at present” because “he typifies that aspect of the Westward thrust which actually leaps the Pacific to retouch the origins of civilization in the Orient” (141).41
Once Snyder could substitute for his farmhouse or for West Coast poetics more generally, this type of embodiment could become even more literal. If Olson was sometimes seen in his live performances (like his famous Reading at Berkeley) as a towering and unyielding “wall of sound” breaking his own strings of free associations only to add new ideas that would forever hold a final thought or sentence at bay, then Snyder became a kind of ecological commando who could literally dominate place by his keen regional knowledge and boundless bodily powers.42 Consider this passage from a 1968 article by Thomas Parkinson:
As in Olson’s reception, bodily values and effects are understood to operate, too, at a grammatical level in the writer’s sentences. But here, in Parkinson’s reading of Snyder, the connection is conceived as far more direct. Imagine Parkinson’s test applied (as a measure of value!) to other prominent New American poets: Ashbery would certainly not have emerged from this remote wilderness spot; Ginsberg might make it out but would most likely have lost weight; Creeley, too, might emerge two weeks later knocking at a cabin door full of fresh experience, but not cheerfully. What Parkinson’s formulation points to, in fact, is a tendency (developing in the 1960s) to understand the poet’s body as a physical exemplar of a poetics that expands and amplifies the meaning of performance, rendering it continuous with quotidian experience. Ultimately, this way of thinking leads to a fracture or duplication within the concept of place: is Gloucester, Massachusetts (the ostensible subject of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems), the poet’s “place” or is it rather, always, his speaking and breathing six-foot-seven body, his infinitely portable “wall of sound,” which can be plugged in equally in Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall or in his study at Fort Square in Gloucester? Are the few remaining old-growth West Coast redwood groves, or his house, Kitkitdizze, Snyder’s “place” or is it rather his corporeal embodiment as a kind of Zen Boy Scout? In unconsciously insisting on both, critics used a reading of the body to authorize a reading of the larger place, projecting corporeal characteristics into the otherwise unwieldy, perhaps unframeable spatial continuum that that body would make subject to experience. And yet even within this tendency to make the body the precursor to the larger “place,” there is an obvious and important difference between Snyder’s and Olson’s cases: if Synder can thrive after being parachuted into any unfamiliar terrain, his “success” (his omnivorous contextualism) depends not upon a vocal performance that rescripts time into a thick present but upon acts by legs and arms that subdue space. (p. 542)
If [Snyder] were put down in the most remote wilderness with only a pocket knife, he would emerge from it cheerfully within two weeks, full of fresh experience, and with no loss of weight. There is a physical, intellectual and moral sturdiness to him that is part of each movement he makes and each sentence he phrases. (cited in Everson, 142)
Performing the Black Arts: Baraka’s Newark
I wanted to make a series of syllables & that would be identical & with a historical event & the end of the war & and so I prepared & the declaration & by saying I hereby & declare the end of the war! and set up a force field of language & so solid & and absolute&. that it will ultimately overwhelm & the force field of language, pronounced out of the State Department and out of Johnson’s mouth.
—Allen Ginsberg, Improvised Poetics (35)
Rather than seeking to end the Vietnam War remotely through an unstoppable “force field of language” that might be unleashed from anywhere, Baraka tries to extend the war concretely to a second front by digging in to his hometown— Newark, New Jersey, whose famous riots of July 1967 were still in the future.43 Galvanized by role-reversing “magic words” that put white proprietors on the defensive, African Americans become, in A. B. Spellman’s amazing phrase, the “williecong” (Spellman, 247). Proposing further “magic actions,” Baraka continues: “Smash the window at night & smash the windows daytime, anytime, together, let’s smash the window and drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want. The magic dance in the street” (Black Magic, 225). If these were some of the more provocative new roles conceived for poetry in the 1960s, and if they both imagine new powers for the performative, they also imply vastly different ideas of context, of the conditions necessary for the speech act to perform its function, so that it does not go awry or become “unhappy,” as J. L. Austin says of those misfired performatives severed from their enabling contexts and conditions (Austin, 14).
All the stores will open up if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!
—Amiri Baraka, “Black People!” (Black Magic, 225)
Critics have often noted that Baraka’s moves from Greenwich Village to Harlem and then to Newark over the course of the 1960s were designed to situate his writing in relation to African American communities that could find themselves both reflected and revolutionized in his practice.44 And yet, there has been surprisingly little attention to precisely how this would-be grounding might work—to how immersion in these new contexts might realize the performative powers of revolutionary speech acts. In his early work Baraka himself had been more skeptical about such mergings of poetic subject and would-be constituency; by the early 1970s, he would grow unsatisfied, in turn, by the model of political agency proposed by “Black People!” too.45 As he develops his own objections, he reconceptualizes the role of writing: no longer primarily designed to provide the “magical” rush of understanding that would call an individual subject into action, writing now seeks to lay an institutional framework that would secure and sustain such rushes of understanding. But where, exactly, does one locate such institutions: in smaller-scale sociolects (p. 543) or shared linguistic practices, or in more macro-scale positions articulated, for instance, in political speech? In radicalized, self-conscious bodies of political actors, or in expressive architectural structures that might secure the pleasure and relative autonomy of those bodies?
