FEARFUL SYMMETRIES: Alan Riach reaches part 7 the 1960s in his series looking back at the 20th century

IN art and literature, the 1950s saw a major shift in the energy of production, from Europe to the US. When I was talking with the American poet Robert Creeley in 1995, he identified this assertion of American authority as both cultural and commercial.

He said: “One recognised in all the spectrum of the arts that there was, not a war on, but there was an attempt clearly from an American situation, as a fact of the results of the war, to claim international significance as an authority, as a fact, in the arts.

The contest was particularly active vis-à-vis painting and visual arts. When the school of Paris collapses, and the New York school takes over, it was almost as though they were sold. There was a lot of commercial disposition in that for damn sure.

“In writing, the authority had already pretty much begun to lean toward America, certainly in fiction and in the so-called novel, although obviously my generation certainly remembers vividly the continuing authority of Britain, you know, the British ... CP Snow ... I wonder who curls up with CP Snow these days?”

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You can listen to the recording of our conversation and Creeley’s reading of his poems here.

Creeley’s 1950s poem I Know a Man is a wonderfully quick connecting of huge metaphysical notions such as “the darkness that surrounds us” with the ineffectuality of being little people in an enormous cosmos and with the immediate prospect of action. What can you do in a world like this? You can buy a big car – but watch out for the road!

I Know a Man

As I sd to my friend

, because I am always talking,

John, I sd,

which was not his name,

the darkness sur- rounds us,

what can we do against it,

or else, shall we & why not,

buy a goddamn big car,


he sd, for christ’s sake,

look out where yr going.

Creeley and his friend Charles Olson, and other poets associated with Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and the Beat poets of San Francisco and the West Coast, especially Allen Ginsberg – these were the writers on the rising crest of a movement that was to crash around the world in the wake of Donald Allen’s hugely influential 1960 anthology The New American Poetry.

They may have been prophets of disillusion and despair but they were also poets of prodigious energy. Olson’s poetry achieves hundreds of pages of incoherence. It was left unfinished, like most things he started, yet it teaches a vast respect for scholarship, research and community.

For Olson, the gaining of knowledge was an act of compassion. He wanted to access “the full inherited file of history” and he evolved a kind of poem that opened that file yet allowed him the freedom to ask questions about anything.

He wanted to know it all, from the geomorphology of Gondwanaland to the economies of the fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At night, looking up into the depths of space, the poet brings the contemporary and the astronomically prehistoric together in his vision: he sees “the new moon new / in all the ancient sky.”

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Allen Ginsberg, seeing “the best minds” of his generation “destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn / looking for an angry fix,” produced Howl – a long, chaotic chant – or rant – in praise of the outcast, the beat, down, but not out. Howl sounded for more than one generation of youth disaffected by authority – whether political, military, economic or philosophical.

City poets such as Frank O’Hara; poets who attended to the American wilderness, or to native American Indian culture, like Gary Snyder or Gregory Corso; or Jack Kerouac, writing along America’s apparently endless roads, crossing deserts, connecting cities; or William Burroughs, immersed in his subversive junkie world of distorted versions of an even more massively distorted and mediated reality – these were the American poets and prophets in the surge of a literary movement that arose in the 50s and kept coming through the 60s.

This was another kind of literary revolution, a different kind of recolonising the establishments of cultural authority, and its influence – whether direct or simply as a presence in the air – was palpable in cultures as geographically distant as Scotland and New Zealand.

But perhaps the greatest single poet of this era is the man who embraces both the highly popular range of folk traditions, song and oral verse, and yet also welcomes the philosophical calling of poetry as a way of exploring ideas, of developing political thought, of furthering understanding.

Pablo Neruda had been writing poetry for half a century already. In The Heights of Macchu Picchu, he offers a lyrical meditation on the aspirations of society and the individual; in his “Elemental Odes”, he celebrates common and daily things – food, clothes, wine, sensuality; the mere titles of his great books of poems, Residence on Earth and Canto General emphatically declare his preference for the actual world in all its variousness, clear or obscure.

The National: Machu Pichu

Above all – and especially since his popular incarnation in the remarkable film Il Postino – Pablo Neruda is known as a great poet of love. Here he is, affirming another ancient continuity in the masculine tradition of love poetry. Imagine yourself with your beloved. Now, you are “The Insect”: From your hips to your feet I want to make a long journey.

I am smaller than an insect.

I go along these hills…

they have slender tracks that only I know...

Here there is a mountain…

and a crater, a rose of dampened fire!

Down your legs I come spinning a spiral

and I come to your knees of round hardness

like the hard peaks of a bright continent.

I slide toward your feet,

to the eight openings of your sharp, slow, peninsular toes,

and from them to the void of the white sheet I fall,

seeking blind and hungry

the contour of your burning cup!

Neruda was – and remains – immensely popular. His books continue to sell by the millions. Charles Olson’s fine description of what a poem is finds no better example than Neruda. It’s “the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it ... by way of the poem itself ... all the way over to, the reader ...”

That sense runs through all the arts in the 60s. This is the era of insistence upon liberal values – the assertion of feminism, from Simone de Beauvoir in 1953 to Germaine Greer in 1970, the increasingly public anti-nuclear movement, the gay rights movement, the movement against racism, Martin Luther King asking “Where do we go from here” – towards “Chaos or Community?”

And answering his own question: “‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of mankind.”

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It’s a problem without a final answer, but if it proposes greater complexities, it also raises our capacities to become, more comprehensively, human and humane.

The 1960s in literature is above all the era of new writing in English, emerging from all over the so-called “post-colonial” commonwealth.

