Saturday, December 02, 2023

Ignoble Nobels? Is That Why They Ignore Margaret Atwood?

 It's been over for awhile but it still bothers me.  2023 was the latest year in which Margaret Atwood did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At least the Pulitzer Prize committee finally recognized Barbara Kingsolver.  There's been no better US novelist, none more consistent and capacious in the breadth, depth and style of her work.  But also this year the Nobel committee has once again ignored not only my now-perennial favorite--and  the world's-- in once again passing over Margaret Atwood.

Atwood was widely believed to be the favorite back in 2017--so much so that the actual winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, publicly apologized for winning it instead of her.  But there was always next year.  And next year. And next year... And now Margaret Atwood is 84.

I don't claim to have read all the fine writers of the world, and I must defer judgment on a lot of prizes, like the Booker.  But the Nobel has a specific, specified mission.  In the words of founder Alfred Nobel, it is for the writer "who, in the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

That person, year after year for the past decade (I've been touting her since at least 2011), has been Margaret Atwood.  She is unique in the world for sustaining quality literary work over many years, while her work consistently engages the contemporary world.  She is now a global presence, for the shared present and future dilemmas she writes about (and the increasingly relevance of The Handmaid's Tale), but also as a literary figure and an active voice.  Her contributions are immeasurable. 

Of course the Nobel committee in Sweden has ignored their founder's goals for years.  They tend to award for a body of work rather than something from the previous year, which is defensible.  But they also tend to choose writers who are perhaps known mostly within a single nation (usually a small one), if, frankly, at all.  Their influence on the world is minimal, at least until they win and their work gets new editions.

Body of work?  Margaret Atwood has published 18 novels, nine story collections, 18 volumes of poetry,  11 books of nonfiction, eight children's books and two graphic novels--and these are only works brought out by major publishers and presumably translated widely.  She writes and speaks on ecology and economics as well as literature.

But there's no point in making the case.  Everyone knows it.  Everyone knows she is the perfect Nobel Laureate, and has been for years.  

So why hasn't she been one?  It can't be only because she sometimes writes speculative or science fiction--they gave the award to Doris Lessing many years ago.  Atwood herself hasn't commented on it in interviews I've read or watched on Youtube, usually praising whoever just won.  But I got the feeling that she doesn't expect to ever win it, because of some problem with the Nobel committee.  Maybe there's animosity, personal or otherwise, from a member or members of the committee..  Maybe they feel she's gotten too many other awards.  Who knows? (Actually, I think she does.)

The Nobel committee in any case has a well known track record of not getting around to honoring major literary figures in their lifetimes, and therefore never honoring them at all.  So why should I care?  I probably shouldn't.  But to me it calls into question not only the Nobel committee's judgment but their integrity.  I know all these prizes are political to some extent, and this is not the worst injustice in the world.  But seeing some justice done is a rare but good feeling.  She deserves this.

So I don't care who wins the Nobel anymore.  Not until the name that's announced is Margaret Atwood.  

P.S. Margaret Atwood's latest fiction is a story collection, Old Babes in the Woods.  Barbara Kingsolver's Pulitzer-winning novel is Demon Copperhead.  Both are fine gifts for discerning and appreciative readers.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

History of My Reading: Cambridge Baptism 1970-1

Carol and me with kittens from Stuff's litter at our Cambridge apt.
I returned with Carol and company to Cambridge after my Cummington community experience in August 1970.  By this time Carol and her Knox College friends had moved into a summer sublet—probably more of a housesitting gig—on a quiet leafy side street at 13 Ellery St., apt.4.  It was about half a block from the central artery of Massachusetts Avenue, known colloquially as Mass Ave: a roughly 16 mile road that begins in Boston and defines the heart of Cambridge before heading onward past Somerville to Concord and the fabled Lexington Green, and beyond.  
13 Ellery St.

It wasn’t until I’d gone to college in the Midwest that I heard people give city directions in terms of north/south, east/west (cf. “Go north three blocks and turn west.”) In western Pennsylvania as in most of the northeast, cities were ordered by the borders of serpentine rivers and eccentric coastlines, as well as hills and ridges and valleys.  So while Cambridge is vaguely north of Boston, it is connected by Mass Ave in a way that defies the compass.  Orientation reverts to directions like left and right.

 So emerging from the tree-shadowed Ellery Street to busy, noisy Mass Ave puts Central Square (Cambridge) and Boston to your left, and Harvard Square a few long blocks to your right. While I was living there the rest of that summer, the first commercial building to the right on Mass Ave housed several businesses, including the F-Stop camera store, Cheap Thrills records, a music and musical instrument store, and the Orson Welles Cinema.  At the time I first saw it, the Welles was a single screen, so-called “repertory cinema” showing foreign and offbeat American movies. (It had a film school as well, though that was not immediately obvious to me.) 

Orson Welles at the Orson Welles
The Orson Welles intrigued me. I’d been increasingly interested in film and filmmaking. I had one film course at Iowa, and in my months at Buffalo I got to know film professor (and McLuhan pal) Gerald O’Grady.  I attended a number of his film classes, especially when they were showing movies.

 Carol had gotten interested in film, too, especially after she read The Film Director as Superstar by Joseph Gelmis, a collection of interviews (Kubrick, Bertolucci, Lindsay Anderson, Richard Lester, John Cassavettes and a very young Francis Ford Coppola, among others), a book I’d left with her when I was at Cummington.

 We emerged from one of our first movies there when I saw a familiar face in the lobby.  It was Steve Goldberg, formerly of Knox College, who turned out to be the theatre manager.  He remembered me, and in the course of our conversation, suggested I try writing for the local weekly paper called the Phoenix.  I laughed before I nodded an acknowledgement. I didn’t see where I would fit in. I knew nothing about Boston or Cambridge, and though I’d seen the Phoenix a few times, I still didn’t have a handle on it.  It was more seriously journalistic than an underground newspaper, but it wasn’t like a daily either. A few years later in his defining New Yorker piece, Calvin Trillin would describe the growing number of such journals as “sea-level” newspapers. Today, their descendants are usually lumped together as “alternative.” 

(As if meeting a former Knox student there wasn’t coincidence enough, I soon after walked into the music store next door to see behind the counter someone I’d known at Greensburg (PA) Central Catholic High School. Paul Lenart had been a year ahead of me, and had gone off to Columbia University on a football scholarship, which made him a subject of my envy since that was my aspirational and unaffordable first choice school.  But he’d been injured early on, lost his scholarship and was now a guitarist in a regionally popular band that sometimes played at Jack’s bar near Central Square, famous then for featuring Bonnie Raitt before she went national.  Eventually he sold me my next guitar.)

Pierrot Le Fou
I soon had my first immersive film experience, when the Welles programmed a Jean-Luc Godard festival, a bill of Godard double-features that changed every couple of days.  I got a discount ticket book and saw many of them, almost all for the first time (among them “Band of Outsiders,” “Alphaville,” “Contempt,” “Masculin Feminin,” and my favorite, “Pierrot le Fou” with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina), eventually watching from the back row while drinking coffee and smoking Gauloise cigarettes.  Mass Ave and the Welles would turn out to be mainstays of my time in Cambridge and Boston.

 Past the Orson Welles, two particular wonders of Harvard Square awaited.  First, the bookstores.  There was one before the square, but more past the high brick walls of Harvard Yard that began the Square proper. Harvard Bookstore was right there on Mass Ave, shortly to be joined by its book annex, with hurt books and remainders.  Around the corner was the Grolier Bookshop, reputed to be a gathering place for poets, though I never experienced this.  It was one of the contacts that Robert Creeley wrote down for me.