If such an attempt at grounding will eventually cause Baraka to rethink the kinds of speech acts he proposes in “Black People!” it will not cause him, as is often believed, to part ways definitively with the concerns of the New American Poetry, in particular with the model of the poet as fieldworker that Baraka transforms from Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams. Like Gary Snyder (whose first book, Myths and Texts , Baraka’s Totem Press co-published with Corinth Books, and who appears regularly in Yugen and The Floating Bear), Baraka seeks to bridge the gap that separates Williams’s or Olson’s theorization of new social formations in Paterson and Maximus from the enactment of those formations in the present.46 And yet Baraka’s version of this enactment—in his Spirit House in Newark, or his Kawaida Towers project (a proposed sixteen-story public housing project in Newark that, for political reasons to be explained shortly, was never built)—obviously departs significantly from Snyder’s at Kitkitdizze, where the exemplary construction of the house, with its refusal of full enclosure, puts human beings in contact, literally, with the animal and vegetal kingdoms. For Baraka, by contrast, the exemplary urban sitings of Spirit House and Kawaida Towers were designed to put African Americans in conscious contact with each other, and with a version of African culture from which they had historically been violently separated.47 Baraka and Snyder, then, might be seen as imagining almost symmetrically opposite rural and urban afterlives for Olson’s model of the poet as fieldworker. Both, however, pry Olsonian fieldwork loose from its cosmological underpinnings and couple it instead with an exterior discourse their work helps to articulate—be it ecopoetics or Black Nationalism.
Baraka’s early issues of Yugen treat New Jersey as an object of ethnographic curiosity.48 Still, the title of his 1964 poem—“A contract. (for the destruction and / rebuilding of Paterson”—quickly gives a sense of his difference from Williams: if there is a subterranean story to be uncovered in this town for Baraka it is more along the lines of a nagging plumbing problem than a figure for alternative American history: “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes” (Dead Lecturer, 11). Neither Paterson nor Newark presents itself to Baraka as an archive to be carefully mined: We will not find Baraka earnestly counting the number of thwart saws, butter firkins, sides of bacon, and hogsheads of beer the town fathers needed to make it through their first winters. We will, however, find him noting the absence of such material goods among those at the bottom of Paterson’s “rude hierarchy.” More importantly, perhaps, we will find him exhorting those in this position simply to conceptualize their status in material terms. Though there is not yet an identification with these “Loud spics” and “dirty woogies” (who are “no brothers”), there is a proto-nationalist concern that they will not “smash their stainless / heads, against the simpler effrontery of so callous a code as gain.” (p. 544)
A beachhead not an archive, Newark, in the wake of his frustration in organizing the Black Arts Movement in Harlem, is at once, like Harlem, outside the lower Manhattan of his bohemian past, and yet still intensely urban.49 It is rather, in fact, an epitome of what “the city” was beginning to be understood as in the 1960s: largely black, economically and socially marginalized, controlled by white owners, and thus, after Watts, increasingly mobilized to riot. As Komozi Woodard notes, Newark had “the highest maternal mortality and venereal disease rate in the country; as well as the highest rate of tuberculosis cases for all cities; a drug crisis ranking seventh and an air pollution problem ranking ninth in the nation; and a housing crisis that involved more than 75 percent of the city’s old and rapidly aging structures” (143). The city also had an 11.5 percent unemployment rate and median household income for African Americans of just $3,839 (versus $6,858 for whites) (143). Given these conditions, Baraka’s choice to dig in to Newark could also be understood as a negation of the cosmopolitan metropolis—here, however, not in favor of the communes and rural collectivities to which white bohemians rushed in the 1960s, but rather for precisely the kind of blighted urban “slum” that, increasing throughout the 1960s, was the engine of white flight (both suburban and bohemian) in the first place.
Inasmuch as Baraka understood his activism in the 1960s as gradual unlearning of his white Western education, we might see his return to Newark, the town of his birth and where his parents still lived, as an even more explicit echo of Aimé Césaire’s return to Martinique (after his education in Paris) than was Baraka’s period in Harlem.50 The reoccupation and attempted radicalization of the blighted hometown then parallels Baraka’s remotivation of the array of concepts and subject positions from blackness or negritude, to “magic” (as the derisively identified African Other to western rationalism), to badness and even “terribleness” (again, judgments recast as badges of alterity), to the word “nigger” (as the identity term that, unlike “negro,” does not imagine itself as finding adequate representation within the United States’ political system for the group it identifies): “nigger is a definition of the wholly detached from material / consideration a nigger don’t have no gold / not even a negro got gold but a negro think like he would if he / had gold” (In Our Terribleness).51
These terms might originate as hateful speech acts directed at an African American; their revaluation, though, seems to hold out liberatory possibilities. Judith Butler, for instance, sees the citational quality of hate speech (and by extension its recodings) not as absolving its speaker from its consequences, but rather as situating him or her in relation to both the speech act’s problematic past and possibly alterable future. “The responsibility of the speaker does not consist of remaking language ex nihilo, but rather of negotiating the legacies of usage that constrain and enable that speaker’s speech” (Butler, 27).52 What emerges, then, in recodings of such speech “is a ritual chain of resignifications whose origin and end remain unfixed and unfixable” (14). Alterable, yes; fixable, no. That is, if groups can intervene in these histories, rerouting terms and plugging them into new values, they cannot, according to Butler, permanently ensure these values by insisting that certain speech acts always (p. 545) be understood in specific contexts. And yet it is possible—as Baraka’s practice of the 1960s suggested—to build contexts that can affect (if not simply contain) these questions of reception.53
Part of this building came through a dialogue with Olson. Baraka published all of the components of “Proprioception” (in the magazines Yugen, The Floating Bear, and Kulchur)54 as well as the first standalone pamphlet version of Olson’s “Projective Verse” (published by Totem in 1959); Baraka also included many of Olson’s poems in both Yugen and The Floating Bear.55 In “Proprioception,” Olson had written, “The ‘soul’ then is equally ‘physical’” (Proprioception, 2).56 The simultaneous insistence upon and materialization of the soul (as force, energy, resistance, song) parallel Baraka’s own attempts to make seemingly transcendent forms perform concrete cultural work. Speaking of his immersion in a group of “Olson-Creeley types,” Baraka was nonetheless careful to claim that “Olson’s thing was always more political” (Conversations, 108).57 Their relation was important enough that Baraka appears, rather prominently, in Olson’s The Maximus Poems in a February 9, 1966, poem from Volume 3 titled “I have been an ability—a machine—up to / now” (495). Olson situates his own immigrant father in relation to the forced migrations of African Americans, suggesting that his father’s demise was caused in part by this oppression.
