Sunday, June 1, 2014

Poetry and the National Conscience: An Unpublished MS Archived in the Gelman Library

This unpublished book manuscript from three Washington conferences,
featuring twelve poets, is now archived at the Gelman Library

During the war in Viet Nam (1968, 1969, 1970), the University of Maryland, with some grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, convened three conferences, bringing together each time four or five poets and about 20 “delegates” (editors, teachers, and other poets) to grapple with the issues of war, poetry and propaganda, race, education and morality, and the nation’s changing identity.

The availability of poet Reed Whittemore, a faculty member at the University of Maryland who was widely experienced as an insightful, effective moderator, guaranteed that these annual conferences would attract wide interest and adequate funding.

We called in as panelists some poets who had been writing about these matters.  They were placed at a table onstage.  Just below them was a section of seats reserved for invited delegates, with access to microphones.  A fairly sizeable audience was in attendance. During each morning and afternoon session the poets read “position papers” which were discussed among themselves and with delegates.  These proceedings, the heart of the conferences, were recorded and later transcribed and edited for possible book publication.  Each conference ended, appropriately enough, with the panelist-poets giving an evening reading of some of their poems, selected for their relevance to the conference topic.

The very active delegates for each conference are too numerous to mention. Most of them were poets or editors or teachers of poetry from the Washington area. The 1968 conference is where many of the Washington poets of that time first got to know each other. 

With Reed Whittemore as moderator, the specially selected panelist–poets for each conference were as follows:
             1968 – James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Daniel Hoffman.
             1969 – Robert Bly, Senator Eugene McCarthy, John Unterecker, and Ted Weiss.
             1970 – William Stafford, Howard Nemerov, Raymond Patterson, and Denise Levertov.

A final conference, in 1971, was no longer related to the issue of national conscience and was not recorded.  The panelist-poets in ’71 were William Mathews, John Logan, Donald Hall, and Michael Harper.

Editing the recordings into a publishable typescript was a large and time-consuming task.  Because the recordings were sometimes faulty and indecipherable, there was a good deal of back-and-forth with the poets and delegates for final approval of their words.  The assistant editor, my graduate assistant, Eugene Harding, worked hard and well, but we couldn’t keep pace with history. As the war was winding down in 1971, Harper and Row, having shown interest, decided (wrongly I think) that this creative and imaginative response to war would not survive the actuality of that particular war. By 1972, other publishers sensed that the country wanted only to forget the war. The book was never published.

However, on the occasion of the recent founding of the Washington Poetry Archive, a  growing collection of books and documents  being gathered at George Washington University, the manuscript of Poetry and the National Conscience is now available to scholars and other readers. By way of transfer from off-site storage, it is available in the Gelman Library’s Special Collections unit, on the 7th floor.

The poems read by the poets in the evening sessions having been deleted, the manuscript is now 173 pages.

For purposes of this blog, here are some sample quotes from some of the dozen poets. They seem to me fully as penetrating and important as they were during the American people’s part in that war and in the concurrent struggles for racial equality.

Louis Simpson:  In America the wish to destroy other people has never been so
strong because we will not transform ourselves into better men.  . . .The next problem is the impulse to self-destruction.
Ted Weiss:  We must not luxuriate in that last pleasure, guilt.

Raymond Patterson:   . . . a death-dealing confrontation with the cultural bias in the language, a bias that has to do with things black.. . .
William Stafford:  A pattern that others made may prevail in the world, and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Denise Levertov:  [The poet] has an obligation to put his own body where his words have preceded him.

Howard Nemerov:  The world does not respond to these eloquent chidings by getting better. . . .I am backing away from putting my body where my words are. I want my words to be freer than that. . . .

Samuel Allen:  . . . black consciousness [is] a form which slouches toward the continent of its integrity to be born.   

James Wright:  Those great polemical poems from the past and the bad poems about the war in Viet Nam [are equally] the will trying to do the work of the imagination. . . refusing to think.


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