 The huge Harvard Coop had a big book section. There were more bookstores on Brattle Street behind it, including one of my favorites, Reading International.  Across from there and below street level on Mt. Auburn St. was Passim, a bookstore during the day, and a music venue at night—it had formerly been Club 47, where Joan Baez first sang in concert, among many other luminaries of the folk revival 1960s.

 But bookstores weren’t the only sources of books.  There were two Ecology Action storefronts and a couple of other such organizations that collected and gave away surplus books, and since it was Cambridge, the quality was high.  I scored a mother lode of books at one such place on a memorable afternoon, and walked out embarrassed at my haul, but ecstatic.

 I was soon reading Henry Miller for the first time, and his rhapsodizing descriptions of Paris bookstores suggested that this might be my Paris. That feeling was reinforced by the cafes, some with outdoor seating, an anomaly in America at the time. There were not varieties of coffees available on every corner in the 70s, but in and around Harvard Square there were coffees closer to their foreign origins, such as the Turkish coffee in a dark cafĂ© buried in a complex of shops.  

Harvard Sq 1970.  BK photo.
Soon I had a favorite place: the unpretentious Patisserie below street level on the section of Brattle Street that wound around to the left as you faced the Harvard Coop.  Its menu was modest but everything tasted great.  I loved especially their almond croissants. Its French coffee had a taste still unique in my experience.  It tasted blue, the equivalent of Gauloise smoke.  I was a frequent enough customer that the owner (who was Greek) knew me by sight, and remarked on how long it might have been since I was there last.

 The riches of the cafes included the newspapers left by patrons and strewn around, not only the Boston Globe and the counterculture and political papers but the New York Times and Washington Post.  There were magazines of all kinds from everywhere at several of the bookstores, with walls of them at the Out of Town News just outside the Harvard Square subway entrance.

 The cafes completed the mental ambience of the bookstores, and I felt as comfortable as I got, reading and writing in them. That extended to less exotic but still strange venues, like the ice cream place with the delicate 1890s wrought iron tables and chairs, and the Pewter Pot, which served a variety of muffins (very big in Boston) and 15 cent coffee in Pewter mugs.  I was reading and writing there once when I glanced up and saw a man passing quickly by the window, looking my way with a wistful half smile. I was sure it was the writer and actor Buck Henry. And it might have been, for this was Harvard Square, where I routinely saw Nobel Prize winners bicycling by.

 The apartment on Ellery Street was large and well kept, though mostly empty.  It was on the top floor, with easy access to the flat roof, where a lot of sunbathing had gone on all summer, and continued while I was there.  But with fall, the sublet was up, Carol’s friends returned to school, and we had to look for another place. 

Repainted and gentrified, 325 Columbia St.
now. First floor apt. was ours.
We clearly couldn’t afford anything so spacious in such a prime area, but we did find a large room at the front of a duplex in East Cambridge, at 325 Columbia Street. (According to a notebook, I found it by answering an ad in the Phoenix titled ISMAEL COME HOME.)  The street turned out to be a kind of local truck route, so the rumbling was fairly constant, but I eventually got used to it.

 We painted our room teal blue, with lighter blue around the sort-of bay windows.  We painted the living room in shades of sea green and violet. The previous tenants had left a lot of psychedelic posters, which I cut up and affixed to a wall in the narrow hallway as collages. (Through unforwarded mail and some detective work, I learned that this apartment had been the gathering place for poets and others in the antiwar movement, and that poet Denise Levertov had often been there. She confirmed this in an exchange of letters. We had met my senior year at Knox.) 

My Cambridge reading started there with authors unauthorized in my college lit classes.  Both Carol and I read Jack Kerouac, beginning with The Dharma Bums (in which a character based on Gary Snyder has a large role) and Big Sur, even before On the Road.

 I moved on to Henry Miller, whose style I found enthralling despite the sometimes questionable content: the novels Tropic of Cancer (my sun sign) and Tropic of Capricorn (Carol’s), his narrative nonfiction (The Air Conditioned Nightmare, The Colossus of Maroussi) and essays (The Books in My Life and The Wisdom of the Heart, in which he described his Zen-like approach to writing.)There was soon something of a Henry Miller boom in the 70s, and at the Orson Welles I saw an autobiographical film on him, and another on his compatriot Anais Nin (I also acquired and read some of her volumes of diary entries which were then popular.)

 I tried reading William Burroughs, whose theories of writing—especially his cut-up method—fascinated me, but I didn’t match up with his resulting fiction.  There were others, but I most recall Kerouac’s ecstatic discoveries as reflecting the flavor of those first few months for us on Columbia Street.

 I was still attracted to poetry with a surrealistic flavor. I read Robert Bly’s translations of Pablo Neruda, more of Bill Knott (who I’d encountered in New Haven) and a new poet, James Tate, who I heard read and met in Cambridge. (He had exasperated tales of trying to help Knott just get through life and empty the garbage.) I’d admired Jon Anderson’s first book of poems, Looking for Jonathan, in 1968, and now the harder edged Death and Friends in 1970.  

Gino Severini self-portrait
In the next months my reading expanded in different directions.  For example, I began seeking out books on the modern artists of the early twentieth century, from the Dadaists to those artists who clustered in Paris—Surrealists, Cubists, Futurists and more.  It was then I discovered the Italian Futurist Gino Severini—the only one of that group who lived in Paris and knew everyone from Picasso to Erik Satie. With the same last name as my mother, I learned he might have been a blood relative of my grandfather, but even if only a relative in imagination, he became a guide over the years. 

 At the same time I also discovered Dorothea Tanning, the only American and only woman enrolled in the Paris Surrealists.  She was a native of Galesburg, Illinois, and (as I later found) a Knox College student who preceded me (by several decades) as an editor of the college literary magazine.  My fascination with this place and period, which had begun with the expatriate writers like Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, brought me around through the painters to other writers, particularly the French poets Guillaume Apollinaire (another friend of Gino) and Paul Eluard. 

Thanks to the extensive collection of cheap art prints at the Harvard Coop department store (the large ones were a dollar), we had our own modern gallery (though the Vermeer in the living room—a print I still have—was the exception): a Magritte and Picassos in our room, a Max Ernst in the kitchen and a Paul Klee in the bathroom, which otherwise featured a large ceramic bathtub with a Moby Dick shower curtain but no shower, and an ancient pull-chain flush toilet.

 I continued reading about ecology, including Paul Shepard’s second anthology, Environ/Mental.  I don’t remember what precipitated it, but I began reading Buckminster Fuller obsessively.  The autobiographical sections in Ideas and Integrities grabbed me—his despair at his lack of worldly success and acceptance of his ideas that drove him to the edge of Lake Michigan, contemplating suicide.  That resonated.  But even navigating his strange vocabulary I saw him as literally a sailor (he’d served in the Navy) who knew what he was talking about with his concept of Spaceship Earth—that all we needed to live was aboard, but we were limited mostly to what was on the ship. 

 Fuller’s concept of an “anticipatory design science” made a lot of sense, even if I couldn’t follow all his proposals. A few years later I attended one of his improvised lectures at M.I.T., and saw him up close as I joined a cluster around him afterwards to hear more.

 I got hold of a new anthology for students called Worlds in the Making, which related ecology to the future.  I was already looking at the future as a subject, and even collected these strange paperbacks that came out every year in the early 70s, with professional psychics (a lot of them from Florida) who predicted events of the coming year.  There were always several predictions that Fidel Castro would be assassinated.  Years later, when the CIA plots to kill Castro were exposed (including one involving an exploding cigar), it seemed that these were less seers than spooks, or at least they knew some. Fidel probably outlived them all.