Associated with a genealogy with which Olson, too, wants to identify—one of failed and/or enforced diaspora, and suppressed left activist postal work (which we might take as a figure for an alternative communication system)—Baraka emerges as an actor in The Maximus Poems at the precise moment that Olson moves toward a new, separatist form of polis.
Behind the scenes in this passage is not just the oppression of Baraka’s father and grandfather, but of him, too—his arrest for mailing Harold Carrington issues of The Floating Bear, which had sections of The System of Dante’s Hell.58 But if this shift marks one sense in which the Olsonian epic has failed, what is important to note here is that Olson does not cite Baraka as a symptomatic example; Olson, too, suggests the necessity of Gloucester breaking off from the American mainland.
the U.S. Post Office
his purpose to
in their trap to bust him
Widows pensions a different
leadership in Washington than
Doherty my father a Swedish
Irish? like Negroes
Now like Leroy and Malcolm
X the final wave
of wash upon this
ugly (p. 546)
Land this Nation
This passage then leads directly into a shaped poem that, as it twists to the right and curls in on itself, asks to be taken in analogical relationship to the handle of the gun referenced in the lines within—one with which “my father and I shot / off the back porch Worcester / as the rats came closer / as they filled the Athletic Field /— and Beaver Brook Goddamn US Papers / with my 22 / he gave me / and I don’t have now to give / my own son / as I’d like to the bolt / was such a delicate / piece of machinery / to handle / and to lock to / fire” (498). Directly upside down, the word “fire” marks this curving passage’s full twist to 180 degrees. Several times earlier the visual prosody of The Maximus Poem has evoked maps, and once it has broken down into a spiraling tangle of hand-scrawled lines.59 But this is the first moment in the epic in which the arrangement of lines on the page has been asked to analogize three-dimensional objects in the world; this is, I think, no accident, because the “instrumental” nature of this analogy with a gun—a gun that is imagined at that historical moment as an appropriate gift for a son—is also coincident with a shift in the poem’s model of polis, abandoning the idea that it could be shaped out of the current social world of the United States. Olson uses his references to prominent Black Nationalists, then, as a preface to a new phase in his project’s ongoing theorization (p. 547) of a polis, suggesting, in the spiraling and falling movement of the second poem, that Gloucester, too (a word that here seems to name Olson’s project rather than the empirical city) might “sail away / from this Rising Shore” of America.60
how many waves
of hell and death and
dirt and shit
meaningless waves of hurt and punished lives shall America
be nothing but the story of
not at all her successes
—I have been—Leroy has been
as we genetic failures are
it isn’t interesting,
Baraka’s end of the dialogue with Olson can be traced, in turn, from the series of positive statements about field poetics and sonic research—including “How You Sound” (Baraka’s statement on poetics in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry) and the introduction to his 1963 anthology The Moderns—to the break articulated in his 1984 autobiography. Describing the transformations of his life in the late 1960s in a chapter titled “The Black Arts: Politics, Search for a New life,” Baraka suggests that he begins at that point to question his reliance on the “set of ‘licks’ already laid down by Creeley, Olson” (Autobiography, 247)—not because of a new distrust of the poets or their work, but because the terms seemed unconsciously inherited, and thus part of a wider white acculturation Baraka began consciously to analyze. Turning to prose as a way to tear himself “away from the ‘ready-mades’ that imitating Creeley or Olson provided,” Baraka began to feel that, in writing The System of Dante’s Hell, he was beginning to make his language “genuinely mine” (247).61 But if the Olsonian vocabulary came under scrutiny, Olson’s position in The Maximus Poems did not: “What fascinated me about Olson was his sense of having dropped out of the U.S.” (Baraka, Autobiography, 282).62
If Baraka’s moves to Harlem and Newark might be seen as an attempt to drop out of the bohemian poetry world of the New American poetry, the latter move especially might also be understood as an attempt to establish an exemplary model of place-based activism that, operating at various scales, could be exported to other situations: from the cultural and educational practices of Spirit House and Amina Baraka’s Afrikan Free School (which included new recipes, clothing design and production, political theory, childcare, and drama) to the larger domain of city politics (the election of Kenneth Gibson, the first African American mayor of a major northeastern town) and beyond that also state, national, and international politics through institutional structures including CAP (the Congress of African Peoples) and the Modern Black Convention Movement. Insisting on a local base, the goal was both to effect change within an immediate spatial and social framework and to demonstrate to other African American communities how they might achieve something similar.63 “Baraka led,” Komozi Woodard writes, “in the development of a number of institutional ‘prototypes’ that would serve as models for other branches of CAP. Many leaders of the new branches were trained in Newark at the Political School of Kawaida” (Woodard, 220). After Gibson’s victory, Newark was presented in CAP meetings as a “case study for the Black Power experiment” (190).
