A BIT MORE ON HIPPIE LIT

One of my lingering questions wonders why the intensity of the hippie experience didn’t flower more fully in fiction.

Yes, I know hippies were considered “laid back” and “mellow,” but that’s only part of the picture. A lot of what we felt was indeed incredible and new. Yet while the music of the era gives both lyrics and a soundtrack to the late ’60s and early ’70s, the literary parallel runs thin. Most of the prose is in the non-fiction side of the aisle – memoir, especially, and sociology – works like Barry Miles’ Hippie. Within that flourished a range of small publishing operations, such as Straight Arrow Books and Ten-Speed Press.

But novels are another matter.

As I’ve already noted, Richard Brautigan and Gurney Norman (Divine Right’s Trip) did give wondrous voice to the action. Add to that Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and we’re soon at the fringe. Thomas Pyncheon’s Vineland, Lisa Mason’s Summer of Love, and Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver get nods. I’d add Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, and John Nichols to the list. And then?

Well, there’s always my Freakin’ Free Spirits cycle at Smashwords.com. All four volumes.

As Michael Wards, author of Bitch, a novel about Berkeley 1968-73, commented on an earlier post here, “Today I don’t think 20-year-olds would believe their grandparents were capable of anything that actually happened then.”

That, I suppose, is the entire point. We came so close to a real revolution across the social and economic spectrum. That vision needs to be kept alive and rekindled. Especially in the face of today’s repressive regime.

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HOMAGE TO OTHERS IN THE ARTS

The tradition of art inspiring art is a long one. Perhaps we might even see a redundancy there and shorten the sentence to “Tradition inspiring art is a long one.” Or more accurately, “Traditions inspiring art are long.”

At the moment I’m reflecting on my poetry collection, 50 Preludes & Fugues, which springs in part from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 20th century homage to Bach. There are, we should note, two sets each with 24 preludes with fugues. I became acquainted with some of these piano pieces in college, via a budget LP recording apparently with the composer at the keyboard. (Memory had a young American pianist, as it is, but now I think it was the composer himself at the keyboard.)

And then these engaging, sometimes haunting, works disappeared from general public awareness.

Decades later, a Naxos CD set of the complete cycles by Konstantin Schebakov allowed me to rediscover their range – the discs were often playing as I drafted and revised the new poems. Still later, through a Christmas gift from my younger stepdaughter, I gained the opportunity to closely examine Keith Jarrett’s exploration on the ECM label, after hearing selections of his performances on public radio broadcasts.

What continues to amaze me is how different the two interpretations are. The Russian Schebakov is crystalline, restrained, centered on each chord and its ringing. The American Jarrett, in contrast, develops the phrasing – these pieces sing. Which version do I prefer? Or which is, in some way, “better”?

I can’t say. Instead, I’d argue that each is a counterpoint for the other, both springing from the same root. And that as a consequence, we’re all richer for their advances.

In the arts and if faith, we all build on deep roots that have come before us.

WHAT MAKES A POEM, ANYWAY?

Even poets will often have difficulty defining exactly what a poem is. As if there’s a single measure for poetry to begin with.

To call it “slow prose” seems to me to slight both poetry and prose. Robert Bly once faulted traditional English-language poetry for the way it’s commonly functioned in the role of sermons, with any inherent wildness diluted or tamed. How much politeness can a poem contain, anyway?

One distinction might arise in parallels to music. There are good reasons composers set poetry and not prose to a score – and not all of them have to do with metrics or form. A good poem has much of the indefinable emotional sensation of listening or performing music, apart from any linear explanation. Both somehow take us into the darkened recesses of our soul.

Maybe I’ve come too much under the spell of what Bly instead calls “leaping poetry,” which can be found throughout the oral traditions of so-called primitive peoples or in many pages of Scripture, including the Bible, or in the visions of Asian, Latin American, or French poetic seers.

Not that it’s easy to veer far from our roots in linear composition, or at least speech. Many contemporary poems obviously arise as a strand of journaling or even confession – and I’ll plead guilty there, too, though hopefully I’ve compressed, distilled, and transformed my material into something, well, full of imagery and free flight that makes a particular become universal as well.

There’s also the continuing struggle of just how far a poem can run from the very basis of language itself and still communicate some underlying sensation or experience. Choosing pieces to read before an audience, as I’ve found, can lead to a much different selection than I’d have for on-page presentation, where more linguistically fragmented work might be more engaging.

