Literary Fight Club: On the Great Poets’ Brawl of ‘68
Nick Ripatrazone Recounts Jim Harrison’s Brief Tenure in the Halls of Academia
One Saturday evening in 1968, the poets battled on Long Island. Drinks spilled into the grass. Punches were flung; some landed. Chilean and French poets stood on a porch and laughed while the Americans brawled. A glass table shattered. Bloody-nosed poets staggered into the coming darkness.
Allen Ginsberg fell to his knees and prayed.
The World Poetry Conference at Stony Brook University was almost over.
At Michigan State University, Jim Harrison was a self-described “nasty item,” a “prominent, if obnoxious, student in comparative literature.” He had no business graduating with a Master’s degree. He was saved by Herbert Weisinger, a longtime professor, who took pity on the frenetic Harrison and helped him finish. Perhaps Weisinger saw a bit of himself in the young Harrison; in the introduction to his collection of essays, The Agony and the Triumph: Papers on the Use and Abuse of Myth, Weisinger argued that however difficult, it was the job of the English scholar to take critical stances on contemporary literature, “which has not yet been enshrined by generations of consensus.” After all, “one can play it safe, and be dull; or one can gamble, but lose or win, one is at least alive.”
Weisinger’s gamble: Harrison had real talent. Time would prove him correct, but he followed his first risk with a second one. Weisinger had been named department chair halfway across the country, at Stony Brook University, and he wanted Harrison to be his assistant. Harrison traveled to Long Island, had a “perfunctory” interview, and was hired.
On Harrison’s first day, he met Alfred Kazin and Philip Roth. “Since I had read everything they had written,” he recollected, “this was a rather heady experience.” He soon had dinner with William Styron and Peter Matthiessen, and would spend time with Robert Lowell, James Dickey, Robert Duncan, John Cage, and W.H. Auden. At first, it seemed like a nice gig; everyone drank, and everyone talked about literature and ideas. The “laid-back, soporific Midwest” of his past might soon fade from his memory.
It didn’t. Harrison’s poetry and prose were formed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he would hide in thickets as a child. The thick, interlaced branches “offer me peace in a life that is permanently inconsolable but reasonably vital and productive. Thickets quickly draw off the poison. After a few minutes of sitting you hear your own tentative heartbeat.”
In contrast, Stony Brook was suffocating. “I’m claustrophobic,” he once said, and Long Island is an island.” His wife had nightmares “of burning sheep in burning boxcars rolling slowly on tracks in the night, with apocalyptic escape available only through congested New York City.” Even more frightening than claustrophobia and night terrors: entitled English professors. Everybody, Harrison lamented, was “working on a book.” Nobody wanted to teach. They pined for Tuesday and Thursday class schedules, with the four-day writing weekend a badge of literary honor.
Harrison fielded countless complaints, but was “totally immune to power plays”; his boss was the boss. Although he’d begun to complement his clerical work with teaching courses like modern poetics, Harrison began planning his exit. That departure became a pending reality in the spring of 1968, when Harrison learned that he would be getting a National Endowment grant—an award which meant money and time.
But he had one final commitment to fulfill.
In September 1967, a group of poets converged on Montreal during Expo 67 for the World Poetry Conference. Czesław Miłosz lamented that “poets are really far more passionate and violent than we appear to be here, but in public we’re afraid of being misquoted and misunderstood, so we’re cautious; we are surrounded by the enemy.” Denise Levertov said that poets should “hurl their bodies in front of the war machine.”
Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda were scheduled to appear, but neither showed up. A local professor, covering the event for the New York Times, concluded: “the conference remained all too boringly free from controversy.”
Jim Harrison, it seems, agreed. He was there in Montreal, and he decided to bring the next World Poetry Conference to Long Island.
The plan was ambitious, but Harrison was joined by Louis Simpson, a Stony Brook colleague who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Simpson was named Director, and would introduce each session and reading; Harrison was the event’s Coordinator.
