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Bohemian Rhapsody

Herschel Silverman, Lift Off: New and Selected Poems, 1961–2001 (Water Row/Long Shot joint production, 2002). Water Row Press, P.O. Box 438, Sudbury MA 01776, $12.95

Sparrow, Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! Plus Seven Other Books (Soft Skull, 2002).

Many of the most powerful American social thinkers of the last century, writers such as Edmund Wilson, Lewis Mumford, and Kenneth Burke, whose heyday ran from the late 1920s through the ’40s, emerged neither from academia nor political action groups, but from Bohemia. Their writing combined a quirky disregard for genre and disciplinary boundaries; a skill at both the precise presentation of specifics as well as the throwing up of carefully considered generalizations; a no-holds-barred iconoclasm; the mastery of a straightforward, clear-as-ice prose style; and a persistent focus on the realities of everyday life and the need to overturn them.

The subsequent dearth of such writers—with a few notable exceptions, such as Jane Jacobs—testifies more to the absence of a certain type of Bohemia, in which different marginal groups (both politicos and aesthetes) were stitched together in interacting coalitions, than to an absence of literary ability. Some would say that such a cross-pollinating milieu may be coming together again as anti-globalization, ecological, feminist, and other progressive groups (with like-minded cultural workers) form associations.

The two writers to be looked at here are indeed deeply concerned with the lack of such a vital environment. Silverman and Sparrow even suggest that as long as such a community does not exist, they will not be able to write so as to use their latent potential in any full-fledged way—something which could only be done if they sensed a large, receptive audience awaiting their communication. To put it metaphorically: without feedback from a distinctive type of countercultural milieu, in their poetic portraits, they are condemned to produce torsos, not men.

Herschel Silverman, an elder statesman of the New Jersey poetry scene, was friends with many of the leading Beat writers and often turns to that group as if they offered comradeship in his ongoing war against the political and academic establishments. But this position often leads—with certain exceptions to be noted later—to the weakest offerings in the book, in that he exaggerates the Beats’ importance. He sometimes praises the Beats so fulsomely that it seems their most casual throwaway lines could spark an alteration in American consciousness.

What else can be made of such verse as this, about Ginsberg:

Poet’s essence celebrates life on this planet with compassion…

Rings freedom’s bell with prophet’s voice…

He taught goodness as a naked mad scholar free fool

He snatched truth from society quicksand…

His lips pronouncing truth while speaking sweet politics

By contrast, for zestier, harder-hitting poetry, one must look to Silverman’s meditations on jazz. Among musicians he does locate the temporary home of a resonant subculture. The finest of these writings is "Jazz and the Changes." Here Silverman pinpoints an essential element that the musical world possesses: dialogism. Jazz in the 1950s and ’60s unfolds in counterpoint to the struggle for Black equality, and shifts in this musical core tie in with modifications in the Civil Rights movement.

the changes or

deviations of society

have now become American Art

In this period of musical upheaval, one’s taste would alter in time to one’s changing political perspective.

Blakely’s jazz talk

gotten under a million skins

doesn’t seem so profound

for the time being

In fact, the more I study this eloquent poem, the more I feel that my brash opening statements regarding the disappearance of Bohemia were not strictly true. Silverman, for example, suggests that the music of Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Abbey Lincoln, et al., temporarily fused creative art and politics as it was synthesized in the prewar period, although in their case it was seldom expressed in words.

But let me return to the Beat writers, as promised. In certain poems Silverman does dispense with flattery and asks seriously why these writers, though they did indelibly affect writing per se, did not give birth to an altered polity. His answer, although not put in so many words, is that their anti-establishment pretensions were counteracted by their desire for acceptance. On the one hand, Corso was "talkin’ about throwin’… Truth, and Beauty, out the window"; while, on the other, he was seeking the laurels and perks that go with being a celebrated writer. Silverman concludes that this Beat was naught but an un-courtly jester, who is not to be taken seriously in his constant ribbing of high ideals. It was as if Corso wanted to rock the boat just enough to get noticed, but not enough to cast any rich people overboard.

