Slouching Toward a Brief Literary History of Southern California
By Carol Muske-Dukes
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 19, 1997
The train swerved along the tracks through the desert, the sleeper cars lit up with dim yellow lights. Inside one of these cars, a man knelt next to his dreaming wife, curled in a berth. She had begun to talk in her sleep, and the man scribbled her words on a pad. The train whistle blew. The woman spoke haltingly in a low voice. She answered questions that the man asked; her voice changed register as different characters spoke through her. The pen moved rapidly over the paper, as bright lights began to elongate and slip by the windows. The train was nearing Los Angeles. The woman opened her eyes, slowly reentering the year, 1919.
She gazed at the man kneeling before her, writing: her husband, William Butler Yeats. I resist thinking of this trance-talk as an early version of channeling inspired by what would (a few years later) be Hollywood, and think of it as what it was—one of the first “automatic writing” experiments Yeats conducted with his bride (the former Georgie Hyde-Lees), which resulted in his occult-philosophical book, A Vision. The “vision” took place on a train “somewhere in Southern California,” as Yeats put it, while he was on a lecture tour to raise money for the new roof for the tower of his Irish country house, Thoor Ballylee.
Perhaps some poetry in the air of Southern California drew those smoky intertwining voices out of her dreams. But where did these insistent speakers come from? The landscape itself was evocative: miles of desert spilling into sea, mountains and rock fragments scattered like hieroglyphs. Viewed from a passing train, even at night, the landscape in its immensity and emptiness seemed alive.
I like to think of the Gabrielinos and the Chumash Indians (the first known inhabitants of Los Angeles and environs), who were given to poetic motifs. They stared at the desert rocks, the echoing canyons, and saw things, heard things, kept a hoarde of metaphors. Earthquakes, they said, were caused by the two great snakes who held the world up, then shifted when their burden tired them. The Chumash believed that the soul migrated after death, a journey that began on the cliffs by the sea at Point Concepci6n, where the soul bathed and painted itself prior to its long flight. The soul’s former life within the body helped determine its point of departure, how far it would journey. The natural poetic ability of these early inhabitants seemed connected to their sense of time. They remembered a past—and thus could imagine a future.*
But the inclination of the indigenous peoples to remember, even to ritualize memory, didn’t catch on here in the Valley of the Smokes, as the Indians called it. To think of Los Angeles now is to think of Los Angeles now, or of contemporary Los Angeles—not merely contemporary, immediate—the eternal-present-tense Los Angeles, with its sense of the past, located where? *Jane Hollister Wheelwright records this imagining in the Chumash “naming” of the month of
*Jane Hollister Wheelwright records this imagining in the Chumash “naming” of the month of April, neg momay an capipqueer, “month when the flowers are already in bloom” in the pages of her lovely memoir about growing up in Southern California, The Ranch Papers.
Somewhere in Hollywood time. Or at least in the Hollywood sense of chronology, between the old movie representations of calendar pages flipping in a high wind and / or newspaper headlines rolling off the old ink presses, and the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s observation that “Nature has no history, but its forms are the living embodiment of all the stages of the past, present, and future.” (Paz claimed to have seen the entire historical spectrum of the Gothic style in the rocks in the valley of Kabul.)
Few of us know the history of Los Angeles. Like most contemporary citizens, we are unaware of an urban past beyond recognition of a well-known landmark or two. In Los Angeles, even the landmarks are forgotten, torn down and built over. (As I write this, the empty-for-years Ambassador Hotel is facing the wrecking ball—the smooth-limned Italianate edifice, designed by Myron Hunt, was once home to the Cocoanut Grove, where Sinatra and Garland sang to glamorous late-night crowds. At the Ambassador, sequestered in a suite, Richard Nixon wrote his famous “Checkers” speech. Just after leaving the Ambassador ballroom, where crowds had cheered him on his primary victory, Robert F. Kennedy fell, mortally wounded by a gunshot in a back hallway near the hotel kitchen in 1968.) Most likely, the Ambassador will not he saved; in part because of this urban amnesia that plagues every city; in part because L.A. is driven, not only to make things new but to unmake history (One is tempted to say: the way the body’s history is unmade through cosmetic surgery or through the camera lens. But perhaps it is more as Paz puts it: Nature possesses no history, but represents history, even history unmaking itself.) The American city that strives hardest to imitate youthfulness and verdancy—of the body, of topography, of topiary—is in fact made of desert, set on a shifting continental plate and thus most vulnerable to the ancient, obliterative power of Nature.