During this period, in the context of such successes, Baraka began to rethink just how his poetry might operate as a model or example. If “Black People!” goes about situating the incendiary utterance in just the right social situation, considering possible actors in relation to linguistic prompts, Baraka’s focus moves in his 1970 book In Our Terribleness toward a wider view of these actors’ situation. Recoding sociology, planning, and urbanism—the array of disciplines used, in fact, to analyze “the slums”—In Our Terribleness, subtitled (Some elements and meaning in black style), (p. 548) is a work of experimental urbanism that combines ethnography, political writing, fashion theory, photography by Fundi (Billy Abernathy), and poetry into a kind of political style manual for working-class urban African Americans, reclaiming their bodily postures and clothing styles as modes of radicality. Structured in a circuit that goes “from black to black,” as Baraka puts it, the book is designed to “show the significance of how the black man looks and sounds” (Conversations, 90–91). To flesh out what Baraka will present as a necessary passage from self-present body to realized family to conscious nation, the book highlights a series of strategic and generative negations that begin with the individual.
How, then, to secure this badness? Over the course of the 1970s Baraka’s answers involve terms other than those proposed in “Black People!”: “We should not make any statements we cannot back up, in ways that our community can see and understand. Words are not immediate change. Crackers killed in revolutionary sentences are walking around killing us in the real streets.”64 This statement is from a pamphlet called “Strategy and Tactics of a Pan-African Nationalist Party.” It continues:
Since there is a “good” we know is bullshit, corny as Lawrence
Welk On Venus, we will not be that hominy shit. We will be,
definitely, bad, bad, as a mother-fucker.
“That’s a bad vine that dude got on.”
“Its a bad dude.”
This project was taken up very concretely beginning in 1972 in Baraka’s collaboration with the architect Majenzi Kuumba (Earl Coombs) on a large public housing project, Kawaida Towers. Like Spirit House, Kawaida Towers was conceived not just as an embodiment of a Black Nationalist community but rather as an example that might be studied and reproduced in the future—now on a much larger scale. As Woodard tells us: “Kawaida Towers apartment building was designed with a basement and first-floor plan providing for a 300-seat theater with lighting, projection, and dressing rooms; a lounge, woodshop, hobby shop, day care center, and public kitchen; and rooms for art display, reading, and arts and crafts” (228). The infrastructure for cultural life was thus integrated within what is usually the bare-bones instrumentality of the housing project. Characteristically, too, cultural life was both expanded to include diet and healthcare, and physically combined within the daily life setting—rather than, say, associated with a district in a city where one goes for entertainment. (p. 549)
We must learn to build houses, and how to acquire the land necessary to build houses. We can write revolutionary slogans in the lobbies of those buildings if we like, as part of our educational programs, or paint pictures of revolutionary heroes on the fronts of those buildings and in the hallways if we want to, but we must learn to build those buildings and get hold of the political power necessary to effect this dynamic, now. (Woodard, 188)
If In Our Terribleness represented a new attempt to collaborate with African American artists to produce a genre-blurring manual for daily life, Baraka’s Kawaida Towers collaboration seeks to frame and institutionalize that daily life within a built environment—to expand the claims of In Our Terribleness into a literal space or ground in which the newly conscious bodies could exercise the freedom and stylistic power claimed and theorized in the previous book. The story of this project’s unhappy ending has been narrated well by Woodard; it is straight from The Sopranos. In short, a Rutgers professor named Stephen Abudato, who covered the groundbreaking for the local television station, asked rhetorically why the project was reflecting African and not Italian cultural heritage, why it was not called Garibaldi Towers (Woodard, 231). Picketing began in November 1972; Mayor Gibson, in whose election Baraka had played an enormous role, now turned against Baraka and the project. The result was that the tax exemption necessary for the project going forward (and standard in all public housing projects) was soon rescinded and the project was dead by 1974. Woodard rightly links the failure of the project to a shift in direction—both by Baraka specifically and by the Black Power Movement more generally: “Faith in the black will for self determination was at the heart of the politics of black cultural nationalism and its Black Power experiments during the 1960s and 1970s&. By 1974, however, those political circumstances had changed quite dramatically; that vision was shattered and CAP’s faith in its own experience was profoundly shaken” (221–222). Kawaida Towers was for Baraka the kind of period-ending experience enforced for others by May 1968 in France, the Siege of Chicago in 1969, Altamont, or the Manson murders. And yet while those experiences often led left activists to see political subjects as fatally and often eternally conspiring in their own oppression (as Woodard claims many African American activists, too, did), for Baraka the failures of this event instead shook his faith in Black Nationalism and led him into his Third World Marxist period, where we will not be following him now. We will note only that Baraka’s shift in analytical frame did not in any way negate his attempt to ground himself in Newark, to live the poetics of place; rather, his shift toward Marxism caused him to reconceive place’s relation to audience, and to articulate the local now in relation to a global not conceived solely in terms of race.
