Satyrs and Poets and Jazzmen and Muses: Anne Waldman on Life at Bennington in the Early 1960s
“I was competitive with men. I wanted their freedom.”
Bennington, a women’s college in the early 1960s, carried an onus—tone of exclusivity and a hidden dysfunctionality of faculty predation, and one worried about the label “dilettantism” applied to the place. Because we were all “women.” Could we be taken seriously? I think I wanted to do at least one thing well. So while I didn’t suffer the worst idiosyncrasies and tragedies of patriarchal academia, it was a compromised situation.
I’ve always been interested in the mechanisms of concealment as they relate to women. It was a haven from the city, and the gifted art and writing faculty expected a modicum of self-discipline and rigor from its students. I submitted poetry with my application, having been impressed by the number of poets on the faculty. Highly strung, sensitive, creative students were the norm.
Howard Nemerov seemed a flawed person, yet a respected poet and inspiring teacher at times—particularly of Blake and Yeats. There were the later revelations of his own complicated incest with his sister Diane Arbus. Rumors of affairs with students were not uncommon. Acceptable behavior in most quarters of the college worlds, alas. I should have been more enraged by the toll this took on some students, who were stunted by the power dynamics and heartbreak in such relationships. But some of these students were mature (they claimed) and felt nurtured creatively by the relationships.
Howard often showed up in class rumpled and exhausted after a “night with the muse,” pulling a piece of foolscap from his pocket—a new poem. He would then want to walk around the school pond holding hands! We might have words re: John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, the Beats—particularly Allen Ginsberg, as he favored a more angst-ridden, “official verse culture” (Charles Bernstein’s tag) poem with obligatory closure.
I realized early then how certain lines might be drawn between the so-called academic exemplified by a kind of white male heterosexual neurosis (“Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed” / Lowell)—and what I’ve come to call the Outrider tradition, characterized by spontaneity, digression, a less secure lifestyle, political opposition, and interconnected through projects with others that are not necessarily renumeration motivated. That’s not the point. Working outside capitalism’s structures.Because we were all “women.” Could we be taken seriously? I think I wanted to do at least one thing well.
Poets I was drawn to were not always products or proprietors of English departments. As a designated female I was increasingly interested in a breakdown of semantics, grammar, toward deconstruction of solid narrative mindsets and more toward performance and improvisation. These issues seemed close to concerns of mental grammar and experience.
Gertrude Stein’s work was amusing, playful, pushed on you. Tender Buttons moved in time and the odd juxtaposition, auditory associations Stein pulled off were unique and springy. The vernacular of William Carlos Williams was rich and startling. When I suggested Stein and Ezra Pound be taught seriously at Bennington, I was distressed by what I saw as an inexplicable prejudice. Not only dismissed as “silly,” this formidable grand persona with her Picassos, Matisses, and a lively salon was the butt of unkind jokes. Pound was an anti-Semite thereby beyond the pale. It was a lonely battle.What were my rites of passage, my rituals? Envying the freedom of the male protagonist, the male poet, I was still a daughter yet carried a lot of male energy.
But Bernard Malamud encouraged curiosity and explorations in modernism and contemporary poetry, and my own writing as well. The private seminar allowed for give-and-take, some critical. Apprentice formats seemed rare in other universities and colleges at the time. Thus I felt myself fortunate to come up against serious writers, and readers, who practiced their art with purpose and ambition. Opinionated, egocentric, solipsistic masters. Teaching was often a passion, but it was secondary to the true practice—the work. Also, it was fascinating to witness firsthand another alternative, albeit a somewhat academic and exclusive community.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, married to eccentric, brilliant Shirley Jackson, dwelled in his dark study with his numismatic collection of glittering gold coins on the margins of the campus mandala. He taught an exciting “Myth, Ritual, and Literature” class, exposing us to the Dionysian heights in classical Greek drama, dark mysteries of Childe’s ballads, and the tender delicacies of youth Parsifal in search of the goblet that would unlock the secret of life. Hyman challenged my own preconceptions about origins of language and why we make poetry. He brought text down to a primal, psychological level.
He himself looked the part of a satyr—heavily bearded, wild gleam in an already mischievous eye. What were my rites of passage, my rituals? Envying the freedom of the male protagonist, the male poet, I was still a daughter yet carried a lot of male energy. Was it necessary to inebriate my father and subsequent fathers to steal their secrets? Coax them, seduce them? Or would I be virginal Athena, sprung forth from and forever indebted to Zeus’s mind? It was hard to be a girl sometimes. I was competitive with men. I wanted their freedom.