It has been the task of poets to remember. The ancient bards, the skalds, the griots, recited the past in lays and runes and epic cascades. In Provence, the troubadours sang of courtly love and offered historical anecdotes as a kind of breaking news. Nonetheless, it would seem the task of the Hollywood poet to forget.
Contemporary L.A. poets have, typically, a sense of local history that stretches as far back as the “Coffeehouse Movement” of the sixties and seventies, or back to the Watts Writers Workshop of the same era. Beyond these landmarks, collective literary memory shrouds itself in mist. And when poets are asked about history, it is often history conscripted as subaltern to the literary wars of the present.*
In general, it’s true, California is not thought of as a literary place. Or a place with a literary history. It’s odd to think that Robert Frost was born in California. --
*There have been L.A. literary histories, but their focus has been almost exclusively on Anglo and mostly contemporary figures. A chronicle that includes Indians, mestizos, Spaniards, Asians, women, and other lonely souls of early Southern California has yet, to my knowledge, to be written.
although it is not in any ongoing way important to his image making, it does surface in flashes: in references to a dark moment by the Pacific, to the Great Earthquake, to a long-ago San Francisco.
Literary life at the western edge of the continent has always been a curious combination of isolation and internationalism. What poems and hymns were on the lips of the first peoples, then the mestizo and Spanish colonists who settled the desert and coast—perhaps the poetry of Sor Juana de la Cruz, the first great Spanish American poet, or, later, Ruben Dario, the superb Modernista? These poets constantly renegotiated the contract between reality and the imagination—and imagination as homeland. This surreal quality of the mystical poetry of Mexico and Central America, which defined home often as a city of the mind, had little influence on early Anglo settlers. Instead Anglo settlers saw themselves as citizens of two separate (and opposed) contemporary poetry spheres: the established literary communities of New York and Europe, and the New Arcadia of California.
The West, the New Arcadia, had been a purchasable commodity, literally. Against the established literary standards of the East Coast, the West in some ways seemed a buyable dream, making its own standards somehow suspect. Admiration for the cowboy, the free spirit, and accompanying myths did not erase the underlying anxiety of the push westward to extremity. Is the Marlboro Man lonely? the Americanist scholar William Handley asks, aware that the answer invites larger questions about the answer itself. He quotes Joan Didion on Howard Hughes, noting the instinctive American love of “absolute freedom, mobility, privacy…the instinct which drove America to the Pacific.” The Pacific symbolized the end of the earth, the consummation of the narrative, the celebration of an inclination that, Didion then wryly adds, “we do not admit… is socially suicidal.”
Ina Coolbrith (nee Josephine Donna Smith) came to Los Angeles from Illinois in a covered wagon in 1851 at the age of ten, fleeing polygamy with her mother, who had been married to a relative of Joseph Smith. She grew up, fell in love, and married in Los Angeles, moving later in her life to San Francisco. She was the poet laureate of California and, as such, the first female laureate of the United States. The late Los Angeles poet Ann Stanford praised Coolbrith as one of the first bards of the West, “its landscape, place names, people, and history as subject and background for her poems.” (The wild-horse youthful town of Los Angeles was, for Coolbrith, temperate, rose-lit: a “long low vale with tawny edge I of hills within the sunset glow.”)
But Coolbrith did not see herself exclusively as a Southern California poet. Around the time she left Los Angeles for San Francisco, she wrote an elegy for Byron called “With a Wreath of Laurel” that caused a sensation worldwide (her grief at the loss of the great Romantic poet elicited strong passions everywhere and generated renewed interest in his neglected burial site in the Crimea). Ms. Coolbrith had found inspiration beyond the “long low vale” of home.
Her enthusiasm for subjects that did not reflect “features of native birth” raised hackles in her home state. A strong regionalism was emerging among Anglo poets in Southern California regionalism that, oddly, did not so much define itself by connecting to a past or to the land itself hut rather measured itself against what was commonly perceived as the major threat to fledgling literary identity: the Eastern literary establishment. Instead of celebrating Southern California’s history—its Spanish founders’ mission and vaquero culture and its indigenous Indian culture, its renegade and religious roots, its continuous waves of immigration—these poets railed against New York and the “power brokers” of publishing and taste making, accusing them of excluding the New West. The energies of these poets turned to a unifying Cause: instead of remembering a past, they invented an ongoing present.