Overall, this is not a hopeful or cheerful picture, with only the brief period in jazz offering an island of a truly aware community in the long march since World War II.

Sparrow, a writer a generation younger than Silverman, is even more dispirited about the prospects for a true counterculture. His new book’s title, Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! Plus Seven Other Books, tells the tale. The second part of it indicates the major division in the book’s 130 pages. Sparrow writes, "A collection this vast required a ‘book of books,’ much like the Bible or the Upanishads." Most of this section deals either frontally or obliquely with different subcultures of resistance. What is this division but an index of the fact that the current environment spawns multiple oppositional options, none of which cohere? Herein lies a metaphor for the fragmentation of the left.

The main title, Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! plays off the idea that our commercial engines constantly co-opt artists and organizations of progressive sympathy—and in the process, as Thomas Frank argued so poignantly in The Conquest of Cool, they prostitute the themes of radicalism. Sparrow imagines this campaign of borrowing motifs from the Left as taken to its extreme. The marketing system is so desperate to capture everyone, even the most disaffected, in its net, that it sells products to help you overthrow capitalism.

Of course, if you buy such products, the joke’s on you, since it is unlikely that anomic consumers, working in opaque isolation from each other, will foment a revolution.

No doubt, this humor cuts both ways. On the one hand, Sparrow’s purported author of a revolutionary self-help pamphlet seems only able to conceive of one type of political action: buying or getting possession of things.

Many revolutionaries have had pets. Some choose pets for companionship and succor. For example, Emma Goldman kept snails. Others choose animals that strike them as dashing and revolutionary. Bakunin, for example, had a falcon.

At the same time, underlying such satire is the knowledge that much Leftist rigmarole involves posturing; taking on the right attitudes and accoutrements to indicate one is au courant with progressive fashions. Indeed, such posturing can be seen as a needed psychic compensation in the face of the oft-repeated experience of a paucity of results from what are viewed in advance as empowering actions (e.g. "Make ninety-six copies of a flyer and head for the nearest street corner.")

Of course, one might argue that this is all right as humor, but not very illuminating as insight. At this point, Sparrow does look into the problems and possibilities in group formation that one finds in Silverman’s work, and which might be considered more germane to a diagnosis of the failure of a multi-filimented Bohemia to arise. In another section, however, we find Sparrow arguing that the narcissism inherent in the concept of buying a self-help book about revolution is, at bottom, congruent with the failure of many idealistic group projects.

In "The Battle of The New Yorker," Sparrow presents a slightly fictionalized account of how the writers’ organization to which he belongs, the Unbearables, picketed the New Yorker, presenting the magazine with the following noble demand: "that The New Yorker publish once a year all the poetry that is submitted to it. This yearly 5,203-page poetry issue will be the first egalitarian literary journal in history." It doesn’t take much in the end for the magazine to head off the charge of these doughty warriors (of which, admittedly, I am one). All the New Yorker had to do—and, in fact, did—was offer to publish one of the Unbearables. This set the group to some magnificent but counter-productive infighting.

Narrowly taken, this incident suggests that careerism is so engrafted in our personalities that even vaunted outsiders are susceptible to fame’s fleeting blandishments, whatever the cost to group endeavors. Taken more broadly, in relation to both volumes under consideration, this event can be seen as representing an internal reason for the non-existence of an alternative avant garde. Where Mumford and the other great public intellectuals worked in a compact, vibrant, multiply-noded, receptive underground, in which the advanced politicos and artists tended to pull together (in many senses), nowadays, as these writers describe, the situation among progressive poets is that the looser associations that exist are easily pried apart when individuals find them interfering with success.

To return to my opening metaphor, Silverman and Sparrow at their most optimistic hint at the task of stitching together coalitions, which needs to be done so that bold voices can be projected to a wider circle—and so that writers can learn to prefer pristine failure to gilded success when such a choice will enhance collective effort. But at their more pessimistic, they acknowledge that the reigning corporate media along with other factors have cut the few conduits whereby the underground could communicate with a wider public, thus slashing the many lines running between different layers of the marginalized. And so they ask: How can we create great art for a dead people?


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail


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