Essential Gossip: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and U.S.-Australian Poetics

By | 15 February 2023

Very distressing to the anthropologist would be the aftermath of a chat between Allen Ginsberg and an Aboriginal poet.
–Robert Duncan, ‘Warp and Woof’, 1976

I have metrical visions of Sydney in which the regular thump of the iambic is broken only by the engine-noise from the planes bringing another American visiting poet.
–Martin Harrison to Robert Adamson, 1981

In 1985, when the bulky anthology Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania (first published in 1968) was printed in a new edition, it was advertised with the curious dust jacket recommendation: ‘hailed by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as one of the hundred most recommended American books of the last thirty-five years’. The volume’s inclusion on this list is remarkable, for, as an anthology of world poetry, it is not in any simple or traditional sense an ‘American book.’ Its opening sequence, titled ‘Origins and Namings,’ includes selections drawn from Central Australian Arrernte song cycles, passages of the Chinese I Ching and text from a shrine to Tutankhamun, all carefully organised to mirror the narrative and themes of the Biblical genesis myth (5-45). But for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the anthology’s status as an ‘American book’ rests on the credentials of collection’s poet-editor, Jerome Rothenberg, who not only selected and arranged these foreign texts, but appended each with his own copious annotations and explanatory notes. Indeed, as Rothenberg contends in a Foreword to the collection, it is from his position as an anthologist that he rescues various religious or anthropological works, claiming them for genre of poetry. His insight, as one reviewer puts it, was twofold: that ‘poetry could be drawn from ritualistic experiences, chants, incantations, and shamanic visions that originated in Africa, Asia, Oceania, or within Native American groups’ and that ‘cutting-edge (American) avant-garde poetic advances (find) unexpected resonances in these ancient texts’ (Marmer). John Vernon concurs, describing Rothenberg’s anthology as having ‘all the earmarks (…) of a search for land, that is, a search for America, for an American tradition’ (825). For Rothenberg, contemporary American poetry must act as a creative archaeology of geography and origins: U.S. poets, he suggested, were not only reckoning with their present or future, but also re-staging their relation to the history of world poetry.

Not coincidentally, the grand récit presented in Technicians of the Sacred coincides with a significant reorientation in the petite histoire of Australian poetry. At a moment when America declared itself at the delta through which world history flows, so too Australian poets began to view the United States as both progenitor and arbiter of global culture. ‘American poets!’, writes John Forbes in ‘To the Bobbydazzlers’ (1972), a widely anthologised paean of the period, ‘you have saved / America from / its reputation / if not its fate’. The poem describes a private epiphany, Forbes’ recounting the moment ‘when I first / breathed freely / in Ted Berrigan’s / Sonnets’ and ‘escap(ed) / the talented earache of Modern Poetry’ (68). Taken as a synecdoche for a larger cultural shift, this lyric autobiography fits the narrative ascribed by numerous academic studies, such as Joan Kirby’s edited collection The American Model: Influence & Independence in Australian Poetry (1982) and Livio Dobrez’s Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry (1990), as well as essays by J.M. Coetzee, Philip Mead and Kevin Hart. Critical consensus is that, from the late-1960s, and with increasing momentum into the 1970s, a younger cohort of Australian poets (who came to be known collectively as the ‘Generation of 68’) grew dissatisfied with ‘enfeebled English models’ (105). This dissatisfaction precipitated an eruption of new poetic energy, inspired and enabled by the importation of models from contemporary America.

Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) is almost universally cited as the catalyst for this poetic break (See: Coetzee, 2011, 243-4; Mead, 2003, 171-3). ‘I bought a copy of Allen’s anthology in Sydney in 1968’, recalls Sydney poet Robert Adamson: ‘These poetics were like nothing I’d ever come across: (it) gave me an incredible sense of liberation’ (Adamson, 2012). Initially banned by Australian censors, The New American Poetry belatedly introduced local readers to a new and richly heterogeneous American scene, populated by such luminaries as Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery and Ed Dorn. Yet the history of how the bobbydazzlers came to dazzle Australian poetry is not only a story about the packaging and dissemination of poetic exports (Allen’s anthology being a prime example). It is a story of the assimilation of poetic imports (as with the global accumulation present in Rothenberg’s American anthology), world poetry repackaged and repurposed as the foundations of contemporary American writing.

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