Regionalism and the Western Star

"i think i am not - therefore i am"



Am I the only person struck by the irony in the vital and energetic debate going on in San Francisco over Dana Gioia's assertions that there isn't enough energy and vitality of the San Francisco poetry scene?

I go back to the commentary of Robert Duncan, who in explaining the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s said that the necessary ingredients in a poetic movement growing up in a region is controversy (read here critical debate) and enthusiasm (read here audience response).

Add to that a catalyst even approximating the fulminating power of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady - central generative powers of the early 1950s underculture in the midst of a crusty but fracturing national culture - and the nation had on its hands something more than mere vitality, it had itself a mini-cultural revolution.

And where better for it to have occurred than in San Francisco, which Rexroth rightly described as the only city in the country not founded by either the southern genteel cavaliers or by uptight New England puritans.

One might wonder what Rexroth thought of New Orleans, perhaps, but putting that aside he wasn't that far off in pointing to the radical, anarchistic and freethinking origins of San Francisco - remember Jack London? - as his rationale for leaving his own Chicago - the town of Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson - for the even more radical west.

Rexroth got there before most anyone else, and when people like Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia, McClure and the rest began to be magnetized to the same place - not to mention Duncan, who brought with him substantial schooling from Black Mountain College back to his home town - the groundwork was laid.

There is a kind of paradigm in Ginsberg and Kerouac's escape from the constraints and strangle hold of the formalist New Criticism oligarchy of New York, with their eyes cast toward Europe, to a place where undercultural musings could blossom into a fullblown cultural movement.

In those days the exchange from west to east took its form in bus tickets and thumbs out in the highway. Ginsberg and Kerouac and others had to commit months to their trek between coasts. Today's panregionalists may avail themselves of airplane and the overarching reach of internet.

While the world of poetry status may have devolved to a decentralized constellation of academic institutions, publications and other ennoblizers these days, there remains in the American context a distinct undercultural drive which a community like San Francisco is nicely situated to fill - despite the avenues offered by Seattle Grunge, Nuyorican slam, or Los Angeles chic.

There remains in San Francisco the cachet of a region as a place from which the fodder of creative activity may grow. And as a sociological phenomenon, it is one which may sustain - or smother - the growth of an indigienous literary subculture. In all these aspects, San Francisco is well situated to continue to serve as a venue for a literary culture to flourish.

To make requisite for that flourishing the need for a specific mechanism of critical debate - literary journals - is specious. One might argue that the debate is joined as earnestly in San Francisco as anywhere in the nation. More to the point, it is taking place in a community that is built on foundations of radical free thinking. There can be little doubt but that debate - and the enthusiasm surrounding it - will continue to sustain a vital local literary scene.

Falling stars? There are stars which have fallen in the atmosphere of American literary culture, yet their impact remains - how long was Black Mountain in operation? But the generative power of major regions of American culture have more durability than that. Boston was for ages a bastion of intellectual currency. The beefy mid-western muscle and pure hustle of Chicago continues to fuel its artists. New York? Enuf said.

And it is enuf said when it comes to San Francisco and the Bay Area. This is a community that continues to build on its incredibly vital radical traditions. The pure generative power of those traditions are more than sufficient to infuse the literary community with energy and that vital ingredient Duncan so aptly tipped his hat to - fertile debate.

When it comes to San Francisco, this star don't fall.

The Academy's claims to ownership of this nations' culture are as perennial. Is today's academy as oppressive as that faced by the Beats in the 1950s? Hardly. Yet anointment of participants, to whom the spoils of the poetry career go, is still largely controlled by the academy. And the inherent dangers of the academy - conformity, smothering of disssent and debate, are inherent.

Here's a modest prescription for San Francisco. Cultivate the anti-academic. Remain a nursey to debate, and every once in a while a launching pad for America's prophets. Let New York be New York.

The Europen notion of the academy sits poorly on the American landscape. Whenever the oppressive establishment becomes too suffocating, writers will turn to the freethinking anarchy of San Francisco, with its vitality of debate and friendliness of contention, for resuscitation. and every so often, the scene will explode into national conciousness and shake the foundations of American culture.

In America there will always be a place and a need for San Francisco. While the Beats lit a fuse in New York, it was in San Francisco that the freedom they encountered enabled their cultural bomb to explode.


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