22 September 2010
Albon on Labor Day
Another Labor Day favorite was George Albon's piece, read by Alli Warren as George was fittingly stuck at Green Apple. These reflections are derived from Albon's current prose-work-in-process "The Slopus," which is quickly becoming my favorite contemporary project on poetics as lived, labored experience. The following roughly represents the section Alli read from (at least as I remember it). Here's Albon:
In 1961, Robert Duncan was asked to contribute an essay to Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a journal whose name was originally going to be The Protective Association for All Beings. Aiming his essay at the original title, Duncan challenged its assumptions. Privation and adversity, he suggested, weren’t to be avoided at all costs; they may even be engines of creation. Using a Manichean language to comment on the socially well-meaning presumption he heard in the language of the request, he wrote, “I strive to realize the Good, not against the Evil, but in order that there be Good in the Gift as well as Evil.” The journal’s editors were doubtless thinking of protection as leftist concern over the wars of the moment, ideological wars as well as actually deployed ones, and their new atomic face. Going to the root, Duncan saw “protective” as paternalistic at best and state-managerial at worst. What would a “protective association” be if not coercive? Duncan’s devotion to “the orders of a household” may have given him a measure of psychic stability that other poets lacked, but his poverty was as real as anyone else’s. “This writer has no steady resource,” the essay began. “He is as likely to run thin as to leap his channel; he must run his course where he may.” For Duncan, economic insecurity was a hardship that contained aspects of freedom; it pointed toward the opening of the field as much as anything else. Security, on the other hand, was chloroform—it disabled the active imagination from encountering those glimmers in a precious and uncertain life that are its most acute testament. “Wasn’t vulnerability,” he asked, “the very quick of the light?”
Along with checks from home, and with no dependents, Duncan got by as a typist. There were other people, and other ways, to consider the problem. Talking with David Meltzer in 1969, Kenneth Rexroth (an early avatar, like Jack Spicer in his own way, of Pacific Nation) told his young interviewer: “People on the West Coast work.” “People” meant male poets. Poets in the West can make physical labor play their way. Rexroth offered a counter-example in Hart Crane, who “spent all his time fretting about his economic problems, but if he had been a Westerner, he would have gone out and gotten a job in the woods or at sea or something like that, and he would have made a lot of bread. A hell of a lot more bread than he ever did writing advertising copy for candy.” When Rexroth talked about work out West, he was emphasizing outdoor jobs as opposed to white-collar office jobs, but there’s a factor here which is not spoken. The work in the West was seasonal work. Harvesting, summer lookout posts, Merchant Marine tours, non-union dock gigs during high periods—these were ideal for poets who were physically able to do it, because they could make “a lot of bread” and then have stretches of time off for poetry.
As it happened, Rexroth was talking about a seat-of-the-pants personal economy that had worked for canny individuals in the recent past and which gave the promise of crossing over to a present moment of the collective and the tribe. No doubt the Rexroth model worked for some, and was impossible for others. “Seasonal” work is also one season in a life—how long it is sustained will be up to individuals and circumstances. In 1964, five years before Rexroth told his interviewer that “people on the West Coast work,” a symposium was held at the Old Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco, on the subject of “bread and poetry.” Advertised (and maybe organized?) by Lew Welch, the symposium featured Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and himself. The question that night was how to live as a poet. The three poets, who shared much common ground in their poetics, revealed three different temperaments that evening. Snyder, with some trade-in skills under his cap, had the most equanimity. Besides working in forestry and park services, he was also among the first wave of Americans to earn money by teaching “business English” overseas. The Rexroth model par excellence, his self-sufficiency in this context was enviable. Forward-looking, “progressive” in its view of limits, it had one foot in the archaic small society and the other in the federally funded conservation job corps developed in the 20s and 30s. Writing poetry that was often about the process of staying self-sufficient, his approach had some calm in it: “Whatever work I’ve done, whatever job I’ve had, has fed right into my poetry, and it’s all in there.” Whalen, with a physique less suited for physical labor and a poetry requiring endless dredgings of the unseen, has a harder go of things, but “I don’t mind a part-time job ordinarily.” At the time, however, he no longer had his half-day gig washing laboratory glassware at UC, “and it’s a great burden on my nerves. Right now I’m sort of getting by on my pretty face.” A classic Whalen attitude: humor as resilience, giving the Neapolitan razz to hardship.
The most poignant is Welch. The one with the greatest variety of job work under his belt, he’s also the most unstable. Cab-driver, salmon and crab fisherman, post office worker, even a stint in advertising (where, as legend has it, he came up with “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”), his back is to the wall. He’s getting by on “any kind of left-handed job that’s left over, that nobody seems to want.” He was just back in town after a breakdown and an extended stay in a CCC shack near California’s northern border. (CCC shack…Old Longshoreman’s Hall…were the mid-60s the last period when totems of labor history like these still had a living ambience?)