 Carol and I were also reading ostensibly more serious books in the psychedelic/countercultural vein, including on astrology, and we got our charts done (I’ve lost mine but I still have Carol’s.) I was nervously consulting the I Ching, which never quite assuaged my frustrations at my lack of worldly progress, probably not the best attitude.

 And we were surrounded by lots and lots of music. For awhile we didn’t have any at home, but Carol made a trip back to Chicago and shipped more of her belongings to Columbia Street, including the component stereo she’d had at Knox. By the end of 1970, the Beatles breakup led to an efflorescence of new albums: McCartney’s solo album (which we had from the previous spring), Lennon and Ono’s separate Plastic Ono Band albums, Ringo’s “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues,” and George Harrison’s triple album, “All Things Must Pass.” The flood continued in 1971 with “Ram” (McCartney), “Imagine” (Lennon) and the multi-disk live album from Harrison’s all-star concert for Bangla Desh, the first such charity event. 

J.T. & Carole King
James Taylor was a kind of favorite son in Boston, and the “Sweet Baby James” album that made him a star was played everywhere.  “After the Goldrush” also came out in 1970, and began my Neil Young obsession.  Carol and I had to be selective in the concerts we attended, but we did see Neil Young play in Boston, and caught a concert in the now legendary James Taylor and Carole King tour.  The strangest concert I remember we attended was when Poco opened for the Moody Blues. We went to hear Poco, assuming the Boston crowd was there for the psychedelic Moody Blues.  But Poco blew that audience away, and nobody much was in the mood for the Moody heaviness afterwards.

 There were also free concerts, including a few in the Cambridge Common, just beyond Harvard Square.  Carol and I heard the distant music one Sunday in Harvard Square and walked over there.  We passed a smiling young woman coming the other way and asked her who was playing.  “It’s a beautiful day,” she said.  We agreed, it was a beautiful, sunny day.  But who was playing?  She laughed.  “It’s A Beautiful Day.”  Yes, there was such a group—I remember staring stoned at their album cover a few years before in Galesburg. 

The ex-Beatles releases, the back-and-forth accusation songs of Lennon and McCartney, and John and Yoko’s events and interviews were widely discussed in the pages of Rolling Stone and other music papers as well as the Boston area weeklies, and among people we met.  Lennon’s first album and Neil Young’s “Goldrush” in particular grabbed me and didn’t let go for years.  But Carol and I also listened alot to John Phillips’ (of the Mamas and Papas) solo album, even though the music media dismissed it. I don’t think I ever quite convinced her of the brilliance of the Bee Gees though, even if I played their “Odessa” double album too often. 


In a new relationship and a home of our own, and with the stimulations of my Cambridge baptism, I was bursting with creative expressions.  I wrote in every form from verse to polemic.  I was writing songs at a furious clip, enlisting Carol to add bits of gentle percussion to tapes I made of them, at first just to not forget what I’d written.

  Inspired by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, I resumed constructing collages, as did Carol.  I briefly continued my Cummington experimentations with painting.  And I devised and physically made a board game—the Cambridge Conspiracy Game.  It was arranged like a Monopoly board but with Cambridge sites. Its purpose however was as a kind of anti-Monopoly. The object was not competition.  The only way to win was for players to cooperate.  Everybody won, or everybody lost.

In the beginning we led a kind of John and Yoko existence--both of us taking photos, making artworks, collaborating on music.  We explored Cambridge and Boston, but we also spent a lot of time in our blue room, and in our neighborhood. Columbia Street extended down from Mass Ave on the Boston side edge of Central Square a considerable distance before it got to us. Our building was a bit run down, and so was the immediate neighborhood. It was not fashionable or even recognizably Cambridge. It evidently had been Irish and (a bit further on) Italian, but was now mostly Portuguese. 

  We shopped for major groceries at the Purity Supreme supermarket in Central Square, but we also explored the shops in Inman Square: a walk down Columbia St. for a long block in the opposite direction from Mass Ave, and then the streets to the left that eventually led to the Harvard Square area.

  My impression was that Inman Square had once been the Italian area, and there was a very good but decently priced Italian restaurant there, that we could afford occasionally. There was also an authentic German bakery, and a large deli restaurant called S&S, that is apparently still there.

Inman Sq. early 1970s
 There was an old fashioned 5&10 next to a small grocery that sold $1 bottles of French Bordeaux wine (vin ordinaire in Paris), not far from a blues club. Legal Seafoods was the Cambridge choice for fresh seafood. We took our clothes to the Laundromat in Inman Square, where each washer and dryer had an individual name inscribed on it.  If we wanted to leave while our clothes were still in process, the Italian who owned it would watch over them, and we might come back to see them folded and waiting for us.

 This end of Cambridge was noisy and sooty, as urban a place as I’d ever lived. But we also belonged to a co-op that every week delivered organic vegetables from nearby farms (in the revolution talk of the day, it was called the Food Conspiracy.)  We also were asked to work in the fields periodically, which I remember doing once.  For awhile Carol and I tried the brown rice diet recommended by John and Yoko, so we wouldn’t be “sampaku” (supposedly you were if there was white all around your eyeballs, and it wasn’t a good sign.)  We gave that up pretty quickly, and I wrote a song about it. 

 I extended my ecology commitments to the household, perhaps a little too much (a succession of housemates weren’t thrilled.) But I was motivated to do kitchen cleanup and some of the cooking.  Carol made amazing Irish stew I still remember.

 Early on we added a tricolor kitten to the household, a female we named Stuff, on the theory that cats respond to sibilants when called. Soon Carol adopted a young stray, a black male we called Muk (I think as a reference to milk, which he loved.)  However, we failed to monitor their maturation, and soon we had a pregnant Stuff.

  One day I awoke to find that Carol and our housemate Andrea had panicked when they thought Stuff wasn’t delivering properly, and had rushed her to the vet who said she was fine, but that adventure caused Stuff’s labor to stop.  We had to take her back to induce birth, and by then I was the only one with the nerve to be present for the actual births.  Stuff had six kittens of various hues and combinations, including a silver gray male.  We decided to keep him, and named him Gray.  Those three cats—Stuff, Muk and Gray-- would be under my care for the next twenty years.

 All this may sound idyllic but of course it wasn’t quite. We both had demons to work through, and after the initial overriding bliss, we had each other to get used to.  Neither of us had anything but vague direction, and so along with the freedom of exploration, we had anxieties.  Plus the complications of family pressures, housemates, and a few neighborhood and apartment problems, etc. But complications is all they were. We had what Carol would later describe as a good little life.  

Carol started out working as a waitress at the counter of the Brigham’s ice cream shop in Central Square, which was also a kind of luncheonette, with coffee, sandwiches, etc. She wore a light brown uniform and dispensed “frappes” (Bostonese for milk shakes) and ice cream cones with “Jimmies” (sprinkles) on top. She soon figured out how to sneak me almost free meals.  She thought the manager didn’t notice, but it turned out he did, and didn’t care. 

 The main Cambridge post office building was nearby, and it may have been an employee having lunch at Brigham’s that alerted Carol to job openings at that post office. She took the Civil Service exam and was quickly hired, perhaps as a temporary for the Christmas season rush, but she was kept on afterwards.  To my surprise she liked it there, especially her co-workers, and she visibly began to open up again to the outside world.