Coolbrith’s “betrayal,” however, was one of the elements that figured, oddly, in the turn toward this eternal present. Her poems were not read much, but her lapse of regional pride was, ironically, not forgotten. By the time of the 1932 anthology California Poets (two hundred forty-four Golden State contributors!), Coolbrith, along with Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Edwin Markham, was taken to task by the anthology’s editor (a righteous Helen Hoyt) for writing about things un-Californian.
California Poets, like regional anthologies since, struggled mightily to claim literary territory. California would not be seen as some out-colony of New York. Editor Hoyt went further in her introduction, peremptorily claiming a list of words and phrases that she declared sacred to the region—not a patois but a lingua imperium, belonging (presumably by sheer force of appropriation) exclusively to state poets. It was clear to Hoyt that the following words had “no place in the environment of most American poets, outside of California poets”:
desert, forest, ranger, mountains, fruit belt,
earthquakes, apricots steaming in copper
cauldrons, cable cars, oil derricks, vine grape
odors hanging along the road, fruit tramps and
pretty cannery girls, Chinamen and harvest
wanderers…Prunes drying in sun-faded trays.
The list affords a glimpse of Depression California: the fruit tramps and harvest wanderers, romanticized and tarted up as local color, an Anglo condescension hanging over everything like the ubiquitous smog (Chinamen and pretty cannery girls in the shadow of Oil Production). Even the drying prunes found a place in this romance of climate, industry, and pretty squalor: a still life, slightly faded.
Though Hoyt’s introduction makes much of the contributors’ western identity, the poets within its covers write in similar polite, post-Georgian phrasing with sudden effusions betraying the influence of Pound and H.D. and of Continental Imagism (with some Amy Lowell thrown in!)—providing little that could be called “uniquely Californian” beyond place-names.
Remarkable writers of prose and prose fiction, like Mary Austin and John Muir, are routinely put forward as “Californian,” though neither was born here. Austin’s The Land of Little Rain is a classic, haunting narrative of Southern California life memorializing the Owens River Valley, whose bounty of water was stolen and routed to an arid, greedy Los Angeles, leaving behind (as dramatized in the film Chinatown) a desolate wasteland. Muir and Austin admired Emerson and Thoreau, yet the critic Ann H. Zwinger is quick to point out that these two “departed sharply from the way in which the East Coast writers viewed and wrote about the world around them.” Zwinger’s assessment provides, if nothing else, a poignant sense of her own attachment to a lyrical romanticism seemingly inherent in the “western” landscape—”Both Muir and Austin are the first truly western nature writers. They delineate the personality of pine and spruce, describe the delicious sibilance of sand, portray the palatial grandeur of glaciers, divine the cut of the wind and the shocking immensity of sky that it swirls out of.” (Mary Austin, meeting the California literary “elect,” including Ina Coolbrith and Edwin Markham, in Carmel in 1904, was most impressed by Muir. Perhaps the poets were more “removed,” as Hoyt had argued. Muir certainly was a self-fulfilling prophecy of what “California” came to mean—from his rock climbing to his belief in angels.)
It was not until the ascendance of Kenneth Rexroth (as the poet Robert Hass has pointed out), who traveled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1927, that a real literary awareness of “Things Californian” began to emerge as more than a conceit or rhetorical “backdrop” in poetry. Rexroth dismissed San Francisco, upon his arrival, as a “backwater town,” but claimed that this was precisely his reason for liking it. It was, as he said, a long way away from the East Coast literary marketplace, and in California he didn’t have to listen to fashionable types arguing about what “Horace Gregory thought of Oscar Williams.” In 1940 he published In What Hour, which Hass describes as the “first readable book of poems ever produced by a resident of the city.” The point is an important one. Given that there were fewer than four hundred English speakers in all of California in 1841, it took “about a hundred years for colonization to produce the city that produced the book of poems.” But Rexroth was not writing in a New York or European style. He’d perfected another idiom.
In the 1930s, Rexroth had shown up in the San Francisco branch (and not long after, in the Los Angeles branch) of the Federal Writers’ Project and during those years was transformed into a champion of radical poetry and painting. With his anarchist politics and his “almost Chinese plainness of syntax,” he came to represent the standard that Helen Hoyt had borne aloft in her xenophobic anthology—something close to a uniquely Californian identity. In some ways (as Hass says) Rexroth invented the style of the culture of the West Coast. Nonconformist, a Wobbly supporter, a conscientious objector in World War 11, fiercely devoted to nature and a “natural” politics, he was filled with both wild passions and Zen detachment. By himself, he embodied an aesthetic. Jack London and Robinson Jeffers had preceded him in their uncompromising view of nature, their “long” view of California, but Rexroth knew his moment in literary history for precisely what it was.