Welch’s quandary—his sense of choices—may be conditioned by alcoholism. But he has a strong pull toward the Poet as Being, rather than just part of being. “While I was growing up my job always seemed to me to be to get myself into the kind of person that would have something interesting and accurate to say about things. And in order to develop into that kind of person, I always found it exciting and interesting to change jobs a lot, to do a lot of different things, and I always like working with my hands—just labor jobs.” Now, at 37, the scene is different. (None of these poets are young. Snyder, the youngest, is 34, and Whalen is 40. And at the time of his essay, Robert Duncan was 42.) Welch’s horizons are shifting, though he would also embrace the tribal consciousness blooming in the Bay Area, and its realignments, in which the Poet was a benefice to the community and thus accorded a living. This was the era when some poets wanted to put “poet” under “occupation” on forms. (I wanted to, too, if I’d been old enough to fill any out.) It’s hard to imagine poets doing this in the present—either it was a silly idea all along, or poets now have a more horizontal view of what they do and don’t choose to privilege the “poet” part. (Or they’ve internalized the skepticism of the clerks.)
These three poets are optimistic, each in his way. Snyder, cohesive and integrated, simply says, “I’ve had no problem at all.” Whalen acknowledges a split between crummy jobs of the past and his vocation “that I had a hard time sewing up but I’ve gradually, I think, fixed it up. It’s all evening out slowly.” Welch wants to forget the bad jobs and embrace the new tribes. “First I have to solve my problem. Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”
These optimisms were healthy personal convictions, part of the bodily optimism of any moment, but in the ambience I can feel the vibration of a particular few decades, a grace period floating inside the mythic boundlessness of the American Sublime.
The post-WW2 economic boon was a gift to white Americans and held at least a flicker of promise for minorities. It lasted a little over thirty years—a pretty good run. It lasted long enough, in fact, to imprint the hope of a less insecure future on a generation of adults already grown, and their children. From the perspective of the early 21st century, those thirty years have started to look like an oasis in American history, one that started with New Deal recovery programs and the war effort, was maintained for a few decades with war-economy “full production” schedules—the decades whose vibrations I felt above—and began to dry up with the Ford recession. By 1973, the first year of that almost three-year recession, the dollar had ceased to have purchasing power. The dream that technology was going to provide leisure time, or vocational time, now seemed a sour hallucination.
After the dismal Carter economy and Reagan’s quadrupling of the national debt, things appeared to get better in the 90s with the consolidation of information technologies. These were quick-money times for many people. But the period’s momentum did what momentums do—it inhibited peripheral vision, a vision that might have offered a view of the everyday consequences to come. At the time, it was an intense bout of production, consumption, and service that was bound, after enormous activity, to plateau out (or at least to have a softer gradient). Labor unions still had “power,” of a sort, but they were stuck in the older paradigms, of leverage created by large enough aggregate numbers of workers, or workers representing population-percentages in fixed territories. The new lateralized marketplace was turning unions like these into dinosaurs. The information economy’s needs didn’t depend on leverage: they called for “specialized” skills that whole demographics seemed to have, with hundreds of thousands of jobs that needed filling but didn’t need to be wage-competitive. Credentials didn’t exactly drop out of the equation, but were increasingly augmented by willingness. It was a non-cultural proletarianization of the bourgeoise—the last time I remember people with these kinds of work weeks was in my coal-mining hometown over thirty years ago. At the same time, the prevailing political climate was shedding its liberal watchdog character. Over a decade of Thatcher-Reagan had seen it morph into a complacent observer of open-maw private interests, which satisfied and then extended their agendas with no significant challenge from either press or congress. Only in such a climate could Bill Clinton, a brilliant, charming, and ideologically will-of-the-wisp executive, sign into law a jaw-dropping “take-away” welfare bill that wouldn’t have gotten near the desk of Richard Nixon.
And at this point, I want to introduce a poet. Or maybe he’s a characterization—or maybe a symptom, or a product. He didn’t exist in the West before a certain era, but since then he’s existed in various configurations up to and including the present. This is the seismographic poet, in whose every moment a registration may be forming. He requires what many would consider an inordinate amount of time to claim his experience, to discriminate it, and to have it stand in relief. The first full-blown versions were part of the Enlightenment’s wake, decades after its crest. The Enlightenment’s “everyday task of thinking” eventually
The “problem” with the seismograph is that it records crucial findings and is left to accumulate the pulses and strains that will result in the next finding. Which is to say: it inheres in time. It works through time. Here there’s a fairly benign claim to make: that many poets ask for a certain kind of time, not necessarily more, than other art-makers. A novelist needs an enormous amount of time to write a novel, including time for planning what she’s going to write, but we don’t think of her as having to spend a lot of time away from the keyboard “being a novelist.” Since the Romantic era, poets have claimed “time-away” time, a working time that is not actual writing. This kind of poetry work—reading, doing, letting happen, and accounting for your activity in a firmly applied synthesis—builds the pressure that will be brought to writing. Ideally, it leads to a mild form of crisis, a fork in the road. To write is to have chosen. (In past practice, the pressure resulted in a distilled work; in the present, something more like an accumulated one.)
The twentieth century behavioralized the seismographic temperament: inappropriately intense, lacking social stamina, with an introspection that was its own form of rigidity. I particularly think of early-modern women poets—Millay-Teasdale-Wylie—as well as one modernist poet—H. D.—who were tagged with some of these traits. Romanticism plus Freud: a killer combination, or at least a volatile mix. You can also class this poet: a parasitic prole (“Go and find work,” the Chairman told Tom), or conversely, a class-unconscious solipsist in a sea of privilege, asking for extra favors.