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

By | 15 February 2023

There is another, less obvious connection between Levertov’s ‘May Morning’ and her visit to Canberra. The poem begins: ‘May mornings wear / light cashmere shawls of quietness, / brush back waterfalls of / burnished silk from / clear and round brows’ (Ibid., 28). This same autumn shawl appears in an unpublished poem by Rosemary Dobson, titled ‘For Denise Levertov: After a Visit’.

All those three days
there were parrots and robins
like flying embers

and, good lord, at nightfall
thin strips of scarlet
along the Brindabellas

Your red scarf thrown down
lay stretching its length
along the couchback.

Now pausing in the doorway
putting away linen
hands under tap-water

I think of your poems
and of reading and re-reading them 
(Papers of Rosemary Dobson, 1923-2004, National Library of Australia)

The American poet had by this time returned home – ‘FAMOUS POET JETS BACK TO U.S.A’, as John Tranter sardonically describes – yet something of her remains, in this case, a misplaced scarf. Of course, Dobson’s poem is only nominally about a scarf: what she really means is a memory, a connection. ‘The importance of the Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti visit,’ wrote Hemensley in Australian Literary Studies in 1977, ‘or the recent (…) Duncan visit, is that they break the isolation and isolationism of Australian poetry’ (234). Levertov’s visit had this same function, her days ‘three days of / such warmth, such brilliance’, according to Dobson’s poem.

In what I consider the seminal essay on the Generation of ’68, the poet-critic Philip Mead makes an astute observation about the ‘contradiction inherent in exchanging one imperialism for another’ – the partially abandonment of Anglo-European poetic models by a younger generation of poets invested in America – which, as Mead observes, ‘did not escape the Generation of ‘68’ poets themselves: ‘They were well aware, on at least some level, of their involvement in a neo-colonial venture, appropriating and assimilating the New American poetry for their own poetry for their own political and progressive ends.’ This contradiction is perhaps most nakedly evident in the example of Ginsberg, who, despite his countercultural credentials, wrote an Australian poem which, to today’s reader, risks falling into the traps of Indigenous appropriation and (un-)Australiana kitsch. But it is difficult to identify the same mechanisms of empire and imperialism in Levertov’s forgotten scarf, or Duncan’s autographic gift of the ‘PrePrefaces’ (even if, in a comic twist of real-world events, Coetzee in Elizabeth Costello imagines that Duncan was ‘brought out on tour by the US Information Service: the Cold War was on, there was money for cultural propaganda’ (183)). Perhaps instead these visits marked the end of a certain imperial anxiety, which had long influenced settler poetry: Australia was entering a new cultural regime of globalisation, in which the old mentalities of periphery and centre, national and foreign poetry, defined the poetic imagination.

The research for this article was made possible by a Norman McCann Scholarship from the National Library of Australia. It would not have happened without the generosity of the poetic community it seeks to describe. In particular, I’d like to thank Chris Edwards, Tim Wright, Dashiell Moore and D. Perez McVie for their insight, editing and encouragement.

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