Rexroth favored a poetics of immediacy which translated as spontaneous-seeming expression, and this notion of the “immediate” began to affect poetic diction and syntax.
It is impossible to see anything
In this dark; but 1 know this is me, Rexroth,
Plunging through the night on a chilling planet.
It would be fair to say that Rexroth set the stage for the Beat consciousness that followed after the war. His long, impassioned poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was the prototype for Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”—he became the guiding spirit of antiwar, anticorporate California nonconformism. He hung out with the Beats in coffeehouses in North Beach and at City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco but broke with them over a new interpretation of poetry’s social expectations—a vision of “performance”—contributing to what Rexroth thought a bourgeois romance of the self.
There is, in fact, background here—a little history of California poetry readings as performance. Rexroth, for all his dramatic identity, was given to a style of oral expression that allowed the words themselves to take center stage. But there was the new movement that politicized the act of reading aloud. The words written by the poet would be presented by the poet to the world—the poet too would be presented to the world. In the 1930s groups of poets had begun to meet quietly in homes and bookstores—but not for tea and cookies; these poets met to share their writing with each other. In Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California, the late Berkeley-based poet Josephine Miles recalled that work by poets was read from mimeographed typed sheets to other poets in private. Public readings were very different—they were formal affairs in which professional actors recited poetry, classical mixed with more modern verse, aloud. Serious contemporary poems existed only for the page, and “it was assumed that a poet was not a good reader of his own work.”
During World War II, poets shed their anonymity. Public readings were staged at universities and theaters. Poets read from Homer, Milton, and other Parnassian bards, and the goal of the readings was clearly inspirational: to strengthen public resolve in the face of war. These readings became popular in Los Angeles houses many took place at the Los Angeles Vedanta Society and the Wilshire Ebell Club, and later at Stanley Rose’s bookstore and gallery After the war, readings quickly became more personally public (or publicly personal); L.A. poets began to read their own work, began to feel at home onstage, at podiums, in spotlights. The goal of reading was still inspirational, but this time around it was meant to generate regard for the new cult of self-expression; it was about who was up there. Onstage style was capturing national consciousness just a little farther north: the Beat Revolution, with its coffeehouse drama, took its cues from the first poets who’d stepped into the spotlight.
The spotlit “performance” reading is with us to stay—and some performances can be compelling. (Whether or not they are poetry is another issue.) At worst, they are a kind of poetry karaoke. Some readings are about the poets themselves, or Los Angeles itself—a kind of literary boosterism. Rancor still fuels Southern California poets’ sense of themselves vis-à-vis New York. This accounts for some of the resistance to reading what is being published and seriously read worldwide and in other languages—or indifference to “reputation” beyond that which can be vetted west of the Rockies. This resistance gives an extra anarchic flavor, an irreverence to Southern California readings—spiffed up, of course, in their identification with the most glamorous of hometown industries: Hollywood, the movies, the soundstage—giving the local the illusion of immensity. I Rexroth was thus closer to Ina Coolbrith than to the Beats.
Rexroth was both a poet of international interests and a lover of isolation, a cultivated duality. He was interested in what was going on beyond the Rockies, though from a Californian’s perspective. Because Californians lived so close to nature, he believed that the poetry of the region might share special affinities with writing from Latin America or Australia. Utopia and Dissent notes that his emphasis on access to Nature was not Arcadian: “He was not interested in establishing Utopian communities in the wilderness. On the contrary, he wanted to maintain distinctions between the human and natural spheres in order that wilderness might remain a source of contrast and spiritual replenishment.” Further, he was not a proponent of self-promotion of any kind—he was, finally, a lonely soul.
There is the less well known tradition of the Lonely Soul in Southern California—not the spotlight or the eager crowd but the voice crying out in the desert, the monastic refuser of community, the oddball, the maverick. Rexroth wanted California poets to connect to Australia and Latin America, but at the same time, after years of work in progressive politics, he wanted to withdraw from the world and simply be a poet. He wanted to live in a “ten foot square hut” and let the “unicorn” within him contemplate the world and write poetry.
Once I saw fire cities,
Towns, palaces, wars,
In the campfires of youth.
Now I see only fire.