 I “took in” typing, edited and rewrote graduate school papers, and had temp jobs, such as working in college bookstores during textbook rush or doing inventory, and painting the vast interior of a former Harvard eating club preparing to become a restaurant, Grendel’s Den on Winthrop St. and across Brattle from my Patisserie, near Harvard Square. It’s still there.  (Though I thought I did good work on those walls and ceilings, I was fired for insubordination, for sticking up for a colleague being bullied. He probably thought I was a dope for doing so.) 

hawker later in 70s (not me)
I eventually added a weekly gig as a “hawker,” selling one or both of the counterculture papers on a street corner (in my case, at Prospect and Mass Ave in Cambridge.) By then—probably early 1971—the Cambridge-based Phoenix had been joined by Boston After Dark, which had started out as a tabloid of mostly entertainment listings and stories, but by then had expanded to a full weekly newspaper, with news and arts coverage.

 Unlike most alternative weeklies since, these papers weren’t given away, but sold. Both had gained initial circulation with free classified ads, personals mostly.  The next attraction was coverage of the kinds of arts and entertainment that appealed to young readers, including the hordes of college students at the many colleges and universities in the Boston area.  The writers were also young, and spoke the same language, unlike the stodgy dailies.  That applied to the cultural and political coverage and point of view of news stories.  There was a huge potential readership that had nowhere else to go locally.

 For some reason lost to history, I gravitated towards selling Boston After Dark.  I took the T (Boston area’s subway/light rail system, which Carol likened to amusement park rides) to the Boston printing plant, picked up and paid for the number of papers I was gambling I could sell, and transited back to my Cambridge corner.

 There were a lot of hawkers.  Every corner in and near Harvard Square was taken, and often enough, one or two of the corners near me were also claimed. There were occasional turf wars, but generally hawkers respected the claims of regulars.   Where I was, the clientele came from surrounding office buildings, usually at lunchtimes.  My best customers were young women from those offices, who bought their copy from me with their friends watching from the floors above.  

 Since I didn’t always sell them all, I had lots of opportunities to read what was in them.  I read the Phoenix as well. Meanwhile, I fantasized my own publication, complete with articles I’d like to see in it. Eventually the light bulb went off, and I realized I might pitch these existing publications with those ideas.  That took a surprisingly long time.

 I was always sending things out, poems and stories but increasingly also reviews and articles.  I had my first acceptance in Rolling Stone, with an unsolicited review of the book, A Child’s Garden of Verses for the Revolution, by my erstwhile teacher and correspondent, William Eastlake. I did a piece on Henry Miller accepted by a west coast publication called Organ.  The editor liked it, and agreed to assign a piece on Buckminster Fuller.  I think the magazine folded before it could be published, but I did get paid. 

I’ve found the notebook from this time which contains my first draft of a long poem called “Ears.”  I remember it as inspired by a Kenneth Koch poem on the theme of eyes that I heard him read, but I can’t locate that poem and don’t remember where the reading was. A version of “Ears” as well as several other poems and a prose piece of impressions of Cambridge, appeared in a one-off publication called Words Cambridge in spring 1971.  The people who appeared in it put the publication together, assembling and binding it in the offices of the Orson Welles cinema.  Another version of “Ears” would appear at the end of the year in a more professionally produced though also short-lived literary magazine, Cotelydon. 

Carol 1968 at Knox. Bill Thompson photo.
Both Carol and I had various physical complaints that sent us for tests at the Cambridge hospital and especially to Massachusetts General, which because it was a teaching hospital, was more open to doing tests for people who couldn’t otherwise pay for them, as long as students could observe or participate.  My tests proved inconclusive.  The best advice I got was “drink more water.”

 So I was not unduly concerned when Carol went for tests at Mass General, after my repeated urging. Her health had always been somewhat shaky, but there had been two recent incidents in which she’d been overcome by fatigue.  We’d attended a screening at the Orson Welles and met the filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek, who was about to show one of his films beamed by multiple projectors onto the inner dome of a building—the Moviedrome at Stony Point in New York state.  The audience would be lying on the floor looking up.  The film would last for several hours—a truly immersive experience.  We signed up for the bus to go, but when the day approached Carol suddenly felt extremely tired, so we cancelled.

 Another wave of fatigue prevented us from meeting up with some Knox friends.  We were literally out our front door when she said she had to go back.  The prospect of a long bus ride to the Moviedrome had been daunting, but this outing was not going to be so strenuous.  It seemed more serious.  

 I was back in our room when she returned from her visit to Mass General.  I asked her what the doctor said.  She brought up something else that had us both laughing.  Then I asked her again what the doctor said.  She suddenly burst into tears.  

 After initial tests she had been sent to a doctor in the hospital who diagnosed her with what was then called Hodgkin’s Disease (now Hodgkins lymphoma.)  Through her tears, and fear that she would die, she provided what turned out to be an accurate account of what the doctor said (I’ve unfortunately forgotten his name.)  

The diagnosis was serious, he said, but the good news was a new treatment that had excellent results, available at only two hospitals in the U.S.: Stanford and Massachusetts General.  It involved removing the spleen, followed by two rounds of treatments, some combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Because they'd caught it at an early stage, after that she should be fine. 

 She repeated the words but did not seem to believe them until I repeated them back to her. Part of her despair resulted from a stop at a library or bookstore on the way home where she read that the disease was usually fatal. But soon she accepted the assurances she brought back from her doctor. Later I did what research I could, which confirmed what she’d been told.

 In the early 1970s, it seemed most cancers were mysterious and fatal. Not many years before that, the word “cancer” was not even uttered in polite company (comedian Billy Crystal had a routine that reflected this.)  I was becoming a little familiar with the radiation and chemotherapy treatments because my mother had recently undergone some, and would undergo more, after Carol completed hers. But I wasn’t around for most of my mother’s, and my parents were generally secretive about such things, so I was somewhere between discreet (not wanting to embarrass my mother) and frightened. It was very different with Carol.

Outside our Columbia St. apt. we each took
a photo of the other
 I was there with her completely, every moment, every step. I was at the hospital for her spleen removal operation, and her initial treatments. Sometimes, instead of remaining in the waiting room, I would spend the estimated time outside on Boston Common before returning.  Carol waited her turn in an area reserved for patients, where she befriended a few regulars also waiting for their treatments, and heard their stories.  Some had much less hopeful prospects.  Later, when she felt stronger and self-reliance was important to her, she bolstered her confidence by going to the treatments on her own. She found her courage, partly in making it ordinary.

  At home, I took care of her as best I could.  We talked about everything involved, what she thought and how she felt, and I tended, however watchfully, to follow her lead.  She needed to comprehend and cope with what was happening to her.  A part of her body was cut out, and the rest of it subjected to the damage (including to her beautiful hair) caused by radiation and chemicals, as well as the eventual healing. 

 I could also offer a different perspective.   “You felt your body broken,” begins a poem I wrote to her, “but I saw it whole/with such/ joy at its aliveness/its softness and beauty/that the tubes hanging out/were proof only/that your loveliness/was present/transcendent…” 

 She wanted above all to be not sick, so we tried to keep things as normal as possible. She had taken up knitting, as did her friends at the hospital, to pass the time before and after treatments.  She knitted at home as well, including a six foot long, blue and green scarf for me—not often very practical (except for Doctor Who conventions) but beautiful.  I still display it. When effects of the treatments accumulated, we watched a lot of TV on our small black and white set, and she began painting, as well as making rude sculptures out of play dough.  