Could it be, then, that the question then isn’t so much what a poem is but rather what it are? And then, how many of those elements exist in this work or that?

MEMORY, IMAGINATION, AND LITERARY INTENT

A passage in an essay by Joyce Carol Oates stopped me cold in my tracks:

Literature is not a medium that lends itself well to the Surrealist adventure of disponibilite. Even radically experimental fiction requires some strategy of causation, otherwise readers won’t trouble to turn pages. Unlike most visual art, which can be experienced in a single gaze, fiction is a matter of subsequent and successive gazes, mimicking chronological time, as it is locked into chronological time. … (“Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature,” New York Review of Books, August 13)

So that’s been my “problem” as a poet and novelist? A surrealist adventure? Oh, my! I’ve long been fond of surrealism, often because I often see and hear life in that vein. While stopping short of subscribing to any manifesto, including those that gave rise to dada and surrealism, their ambitions continue to suggest possibilities for artistic exploration and discovery. As for chronological narrative, certainly there must be other ways to relate an event. Right? Well, even the alternative realities of dreams seem to emerge along timelines of some sort, even if they overlap from episode to episode that form what is remembered as a single dream event. A poem, moreover, can aspire to exist purely within a given moment it expresses, even if the reader returns to the lines repeatedly.

Maybe my saving grace here is in my assumption of invisible roots – everything happens for a reason, even accidents. (You don’t have to impute divine intervention there, either.) Perceiving these underlying currents, as some would suggest, demands something other than Aristotelian logic. Hence, the surrealist option, among others.

I do like Oates’ sense of gazes adding up into a quilt-work pattern, though, especially when they can bounce off each other to create yet something more.

And then her essay takes a remarkable turn that reinforces my invisible-roots assumption:

The hypocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped part of the brain necessary for long-term storage of factual and experiential memory, though it is not the site of such storage. Short-term memory is transient, long-term memory can prevail for many decades … If the hypocampus is injured or atrophied, there can be no further storage of memory in the brain – there will be no new memory. I have come to think that art is the formal commemoration of life in its variety – the novel, for instance, is “historic” in its embodiment of a specific place and time, and its suggestion that there is meaning in our actions. It is virtually impossible to create art without an inherent meaning, even if that meaning is presented as mysterious and unknowable.

Again, I’ve long viewed my writing as an attempt to remember what’s right in front of me in my life. Let’s face it, everything often seems chaotic. Times of reflection and self-evaluation are crucial. It’s easy to leap from there, as I’ve found, into meditation and the Quaker practice of group worship grounded in silence itself. Along these lines, Oates puts all this into another framework:

Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture – no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one – we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary society, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning” – which only art can provide; but social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.

The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.

Of course, I would see true religion, not art, as the provider of “meaning.” And now the conversation would turn lively.

CRITICS AND A MODEL OF POETIC INTENT

Arts critics are often portrayed in the negative. Listen, for example, to the excerpts of voices who denigrated what became symphonic mega-hits or operatic standards. It’s a long list.

On the other hand, some critics (when it comes to classical music, dramatist Bernard Shaw and composer Virgil Thomson come to mind) have proved invaluable in sifting through artistic output and finding those jewels who would otherwise be lost in the volume before us and the drive for monetary success. Quite simply, good critics glean value from gems lost in the estimation of box-office success, bestseller popularity, and high audience ratings. With an eye for lasting quality, they guide individuals to work – and workers – they esteem.

As I look at the flood of artistic output on the Internet in our time, the role of good critics appears to be more crucial than ever.

Let me add that good critics are also teachers. I’m deeply indebted to people like Hub Meeker of the Dayton Journal Herald or Winthrop Sargeant of the New Yorker for their role in shaping my artistic awareness. As I’ve found over the years, reading a familiar critic becomes an active dialogue.

This leads me to a recent essay by the poet Charles Simic, long a star on the University of New Hampshire campus one town over from where I live. In “The Incomparable Critic” (New York Review of Books, August 13), he touts a collected volume of reviews by Helen Vendler and her examination of contemporary poets, centering down to her high estimation of one in particular:.

However none of these [William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, even the Beats] had the audacity, she points out, to switch back and forth between the sublime and the ignobly ridiculous as [A.R.] Ammons did. … for Ammons there is a “continuo of the personal – the ‘noise’ of the everyday mind – from which the lyric rises and into which it subsides.” This setting “of the lyric moment within its non-lyric ‘surround,'” Vendler writes, “is the fundamental device of modern poetry, from The Waste Land to this day.