It is impossible to look at the tradition of isolation in Southern California letters without acknowledging Rexroth’s predecessor Robinson Jeffers. Like Rexroth, he was a nonconformist—but also a loner who eschewed community and its hostage-taking, “us against them” sensibilities. Jeffers lived from 1887 to 1962, witnessing California’s maturation as a state. His “falcon’s eye” recorded the “other” California—isolated, strange, unforgiving. His perspective took the form of repudiation of the present in the present, a philosophy of “inhumanism,” a hatred of human solipsism, a refusal of community, a dedication to the pure solitude of the imagination—and the transitory nature of human experience. The passion of the iconoclast streamed into the consciousness of difference in the poetry of Southern California: the poet confronting the biblical expanse of the desert, the enormous abstraction of the sea, the structured madness of the freeways. Arching over the flat, flickering images of the silver screen, the Jeffersesque terrain is immense and indefinable.
In 1903, Jeffers’s family moved west to Long Beach from Pennsylvania. Robinson enrolled in Occidental College. In 1905 he registered as a student of literature at the University of Southern California. He broke away from his strict father, took up beach living, traveled to Europe to study philosophy and literature at the University of Zurich, then came home and entered medical school at USC. He taught physiology briefly, then he began to listen more closely to the voices in his head.
Here was a man who was born a bastard,
. . .
Too loving to curse his
mother, desert driven, devil haunted,
The beautiful young poet found truth in the desert, but
Fantastic solution of hopeless anguish.
And from “Rock and Hawk”:
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon’s
realistic eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.
Jeffers, Louise Glück has noted, “writes out of enraged, disappointed romanticism; civilized in his expectations, he cannot forgive civilization in that it wasn’t worth his faith.” As for his view of humankind in general, “Truly, men hate the truth.” Jeffers remarked that humankind would rather “meet a tiger in the road” than stare truth in the face.
A legacy from an uncle enabled Jeffers to build (with his own hands) a stone house and tower in Carmel, where he lived till his death. Though he became a recluse, he spoke (as earlier California poets had, with different emphasis) with an international voice; he spoke to the world—though he categorically refused the world. Here, in later times—in a self-drenched, pop-mystical, media-”expressive” culture he seems both reactionary and mythic, lifting off from the cliffs of his thought like a Chumash soul.
Jeffers and Rexroth are hardly the only independent, “loner” poetic voices that haunt Southern California. Before and after the war, poets from afar materialized all over Hollywood, in Malibu, Santa Monica, and the Palisades. Their influence, like a quick scattering of ashes, of fleeting metaphors, offers the transient’s bounty of off-center viewpoint, impressionistic detail, miraculous “visitations”—contributing to the ongoing conversations of Southern California poetics.
The poet and critic Randall Jarrell lived with relatives in Long Beach from 1915 to 1925 and passionately loved Southern California. His parents were divorced, but he was happy living with his paternal grandparents and great-grandmother. His poems “The Lost World” and “A Story” re-create this shattered idyll.
I sit in a dark blue sedan
Beside my great-grandmother, in Hollywood.
We pass a windmill, a pink sphinx, an Allbran
Billboard; thinking of Salammbo, Robin Hood,
The old prospector with his flapjack in the air,
I sit with my hands folded: I am good.
Later in his life in the East, he would defend the region gallantly: “How can people who live in New York make remarks about Southern California? They ought to be put in asylums, which would at least he a change from New York City.”
Yvor Winters’s poem “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills” mocks the Southern California ideal in its glassed-in calm:
This is my father’s house, no homestead here
That I shall live in, but a shining sphere
Of glass and glassy moments, frail surprise,
My father’s phantasy of Paradise.
Winters, prior to beginning his schooling in 1913, lived for a decade at his father’s home in Eagle Rock.
Bertolt Brecht, fleeing Nazi Germany, came to L.A. at the invitation of his friend the writer Lion Feuchtwanger in the early 1940s, and stayed until 1947, leaving after he was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His many “flower” poems about Los Angeles praise the extraordinary local flora, but he always felt out of place. He even wrote a poem in 1942, “Shame:’ about having an idea for a screenplay stolen:
When I was robbed in Los Angeles, the city
of merchandiseable dreams, I noticed
How I kept that theft…
Secret, as though I feared my shame might become
Let’s say, in the animal world.
Again, we have the idea of the wilderness of Los Angeles just below the surface—the desert, the canyons, the animal world. Much later, the poet Larry Levis, who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, would connect to Paz’s idea of rocks enacting history, of history “unmade” but still present—as in the animal world. From his poem “The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.”:
At Wilshire and Santa Monica I saw an opossum
Trying to cross the street. It was late.
