Academic journal article Framework

Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture

Academic journal article Framework

Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture

Article excerpt

all those americans here writing about america it's time to give something

back, after all

our heroes were always the gangster the outlaw why

surprised you act like it

now, a place

the simplest man was always the most complex you gave me

the usual things, comics,

music, royal blue drape suits &

what they ever give me but unreadable books?

Tom Raworth, "I Mean"

These opening lines from "I Mean" by British poet Tom Raworth, published in 1967 in Raworth's fi rst full- length collection, The Relation Ship (Goliard Press),1 stand as a kind of meta phor for a larger problem facing British avantgarde poetry in the 1960s. Put simply, "I Mean" addresses an "American" infl uence on British letters that was to weigh heavily on poets challenging the restrained formalism and hostility to the modernist project characteristic of the British "Movement" poets.2 How were the many Beat and Black Mountain- enamored versifi ers of Albion to be innovative on their own terms?

The avant- garde, as Raworth seems to have it, is predicated on the aura of the "outlaw," the "gangster." Such fi gures are suggestively American, particularly when read within the context of the poem's opening lines. American signs pointing the way forward for a developing British poetics include an idealized simplicity, comics, and music.3 Raworth's poem works in part to ask whether the En glish will be able to "give something back." What would that "something" sound like? What would it look like? Would it be somehow distinctly En glish? Would it be as good as the Americans? Is Raworth ventriloquizing and mocking the anxiety felt by British fellow poets enamored of experimental American verse, or is he being sincere?

If Raworth is ventriloquizing, why might that be the case? To write "all those americans here writing about america" is to address the highly problematic way American avant- garde poetry and poetics were unselfconsciously nationalized in the 1950s and 1960s through a variety of strategies. Many British poets, for example, got their fi rst taste of American alternative poetry from Donald Allen's pop u lar 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and related fi gures were all ensconced in a book whose title gladly relied on identifi cation with the United States as an attractive selling point, and whose cover featured red and white stripes allusive of the American fl ag.

The Beat poets in par tic u lar saw no contradiction in positioning themselves as antiestablishment fi gures while maintaining a marked patriotism that distinguished them from their more internationalist peers. Ginsberg, for example, appeared any number of times throughout the 1960s in an Uncle Sam hat. This challenged mainstream American values by virtue of the hat's placement on the head of a polysexual bearded Jewish poet, as it simultaneously marked a sincere love of country that Ginsberg, following Whitman, expressed throughout his work. We can refer to his 1956 poem "A Supermarket in California," which invoked and implicitly called for a recuperation of an idealized "lost America,"4 and move right through his poetry of the 1980s and 1990s to get a sense of the poet's lifelong commitment to the United States as a promised land that had to be redeemed.

Kerouac certainly never shied away from expressing his loyalty to the States even as he, like Ginsberg, railed against the limitations it placed on his desires. His On the Road refers repeatedly to an America that symbolized- like no other place- the freedom he so craved. Despite all its problems, America was "the mighty land."5 As Manuel Louis Martinez suggests,

it may be that [Kerouac] is neither the voice of dissension as his most ardent readers claim, nor the violently reactionary racist he came to resemble in his fi nal years. It may turn out that what the Beats most clearly signifi ed was the tendency of American dissent to subvert its own countercultural instinct for the middle road, for stability, for the comfort of the status quo that promises a protective space for the individual. …

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