Monday, June 23, 2008

My Orono '70s (Part 1)

Here were the questions about the poetry of the ‘70s that appeared in the NPF Conference Announcement:
What emerged? What suffered eclipse? What happened just out of frame? What connections brought poetry into dialog with other fields? What social and political contexts mattered most? What of the present can be traced back to that moment? What poets, poetic formations, tendencies in poetics warrant our continued attention? What accidents of reception might we now revisit and perhaps repair?
There were probably as many answers as there were panels, and lordy there were lots of panels. The ‘70s is the most recent decade an NPF conference has ventured to touch, and you can see how things could be touchy, with so many of the participants still alive and just entering the pink of their sixties, ambulatory and active and rarin’ to stick up hands at Q&As.

I thought this might lead to a Potemkin ‘70s, burnished and airbrushed by the folks who had a stake in making it glow. Instead, the risk turned out to be in losing a ‘70s altogether in the act of reviewing so intensely a period that hasn’t been canonically groomed and thinned. I had the feeling the plenary readers and some of the other conference subjects shared the decade like you might share a public bus, everyone sitting in casual proximity waiting for different sets of stops. But that extra work you needed to do to shake a usable ‘70s out of all the panels turned out to be the most memorable feature of the conference for me, especially as it heightened the problem of churning any decade’s milk into the portable butter of history.

You could make the argument that the “decade” itself is a faulty container for cultural information, and even so far as it holds, it catches poets at wildly different speeds: Bern Porter or Kenneth Patchen or Louis Zukofsky’s ‘70s takes on a different luster than, say, Dodie Bellamy’s. (In my Top Five favorite conference quotes was Bellamy’s remark: “Me and the Seventies are about as marginal as you can get.”*) But I more or less share the conference premise: decades are still meaningful ways to sort and talk about our collective experience. Not all are equally useful though, and some decades—as those of us who minnow after the boomers feel so sharply—seem to carry more charge than others. As 10-year increments go, the ‘70s strikes me as one of the baggiest. Unlike, say, the ‘30s or the ‘60s, so compact and epochal they practically sort themselves, the ‘70s is one of those “middle child” decades, caught between the glitter of the ‘60s and the ugly of the ‘80s. Like any middle child, it ends up taking punishment from both, and pleads for our attention in ways different from its siblings. I found at the conference that “sounding” the ‘70s took a lot more conscious attention to silence, code, and the things that didn’t happen than the “easier” decades do: the Seventies that came out of Orono for me were largely apophatic, with meaning arriving in the form of the unsayable or the not said.

Case in point: Kaplan Harris’s excellent paper on “The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation,” Bruce Boone’s wry name for the late-Seventies reading group that included Boone, Ron Silliman, Kathleen Fraser, Robert Gluck, Steve Benson, Steve Abbott, and Denise Kastan, then director of Small Press Traffic. One reason it’s hard to picture these writers electing to be in the same room is that they weren’t for very long—the group fell apart after six months, and Harris’s paper set out to explain why. I’d butcher the details of his careful analysis—maybe it’s available on ThoughtMesh by now [the abstract's here]—but what impressed me was the framework: his accounting for what didn’t happen and why, what it is that could have been, and why that “could have” wasn’t. (More tomorrow...)

*She followed this up with a generous memoir of her time in the Feminist Writer’s Guild that caught how dated the group seems now while also paying homage to the things it succeeded at providing, especially measured against the leaner, meaner writing scenes that came after.


Tim Peterson said...

Sounds like a wonderful event, Rodney! I'm so sorry I missed this one...

rodney k said...

Hi Tim,

Grab a bib and let's brace for 2012 ...

tmorange said...

the ‘70s is one of those “middle child” decades, caught between the glitter of the ‘60s and the ugly of the ‘80s

rodney: a lot of current scholarship recognizes this (mis?)perception and is attempting to find ways through it. bruce schulman argues for a long decade running 1968-1984. philip jenkins rejects that: "There is something eccentric about any version of the sixties that omits Woodstock, Stonewall, the Chicago conspiracy trial, the Weathermen, Kent State, Led Zeppelin, Apollo XI, and Earth Day, not to mention such signature films as Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, and Five Easy Pieces" (4). he leaves schulman's first 5 years with the sixties and focuses instead on 1975-1986 as a period in which in many ways the cultural legacy of the sixties was mainstreamed while in domestic and international politics there was a fear-based retrenchment.

there's something to be said for these kinds of approaches. 1968 certainly witnessed a series of shocks, whose full reverberations were perhaps not fully felt or understood until 1973-4, which finally saw the ending of vietnam, watergate, the end of post-WWII economic growth, the oil crisis, the pinochet coup, etc etc.

on the other side of this "long 1970s," of course, reagan's "morning in america" was in fact quite gloomy for most of his first term.