Where, then, does this leave Baraka in relation to Olsonian fieldwork? Certainly Baraka did not understand his relation to Newark as that of selecting a place whose special history could be used to challenge dominant versions of American history. And yet his attempts to ground and institutionalize performative speech acts in Newark, his project of going about building a physical environment in which claims could be embodied, is, in many ways, a form of what the New Left in the 1960s, including many New American Poets, called “making history.” If Baraka distanced himself from SDS’s attempts to mobilize working-class African Americans in Newark, even blaming them in part for the 1967 riots, his attempt to ground speech acts within physical and institutional bases in Kawaida Towers bears a close relationship to Tom Hayden’s analysis of the riots, which, the SDS activist suggests, (p. 550) “will only disappear when their energy is absorbed into a more decisive and effective form of history-making” (Hayden, 70).65
During his Black Nationalist period Baraka’s concept of “history making” transformed from a matter of instigating revolutionary events (whose outcomes, he came to decide, would amount to “voluntary suicide”) to building an institutional environment that might sustain them and thus itself become a historical event at a larger scale (Conversations, 78). Rather than forcing white business owners up against anonymous urban walls, emphasis now turned toward building Afro-centric walls that might, so the proposal went, both insulate black businesses and ensure the transmission of African culture. Many, including Baraka himself, have commented critically on both the metaphysical and the bourgeois elements of Black Nationalism.66 Separated, insulated, and culturally assured, the utopia of Black Nationalist space would nonetheless reproduce the capitalism outside its walls—now in the guise of Dickinson’s “cooler host” within (Dickinson, 333, no. 670).67
But if this economic narrative is familiar, what is perhaps less so are the relations among space, language, and the social encoded in Baraka’s place-based writing of the late 1960s through the 1970s: here, an array of terms from hate speech and racist discourse are retrofitted and recoded—selected precisely because of their history of marginality. These become not ironic designations, but markers of social space that announce at once their symptomatic histories and their recoded presents. Throughout I’ve been locating a tension between the new meaning that Baraka has wrested performatively from symptomatic speech and his desire to secure this meaning in stable institutional casing. It is certainly true that semantic fixity would freeze the very condition by which Baraka effected change. But rather than see his idea of fabricating institutions as but another instance of that would-be totalitarian impulse lurking under all desires for linguistic fixity, we might instead place our emphasis on Baraka’s articulation of constructive and mobile tools that resist any, including his own, desire for containment. While the premium on action never disappears, Baraka nonetheless moves—in his exploration of how to authorize or enable performative change—from revolutionary actions that might emerge from correctly situated utterances alone to a more revolutionary culture sustained not by isolated violent actions, but by a recognition of the complex corporeal status of its terrible actors; and yet to secure these bodies in their resistance he finds himself then forced to confront the social, architectural framework that might, in turn, enable the negations on which their “terribleness” relies. At each stage, the project of pronouncing change entails an expansion of the frame, an unarrestable movement from working word to signifying body to encasing building. Seen from this angle, then, Baraka’s version of the Black Arts presents less a singular journey into identity politics than a development that is parallel to Snyder’s: away from Olsonian cosmology toward countercultural discourse. And it is this transformation, I want to suggest, that came to characterize the most active and energetic afterlife of Olson’s concept of place, as poet-fieldworks merged their energies with elements of the New Left. (p. 551)
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(1) Olson, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 7:70.
(2) Merleau-Ponty, 214.
(3) Olson’s status in the 1960s can be gauged by the fact that he both begins Donald M. Allen’s 1960 influential anthology, The New American Poetry, and is granted the largest number of pages within it. See Allen.
(4) As Andrew Ross puts it (following Olson’s reading of Whitehead), Olson’s subject is “always in the process of becoming through objectification.” And yet even these exterior subjects-become-objects are ultimately atomistic singularities.
(5) The formulation is Foucault’s, from “What Is an Author?” See Foucault, 114.
(6) See Friedel; Frankel; P. Miller.
(7) Under a heading that would have annoyed most ethnographically oriented poets—“Trying to Cope with the Indians”—we get, among others, passages from Jesuits Paul Le Jeune, Jacques Marquette, and Maturin le Petit.
(8) What the Mead and Bunzel anthology suggests, however, is less a specific point of reference for poets like Olson, Snyder, and Rothenberg—all of whom read widely enough in the field not to need such anthologies—than a broader measure of the increasing popularity (and new historical construal) of anthropology in the United States.
(9) The context is a discussion of “space-time.” Framing the quote, Olson says, “Let me slug in here a quote I’m holding for a day. Think it’s the best damn statement (and very propos what you & I are whacking away at, when we talk abt, narrative or verse, as of now, the push. It is this, of Malinowski, talking abt the Trobriands, specifically, but it doesn’t matter (it works, anywhere, including, now, you and me, this instant)” (Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 3:136). For inverse accounts of how Malinowski draws crucially on literature, see Geertz; Ginzburg. Ginzburg argues, for instance, that “[Robert Louis] Stevenson’s short story [“The Bottle Imp”] would have given Malinowski not the actual content of his discovery of course [about the kula among the Trobriand Islanders] but the ability to see it, through a leap of imagination, as a whole, as a gestalt, to construct it, as he wrote later, ‘very much as the physicist constructs his theory from experimental data’ ” (85).