Carol on one of our visits to Cape Cod. BK photo

The cats helped, particularly the kittens while we had them (we placed them in other homes when they were old enough. Stuff had a second litter of four, all black.)  I recall sitting in our armchair reading, while several of the kittens chased each other, up one of my arms and down the other.

 Looking back through our earlier correspondence, a pattern of precedent emerged from the previous year—particularly Carol’s series of inexplicable fevers and fatigue.  She had been hospitalized in Galesburg months before I arrived, and one of the reasons she didn’t want to go back was her fear that she would die there.

 Over the years I’ve wondered what fate led us to Boston, where this disease could be treated.  Though the treatments themselves had serious medical consequences for her years later (they are no longer done in the same way), and both the disease and the treatments may have led to her final illness, she nevertheless had another fifty years of what might even be characterized as a fabulous life.

  Jeremy Gladstone visited us in Cambridge, on his way back to Europe (he didn't finish his dinner with us because he was "shrinking his stomach" in preparation for being on the road.)  He and Carol had a previous relationship (they’d lived together in the same house in Galesburg and the same rooms as I had the year before) and they remained friends.  They corresponded when he was in Lausanne, in French-speaking Switzerland.  He assured her that she could teach English there, and urged her to at least make a long visit. Carol was intrigued, and having the goal of a European trip helped her through her treatments.  

In the fall of 1971 I finally sent an article to Boston After Dark, with a letter inquiring about writing book reviews. The associate arts editor Jake Kugel wrote back, said he liked the article but couldn’t use it, and suggested I come in to the office to see what books they had that they wanted reviewed.  I did, and came away with at least one.  But before my first review was due, it was announced that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda would receive the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature.  I dashed off an article about him and sent it to Kugel.  It was published in early November.

 By the end of the year I’d published two book reviews (including one of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar) and an article on Norman Mailer in Boston After Dark.  Meanwhile, I was in touch with Dave Marsh, editor of the Detroit-based magazine Creem (actually, their address was Walled Lake, Michigan.) Though the now-legendary Creem was mostly a rock music magazine, it published more. I may have published a review of The Greening of America there, but the first I recall of a flurry of pieces for Creem—a review of the movie “Omega Man” starring Charleston Heston—appeared in December. 

 Suddenly the apparently random aspects of my life seemed to be coalescing in these opportunities—the aimless observations of counterculture in Boulder and Berkeley, the seemingly wasted hours watching movies, listening to the latest music and discussing it all in perilous detail, and the instinctive reading and cultural curiosity, as well as the years of unread writing, of absorbing and searching for forms and expression.

 Now I was suddenly getting published regularly and meeting new people, especially at Boston After Dark.  But Carol still felt intimidated by what she perceived of that world, which was becoming my world.  And then she felt well enough, and it came time for the dream of Europe to become real.

  I went with her to Logan airport and saw her off for her first trip to England, Greece and France (sending me a pile of postcards) before settling in Switzerland.  She worked part time while taking French courses every morning, and she learned to drive.  Eventually, true to Jeremy's prediction, she  was hired as an English teacher in Lausanne.  She came back for visits and follow-ups at Mass General a couple of times.  At the end of one of these visits of several weeks (including a trip to see her parents in Chicago), I put her on the train to New York, where she would get a direct flight to Switzerland. But before the train left I impulsively bought myself a ticket to New York (it was all of $10 then) and joined her, intending to return on the next train back.  On the way she decided to stay longer, so we spent a few days in New York (hosted by Michael Shain) and Cambridge and again in New York, before she flew back to Europe.

 I have many blue airmail letters from those first years she was in Switzerland.  Early on, there was some thought of my joining her there or in England, but as my involvement in Boston increased and her attraction and commitment to Europe solidified, those thoughts faded.  Years passed, and eventually she wrote that she was getting married to someone she met there. I could only wish her well.  I didn’t hear from her for many years shortly after that. It was clear that she blossomed in Europe, just as we both suspected she would not be fulfilled if she stayed.   Our roads and our lives diverged. But we always had Cambridge. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

History of My Reading: Cummington Summer 1970

BK at Cummington 1970.  Photo by James Baker Hall

 "What you remember saves you.  To remember/Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never/Has fallen silent..." 
W.S. Merwin

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio…” Neil Young:“Ohio” May 1970

 In June 1970, weeks after the protest occupation, I left Galesburg, Illinois and Knox College. They had been one center of my life since 1964. Except for a brief visit in the 1980s, I never returned.

 While in Galesburg I was staying with Carol Hartman, who was finishing her third year as a student.  She and three friends were planning to spend the summer in Boston.  Since I had been accepted for the eight week summer session at the Cummington Community of the Arts in western Massachusetts, I decided to join them.

Jane Langer and Carol at Knox
 By then of course it was more than that.  Carol and I had been friends since her first year at Knox, when I was a senior. A mutual attraction was evident from the start.  But I was more of an older confidant then.  Carol and her close friends—among them Jane Langer, Judy Bowker, Jan Byrne, and Steve Phillips—more or less adopted me.  For awhile, Judy was “the Little Kid” and I was “the Big Kid.”  I won’t say it was foremost in my mind, but I did remember how important my relationships with older students were in my first and second years.

  Our attraction led to a romance that flowered in that spring of 1970 when we were both free of other such active relationships.  The summer together—before and after Cummington-- was to be the next step. 

Carol passed away in August 2020.  Partly in deference to those who were an active part of her life in recent years, and partly because I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with this, I haven’t shared memories before.  There were decades when our contacts lapsed. She got back in touch with me by 2000, and I have a Christmas card from 2001. At some point a couple of my emails went unanswered.  After that I had news of her mostly through the Knox alumni magazine. In a recent year I emailed her birthday greetings out of the blue—it might even have been in January 2020.  

Carol and me, Galesburg 1968, photo by
Bill Thompson. Perhaps part of a student
film Bill made with us as costars.
To do more than describe the Carol I knew in the 1970s would be presumptuous. So I can’t even attempt a full portrait or tribute. But with the discretion appropriate to circumstances—including the purpose of these posts—I can allude to what I know from that time.

 We stopped in Chicago first.  While Carol visited her parents, I stayed with Knox alum Howard Partner at his apartment in the city. It was in a then-funky neighborhood at Dickens and Fremont.  My first night there I listened to the second Poco album, unable to sleep. (So I recorded in a notebook, which otherwise has the usual and frustrating lack of details about that time, but is filled instead with notes on writing projects, memories and bits of verse. Though I did record impressions of a free concert in Lincoln Park, and a noisy voyage on the L to meet Carol at the Carson Pirie Scott department store, where I was still getting hostile stares for my long hair.) 

At Howard’s I picked a book off his shelf I’d meant to read: Joy: Expanding Human Awareness by William C. Schultz.  Turns out, he said later, that it was my book that he’d borrowed.  So I got it back, and I have it still. Most of it was derived from the Human Potentials Movement, encounter groups and so on.  But one thing jumped out at me then (or so I noted): the relationship between the body (and its ills or health) and the mind or emotions. Pretty standard now, it was largely disregarded in the conventional medicine of 1970.

 Schultz’s book begins with a description of his infant son, his innocent absorption in his surroundings, his joy in discovery, learning and experience. It wasn’t just that his son was often joyful: “Ethan is joy,” he writes.  But typically this does not last. “Where does the joy go?”  Reading this now, I realize that a version of this question—what happens to this kind of innocence, why is it destroyed, and how can some of it be recovered—was the active subtext of my twenties.

 Meanwhile Carol was having some conflicts with her parents, particularly concerning her reluctance to return to Knox for another year.  But they also were skeptical about me, though we never met.  They (meaning her mother mostly) referred to me as “the Polish poet.” Carol said (fondly) that her parents had strange nicknames for her, including "Miss Pasadena" and "Zookie."

