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Introduction to The New Writing in the USA
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Introduction to The New Writing in the USA

Nothing will fit if we assume a place for it. To attempt to classify writing before one has had the experience of its activity will be to misplace it altogether. What can be said is something itself particular—to senses of form, to the literal nature of living in a given place, to a world momently informed by what energies inhabit it.


The forties were a hostile time for the writers here included. The colleges and universities were dominant in their insistence upon an idea of form extrinsic to the given instance. Poems were equivalent to cars insofar as many could occur of similar pattern—although each was, of course, 'singular.' But it was this assumption of a mold , of a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now , that had authority.

It is the more ironic to think of it, remembering the incredible pressure of feeling also present in these years—of all that did want 'to be said,' of so much confusion and pain wanting statement in its own terms. But again, it is Karl Shapiro's Essay on Rime (written in the South Pacific at a military base, "without access to books," in iambic pentameter) which is successful, and Auden is the measure of competence. In contrast Ezra Pound, H. D., William Carlos Williams (despite the token interest as Paterson begins to be published), Hart Crane, and especially Walt Whitman are largely disregarded.

Donald Allen and Robert Creeley, eds., The New Writing in the USA (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967).


The situation of prose I remember as much the same. Despite the apparent insistence of digression in the work of Joyce, Faulkner, Céline, and others who are valued, there is nonetheless the attempt to shape all discussion of their 'form' to the context of an overt pattern, a symbolism, an explanation again anterior to the instance. In short, it is a period when criticism enjoys control of literary reference—so much so, that it can propose itself to be of primary value quite apart from its 'subjects.'

The sense of form which comes of this insistence is defined by Robert Duncan in an essay, "Ideas of the Meaning of Form":

Form, to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant insofar as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. . . . Wherever the feeling of control is lost, the feeling of form is lost. The reality of the world and men's habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared. . . . Metaphor must be fumigated or avoided (thought of as displaying the author's fancy or wit) to rid the mind of the poetic where metaphor had led dangerously towards Paracelsus' universe of psychic correspondences, towards a life where men and things were beginning to mix and cross boundaries of knowledge. Poets, who had once had dreams and epiphanies, now admit only to devices and ornaments. Love, that had been a passion, had best be a sentiment or a sensible affection. . . . The struggle was to have ideas and not to let ideas have one. Taste, reason, rationality rule, and rule must be absolute and enlightened, because beyond lies the chiaroscuro in which forces co-operate and sympathies and aversions mingle. The glamor of this magic haunts all reasonable men today, surrounding them with, and then protecting them from, the darkness of possibilities that controls cannot manage, the world of thought and feeling in which we may participate but not dominate, where we are used by things even as we use them.

Confronting such rule , men were driven back upon the particulars of their own experience, the literal things of an immediate environment, wherewith to acknowledge the possibilities of their own lives. This alternative must now be familiar, but at that time there were few indeed to propose it. It is first found for me in Williams' introduction to The Wedge (1944):

Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. . . . When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense ex-


pression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. . . .

It is, in fact, a congruence of "the darkness of possibilities that control cannot manage" and that "revelation in the speech" that Williams emphasizes, which informs the first major work of Allen Ginsberg, Howl. He writes of its composition as follows:

By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech I'd picked up from W. C. Williams' imagist preoccupations. I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco, unemployment compensation leisure, to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillean bardic breath. I thought I wouldn't write a poem , but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind—sum up my life—something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul's ear and a few other golden ears. So the first line of Howl . . . .

It is relevant that he says, "I thought I wouldn't write a poem , but just write what I wanted to without fear . . ."—as does Duncan so emphasize that it was fear that felt "The reality of the world and men's habits must be constricted to a realm . . . excluding whatever is feared. . . ." The need becomes, then, literally:

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America's naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.

(Howl , Part I)


The usual critical vocabulary will not be of much use in trying to locate the character of writing we have now come to. If one depends on the dichotomy of romantic and classical , one is left with,


too simply, an historical description, itself a remnant from an earlier 'period.'