He describes the creature as a kind of “carrier” of history, at which the citizens of L.A. marvel (“Teeth that went all the way back beyond / the flames of Troy and Carthage”) till a representative of “Animal Control” arrives to remove this living reminder of the past of the wilderness:
dressed in mailed gloves, the kind of thing
Small knights once wore into baffle, who gathered
Together his pole with a noose on the end,
A light steel net to snare it with, someone who hoped
The thing would have vanished by the time he got there.
What the argument of history is about, finally, is the integrity of the individual within time. California, in particular Southern California, stuck in its present tense, attempts to recognize the art of the unchanging or the politics of the immutable—and how the immutable can manifest itself in the grasp of the temporal. What does this mean finally to the Hollywood poet?
Thomas McGrath, the tough-lyrical North Dakota poet, mused on life and death at the Edge: “From here ship all bodies east. / I am writing this from 99 Marsh Street, Los Angeles.” So opens his epic poem “Letter to an Imaginary Friend,” in which McGrath meditates (indirectly) on his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee “on aesthetic grounds.” He explains: “The view of life which we receive through the great works of art is a privileged one—it is a view of life according to probability or necessity, not subject to the chance and accident of our real world and therefore, in a sense, truer than the life we see lived all around us.”
Because of his political and “aesthetic” views, McGrath lost his teaching job at Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences. After a brief teaching “visit” at the Sequoia School (a study center that he helped to found), he went back to the plains of North Dakota.
He returned to a world where a view of the great works of art was (presumably) privileged, but “truer” than chance or accident happening all around us. This sense of rootlessness, chance, persecution, and the aleatory life of the émigré is what preceded our present community, the hometown aesthetic of the coffeehouse, of stand-up poetry. As gradually poets began to accept Los Angeles as home, they positioned themselves to forget the past.
Even Watts, a well-known L.A. literary landmark, does not often celebrate one of its own early chroniclers. A black neighborhood south of downtown, it was home, early in the century, to Arna Bontemps, whose classic memoir, Anyplace but Here, documents his bittersweet childhood in the L.A. ghetto. Bontemps had been sent to Los Angeles from Louisiana as a little boy, after his mother died. He grew up in Watts and remembered everything about it, wrote down all he knew. He attended Pacific Union College, working in the post office at night. Later in his life, he went to New York and became a close friend of Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties, collaborating with Hughes on anthologies of Negro Poetry. Charles H. Nichols, who edited a collection of letters between Hughes and Bontemps, said, “The Beat writers owed even more than they acknowledge to Hughes and Bontemps—the word beat itself is a black word.”
Beat is a black word, and memory is a “darker” word—who today reads the story of Bontemps, the little boy with the quick eyes, running through the streets of Watts? Who will remember Brecht in L.A., his stolen screenplay, his sense of shame—and who will remember McGrath and his unsung heroics before the merciless committee? Who will remember Larry Levis’s great anima1 soul crossing Wilshire? More important, who will remember them as representative of the affirming aesthetic each believed in? The paradox remains that, as the poetry scene begins to think of itself as more unified, it is more cut off from the voices of that dark Los Angeles awakening from its unlit dreams—”truer than the life we see lived all around us.”
It is the late Ann Stanford who summarizes the ongoing dilemma of Southern California letters most poignantly in her introduction to Women Poets of the West: An Anthology, 1850-1950, a tonic retort to the ongoing influence of Helen Hoytism in Southern California. Echoing Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” she says, “The land will be ours only when the poets have entered and possessed it”—an appropriately erotic phrasing for the land of the flesh, the Valley of the Now. Yet the emphasis is meant to be not on the act of possession, the Hoyt approach, but on the power of the interpretive—the land will be ours only when we have understood it.
Perhaps, though (as we succumb to romance), our forgetfulness, our formlessness, is a coyote trick, a shamanistic survival tactic of the land itself. (Mary Austin in one passage about L.A. “recoils” from the evidence of “planlessness, the unimaginative economic greed, the idiot exercise of mere bigness, the strange shapeless ugliness” and asks in fear, “What if this thing should catch me?”—then later recants, “I wake in the night convinced that there are still uncorrupted corners from which the Spirit of the Arroyos calls me.”) The Spirit of the Arroyos still haunts our coasts and valleys—out at Point Concepción, where the souls paint themselves in the late rays of the sun, the ghost of Jeffers calls. The ghosts of Bontemps and Levis and Stanford and Brecht and McGrath—does anyone hear? Yes, I think there is someone out there. And later, if you listen, you can hear the sound of a train in the night, its lit cars rattling through the desert. If you listen, you can hear voices.