The great poets of the modern movement scarcely suspected the world they had challenged would come to this. In the last “Drafts and Fragments” of the final Cantos – his epic voyage through world culture as he saw it, Ezra Pound, exhausted, notes, “The dreams clash / and are shattered” – “I lost my center / fighting the world”.

And yet, he’s still sensitive to the possibility: mankind may seem only “A blown husk that is finished” – but “the light sings eternal / a pale flare over marshes where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change”...” ie it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere”.

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By the time Pound died in 1972, and Neruda a year later, the 1960s had witnessed a new configuration of coherence in writing from all over the Anglophone world. The cataclysm prophesied by WB Yeats in 1919 in the poem with the apocalyptic title, “The Second Coming” – had finally arrived.

Yeats’s “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy” was not the only thing “loosed upon the world” though. There is a perennial truth in Yeats’s prediction that indifference and apathy will infect even the best of us, and that the worst will be “full of passionate intensity”. (Think of what happened to Neruda – and Allende.)

Nevertheless, if this is the age in which “Things fall apart”, it’s also the age in which new voices may be heard clearly, from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India, and especially from the West Indies and Africa. At the start of the century, Joseph Conrad had written of the “Heart of Darkness” as if it had no audible voice of its own. In the 1960s, the voices of that continent became present and fresh.

When Chinua Achebe took Yeats’s phrase “Things fall apart” for the title of his first novel, published as the 60s began, he heralded a long series of African writers. It was another kind of “colonization in reverse”. By appropriating Yeats’s phrase and applying it with a Shakespearian sense of tragedy, Achebe was claiming as his own a tradition which, until then, had excluded his people.

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In 1960, when Nigeria gained independence, Wole Soyinka produced his play, A Dance of the Forests, as part of the independence celebrations.

It’s an African version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just as his novel, Season of Anomy, is a version of the Orpheus myth set in the Nigerian Civil War. Soyinka, like Shakespeare, never loses touch with the threat of disaster and the imminence of tragedy, yet he persists in his belief in new beginnings, the possibility of rejuvenation.

And this kind of new seeing was emerging even from within the old imperial world at the same time and a kind of recolonising was going on in other directions, in texts of popular culture that were much less profound or progressive.

If the 60s was an era of sexual liberation, this was felt acutely in popular literature (especially after the Lady Chatterley trial of 1961).

And nobody embodies this with more suave assurance than James Bond. The music composed by John Barry for the early films, or Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass, for the main theme of the disastrous parody of Casino Royale catches, on the one hand, the mystery of the character, and on the other, a sheer exuberance and unstoppable energy, where optimism is unavoidable.

But when Ian Fleming introduced Bond to an international readership, he presented a distinctly Byronic character: “The [baccarat] table was becoming wary of this dark Englishman who played so quietly, wary of the half-smile of certitude on his rather cruel mouth. Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he do?”

Well, to answer the questions in reverse order, he did what millions of men and women wished: he preserved that “half-smile of certitude” in an age of insecurity. Where did he come from? From Her Majesty’s Secret Service of course, but also from a long line that went at least as far back as Don Juan and Childe Harold.

Who was he?

In the last book of the series, Fleming has Bond turn down a knighthood. He excuses himself by explaining he is Scottish, and simply wouldn’t feel comfortable being Scottish and a Knight of the Realm. This is a perhaps a difficult recognition. James Bond is the most important character in 20th-century Scottish fiction.

Certainly, he is the most famous Scottish fictional character ever created. And this happens at the same time as the post-colonial world is coming to predominance in the 1960s, to topple the realm of imperial stability.

Is Bond, in fact, part of that subversive initiative? Not only an imperialist “cardboard booby” (Fleming’s words) and empire’s defender but simultaneously, a double agent, working for liberty?

The subtlety of the story goes deeper. In the 1960s, Bond came to be written as a character with Sean Connery’s face and voice. Here’s a brief exchange from the last reel of the film version of Goldfinger.

The National:

Bond, having rescued America from an atomic explosion and the western world from economic catastrophe, made love to women and disposed of bad men, is being escorted across an airport runway towards the small plane that will take him for a congratulatory lunch at the White House.

Without breaking stride, he remarks that he hopes to get a drink on board. The tone, expression and pitch that you hear on the film soundtrack all bespeak the actor’s nationality, and play ironically with popular conceptions of it. You’ll remember the dialogue: Felix Leiter: Come on, James, get aboard. You can’t keep the President waiting.

James Bond: Special plane, lunch at the White House? How come?

Felix Leiter: The President wants to thank you personally.

James Bond: Oh, it was nothing really.

Felix Leiter: I know that, but he doesn’t.

James Bond: I suppose I’ll be able to get a drink here?

Felix Leiter: I told the stewardess, liquor for three.

James Bond: Who are the other two?

Felix Leiter: Oh, there are no other two.

James Bond: Goodbye, Felix.

Felix Leiter: So long, James. Good luck.

James Bond: Thank you, Brigadier.

Brigadier: Good luck.

And with that, the music ends and the plane takes off and the final confrontation with Goldfinger himself proceeds, then the reconvening with Pussy Galore. But the point is made already.

It’s another new voice coming into the repertoire, another answer to the ubiquitous coca-colonisation of the 1960s, the “commercial disposition” Robert Creeley identified beginning in the 40s and 50s.

Sexist, racist dinosaur that he might seem to be, Connery’s voice in that moment speaks of reassertion, liberation, reconfiguration of the subaltern’s status in the commercialised universe.

The 1960s saw strategies of liberty at work, even when deeply embedded within ideologies that seem inescapable.