(10) Nietzsche also argues that “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture” (63).
(11) This story with its commentary is cited approvingly in Rothenberg, Pre-Faces, 170. Rothenberg himself will publish, among many examples, a poem titled “‘Je Est un Auture’: Ethnopoetics and the Poet as Other.” See Rothenberg, “Je Est.”
(12) These include Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, which records his trip from March 1962 to May 1963; Snyder’s Passage Through India, which documents his 1962 journey with Kyger, who wrote Big Strange Moon. John Cage also visited India in 1964 with Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company. See Cage, 179.
(13) And if these trajectories had been anticipated within the Federal Writers’ Project of the late 1930s, still most of this previous work was understood as preliminary to actual poetry; it was taken as raw material that would later be shaped into work. Within the postwar New American Poetry, emphasis on process allowed for raw materials to play a more primary role: one among many instances of this is the fact that Rothenberg, in America: A Prophecy, includes passages from Zora Neale Hurston’s work based on ethnographic fieldwork, Mules and Men.
(14) Other critics, like von Hallberg, see time in Maximus as driven, paradoxically, by thematic concerns within historiography, like Turner’s model of the frontier as a primitivizing contact zone: “Olson’s militant frontierism gives the Maximus Poems a layered structure of reference (Gloucestermen/Norsemen/Tyrians) and a cyclical sense of time” (von Hallberg, 126).
(15) My account of the functions of Olson’s syntax builds off the insights of Byrd; Watten, Total Syntax.
(16) One could almost read Olson as parodying Nietzsche’s claim that one must turn to history “for the sake of life and action” (Nietzsche, 59). With Olson, history is brought to an especially unruly life as each phrase disrupts consciousness in the present, causing it to swerve and change directions, and building an enormous parenthesis that is never closed.
(17) Olson then comments: “BY GOD, clean that statement up, that is, make its words work harder, and I take it you have a REAL PACKAGE (wot dya say, rob’t)” (Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, 3:136).
(18) The context of Watten’s claim is [“Some Good News”], but his description applies more generally.
(19) For an account of Olson’s relation to Mayan glyphs in the context of cultural history, see Belgrade. Belgrade notes, for instance, that as early as 1945, even before his Mexican trip, Olson was writing to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict about his project of “reaching back down” to alternate origins for the writing practice he was trying to establish (87).
(20) In fact, the first journal on Olson, which published ten issues from spring 1974 until fall 1978 was titled Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives.
(21) This practice was central to a wide range of poets and critics who turned to Olson in the 1970s and early 1980s—some through a desire to focus the terms of postmodernism or poststructuralism in contemporary poetry through Olson’s example, others through interest in a poetics of historiography, and still others through a kind of accumulative poetics that could incorporate and link seemingly disparate cultural materials. The early monographs include Paul, Christensen, von Hallberg, and Byrd. Interest in a poststructuralist and postmodern Olson was developed by Bové, Spanos, and in many of the essays that Spanos edited at Boundary 2 in the 1970s and early 1980s. A historicist Olson emerges in Davidson. Olson as a poet of accumulative space can be seen in Waldrop and in Watten, Total Syntax.
(22) In her review of Butterick’s A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, for instance, Perloff notes that rather than just gloss facts and names, Butterick instead relies on a great number of Olson’s occasional remarks in conversation. The result is that the guide “glosses” an array of associations and references that there is “no conceivable way any reader who has not been in direct contact with Charles Olson could identify” (Perloff, 363).
(23) See J. Miller; Gitlin.
(24) Flacks writes, “If we define everyday life as constituted by activity relevant to the survival, maintenance, and development of self and of one’s dependents, we can identify another dimension of human activity—action relevant to the survival maintenance, and development of society. Let us call such action ‘making history’” (2).
(25) This is obviously not to suggest that such reflexivity about historical representation is unprecedented; in fact, historians like Anthony Grafton have for some time now been challenging the long dominant view that modern historiography emerges only in the nineteenth century in the wake of Ranke. See Grafton.
(26) This is the case made by the Italian proponents of microhistory, for instance. For Levi, “Microhistory has demonstrated the fallibility and incoherence of social context as conventionally defined” and therefore it “accentuates individual lives and events” rather than “wider generalization” (108–109). Levi offers a justification for this focus on the individual and quotidian by arguing that “all social action is seen to be the result of an individual’s constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions in the face of a normative reality which, though pervasive, nevertheless offers possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms” (94).
(27) Braudel argued, for instance, that historians could better conceptualize the impact of daily life through his now famous concept of the longue durée, which was not to be understood as pure diachronic sequence, but rather as quotidian living patterns that persist diachronically, frames or horizons against which slight transformations occur. For Braudel, these features are integrally tied to place: “Look at the position held by the movement of flocks in the lives of mountain people, the permanence of certain sectors of maritime life, rooted in the favorable conditions wrought by particular coastal configurations, look at the way the sites of cities endure, the persistence of routes and trade, and all the amazing fixity of the geographical setting of civilizations” (31).
(28) This talk, which was delivered in an earlier version at the epochal Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, was first published in Snyder, Earth House Hold. Further references will be to this text. For an account of the 1965 version delivered at Berkeley, see Gray, 215.
