I mean the disorder in which a large number
of possible orders glitter separately.
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things:
An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)
Visions and Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line—Poets and Poetry 1940-2005 is a chronoencyclopedia of a scene that stretches over sixty-five years. People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth’s first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. “California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.” ...
A version of this time line appeared in my book, O Powerful Western Star (Pantograph, 2000). That version has been corrected and considerably amplified for this book. Nevertheless, I’m sure that my prejudices and errors are still on display. When I felt passages from articles I have published on various individual writers or themes would help illustrate the intellectual life of this region, I have not hesitated to include them. Unfortunately, despite the size of the book, there are many important figures I do not discuss at length—often simply because of my ignorance of their work. I have tried to give space and commentary to as many people as I could—to honor what Eleana Kim calls “the legitimacy of differing representations of reality”—and I have deliberately not limited myself only to the “famous.” I realize that I have necessarily been unfair to many; may books other than mine give them their proper place in the California sun! Since I have been a part of this poetry scene for more than twenty years, I often appear as a third-person presence in the manner of Henry Adams in the Education. I have worked hard to be inclusive and even “objective,” but Visions & Affiliations is necessarily an image of my own experience: if the book were to have any depth, it had to come from there, and so it is in a sense a running history of my involvement with California poetry. I ask the reader to forgive the many lists that dot the book—and, even more, to forgive the lists that should be in it and are not. I have tried to supply names and publications wherever I could. There is no way to represent a deep, exciting chaos except by being—at least a little—chaotic. Even a time line can be a—but not the—tale of the tribe. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.
The problem with doing a book like this is that you’re always digging up new things which sometimes contradict what you thought you “had.” Nothing is “secure.”
If you let yourself be too aware of the utter endlessness of the project, you’re lost—you’ll stop doing it—so you keep saying, “Ok, that’s fine, it’s finished now.” But of course there are many instances in which what seems to be “finished” turns out to be merely the beginning of something. You know the project is endless—and constantly getting away from you—but you do what you can to forget that fact. And you comfort yourself with the momentary, perhaps illusory insights that arise as you go through. Slippery history!
When songwriter/performer Marshall Barer blandly asked a young woman in his audience, “What’s your sign, dear?” she answered, “Slippery when wet!” Trying to write history is dealing with wet. That’s why historians so often rely on the work of “colleagues.” The work of others offers some foundation. But colleagues too are often nothing but apple carts waiting to be upset.
I think that all this activity reflects that self-questioning which lies at the heart of Heidegger’s “Dasein”—a being which places its own being in question. It’s not that there is no “ground,” but that any “ground” you find is tentative, temporary, temporal. For many years, God was the Urgrund, the ground of grounds. But once God goes—and God is gone—innumerable grounds appear, each with its bit of truth and untruth:
Things are cast adrift, more or less like one another without any
of them being able to claim the privileged status of “model” for the
rest. Hierarchy gives way….
—James Harkness, introduction to Michel Foucault, This is Not
a Pipe (UC Press, 1983)
If there is any Urgrund in this book, it is the constantly changing, endlessly conflictive fabric of time.
[N.B. Copies of the two-volume work can presently be purchased at firstname.lastname@example.org, while a section of the 1960s entry appeared in a recent edition of Michael Rothenberg’s Big Bridge, available here. Since this posting it has also become available through Amazon.com.]