Carol and her mother
 After exploring other options, Carol and I simply used half-fare cards (mine borrowed) to fly to Boston, with what we could carry.  Carol’s older brother Raymond was attending M.I.T. (or Harvard, or both.)  She and her friends were to stay at his Fairwood Circle apartment in Cambridge, before a summer sublet was available that probably Raymond arranged.  After a few days there on the floor, I was off to western Massachusetts and the Cummington Community of the Arts. 

My actual memories of Cummington are like snapshots, loosely related.  I also haven’t found manuscripts or notebooks that I can attribute specifically to my time there, which turned out to be only about four weeks.  But I do have a few relevant documents. And I have many letters (remember them?) that Carol wrote to me as well as letters I wrote to her, beginning in 1968 and including while we were separated that summer.  Some of the contents provide  details and a few prods—or even corrections—to memories of Cummington. 

I also have a supplement to memory that’s unique in my experience: a published novel written about the Cummington Community and partially about that summer.  Music From a Broken Piano by James Baker Hall was published in 1982 by the Fiction Collective—the outfit founded by the previously mentioned novelist Ronald Sukenick, among others.  I remember James Baker Hall being there in Cummington that summer of 1970—though I was introduced to him as a photographer, not a writer.

  Some of the characters, a few events and relationships, and even some words spoken, I recall from that summer. But the novel is actually set in the summer of 1969, when this arts community was formed (called “Farmington” in the novel.)  Some, perhaps many people were there for both summers.  The novel seems highly fictionalized, and is somewhat cleverly confusing in that he gives the names of a couple of actual people to characters not based on them but (it seemed to me) on someone else I recognized.  Some of the novel’s events may have in some sense happened in 1969.  That summer did feature (according to a subsequent newsletter), for example, the presentation of “3 Pieces for Broken Piano.”

 Of course I first paged through this novel to see if there was a character based on me.  When I was pretty sure there wasn’t, I lost interest for awhile. Though reading it recently I recognize an imaginative story of those times, it’s useful in this context mostly for ambiance, description of the places, which seem accurate to my recollections.  The ambiance included frequent seemingly important discussions and rapid interpersonal events and impressions, most of which I've forgotten, but even if I remembered them, Baker Hall's novel would convince me to ignore most of them. 

 James Baker Hall was indeed known for his photographs as well as his writing, principally poetry, and was much honored as a poet and teacher in his native Kentucky, where he was the state's Poet Laureate. 

The Cummington Community of the Arts was located on some 150 acres of woods and fields, between Northampton and Pittsfield in western Massachusetts.   It was centered on what had been a working farm, though not in cultivation for decades, perhaps generations. Beginning in the 1922 when it was called The Music Box (which apparently was a summer theatre), Cummington had hosted a succession of arts schools and summer workshops.  A number of famous people had participated at one time or another, including poets Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish, artists Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, and photographer Diane Arbus.

 The Cummington area was best known for another sprawling fallow farm, the former residence of the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant.  Though I don’t think I knew it at the time, we also weren’t very far from the farm where Herman Melville lived when he was writing Moby Dick, and occasionally dining and telling tall tales at the neighboring farm of the Nathaniel Hawthornes.

 Partly because of all this, and the presence of teachers and students from prestigious New England universities, I was perhaps dimly if not consciously aware that I was swimming in different waters, closer to traditional centers of power, past and future.  It wasn’t western Pennsylvania or the Midwest anymore. 

cover of brochure with photo from 1969
This Cummington spread had been reconstituted as a self-organizing Community of the Arts just the year before—that is, the summer of 1969 that Baker Hall had novelized.  Evidently one of the poetry readings I attended at Yale when I was in Stony Creek the previous winter had included a few Cummington attendees showing a film and making a pitch for the community.  I wrote to the address they gave and applied for this summer.  I was invited to attend, pretty much cost-free.  The invitation followed me to Buffalo.

 So on Sunday, June 20 I arrived for the session that was to end August 15. Part way up a hill was the center of the Cummington spread: a large building with kitchen and dining hall, a large barn that served as a dormitory and another barn-like structure with art studios and darkroom.  One of Cummington’s selling points was that it could accommodate several families, and they were housed mostly in cabins further up the hill. There were also buildings down the hill that I don’t think I ever visited, but as it turned out, that’s where the cool people wound up. There were some 45 people there at Cummington in 1970, somewhat straining its capacity.

 As a solo, a newbie and a freebie, I was housed in the big barn.  Baker Hall described it well: I was to live in “more of a stall than a room, with four walls and a door but no ceiling.”  There was no privacy based on sound.  I had a bed and a table for a desk. The nearest bathroom and source of hot water was in the main building next to the barn.  My first letter back to Carol mentioned the cold (later it would be the heat), the weak light (I requested and got a decent reading lamp), and the incessant sound of an oboe player relentlessly practicing his scales. As I was soon to discover, close to half of the “community” were classical musicians and music students, many from Yale.  It was as if a busload of them got lost on their way to Tanglewood. 

One of the C. structures (not THE barn); maybe
what was Rhea's studio in 1970
Though I was impressed by the country silence and the skyful of stars, the first group meal didn’t suggest that this was going to be a community experience for me (or so I wrote to Carol.)  What I was hoping for I suppose was something like the Black Mountain College experience of the 1930s through the 1950s, that Robert Creeley was part of and talked about—cutting-edge artists and students in various arts (and in Black Mountain’s case, sciences) in an environment of experimentation and cross-fertilization. 

 Apart from high expectations, my hopes were doomed (as I think I knew then) by another imperative: the overriding political issues of the moment.  We were less than two months past Cambodia and Kent State. The Vietnam War was still expanding. It was supposed to be the summer we’d hear the drumming.  But all I was hearing was the oboe, and the vast silence of the country. 

Harvard spring 1970
 Not that there was much drumming elsewhere.  We arrived in Cambridge in time to witness and participate in an antiwar march through Harvard Square, but it clearly was nothing like what we heard had happened there that spring.  It turned out to be the last such demonstration I ever saw there.  For one thing, the students had taken their drums and gone home. That had happened everywhere.  And though political ferment was not over, it had turned sullen on the war, and fractured into separate and sometimes hostile movements.  Women’s lib, for instance, and Black Power. But I was still experiencing those emotions from the spring, including the anger I had suppressed so as not to endanger others during the Knox occupation.  That didn’t make me a happy camper.

 Plus my own diffidence in an unfamiliar situation with people I didn’t quite get.  The only time Cummington is mentioned in a surviving notebook is to quote some unnamed person after I’d evidently held forth on something or other.  “Gee, I didn’t know you could talk like that,” this person said.  “I didn’t know you talked at all.” 

Though I probably read fiction and poetry as well as journalism and so on, the most characteristic reading I did at Cummington—and the only thing I specifically recall—was the Black Panther Party newspaper.  I was constructing a play out of fragments, quotes from its articles as well as other elements, a series of voices.  I never finished it, but the reading helped me see things from another perspective, as I began to more deeply understand what was and is called institutional and structural racism.  Some of this amplified the personal point of view I first found in James Baldwin’s essays, as far back as high school.  This time I did get caught in the rhetoric (revolutionary and otherwise) of the Panthers political engagement and analysis, though not the imagery of violence. Mostly I learned a little more of what it was like to be Black in America.