(29) Describing Alfred Kroeber’s education with Boas, his wife, Theodora Kroeber, writes, “Kroeber stood on Parnassus with Boas, who pointed out to him the land below, its shadowed parts and its many sunny places alike virgin to the ethnologist. Virgin but fleeting—this was the urgency and the poetry of Boas’ message. Everywhere over the land were virgin languages, brought to their polished and idiosyncratic perfection of grammar and syntax without benefit of a single recording scratch of stylus on papyrus or stone; living languages orally learned and transmitted and about to die with their last speakers…. To the field then! With notebook and pencil, record, record, record! Rescue from historylessness all languages still living, all cultures” (T. Kroeber, 51); Snyder also quotes from Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind in “Poetry and the Primitive.”
(30) The thesis, written in 1951, is called He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth.
(31) Snyder also mentions reading “Haida Songs, Kwakiutl mythology—all of those things” (Real Work, 58). Boas had also worked on the Kwakiutl.
(32) A. Kroeber’s Elements of Culture in Native California includes versions of the maps later published in A Handbook of the Indians of California.
(33) See Mead and Bunzel.
(34) Mead herself was more classically liberal; she used her anthropological skills to support the war effort in World War II and remained staunchly nationalist. When she did address the youth revolt directly in works like Culture and Commitment, her analyses sounded at once conservative and unaware of the new forms social struggle was taking: “I have spoken mainly about the most articulate young people, not those who want to drop out of the whole system and those who want to take the system apart and start over. But the feeling that nothing out of the past is meaningful and workable is very much more pervasive. Among the less articulate it is expressed in such things as the refusal to learn at school, co-operate at work, or follow normal political paths. Perhaps most noncompliance is of this passive kind. But the periodic massing of students behind their more active peers suggests that even passive noncompliance is highly inflammable” (87).
(35) See, for instance, Leacock, who writes, “Freeman bluntly argued that Mead’s study of Samoa was designed to provide Boas with a ‘negative instance’—a case where adolescence was not accompanied by the stress familiar in the West—thereby demonstrating the primacy of cultural factors in social behavior, that the inexperienced and biased Mead found what she was supposed to, but that in fact adolescence in Samoa is very stressful and Samoan culture as a whole is and always has been characterized by highly punitive parenting and a strong emphasis on aggression and violence” (5). Leacock suggests that whereas Mead may have had a somewhat ahistorical cultural determinism, Freeman’s critique is based on an even more ahistorical biological determinism: one whose social implications are far more conservative, to boot: the “bad savage” replaced with the “good” one.
(36) Snyder continues: “For the watershed, cities and dams are ephemeral and of no more account than a boulder that falls in the river or a landslide that temporarily alters the channel. The water will always be there, and it will always find its way down” (Place, 229).
(37) As far back as 1924, Lucien Febvre had critiqued the French attempts, from the eighteenth century on, to identify the scale of a natural region “in the Procustean bed of ‘river basins’ rigorously encircled by the ‘lines of the water-sheds’” (Febvre, 57).
(38) Snyder’s more recent work does, however, address questions of urbanism more directly. He suggests, for instance, that “the bioregional movement is not just a rural program: it is as much for the restoration of urban neighborhood life and the greening of the cities” (Practice, 43).
(39) Both his insistence on a recipe for successful place-based work and his refusal to consider urban areas as places in his early work now seem typical of the first wave of the ecology movement. As Buell notes, “For first-wave ecocriticism, ‘environment’ effectively meant ‘natural environment” (21).
(40) Snyder writes, “In 1969, back for good in California, we drove out to the land and made a family decision to put our life there” (Place, 253). Snyder, too, recognized this interest in the elements of the New Left, like the Diggers. In an interview with the Digger, Peter Coyote, Snyder speaks of “this idea of place that Peter and I have been working on for so many years, each in our own way” (Snyder and Coyote).
(41) Everson continues: “Jeffers had looked westward to the vast expanse of water, and Kerouac and Ginsberg both responded to the sweep of beyond, but more than any other American poet Snyder has followed that gaze to its conclusion” (141).
(42) The phrase “wall of sound” is Watten’s in Total Syntax (130).
(43) This is not to suggest that Ginsberg could only imagine performatives removed from context. For an account of his strategic and contextual use of nonsense in the 1968 antiwar marches in Oakland, see Watten, “The Turn to Language and the 1960s.” Rothenberg, too, shares this sense of poetry’s fundamental performative power: “In its primary processes—naming and defining—language is itself a poetic act, which becomes remarkable when it revives its latent power to bring about change” (America, A Prophecy, 79).
(44) Benston argues, for instance, that “the individual’s creativity is celebrated insofar as it serves the group. For the black artist there can be no achievement outside the collective aspiration of his audience, and his audience must be black” (42). See also Sollors; Harris.
(45) See, by contrast, Baraka’s “Notes for a speech.”
(46) On Totem, see Clay and Phillips, 90–91.
(47) Considering in his music criticism the effects of enslavement and enforced diaspora, Baraka suggests, first, that “Africans were not Christians, so their religious music and the music with which they celebrated the various cultic or ritualistic rites had to undergo a distinct and complete transfer of reference” (Blues People, 18); later in this same book he argues that with migrations to the north around the turn of the twentieth century a second displacement occurred: “the provinciality of place, the geographical and social constant within the group, was erased” (97).