That, in itself, is an audacious insight, of one reviewer to another.

Apart from any specific works, what is described is an ideal I admire – one I’ve sensed present in the works of Philip Whalen I’ve admired. And so we continue, writing and reading, in whatever quest we follow.

HOW WOULD THE AUTHOR REACT?

I never know what will show up in our household after a Saturday morning round of yard sales, and Vince Passaro’s novel Violence, Nudity, Adult Content is a perfect example. At least it wasn’t another chair.

OK, it’s a catchy title – one I’m afraid generally oversells the story. While the novel’s excellently written, what really strikes me is the way it’s essentially four related novellas that are woven together. And, yes, it is set in Manhattan.

There’s the big law-office intrigue and infighting. There’s the one rich client’s murder case. There’s another lawsuit resulting from a brutal sexual attack. And there’s the marriage with two young kids that’s coming unraveled. (So far, it’s not that different from the three stories in a single television episode of Love Boat, a formula that quickly spread across programming. Here, though, the braiding feels more integrated into a whole. Well, not everyone was on the boat at the same time, in effect.)

Now, for a little confession. In a more conventionally structured novel, I will often leap ahead somewhere around the middle to the final pages. If what I find there makes perfect sense from what I’ve already learned, I’ll likely drop the book – perhaps picking it up later and skimming for supporting details. Of course, it the plot’s much thicker, I continue on the linear course.

What I found myself doing in this case was jumping from page to page to pick up just one of the threads, all the way to the end, before returning to the point of departure and following another thread the same way. Hey, I was pressed for time! The fact that one of the threads, presented as emails, appeared in a different font made the process that much easier.

So I’m left wondering how the author would feel about readers like me. Or whether an author even cares how a reader moves through a story.

Maybe it just depends on the book. Or an ego.

CHANCING UPON A DESIRED TALE

In today’s publishing world, it’s impossible to keep up with the output. Even in a specialized niche.

I recall asking an English department chair at a respected college if she’d heard of so-and-so – the kind of novelist who gets reviewed by the New York Times both in its daily edition and again, independently, in the Sunday Book Review section. The answer was no.

(In fairness, she and her husband always introduce me to a range of fine authors when I scan their many home library bookshelves.)

Why wasn’t I surprised?

More recently, recognizing the extent of Greek-American influence in my own community and throughout much of the Northeast, I began searching for works that might reflect its family life and culture. Even a search by a public library research desk came up pretty empty. The Greek-American authors we did find seemed to be writing about other things.

There are, as I’ve noted, a few exceptions, but there should be more.

And then, by chance, I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. His was one of the Greek-American names I’d come across, but this story was focused on five sisters in a Roman Catholic family. I quickly resonated with the Midwestern setting of the story, which easily fit into a band across northern Ohio and Indiana and, as became more apparent, southern Michigan. This was familiar terrain, not far from my native soil – and another one that is rarely represented in literary fiction (yes, I know the objections to the term – but how do we distinguish it from commercial genres that are sales driven?). Despite its gruesome premise, this is a humorous book, befitting the thwarted desires and misunderstandings of its adolescent male observers.

And then, on page 171 of the paperback I was reading, came a glimmer of the novel I’ve been seeking. In the household of the narrator’s friend Demo Karafilis, we encounter his grandmother, Old Mrs. Karafilis, who generally stays to her room in the basement, where she keeps her memories of growing up a Greek in Turkey who managed to escape with her life. The next three-and-a-half pages are an incredible portrait that left me yearning for the novel-length development. As Demo explains it, “We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. … What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.”

What I discovered a few nights later, in the stacks of the library I’d consulted earlier, was the elusive Greek-American novel. How could it be so invisible after being acclaimed on Oprah’s list and even awarded a Pulitzer Prize? It was Eugenide’s second novel, a 529-page masterpiece.

Maybe part of it has to do with the sexuality theme that masks everything else – the narrator’s peculiar adolescent gender shift thanks to a recessive gene and the impact of earlier incest. Well, it is a riveting tale. For me, though, the primary story of Middlesex is the multigenerational presentation of a Greek-American family and its culture, done in a matter-of-fact way, with nothing sentimentalized. It’s an incredibly rich novel, no matter which part of the narrative claims your attention.

Not to take anything away from all the novels of ethnic life in New York City or Chicago or the regional flavors of New England, the South, southern California, Texas and other Far West locales, it’s safe to say many other strands of American life are greatly underrepresented or even missing entirely.

Any you want to point out?