The question becomes, what is real —and what is of that nature? The most severe argument we can offer against the 'value' of some thing or act, is that it is not real, that it has no given place in what our world has either chosen or been forced to admit. So it is the condition of reality which becomes our greatest concern—in which relation the following notes by Charles Olson are most useful:

All things did come in again, in the 19th century. An idea shook loose, and energy and motion became as important a structure of things as that they are plural, and, by matter, mass. It was even shown that in the infinitely small the older concepts of space ceased to be valid at all. Quantity—the measurable and numerable—was suddenly as shafted in, to any thing, as it was also, as had been obvious, the striking character of the external world, that all things do extend out. Nothing was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to promote it, and be felt; and man, in the midst of it, knowing well how he was folded in, as well as how suddenly and strikingly he could extend himself, spring or, without even moving, go, to far, the farthest—he was suddenly possessed or repossessed of a character of being, a thing among things, which I shall call his physicality. It made a reentry of or to the universe. Reality was without interruption, and we are still in the business of finding out how all action, and thought, have to be refounded. . . .

("Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself")

This recognition had come primarily from scientific thinking, as it might be called—but its evidence in the way in which the world occurs in Moby-Dick (the object of Olson's discussion) is very striking. What happens to 'plot' or all such instance of 'category'—the assumption of action as contained , for example—when all is continuous, "when the discrete [isn't] any longer a good enough base for discourse. . . ."? The sentence itself—as Fenollosa had proposed in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry , and Olson reasserts—has become "an exchange of force" in no way a "completed thought," since such "completion" is impossible in the context of that real which Melville had apprehended, Olson notes, as "the absolute condition of present things . . ." Let it be stressed:

[Melville] put it altogether accurately himself, in a single sentence of a letter to Hawthorne, written when he was writing Moby-Dick (1851): "By visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things."



The context so defined will include such present statement as this one taken from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing . . . . I am a recording instrument. . . . I do not presume to impose "story" "plot" "continuity". . . .

What has been criticized as a loss of coherence in contemporary American prose—specifically that of Burroughs and Kerouac—has been, rather, evidence of this character of the real with which we are involved. In "Kerouac's Sound" Warren Tallman makes a parallel distinction:

In conventional fiction the narrative continuity is always clearly discernible. But it is impossible to create an absorbing narrative without at the same time enriching it with images, asides, themes and variations—impulses from within. It is evident that in much recent fiction—Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner are obvious examples—the narrative line has tended to weaken, merge with, and be dominated by the sum of variations. Each narrative step in Faulkner's work is likely to provoke many sidewinding pages before a next narrative step is taken. More, a lot of Faulkner's power is to be found in the sidewindings. In brief, what happens in jazz when the melody merges with the improvisations and the improvisations dominate, has been happening in fiction for some time now.

Not only have the earlier senses of 'form' been rejected, but equally 'subject' as a conceptual focus or order has given place to the literal activity of the writing itself.

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold , and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.

(Charles Olson, Projective Verse )

But it is in the nature of the writing itself that this thinking finds its most active definition—as here in the final section of John Wieners' "A Poem for Painters":

 . . . At last. I come to the last defense.

                       My poems contain no
                       wilde beestes, no


                       lady of the lake, music
                       of the spheres, or organ chants.
                       Only the score of a man's
                       struggle to stay with
                       what is his own, what
                       lies within him to do.

                       Without which is nothing.
                       And I come to this
                       knowing the waste,
                       leaving the rest up to love
                       and its twisted faces,
                       my hands claw out at
                       only to draw back from the
                       blood already running there.


Finally, there seems so much that might be said. The American condition has much to do with place , an active spatial term which differs in that way from what has been assumed its European equivalent. Space, as physical ground, not sky, I feel to be once again politically active—as it has always been for the American from the outset. It is useless, for example, to acknowledge the growing political weight of either Africa or China without seeing the literal measure these places effect in relation to all senses of the European continuum—in which the American takes its place, at least in part.

