By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
In Giedre Zickyte’s 2012 film How We Played The Revolution a Lithuanian politician looks back to the time when his country peacefully withdrew from the Soviet Union. ‘It was a time of poetry,’ he says ‘and now prose has taken over once again.’
I often think about this observation when I reflect upon the years of political and social crisis we are now living through. When there are uprisings, there often occurs a more ‘poetic’ culture and desires. Indeed if some reports are to be believed, every French student and worker who participated in the events of May 1968 was a poet – the walls were covered in it, and flyposters and handouts exalted the coming revolution in elevated language(s).
From where I’m sitting, it feels like a time of poetry again, and in my upcoming course Living in a Different World: Poetry, Of, Through and After 1968, I’ll be focusing on the radical force and potential of poetry in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, those riotous times made by propaganda, inequality, human and civil rights movements and the emergence of new institutions, an era that overwhelming structures much of our contemporary reality fifty years on.
Here are two poets from one country that was intensely caught up in social and political conflicts in 1968, perhaps more so than any other country – the USA.
In the sixtieth year of his life, 1968, the US poet George Oppen published only his third collection of poetry, Of Being Numerous. Between 1934 and 1962 he had been silent, or rather his voice and pen carried on in a different way, as both he and his wife Mary, an artist, had consciously stopped making art to concentrate on fighting fascism and advancing their communist principles in the US and beyond. But in the early 60s he returned to poetry again. Of Being Numerous is a spare and often elliptical poem in 40 short sections. It is a poem from 1968, but it is not a breathless dispatch. It’s a poem of knowing, of being, of being, as it says, numerous, and not singular. It’s a poem that speaks in a grave, steady way, of crowds and cities. It’s a poem that felt to Rachael Blau DuPlessis, a young poet at the time, ‘sufficient to the day’. A spare lyric voice keeps circling, like a wary creature, different permutations of ‘I’ and ‘we’ in cities and rooms soaked in restlessness:
And we know that lives
And cannot defend
On which rest
Of our distances.
We want to say
And cannot. We stand on
Of death that paved the cities,
Paved the cities
For generation and the pavement
Is filthy as the corridors
Of the police.
In these brief lines, we can see the range of this poem and of what it tries to speak; of being singular, of being detached but also in common, of the coming of a new ‘generation’, of state violence and the stains of the past. Oppen’s poem is acutely aware of the impossibility of speaking for a moment, while at the same time having to confront the present in being present. This man entering the end of his life brings, as DuPlessis puts it, ‘the unfinished business of radical hopes brought forward, and yet infinitely compromised and compressed’. It’s a poem from hope and has hope with it, and I return to it often.
In 1968, revolutionary poet and activist Diane di Prima began to publish a series of poems called ‘Revolutionary Letters’. Like Oppen, Diane di Prima, was politically active, involved in groups of poets and artists and had a total commitment to political change. Over several decades, she would write dozens of these brief, intense dispatches which both demanded, imagined and advised a revolutionary America. ‘Revolutionary Letter #1’ is a statement of personal revolutionary intent:
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over
the roulette table, I recoup what I can…
The later poems encompass ritual chants, observations on the growing energy crisis in the US, advice on what to do in situations of civil disorder (‘when you seize a town, a campus, get hold of the power / stations, the water, the transportation, / forget to negotiate, forget how / to negotiate’). Joshua Clover cateogorises these poems as georgics – an ancient form described as ‘a poem explaining practical matters such as agriculture and beekeeping’. Strong assertions and reconfigurations are practical, too, and the poems are full of such assertions: ‘history is a living weapon in yr hand / & you have imagined it’. I find Di Prima helpful for reminding me that poetry has so many possible uses, that poetry can be of actual practical use when remembered in fragments or stuck on walls.
These are two quite different approaches to poetry. Diane di Prima’s work gives us direct, practical and impassioned dispatches, berating capitalist wars, corporate poison and anticipating the coming revolution(s). Oppen’s work is more spare and gnostic, difficult to get inside, perhaps, but hard to leave, and speaking to the breadth of time more than the urgency of the political moment. On my course I will explore these dynamics of time in ‘revolutionary times’, touching also on the work of poets of colour and those on the periphery of the apparent centres of the revolution (the US and Europe). Poems of 1968 should not just be read as documents of an extraordinary period of upheaval but as part of dialogues and conflicts between poets, groups and artistic movements.
In the end I can only offer something that is partial, personal, and touches on the questions haunting me as we look back to 1968; the importance of experimentation, the need to recognise poetry as always occurring in, and forming, a political and social context, and some of the ‘issues’ that perhaps depressingly remain very current; especially the multiple sufferings initiated and sustained by capitalism. As Hannah Proctor puts it, ‘Ruminations on 1968 tend to conclude in one of two ways: despairing narratives of recuperation (with… emphasis on individualistic life-stylism, libertarian pleasure-seeking and hedonistic soul-searching fully compatible with neoliberalism) or hopeful narratives of prefiguration (things changed once, briefly, and they might do so again).’ Reading 1968 through poetry offers us the opportunity to reject these polarisations and instead open up moments of the past as moments of the present, and future, and all that, vice versa. Poetry can deal with being numerous.
Re-animate your work with some revolutionary spirit from 1968 – the year that shook the world – on Gloria Dawson’s new online course, Living in a Different World: Poetry, Of, Through and After 1968. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.