From June 21 to June 23, 1968, poets convened on Long Island. It was a formidable group, including Robert Duncan, Alan Dugan, George Hitchcock, Czesław Miłosz, Allen Ginsberg, Ann London, Zulfikar Ghose, Zbigniew Herbert, Denise Levertov, Jon Silkin, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Miller Williams, Nicanor Parra, Eugene Guillevic, Donald Hall, James Tate, Ed Sanders, Anthony Hecht, Holly Stevens, and Charles Simic, who wrote a short piece about the brawl decades later for The New York Review of Books (Jim Harrison had previously claimed the event was “safely tucked away in hopefully unrecorded history.”).
The arriving poets were treated to a meal of fresh lobster, and plenty of wine and vodka. Harrison once quipped that most academic conferences had spreads of cold cuts, and as a gourmand, he spared no expense at Stony Brook—going $50,000 over budget. The poets started out amiable, but by the first evening, they were drinking too much and gossiping. Simic noted that “every poet one admired or hated was likely to be there in person.”
Many poets stayed in the campus dorms. Drunk poets stumbled into unlocked rooms, and as Simic reported, would climb “into the first bed” they “found in the dark.” Finnish poet Anselm Hollo, for some reason, tried to throw a typewriter through a window. The glass withstood the toss, so Hollo launched the typewriter down the dorm stairs.The fight started on the outside patio when “a male professor” taunted “the wife of another professor.”
The actual literary offerings were generous. George Quasha debuted Stony Brook, a “journal of poetry, poetics and translation,” at the event. Readings by international poets were followed by panel discussions on translation, and the relationship between poetry and politics. The latter discussion evolved into a manifesto titled “Poet Power” that was soon published in The New York Review of Books as a sprawling letter to the editor. Although presented as a collective statement, the letter was clearly the work of Ginsberg—in spirit and syntax.
“We assembled poets respectable enough to travel across the planet to Stony Brook hereby announce to the public that we are all victims of closed vision, crippled mechanical consciousness, and bad poetry mouthed by all governments and propagandized thru controlled mass media,” the letter began. The manifesto referenced student uprising on college campuses, how “Black Power is the active American conscience,” and a desire for the “communal utopia prophesied by poets for millenia,” calling for “wisdom study in tree groves rather than robot study in plastic cells.”
Among the long list of signatories was Miłosz, who wrote his own letter to the editor—removing his name from the list. “My belief is that poets should not add to the general confusion by using words in an irresponsible way,” he wrote. “A joke should not be presented as a credo.”
One errant line in the manifesto must have seemed confusing to readers: “Poets fighting on suburban lawns drunk is also real.” The Saturday night melee took place on Louis Simpson’s lawn. It was, perhaps, inevitable. Ed Sanders memorialized the night in his poem “Year of Fear.” Everyone was tanked. Sanders “had drunk so much / my liver was feeling like a / Rudi Stern neon.”
According to Sanders, the fight started on the outside patio when “a male professor” taunted “the wife of another professor.” He said to her: “You’re nothing without your husband.” Sanders stepped in to defend her, and was joined by another poet who “came up from behind and / broke a bottle of champagne over his head.” The taunting poet tumbled into a glass table, shattering it, setting off the drunken brawl that spilled across Simpson’s suburban lawn.
Sanders thought the fight was the inevitable product of its tumultuous time: 1968 incarnate. The battle made him think of a line from poet Charles Olson’s protest chant: “Blood is the Food of / Those Gone Mad / Blood is all over already the Nation / Plann’d in Creation.”
The poets left campus the next morning. Harrison didn’t participate in the fight, but he did recall tripping “over a coupling couple in a midnight parking lot.” His second book of poems, Locations, was published in 1968—the follow-up to his debut, Plain Song.
The title poem is the last poem of the book: “In the end you are tired of those places, / you’re thirty, your only perfect three, / you’ll never own another thing.”
A few days after the World Poetry Conference, Harrison left Stony Brook for good.
He was 30.