Around a decade ago, writing in the Contemporary Poetry Review (in a review of Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, ed. by Charles Bernstein, published by The Library of America, 2006), Jack Foley makes the following comment about a poetically momentous confrontation between a then-youthful Barrett Watten, and a considerably older, still quite sprightly Robert Duncan.
In December 1978, a few months after Louis Zukofsky’s death, a soon to be notorious event occurred, shaking the foundations of the anything-but-homogeneous group of poets living in and near San Francisco. Outtakes of Louis Zukofsky’s appearance in a 1966 NET television documentary, USA Poetry, produced by Richard Moore, were being shown at the San Francisco Art Institute under the auspices of the Poetry Center. Tom Mandel, director of the Poetry Center and a poet associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, introduced Barrett Watten (himself a prominent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet) to speak about Zukofsky’s work. As Watten spoke, the distinguished (and older) San Francisco poet Robert Duncan—who had championed Zukofsky’s poetry but who was no friend to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets—grew more and more impatient. Finally, in an astonishing move, Duncan seized the stage from Watten and began himself to speak about Zukofsky. “I in no way believe that there is such a thing as ‘just language,’” Duncan insisted, “any more than there is ‘just footprints.’” Duncan’s action was both passionately defended—Watten, Duncan felt, was desecrating Zukofsky’s work—and passionately rejected. “Duncan’s interference and reseizure of the stage,” writes Eleana Kim in “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement” (1994), “was seen by some to be indicative of the fear and reactionary censorship characterizing the general attitude of the New Americans [poets associated with the 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry] to the Language project. But also at stake were questions of tradition, the implications of poetic assumptions and alliances.”
Foley’s synopsis of the event suggests that a reliable record of the proceedings has been readily at hand. But quite the opposite is the case, and the event he describes has very much remained shrouded in semi-myth, conflicting memories, rumours, speculation, and hearsay. As varied sources have reported over the years, Barrett Watten, claiming a species of “copyright” to what was a public occasion, has refused “permission” for the tape or its transcript to be released into the public domain from its two archival locations: the holdings of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and the SUNY/Buffalo Poetry Collection.
This event, which, because it marks an historic break between the New American poetry and the then emerging “Language” poetry (i.e. materialist, neo-Marxist inflected formalism) has become a frequently addressed object of scholarly attention. Nevertheless it remains obscure because access to the record has been restricted and even denied. Scholars and critics cite it, but only in a context where competing parties insist on certain interpretations of a text that remains hidden. The evaluation of its significance has been left to the whims of competing exegetical acrobatics – but without a text to refer to.
Somehow, however, the tape in its entirety (and its quality is perfectly audible and ready for transcription, save, poignantly, for speech-impaired commentaries made by the great poet Larry Eigner during the discussion period) made it out of one of its restricted locations and into the public domain where it has been circulating for the past few weeks. The sound file we are now more immediately sharing at YouTube was sent to us three weeks ago by an anonymous source who does not reveal how he or she acquired it.
And it is a good thing for poetry that this complete recording has come into the commons: Duncan’s semi-improvised talk is a piece of great art, simply put, which sheds key light on not just the work of Zukofsky, but also, if more indirectly, on fundamental philosophical tensions between elements of the New American Poetry (not least it’s bohemian, neo-romantic San Francisco Renaissance wing) and the then-upstart Language writers (who would in quite rapid fashion go on to achieve an Academic preeminence not seen since that of the New Criticism of the 1940 and 50s). Indeed, at one point in the tape (Foley partly notes it above), Duncan marks the poetic divide with an analogical-aphoristic zinger of substantial heuristic value. Watten, perhaps understandably rattled at Duncan’s spontaneous takeover of his talk, declines to answer the theoretical challenge.
It is not at all clear why Barrett Watten has so zealously restricted access to this tape and for so long. He does get upstaged (and literally!) by a more seasoned and confident Duncan, but he acquits himself quite well for a young poet, even if some of his comments here and there are a bit notational and sometimes superficial in their tenor. But that is to be expected in such a charged forum, especially with a young poet side by side with an éminence grise like Robert Duncan, whose eloquence could be intimidating (even as it becomes a bit overbearing in spots during this event). In regards the archive of post-war 20th century poetry, Duncan’s tour de force presentation on Zukofsky is of major significance. It is, as well, an invaluable document for present and future scholars of Duncan’s thought and work, proper, not to mention the history of late 20th century U.S. American poetry.
It is indefensible that access to the full record of this significant public event has been restricted all these decades. We are releasing the tape in the interest of fair intellectual access and unimpeded scholarship. Given the already extensive – if necessarily speculative and often distorted – commentary by critics in recent years on the event, we hope that an enterprising scholar in the near future will produce an annotated transcript of the proceedings in question. Long live poetry in all its differences.