There’s a saying, oft shared with a wink among my post-WWII generation, “If you remember The Sixties, you weren’t there.” In many cases I think this misses its mark. The forgotten decade should be The Seventies. And this is not true just of that generation’s personal stories — while objectively the Seventies has just as many years and minutes as the preceding decade, there’s much less romance to it.
Earlier this spring I indulged in writing in a condensed yet round-about way about some influences that led me into creating the Parlando Project. To remind readers, I’d decided as a teenager that there was something attractive, even exalted, about poetry and this was entwined with an eclectic appreciation for music as a listener. Let me also be clear in summary about this: this was instinctive on my part, mysterious in that no one encouraged these interests.
Now more than 50 years later, these things are still somewhat beyond my understanding. I believe I have some ability to create phrases that seem a good shape and use for language, but I did not understand poetry all that well. Nor was I particularly well read. Even now, if one goes beyond poetry to novels, nearly everyone interested in literature has read more than I have. And poetry? My reading of contemporary poets was not extensive. My observation was that this was not so unusual in my generation of young aspirational poets then. Sure, we knew the greatest hits in the anthologies. A City Lights Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg might be on our shelf of books, maybe an e. e. cummings or a selected or collected here and there.* But at least among the non-upper echelon college creative writing students I crossed paths with, there was less reading of our contemporaries than I believe one would find currently.
Yet, on these small bits of evidence, I had decided that I was a poet.
Music? Note that I said “listening” above. Despite that single song I wrote on a borrowed guitar late in The Sixties, as I entered The Seventies I neither owned nor played an instrument. I was a howlingly bad singer, even more problematic than I am now. Therefore, my connection to music was as a listener.
As my story now enters The Seventies, what had changed there? Rock music in the Sixties and The Seventies shared many overlapping musical stars, and for those of my age, a likely compiled survey of greatest records would roughly balance in numbers between the two decades. But, somewhere around 1973 something had changed in the music scene —and it wasn’t merely the “27 Club” deaths. My own summary analysis, informed by reading a great many first-hand accounts written by others, was there was a change in drug usage. Heroin addiction wasn’t even the worst of it. Cocaine seems to have inflated egos and tasked musicians with a need to accumulate working capital to keep being famous and high. **
So much framing to start my Seventies condensed memoir —and yet incidents of my life to extract to explain the eventual Parlando Project from the early Seventies are slim! After the post-Kent State flame-out of my short college career and the associated failed college paper editorship, I ended up moving to New York. I hung out at colleges with my peers sometimes, though college for credit was an Eden I was exiled from. I got married, another story too complex, and too peripheral to the eventual idea of the Parlando Project. Still, I can think of three things in the first half of The Seventies that connect somehow to the Project.
I hung out for a season with a college radio station at Westchester Community College. Though the “radio” part was limited to wired connections to audio speakers on the grounds, the students worked to do their best to portray the newly expanded playlists on FM radio. New promotional records came in constantly, expanding what music I would have been able to afford to hear. One young host I hung out with had an informed interest in and programmed contemporary Jazz records. Other students taught the student DJs how to slip cue vinyl LPs on the turntables, which I found fascinating. The hosts worked their own basic but serviceable board to mix in the records or their mics. I gained appreciation for the perfect segue or flow in a set of cuts. Once in a while since, I’ve thought of an alternative, hip-hop or club DJ infused life I might have developed. Didn’t happen, though I later got to watch radio on another level.
Here’s the second story: when I had enough money free, I enrolled in an American literature class at SUNY New Paltz and lucked into the classroom of H. R. Stoneback. I recall one class were Stoneback asked us what relationship music, and folk poetry and music, might have with literary poetry, the very question I deal with in this Project now. He continued examining some points while playing an acoustic guitar. He was also the person who first informed me that many Emily Dickinson poems could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
This last one is a more peripheral story, but it connects. At another non-enrolled college situation I was ghostwriting a column and stories in the school newspaper ostensibly under the name of the woman I would marry, who was an enrolled student there. Now I’m not sure if the student newspaper editor was enthralled by the writing or his more carnal desires to sleep with the young woman, which he eventually did. He also edited the school’s student literary annual. I got the wild idea to see how many poems I could publish in it. I grabbed my portfolio of poems I had written at this point, retyped up some of those poems on a variety of typewriters attributing them to various assumed names, and submitted them. As I still do, I wrote in several styles, further establishing the numerous poets as plausibly different people. When the annual came out, I was around a third of the issues’ selected poems, and one was singled out for an award by an English department professor. He couldn’t find the student. “Did anyone know him?” he asked around.
That last story in itself, like many a good poem, has several facets to gleam or blind you. I could explore those — but perhaps I, the author of the scheme and the telling, has a distorted or glare-obscured view. What is it I draw from that tale, that might apply to this Project? I enjoy variety. I enjoy not being myself, and I often am most accepted when I am not myself.
I recall writing this sitting in a old college classroom building, not sure what it was to be about, but knowing the poor condition of the brick tuck pointing. 7 years later in the ‘70s,, I made it into the song the title says it could be.
I’ll continue later here with another post on how The Seventies developed for me — but let’s honor this Project with a musical piece. Today is the anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death, so maybe I should honor her and Professor Stoneback? Shame, not enough time after so much writing about myself. How about an example of one of the kinds of poems I was writing then? I looked through old recordings digitized from cassette tapes, and found this one from the 1990s which is an example of one type of poem I wrote near the end of The Sixties and set to music in the later Seventies. It’s a different gothic sensibility from Dickinson, and I may have been starting to show an interest in French Symbolists, though I don’t recall reading them until later in The Seventies. It’s called “Branched Song.” Graphical player for many below. No player? This is an alternative link to open a tab with a player in it.
*Note these poets, while alive during The Sixties, were obviously much older than my cohort, but they were also for the most part post the textbox canon inclusion line. Frost, Eliot, Sandburg, Wallace Stevens made it under the wire for the tail-end of the canon in the Sixties, though all but Stevens were still living in The Sixties. Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, were special cases, maybe there or not, though I recall seeing them first in textbooks in that decade. I did read, as did some others of my generation, Richard Brautigan and Leonard Cohen, who like the Beats were not considered canonical then. But both of those “young” poets were born in The Thirties. I also read poets in the New York School, particularly Frank O’Hara (born in The Twenties!). Black Arts and Afro-American poets came into my ken later in The Seventies. Note also, how scarce-to-none were the women. Not even Millay, who my father knew and read.
**”Rock” was a tag that started to be used in later Sixties to separate “serious” popular music from what was felt then to be the merely commercial and only incidentally and accidently artistic “Rock’n’Roll.” This transition is a complex subject, and it can’t be reduced to a footnote. Rock was open to a variety of influences then, but it was also far whiter and therefore less American than Rock’n’Roll.
And here’s a question that could be debated at length. Would the music changes have happened without then-illegal drugs? And even if something like the Rock transition happened, would it have been as wide-ranging and open to altering expectations? But beyond the Sixties’ evidence on those questions, the Seventies says there’s a rat-train of pipers to be paid. Another imaginary question: if everyone magically went into rehab in 1972, how much better would later Seventies music and what followed on have been?