Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wunderkind Who Faded Away

Writing about the Beats last January 9th, I got to thinking again about Ron Loewinsohn, whom I stubbornly relegated to non-Beat status, primarily on the basis of his age (he was born in 1937, which would have made him only 20 in 1957, when his first work began to appear). A loyal follower of William Carlos Williams, whom he did his doctoral dissertation on at Harvard in the late 1960's, Loewinsohn was the wunderkind of the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950's, two years younger than Brautigan, and three years younger than Wieners. Mostly on the basis of style and notoriety, I think Brautigan belongs to a later generation. But Loewinsohn may be a special case. Strongly influenced by the character and suasions of the San Francisco Renaissance during the heady early days of the Sixties Psychedelic/Flower/Hippie era, he soon segued away from the risky life-styles of bohemia, becoming a traditional academic, eventually retiring as a professor of English at UC Berkeley some years back.
Loewinsohn was among the most visible young poets of his age-group in the 1960's and '70's, publishing a number of pamphlets and collections--notably those from John Martin's Black Sparrow Press--culminating with his Meat Air Poems 1957-1969 [Harcourt, Brace, 1970]--after which, he mostly fell silent, publishing a couple of short novels, and nothing since 1987; and, crucially, the rumored long study of Williams never materialized. 
Reading over the poems in Meat Air, I'm reminded that Loewinsohn was never an experimental poet. He derived his poetics from late Williams--the Williams of the Collected Later Poems--with an innocent appreciation of imagism, piquant observations delivered in a colloquial style, the sentiment ingratiating and warm. The opening lines of that collection:
The thing made real by
a sudden twist of the mind:
--summon the ghost of Williams at the outset. 
Was Loewinsohn an enfant prodige whose inspiration dried up in the academy? It wouldn't be the first instance of that. Perhaps the title of one of his best known titles "Against the Silences to Come"--is a knowing predictive, that he would one day fall silent. 
Loewinsohn's engagement with Williams seems trapped in a loop that was popularly regarded as the elder's American "roots" during the immediate post-War period. Randall Jarrell's introduction to Williams's Selected Poems [New Directions, 1949] laid the groundwork for an appreciation based on the picturesque/picaresque American Gothic populist vision of Williams, as a quaint indigenous imagist with mildly abstract pretensions. Spring & All--clearly Williams's strongest collection, and his most unified presentation of original aesthetic principles, was set aside in favor of Paterson (which was just being concluded at that point), and the charming descriptive portraits of citizens and urban decay linked to Thirties' social consciousness: The condescending reinterpretation of Williams as a gentle country physician, kicking Fall leaves in the Autumn of his life, a familiar avuncular figure of fantasy. Williams's immediate post-War reputation, in this respect, is rather like the neglect of the Objectivists (Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Niedecker) which occurred for reactionary political as well as critical reasons. Shortly after this, of course, Williams embarked upon the final stage of his career, proposing the so-called "shifting foot" of The Desert MusicJourney to Love and Pictures from Brueghel, with their characteristic three-stepped lines. But this last period would seem to have occurred posterior to Williams's influence on the post-War generation (Creeley, Blackburn, Levertov, Corman, Jonathan Williams, Dorn, Eigner, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, etc.), as if it had never happened, or had happened in a vacuum. By the 1950's, Williams was no longer at the forefront of the literary advance, having begun to suffer the debilitating strokes which afflicted him during the last decade of life. Perhaps it was only Creeley, among all those who had read and understood Williams's importance, who picked up on the jagged, zig-zaggy electric force-fields of Spring & All. Certainly, Loewinsohn picked up from Williams what he wanted and needed, but it wasn't the packed, elided cubistic constructions--"crustaceous/wedge/of sweaty kitchens/on rock/overtopping/thrusts of the sea"--of the 1920's, but the measured, balanced Williams of the 1930's, and it's in perfect evidence in this short poem from early on--
The pieces of watermelon
lying shattered
on the black pavement
resemble strange jewels,
jade & ruby clumped together,
but they're pieces of watermelon.
--which manages to combine the deadpan delivery of Williams's poem about cold plums, and the one about the green glass bottle fragments in an alley. The fact that this is a derivative of those works, suggests that Loewinsohn was content to occupy a subsidiary position in the outline of literary history, not venturing to alter either the message or the technique of the model(s). 
Despite the fact that Loewinsohn belongs among the figures of the San Francisco Renaissance and was included in Allen's New American Poetry [Grove Press, 1960], there was nothing essentially new about his work. His work was not political, nor formally adventurous. Like other contemporaries with a similar approach (like Blackburn, Levertov, Corman), he was satisfied with belonging to a group of subordinate followers of one aspect of Modernism, i.e., the early Pound/Williams Imagist "little machine made of words." No knowledge of history or music or perhaps even of prosody was needed--it might now appear to have been the least demanding of approaches to the occasional short lyric. Though Loewinsohn was precocious--the same age, for instance, as David Meltzer, and three years younger than John Wieners (poets who share a similar entree into the scene)--he was never an experimental writer, the way figures such as Ashbery, Olson, or Elmslie were. 
Most of Loewinsohn's poems that do not rehearse the imagist routine are addressed as traditional love poems, in the standard Metaphysical manner--i.e., we are safe and isolated from the world's confusion, and have no stake in its distracting static or decay. It may be seen that his adoption of an accomplished style locks him in historically to a specific niche, mid-way between the earliest examples of simplified Modernist declaration ("faces in the Metro--petals on a wet black bough") and the conservative post-War reaction of the Fugitives and the followers of middle Eliot, particularly the essays. Ignoring the Russians, the Williams of Spring & All or Kora in Hell, and the Objectivists--as if, indeed, these developments had never occurred--Loewinsohn and those like him were content to stand pat.  
Loewinsohn, though chronologically parallel to the Beat period (during its later stages of the 1950's and early 1960's) displayed no originality of vision or technique; and, as might have been expected, matriculated into the academy, taking his Ph.D. at Harvard and running out the string at Cal Berkeley--and, perhaps even more predictably, never publishing the obligatory book on Williams, and basically leaving the field in his mid-forties. 
What might Loewinsohn have accomplished had he pushed beyond the cliche'd homilies ("no ideas but in things") of late Williams? Wieners, Elmslie, Dorn, Guest, (or, had they lived, O'Hara and Spicer) were not content to repeat the Gothic American nativist speech mantra of the 1950's, and struck out into new territory. Even granting that their attempts may have fallen short of the mark, it's instructive to look at a diligent, though ultimately uninspired poet like Loewinsohn, to see where his choices took him.  
Any individual writer may experience periods of inspiration which exhaust themselves over time, leading either to repetition, or complete silence. In 1970, one might have previsioned Loewinsohn as a major figure in American verse, but that didn't happen. Already, by the mid-1970's, movements and developments in the avant garde were brewing, which would make even more irrelevant the icons and ideals of the decades of his youth, than they were when he adopted them.                


Kirby Olson said...

the poem:

it is what it is.

did he go Buddhist?

Graham Foust said...

I never loved the poems, but I think _Magnetic Field(s)_, the first of the novels, is terrific.