 The Black Panthers were known in the media for their aggressive rhetoric in favor of violent revolution, which owed some of its intellectual basis to Marxism.  But as their newspaper chronicled, they pioneered social services directed to the Black community.  The best known of these was the free breakfast program, in which the Panthers organization fed more children in the Oakland area particularly, than did the state of California.  The federal public school free breakfast program didn’t exist then, and may well have been inspired by the success of their efforts.  But all levels of government in those years felt free to harass, arrest and at least in the case of Fred Hampton, murder people because they were Black Panthers.

 This was within the more general context of the times.  The Vietnam War period of the 1960s and 1970s was an intense dance of the apocalyptic and utopian. As poet W.S. Merwin described it:  “Wild aspiration and vertiginous despair existed not alternately but at once, and at times we may have clung to visionary hopes not so much because they were really credible as because we felt it would be not only mean-spirited but fatal to abandon them.  We knew a kind of willful desperation.” And I would add, a kind of willed innocence.

W.S. Merwin. Photo by James Baker Hall
 It may be hard to remember and difficult to explain in today’s context, just how different this period was, and how it nevertheless still echoes. “We know that age to be utterly beyond our reach now, irretrievably past, a period whose distance we already feel as though it had stretched into centuries,” Merwin continues (in the preface to his 1992 collection The Second Four Books of Poems), “and yet it appears to us to be not only recent but present, still with us not as a memory but as a part of our unfinished days, a ground or backdrop before which we live.  It could be said that we are haunted by it, which would suggest that that time was not done with in us, that what we saw and felt then is still part of our incompleteness and our choices.”

Cummington was not untouched by countercultural concerns, and some of it founding members probably wanted to integrate them into its communal experience.  But I didn’t sense much awareness around me there of the political ideas and ferment going on then.  The place seemed to be divided among oblivious academics, spaced-out hippie artists and frightened music students.   I felt isolated. 

Rhea Ormond photo. The book is
"A Quick Graph," collection of
Robert Creeley's commentary
Later in the summer I came to some empathetic understanding of at least the frightened music students.  On a trip to town or somewhere with a few Cummington people, I found myself at a coffee shop table across from a quiet young woman I hadn’t really talked with before.  She was a music student at Yale. Our somewhat stilted conversation seemed to be loosening up until I said something about the war. She became quiet as I babbled on, until her eyes filled with tears. “I just want to study music,” she finally said.  So I saw that her life, too, was being deformed by the war.   

 By then my isolation had already been dramatized. Since I was getting a largely free ride at Cummington based on my work, I felt obligated to share it, so I gave a poetry reading after a couple of weeks.  However, some discussion the previous day infuriated me so much that I stayed up all night writing a long discursive and often angry poem which ended with the words, “Cummington, you are up against yourselves.”  It was the last thing I read, and I sat down to a complete and lasting silence.  Oddly, I hadn’t expected that.

   However, I was to have one more public performance with a different outcome, before I left halfway through the scheduled eight weeks.

 I had other moments of alienation, as when many were talking about (and participating in) an “environmental art” project, which essentially was digging a big ditch. To me it was the opposite of “environmental” in the sense of ecological, since it was basically an act of needless  (and to me, worse than pointless) destruction of the environment—and as such, a demonstration of human ego that was a principal cause of our depleted planet.  I don’t think anyone else got my point.

  On the other hand there was one event I recall that gave me a Black Mountain College community vibe. Someone organized a performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” which is comprised of a short musical passage to be played 840 times. A complete performance could take from 18 to 36 hours. 

New York premiere of Vexations: John Cage
(standing) with one of the pianists, John Cale
(later of the Velvet Underground.) Seated is
the only audience member to witness the 
entire 18 hour performance.
Though the eccentric and influential composer in late nineteenth/ early twentieth century Paris is now known for several haunting piano works, this Satie piece was not published or performed in his lifetime.  In fact it was not commercially published in the U.S. until 1969.  John Cage (who incidentally had participated in Black Mountain College) discovered the manuscript, and later organized the first concert, in New York City in 1963, in which a dozen pianists played the repeated motif continuously for just over 18 hours.  

 The same basic format was followed at Cummington, which may well have been the second performance anywhere of this piece (most of the documented performances seem actually to have been in the last decade or so.)

  The grand piano was moved in front of the fireplace in the main building, with candles around it.  Seats were provided, and audience members came and went over the hours. There were enough pianists to perform it in relays, though probably they had more than one shift.  I went to listen three times—at the beginning, at some point late at night, and for the finish.  I stayed long enough each time to feel the hypnotic effect, which fatigue and a few tokes tended to enhance. 

 I was not entirely solitary or even misanthropic at Cummington.  I participated in community discussions and some events, did my turns in the kitchen, played volleyball and spent sociable hours usually inflected with wine and dope.  On one of the first days I was part of a group that piled into a car to see the Beatles movie Let It Be at a Northampton theatre, much to the consternation of Chris Horton, an artist and the person in charge of the community, who wanted everyone to focus on Cummington.  But people came and went all summer anyway.  (As for the movie, it played as the dour prequel to the recent breakup of the Beatles, but on the evidence of the recent Get Back cuts of the same 1969 footage, seems more like a reflection of the original director’s offended ego.)

 I also observed (as apparently did James Baker Hall) some of the sexual and interpersonal dynamics of an idealistic group of high achievers isolated together.  I’d already heard of a summer in which four young male philosophers and their wives lived together in one house to “do” philosophy together, and all four marriages collapsed before fall.  At least one marriage openly lapsed at Cummington: a blond wife, the most glamorously attractive woman there, took up with the most strikingly attractive young man.  There were also racial dynamics too complex to get into (though Baker Hall gives it a try, with limited success in my view.)  

Heather McHugh in 1981
One of the first people I met at Cummington was a young poet named Heather McHugh, 22 at the time, who was assigned a room (or stall) near mine on the barn’s second floor.  She visited my room, read some of my poems and declared that I might become as famous as she would be.  Then she reclined on my bed.  I was frozen at my desk for a little too long, so by the time I could move she had already left. 

 In memory, that was about the last I saw of her, though letters to Carol indicate we were casually friendly throughout. Carol even met her a couple of times.  Heather did quickly disappear from the barn, however, becoming associated with the residents of a cabin elsewhere—visual artists or ceramicists and filmmakers, I think.  Anyway, they were what I thought of as the Cool Kids of the community.  She moved down there. 

 And Heather McHugh indeed became famous, at least in poetry and academic circles, with prize-winning poetry collections, much-praised translations and literary essays, as well as teaching.  She’s a literary eminence now.

 I had other casually friendly relationships with people whose names I unfortunately no longer remember, including the slightly older man, also a writer, with whom I got roaring drunk one night. When he tried to drive us in his big old Buick up the rutted hill to his family cabin, it slid backwards into a ditch and we were suddenly pitched at an angle looking up at the stars, laughing hysterically. 

Rhea Ormond at C. 1970. BK photo
I made one friend, an artist and photographer named Rhea Ormond.  She lived in the smaller barnlike building some yards from the big barn, with an enormous studio and a darkroom.  Rhea was enthusiastic, open-hearted, astute and generous.  She got me to collaborate on an oil painting with her, and she also showed me how to develop photos.  I believe she had been at Cummington the summer before, and returned at least one more year.  We exchanged infrequent letters for several years, and met at least once more. Rhea eventually settled in rural North Carolina and specializes in murals and large canvases, while also teaching at a community college.  She’s a valued artist and respected member of her community.