But more than that—since 'place' is not now more than activity—there is the question of all terms of relationship, and of the possible continuities of that relationship in a time which is continuous and at all moments 'present'—else it never was.

The point seems that we cannot, as writers—or equally as readers—assume such content in our lives, that all presence is defined as a history of categorical orders. If the nature of the writing is to move in the field of its recognitions, the "open field" of Olson's Projective Verse , for example, then the nature of the life it is demands a possibility which no assumption can anticipate.

In such a situation the entity of oneself becomes more than a cultural 'program' and the attempt to recognize its potential has led to experiment with 'consciousness expanding' drugs such as mescaline, and writing which attempts to record such states, as Michael McClure's "Peyote Poem."

The impulse is also clear in attempts to rediscover the viable con-


tent of terms of life which precede the 'categorical' defined by Aristotle. One does not want to go 'back,' merely. But I feel it true, as Duncan writes, "We have come so far that all the old stories / whisper once more . . ." History, as 'progress,' seems quite dead.

Otherwise—things as they have taken place so consistently with us in this country are relevant, both as condition and as presence. They have been, always, a basic company, and they involve, with persistence, our uses of space. Further, I do not feel that Allen Ginsberg's insistent equation of states of feeling or being with so-called 'material' things is surreal and/or a dimension of reality less present in one of its aspects than in another. There is a persistent literalness in American writing—very much so in the tradition with which we are concerned—and it has never been easily 'symbolic.' "All the accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoe, breasts—begotten sons—your Communism—'Paranoia' into hospitals . . ." is literal reality and literally apprehended. It is—as Denise Levertov notes from Jung for the title of one of her poems—that "everything that acts is actual," and the context may be a street in broad daylight where reality is just as pervasive 'as a dream'—in fact, is 'the dream' equally with consciousness.

One cannot describe it, so to speak. Either one acts in an equal sense—becomes the issue of a term 'as real as real can be'—or else there is really nothing to be said. Again, the writing here collected seems to me distinct in point of its distance from the usual habit of description —by which I mean that practice that wants to 'accompany' the real but which assumes itself as 'objectively' outside that context in some way. Certainly it is possible to minimize or otherwise distort one's concern in a given matter or relation. Yet one is either there or not, and being there, cannot assume some 'not being' so as to 'talk about it.'

I feel, however, that what I am trying to say here comes clearer in Edward Dorn's discussion of Olson's Maximus Poems (with their center in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts):

when the Place is brought forward fully in form conceived entirely by the activation of a man who is under its spell it is a resurrection for us and the investigation is not extractable. And it is then the only real thing. I am certain without ever having been there, I would be bored to sickness walking through Gloucester. Buildings as such are not important. The wash of the sea is not interesting in itself, that is luxuria, a degrading thing, people as they stand, must be created, it doesn't matter at all they have reflexes of their own, they are casual, they do more than you could hope to know, it is useful, it is a part of industry.


It has an arrogance of intention. This is the significance of Olson's distrust of Thucydides and his care for Herodotus. It is the significance of Blake's "the practice of art is anti-christ." Which further means that if you are not capable of the non-functional striking of the World, you are not practicing art. Description, letting things lay, was reserved for not necessarily the doubtful, but the slothful, or the merely busy.[*]


To tell the story, is all one can do. What accumulates as the tradition of a craft—its means, its sophistications—must each time be reapprehended, not for 'style.' Because as Louis Zukofsky has taken care to say, of poetry:

This does not presume that the style will be the man, but rather that the order of his syllables will define his awareness of order. For his . . . major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men.

("Poetry," in "A " [Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959])

That undertaking most useful to writing as an art is, for me, the attempt to sound in the nature of the language those particulars of time and place of which one is a given instance, equally present. I find it here.



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