Fifty-four years ago when I was a freshman at Bard College, the Beat Generation was still a presence in our lives. In dorm rooms you could spot copies of Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry” on the bookshelves of the “hippest” students, back when the term referred to the bohemian underground rather than the sort of clothing you wore (not that black turtleneck shirts were not de rigueur.)
Two years earlier I had read about Jack Kerouac in Time Magazine and had decided to join the Beats even if its energies were largely spent. Kerouac’s odysseys continued to inspire some Bardians to take a year off and ship out on freighters or to hitchhike across the U.S. as I did shortly after graduating.
Despite the school’s bohemian reputation, Robert Kelly was the only faculty member who had any kind of connection to the Beat subculture. In 1961 I was able to attend poetry readings organized by Kelly that featured writers in Donald Allen’s anthology, including LeRoi Jones who co-edited Fubbalo with Kelly, a poetry magazine out of the U. of Buffalo where the two men taught before Kelly came to Bard. Jones, of course, transformed himself into Amiri Baraka later on. You got an inkling of where he was going from what he read at Bard, “The System of Dante’s Hell”, a novel about Newark that revealed to me the depth of Black anger about American society.
Kelly also brought up Robert Duncan, a leading light of the San Francisco Renaissance that included Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth. Duncan has remained one of my favorite poets as he has for Paul Pines, who transferred to Bard in 1961. In Paul’s latest collection of poems titled “Message from the Memoirist“, there’s a tribute titled “Thoughts on Robert Duncan” that reflects our common roots in a period of literary fecundity:
Fifty years since I first read him
I’m still moved by Duncan
Within two years of graduating Bard, I left my literary ambitions behind and joined the Trotskyist movement. But Paul Pines continued to write prose and poetry, for which the world is a better place. Judgment on my own revolutionary career is still pending. As a continuator of the Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley tradition, Paul is a reminder that the best writing comes from people who have lived life at the margins rather than in the safe confines of places like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He spent time in the merchant marines, coming ashore in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, and ran a jazz club called the Tin Palace later on.
Every single poem in “Message from the Memoirist” reflects a lifetime of experience as a voyager, both externally across the planet and internally through an engagement with the spiritual wellsprings of the early sixties such as Gnosticism, Greek mythology and dream interpretation. In reading this collection of poems, it reminded me of how powerful this culture operated on me even though it was my anger against capitalist injustice that finally set the course of my own voyage.
As a fellow septuagenarian, Paul dwells on what one might call intimations of mortality (with all due respect to Wordsworth.) It is expressed in poems such as “To David Amram on Turning Eighty” and “Interview with the Old Poet: Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 91”, as well as one of a number of stellar prose poems, “Lachrimae Rerum” (Latin for the tears of things), where he reflects on Robert Redford in “All is Lost”, a film that I loved but did not fully appreciate until reading Paul’s words:
LOST has received rave reviews which call his performance the role of a lifetime, but has not done well at the box office. This comes as no surprise. After all, who would willingly spend time sharing a moment of joy with an old man at sea alone on a leaky boat?
I suppose if you’ve seen Spencer Tracy in the adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, or better yet read it, that’s an easy question to answer. For that matter, as might be obvious, this book of poems has the same irresistible, siren-like appeal to readers of any age, including those in their twenties who might benefit from the wisdom of an elder poet especially one who as a counterpart to Spencer Tracy has been involved with the lonely and arduous task of reeling in the big one: a memorable work of art.
The irony is that despite the preoccupation with aging and mortality, there also probing examinations of what it means to be young:
a kid standing
in the dark basement
of his father’s
words he will repeat
for a lifetime
I will be a furnace
in the shadows
But the crowning synthesis of the contradictory poles of youth and old age can be found in “Dance to the End of Love”, a poem whose title is drawn from Leonard Cohen’s song. It was probably no accident that Paul felt a connection to Cohen who recently turned 80 and obviously is meditating on the same issues as those found in this haunting poem that simultaneously reflects on Cohen’s performances and the work of another poet in old age.
There is something
a young man
sung in the voice
of an old one—
as if the latter
had been waiting
inside the former
to bring us this
Later this month Bard College is staging its yearly commencement weekend that a number of people from the class of 1965 will be attending. I spent a few minutes trying to decide if it was worth it, if for no other reason than to get a rise out of President Leon Botstein who resents my gadfly attacks on his corporatization of a college that meant as much to me—oddly enough—as my time in the Trotskyist movement.
But then I imagine the failure to communicate that would take place as I sat around a banquet table for the class of 1965 as the old folks showed each other pictures of their grandchildren and shared horror stories about hip replacements and the like. What could I possibly share with them? My concerns over Greece’s debts or whether slavery was capitalist or not?
The only reunion that makes sense for me is to keep abreast of the activities of people like Paul Pines, who will always symbolize for me what was best about the school, its ability to attract brilliant minds not content to fold into the complacency of American society and chase after the almighty buck. As long as Paul keeps writing poems in the great American tradition that goes back to Walt Whitman, I will feel that my experience there was worth it since it connected me to those who matter most—those who have an insatiable desire to make the world a better place either through the arts or by saying no to a system that would crush us underfoot.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.