Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68

David Levine

The biggest and the most illustrious gathering of poets I have ever attended took place in June of 1968 at the Stony Brook World Poetry Conference. There were 108 poets present, according to Jim Harrison, who organized it together with Louis Simpson and others. Most were American, but there was also a sizeable foreign contingent. It was the only attempt in this country, as far as I know, to bring together such a wide range of poets, young and old, from mainstream to avant-garde and those who eluded classification. What that meant for anyone attending the conference was that every poet one admired or hated was likely to be there in person. Fortunately, unless their faces were recognizable from photographs, most could keep their anonymity, since name tags, the kind one may see at vacuum cleaner salesmen’s conventions, were unthinkable at this gathering of the famous and not-so-famous. Still there were tip offs. One could usually guess from someone’s clothes and the length of hair what kind of poetry they fancied, but not always, of course. West Coast poets of all ages by and large dressed more casually than Midwestern and Eastern ones, many of whom could pass for bankers or advertising executives. There were also a few dandies in the crowd, like my friend James Tate, who wore a crumpled white linen suit, as if he had been spending his time in his fashionable haunt on the French Riviera and not Kansas City, where he came from.

The festival started amiably enough with a dinner of fresh lobster, polite introductions all around, and small talk. But as the evening progressed the manners of the participants began to deteriorate somewhat and one could see people whispering in small groups and looking suspiciously over their shoulders. Of course, there was a lot of drinking. Harrison claims he went $50,000 over the budget for food and wine, and I believe him. Late that night, I remember encountering the poet Henry Rago with a bottle of vodka, roaming the corridors of the student dormitory, where we were all staying. He was looking for someone to have a drink with, and it seemed like everyone he met had turned him down. That was no surprise.

Lots of poets loathed Rago, who for years had been the editor of Poetry, our oldest monthly devoted to verse, and who not only rejected our poems, but also refused to acknowledge the major changes that had occurred in American poetry since World War II. In Chicago, where the magazine was published, the rumor was that Rago came from a family of morticians that got filthy rich burying mobsters. Allegedly, it was in their funeral home that Al Capone was laid out in a coffin to be viewed and grieved over by his family and his underworld associates. The story was probably hooey, but it still made me regard him warily as he waved the bottle in front of my face. Having been raised never to refuse a friendly offer of a drink, I made Rago happy by taking a couple of swigs out of his bottle. Afterward I tried to get some sleep, but every now and then an inebriated poet would stagger into the building with no idea where his room was and start knocking on other people’s doors, or just barge in, if the doors were unlocked, and climb into the first bed he found in the dark, only to be evicted shortly after with much yelling that in the meantime woke everyone up.

Next morning everyone was horribly hungover and grumpy. During an afternoon reading, I recall Robert Duncan declaiming beautifully one of his long and intricate poems full of literary and mythological allusions, with Alan Dugan shouting “Shit!” after every few lines. Finally, George Hitchcock, who was sitting in the first row, stood up, tall and handsome, and in the booming voice of the labor organizer that he once was, on the docks of San Francisco, told Dugan to shut the fuck up. Hitchcock could do no wrong, as far as I was concerned, because as an editor and publisher of the then prestigious surrealist magazine kayak, he published my poems regularly. To be called a surrealist in those days was to be regarded as a joke: someone who writes poems everyone else finds incomprehensible. The kinder of the older poets tried to explain to me and my friends that this was a dead end, while we thought the same about their poetry. Young poets have to be full of bluster about what they are doing; otherwise they’d have no confidence to keep writing.

Back at Louis Simpson’s house in Stony Brook, during the farewell party on the last night of the conference, a fight broke out. People were standing in pairs or groups on the huge lawn sipping their drinks and, without any hint that something was about to happen, fists started flying. When a few tried to break it up, a punch would head in their direction and they would in turn join the melee. I stood on the porch watching in astonishment with the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the French poet Eugène Guillevic. They were delighted by the spectacle and assumed that this is how American poets always settled their literary quarrels; I tried to tell them that this was the first time I had seen anything like that and it scared the hell out of me, but they just laughed. Looking back, I, too, have to admit that what we saw was pretty funny.

As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes during the party and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray. As for what started the fight in the first place, even the ones who had bloody noses had no idea, though later that night I heard it may have been an insult to someone’s girlfriend or wife that led to a bottle of champagne being broken over their head. Whatever the reason, there was never another meeting of warring poetry tribes to ascertain whether what we witnessed was an explosion of collective animosity or a defense of an unknown woman’s honor.

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