 After awhile I met a guitarist, Alan Jaffe, who lived on the ground floor of the barn.  The “stalls” that Baker Hall described pertained mostly to the second floor, which was on the level of a hayloft.  At least some of the first floor stalls had ceilings and full-length walls, so they were fully enclosed rooms.  Alan lived in one of these.  I’m not sure how we met.  Perhaps I heard him playing jazz on his electric guitar, or maybe Rhea introduced us. In any case, we wound up collaborating on a set of my songs, working them out in relaxed sessions in his large room over a couple of weeks.

 Alan Jaffe was a Yale music student then, and has since become a notable jazz guitarist in New York.  I think he especially enjoyed playing the rock riffs and country licks he probably didn’t usually get to do otherwise.  He had both taste and touch as a guitarist, so these hours were easily among the best I experienced at Cummington. 

 Meanwhile, Carol and I were exchanging frequent letters and occasional phone calls. Soon she arrived for a few days visit. I found an unused room at the bottom of the barn—not really fit for ordinary habitation, but private, so we slept there.  At first Carol was wary, perhaps intimidated by the people at Cummington, and didn’t want to participate in much. But she warmed up to several, like Rhea, one at a time.  

Her visit definitely changed how people viewed me. They could now tell themselves my moodiness was a natural response to being separated from such a beautiful girlfriend. Women whose interest in me had gone nowhere now understood, and at least pretended to approve of, my faithfulness. When Carol left—hitching a ride with several community members driving to Boston, including Heather—I knew that I wasn’t going to spend the whole summer apart from her. 

   Though I was in some ways settling into Cummington life, taking afternoon baths in the main building, heating up water in the empty kitchen late at night for my instant espresso, I decided to go back to Cambridge early.  About halfway through the summer there was a kind of open house event, with community members giving recitals, showing their artwork and so on. Alan and I were going to perform my songs.  That seemed like the best time to leave. I worked out the plan with Carol, who somehow got the use of a vehicle large enough to bring her friends (including a driver) and haul me and my stuff back with them.

 My memory is that Alan and I were set to perform late in the afternoon, pretty much at the end of the schedule. Most of the strangers who I’d seen wandering around all day were already gone, so our audience was a good chunk of the Cummington community, plus Carol and her friends.

 I’ve managed to unearth the lyrics to the songs we did, and I have a tape. Songwriting for me was (and sometimes still is) a process of working with sounds, including the sounds of words, how they fit the rhythm, with rhymes at the end of the lines.  Interpreting them might come later, if at all. 

Alan Jaffe
Alan and I had worked out seven or eight songs, though I doubt we did them all that afternoon.  Alan played electric guitar, I played acoustic guitar, with a mike or pickup, and I sang.  We’d prepared two hard rockers, both which qualified as a possibly new genre of apocalyptic rock: “SST” (surreal imagery of ecological devastation) and “Baby, Are You Looking for Me Now?” which formed the same sort of lurid imagery into a relationship song.  I’m sure we did this one live, as it is the better song, very propulsive, with lines like “Snarls of bible ministers’ broken lives/death cry of the power mower wives…”

 We did a mid-tempo rocker called “It’s Right,” with a kind of John Fogerty Creedence Clearwater vocal line, though with a bit of structure copped from “Get Back.”

This was becoming the “personal is political” era, though these interpretations come after the fact of composition. "It's Right" starts with verses about personal relationships ("When I'm away love, your eyes are in my mind"), then moves to a wider source of meaning: “When love is winning/crying in the streets/ Everyone you meet is your tomorrow.” “To cast the numbers/against the darkened sky/all we know is why and we can be there.” Then it moves to action, if only marching in the street: “When light is moving/across the face of time/the moment’s changing rhyme becomes/the sound of happy feet and I know it’s right…”  A bit of self-mockery there with "happy feet"--a little Lennonesque.

We probably did my 50s-style rock and roll tribute to the Chuck Berry era, called “Berrybush,” which I must have written while I was a Knox student. We had a jazzy, neo-Dylan/Lennon rant, which never got a title better than “Dostoevsky and the Purple Voice,” but I doubt if we did this one live, as I couldn’t possibly remember all the words.  We must have done “His Blue Image,” a slower song with Alan’s choice licks as background to chilling imagery about President Nixon (“the king of ice/with his melted smile and his dagger dice”) and the war.  I notice now that I managed to shoehorn images from Blake (“the horses of instruction”) and James Joyce (“the cabman’s battered face”) in the same verse. The blue image is Nixon on so-called black and white TV.

 We’d worked out two straight-ahead country songs, of the type common on the radio in those days, with simple structures that turned on the reversal of a phrase or image, like “Act Naturally” (which the Beatles copped from Buck Owens.)

  Of these, I’d written “Leaves That Are Green in the Winter” as a novelty number for my hometown group, the Crosscurrents. “No Down Payment,” came more recently, at Iowa.  It’s got a line that resonates with my memories of those months ostensibly at the Writers Workshop, in my narrow Iowa City room.  Several times the singer lists his possessions, which include: “and a bottle of red wine/a book of empty pages/and an awful lot of time,” before the chorus: “But fair is fair/and trade is trade/no complaining about the deal when the bargain’s made/my terms were loneliness for the freedom of a dove/and I’ve made no down payment on your love.” We probably performed this one.

 All of these songs were more or less heartfelt; none more than “We’re All Together Again,” which used the jaunty old ditty (“We’re all together again/we’re here, we’re here) that you can find sung by Berle Ives on the site devoted to Scout camp songs.  My version was slower, with the brilliant, mournful country-inflected backing Alan devised.  With the traditional chorus, it added verses that suggested an inventory of gently disappointed lives at a school reunion. 

 My cache of letters from friends contains many stories about the sad outcomes of clashes with the “real world” of jobs, the meaningless work, crazed or sterile work environments, the awful bosses, the mindless humiliation and boredom, and the accompanying crazed world-- the sense of imprisonment in a lunatic asylum. 

 These accounts began with summer jobs while we were still in college, but the stories—on and off such pages—became weightier after schooldays were over.  This song reflects these sentiments.

 Though the lyrics were completed some time before, letters from Carol this summer also included such stories, as she and her friends dealt with the job market.  Carol applied for an opening as a telephone operator, but was told she was too intelligent.  Her friend Julienne planned to apply the next day, but now knew to play dumb. Carol knew she could have almost any entry level job she wanted, but she kept backing off, as they all seemed so bleak.  

 Later in the summer, the Little Kid visited, and said she had to suppress her true answer to yet another erroneously arrogant boss asking why he should hire her: “Because I’m smarter than you.”

 My song included a verse loosely based on two people I had known, including a Knox student in the past: “Marcia dropped from college, and went into the city/Wrote ads for a bookstore, dressing very pretty/but the air in the city made Marcia blink and cry/She rented an apartment and stayed there till she died. But we’re all together again, we’re here, we’re here. We’re all together again, we’re here.”

 What I felt dying were dreams, hopes, integrity, innocence, changing who we were, and could be. This is not the last word on the eventual careers and achievements over a lifetime of people I knew, but these experiences and sentiments were prominent at that early stage, and at that historical time.

 As for Cummington audience reaction, apparently such sentiments were easier to swallow combined with a melody, a tasty guitar and bouncy lines familiar from youth, however ironically used.  The song went over well, as did the entire performance.  When it was over, a number of community members with big smiles congratulated me, and also stayed to say goodbye.  I even got a big embrace from the beautiful blond having the affair who hadn’t said three words to me all summer. 

 Then I grabbed my gear from the barn, and with Carol and her friends, left Cummington in the rear view mirror.  In three or four hours we were in Cambridge, where over the next years, life would change, more than once.