(48) In the contributors’ notes, poets tend to “appear mysteriously out of New Jersey” enough for him to ask in Yugen 3 “What is happening in Jersey?” Baraka also selected (or was perhaps pointedly given) an untitled work of Ginsberg’s in issue 1 with the lines “I longed for a look of secrecy / with open eyes / —intimacies of New Jersey— / holding hands / and kissing golden cheeks.” Baraka notes in issue 2 that “Barbara Ellen Moraff appeared mysteriously out of Paterson, N. J.” Then, in Yugen 3, he notes Ray Bremser’s being from the state, and that “Thomas Jackrell appeared mysteriously, also from New Jersey.”
(49) Though Baraka would take exception to the comparison, one might compare SDS’s practice of setting up branches in working-class urban neighborhoods in the late 1960s. For accounts of this, see Gitlin; J. Miller; Sale.
(50) Baraka writes, “The arrival uptown, Harlem, can only be summed up by the feelings jumping out of Césaire’s Return to My Native Land or Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth or Cabral’s Return to the Source. The middle-class native intellectual, having outintegrated the most integrated, now plunges headlong back into what he perceives as blackest, native-est. Having dug, finally, how white he has become, now, classically, comes back to his countrymen charged up with the desire to be black, uphold black, etc&. a fanatical patriot!” (Autobiography, 295).
(51) For In Our Terribleness, note that the book is not paginated. In an amazing passage from his essay “What Does Nonviolence Mean?” Baraka comes at this problem from the opposite angle, suggesting how the “Negro” operates as a kind of timeless category for Southern whites: “We know what Negroes are, what they want. Governor Wallace, on television, admonishes his black housekeeper warmly, ‘Y’all take care of everything, heah?’ The old woman smiles, and goes off to take care of his baby. That is the Negro that really exists for him. No other. The smiling convicts raking up leaves in his yards. He waves as he crosses to his car. More real Negroes. He is on his way to the University to make the fake Negroes disappear” (Home, 134).
(52) Because it is citational, hate speech constitutes subjects “in a chain of significations that exceeds the circuit of self-knowledge. The time of discourse is not the time of the subject” (Butler, 31).
(53) Butler claims, however, that no strictly contextual argument can describe the effects of hate speech: “To argue & that the offensive effect of [hate speech] is fully contextual, and that a shift of context can exacerbate or minimize that offensiveness, is still not to give an account of the power of such words are said to exercise” (13).
(54) Olson says, in Reading at Berkeley, “Every one of those essays, by the way, is published by LeRoi Jones alone, in Yugen, Floating Bear, and Kulchur. And I sat in Gloucester, suffering, suffering! That the world had been captured by Allen and Peter and Gregory, and in fact their own master (like my Pound), Burroughs. And you know, I didn’t want to lose my world. I’m older. I crave power” (32).
(55) In a 1980 interview with William J. Harris, Baraka says, “I met people like Joel Oppenheimer, then got turned on to people Charles Olson, and you know, Ginsberg connected me up with people like Philip Whalen, Snyder and Kerouac” (Baraka, Conversations, 169).
(56) Proprioception, 2.
(57) Baraka goes on to claim that “when politics did emerge, as in Olson’s work, I didn’t agree with it” (Conversations, 108). However, in a later interview, William J. Harris comments to Baraka: “Robert von Hallberg says in a book on Charles Olson that he feels that Olson influenced both you and Ed Dorn toward writing a political poetry,” to which Baraka responds, “That could be true. I think he probably did. I know that reading Olson’s poetry, which I liked a great deal, and I like the fact that he did take a stance in the real world, that the things he said had to do with some stuff that was happening outside of the poem as well as within the poem” (Conversations, 173).
(58) For an account of this see Nielsen, 84–96.
(59) The typography of The Maximus Poems is obviously active and multivalent. Still, Olson seems to evoke maps specifically on pages 150 and 193. On page 438, single lines cross at oblique angles and on page 479 the swirl of handwriting appears.
(60) The choice of referring to his project as “Gloucester” rather than Maximus seems to emphasize the intersubjective, social aspect of his project: whereas Maximus is also a singular speaker, Gloucester is both the current city and the imagined or realized version that Maximus would like to bring into being.
(61) In the same section Baraka describes the same poets’ influence through a jazz metaphor as a matter of a “set of ‘licks’ already laid down by Creeley, Olson” (Autobiography, 247).
(62) In Fieldworks I have a much longer exploration of how performatives work in Baraka and how he recodes hate speech. See Shaw.
(63) See Woodard, especially 114–155. See also Baraka, Autobiography, 329–465.
(64) Even by 1970 Baraka had been careful to qualify his sense of the possibilities of the political effects of riots, for instance: “Actually violence—if you want to call it that—is little more than a safety valve: it lets off some steam and calms the people down a little. But it’s absurd to argue violence is the best strategy in politics. It’s crazy to suggest a few poorly-trained and poorly-armed novices could take on the government of the United States, which has one of the biggest armies in the world. Such an act might seem noble, but it amounts to little more than voluntary suicide” (Conversations, 78).
(65) For blame, see Hayden, 160. For Baraka’s critique of his own previous position here, see Autobiography, 385.
(66) “Many of us have moved to the left since that period. And some of our metaphysics and crass cultural nationalism is embarrassing even to us, but the essence of the work was resistance to imperialism, resistance to white supremacy, even in its flawed form” (Baraka in Neal, xiv). Elsewhere Baraka calls Black Nationalism “essentially a bourgeois ideology” (Conversations, 98).
(67) Dickinson, “One need not be a chamber.”