Nemerov once commented, “I can’t tell if you are a queen or a peasant!” Ha.
My mother had had more freedom, from another point of view, and was already a young mother in her early twenties, inside another culture and speaking its language! And exposed to the high rhythms of poetry, theatre, art making, and a sophisticated utopian philosophy. Stein, Laura Riding, H. D. were writers to study, emulate. How they had loved. How they had made their art. And I wanted to know more about their lives. I was starting to feel the torments of intense relationships and the conflict between so-called life and so-called art. It seemed a struggle to assert the work.
Were our bodies the only source of women’s power? I wanted more women teachers. Barbara Herrnstein Smith was formidable in her way in her Romantics class. Her formal study of “closure” in Shakespeare sonnets was characteristically brilliant, but didn’t feel like a model for new inklings of experimental poetry.I was starting to feel the torments of intense relationships and the conflict between so-called life and so- called art.
Poetic confidence was erratic. What was I good at? Trusted my ear. Some deeper rhythm in the nervous system demanded attention. It wasn’t so much images I was good at. The great poems were intimidating. You loved them so much. If you listened to the men and stayed mooning over the classics, you could weaken your nerve. Were there secrets to steal, listening with the ear? The eye? I felt inept but ambitious. I thought myself a good student because I loved poetry. I was good at reading aloud but not to memorize and perform like theatre. It had to be more improvisatory. Like jazz. I wanted to do this work with other like-minded practitioners who felt as passionately as I did. I formed important alliances with the “guys,” many of whom were closer to where I positioned myself.
This was particularly true during my last year of school, where I had developed and cultivated some correspondence with poets of my own generation and had already travelled out to the Berkeley Poetry Conference. And I had made friends with David Amram, with Dan Wakefield, with John Hammond Jr. I was going to jazz concerts sometimes with my mother. My brother Mark Sikélianòs’s first wife, Bobbie, was now married to sax player Steve Lacy and my niece lived nearby in that household.
I ventured over with Frances and met Thelonious Monk one day. My mother first took me to hear Steve play at the Village Vanguard. I first heard Cecil Taylor, who came to Bennington, and I also first heard Dollar Brand with Frances. These were giants; I knew this. I heard Carla Bley a bit later, Sun Ra later. How to enter these worlds? Also the ever-dynamic visual arts worlds. Where to even begin? We knew the artist Ibram Lassaw.
The school had an out-of-residency work period. I went back to NYC the first year, taking a number of odd jobs, several in the theatre, including work at the Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church. I again worked at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford the following summer, and then the subsequent winter with my mother’s support I was able to take a volunteer job for several months with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, assisting one of the leading archaeological scholars on the amphoras that held wine and oil.If you listened to the men and stayed mooning over the classics, you could weaken your nerve.
Dr. Virginia Grace was a rare being, another devotee of classical Greece. There was something mythological in her situation. She had been crippled at a young age by polio. Lost a fiancée to early death. Remained single, a lame votary, passionate about her discoveries. Chained to the temple of Apollo. Her profile, to my eye, bore a striking resemblance to photographs of the seminal writer H.D. She took me under her wing.
We often ate lunch together. I sat for hours in the cold Stoa of Attalos, surrounded by tiny electric heaters, reading and cataloguing the numerous amphoras that had been found during a recent dig around the Stoa. They bore striking seals that located their places of origin and helped determine ancient trade routes. The shapely amphoras carried wine to and from the islands, and further off, to Africa, to Asia Minor. Dr. Grace had catalogued nearly fifteen hundred stamps used on these ancient vessels. What remained but the stamps and the phallic handles, shards of cold runic clay in the hand? That held secrets to the Hellenistic civilization, its comings and goings by sea.
I took a side trip to Egypt by boat, felt my life charged, changed. There was the notion from Ezra Pound of “make it new.” It wasn’t anything goes, but finding old or neglected texts or “voice” from other places, your own ancestry, what called to you, perhaps, to resound with. To make anew, to recover. Buddhist texts had the same effect.
I got outside myself by being alone, without a restricted sense of “self.” I was drawn to Greece, through my mother’s experience, and to Egypt, to the hieroglyphs, old ritual texts. I had dipped into the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The sun god Ra says in the Coffin Texts: “I have created the gods from sweat and the people from the tears of my eye.” I wanted to explore and describe these heightened experiences of attraction, of mystery, taking to other times and places. It wasn’t about interpreting them. It was more like mythopoetics. These currents kept going, alive in your own psyche.
Bard, Kinetic by Anne Waldman is available from Coffee House Press