Colophon Collection of Moderns
A brief interpretative
By Decherd Turner, 1977
Aside from the contours of the collection described by the surrounding questions and answers, other observations and conclusions commend themselves.
Taking a cue from the pattern of creativity which had followed World War I, there were predictions that a similar pattern would follow World War II. Now, in 1977, it is quite clear that there was a great wealth of important work done after World War II, but at the time it was happening, it was not recognized as a post-war flowering of literature. What resulted certainly was not what had been looked for. Expectations get couched in terms of past experience, and literary expectations are no exceptions. Therefore when the future becomes today, and the familiar patters are not followed, the tendency is to suggest that nothing happened.
But a lot did happen, and most of the events took place in the field of poetry. Proclaiming its message against discrimination, involvements in the Vietnam War, the new arms races, est., poetry assumed an immediate relevance. The very formats frequently used were suggestive: broadsides for proclamation, or mimeographed sheets for more conventional style of presentation. Bearded poets stood in the streets handing out crudely produced, and sometimes crudely stated, declarations of dissent from the establishment for "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…"(Allen Ginsberg). And, to obtain an even more immediate "publication," this was the basic period of the contemporary poetry "reading." Recourse to the voice as book lent depth and decibels to the movement of protest and alienation.
While the poet has traditionally taken a stand outside of and against his society, the Sixties offered the unusual sight of poets united in their protest. Robert Bly in the course of giving a reading at Reed College in 1966 launched an organization called American Writers Against The Vietnam War," the members of which "…have chosen to express their conscience through the medium of their own creations." In one of their projects, a collection of poems " Against the War in Viet Nam," are Colophon Collections names: Paul Blackburn, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, and Clayton Eshleman.
When the inspiration of poetry led to overt or "passive" action, the experiences with police and jails found anguished expression in such as Daniel Berrigan's Prison Poems.
While protest poetry captured the immediate scene in the 1950-1975 bloc of time, there was much sound work by poets who continued in the basic heritage of poetry: insightful comment on the human condition, and the attempt to reunite word and meaning. Such Colophon Collection names as John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, James Dickey, Larry Eigner, Robert Kelly, Lewis MacAdams, Frank O'Hara, and Gary Snyder offered genuine contributions, although undoubtedly some of these poets would be either amused or offended by being termed in any sense "traditional."
In the field of novel writing, the chief descriptive adjective can be no other than "absurd." Not an absurdity that is related to skill or style or general performance, but an absurdity that comes as a conclusion from a reflective contemplation of the ways of people in our time. Nothing short of a sense of the ludicrous can account for the actions and thoughts of people who live in an age where old mythologies have long since died, but whose judgments and actions are still dressed in dead rhetoric. 1950-1975 was a period of great social revolution without a single unitative "new" solution to or for which the "revolution" was structured. The lack of pattern left a limbo in which no fixed response came to a fixed stimulus. And thus out of this situation, the novel presented characters whose performances suggest an up-dated version of Alice in Wonderland, with a patina of violence taking the place of the charm of mid-nineteenth century non-sense. John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Berger, William Eastlake, Ken Kesey, Joyce Carol Oates, James Purdy, Thomas Pynchon, Terry Southern, and Kurt Vonnegut are some of the novelists whose writings fall within this general category.
In some novelist's works, however, the sense of the absurd finds a transmutation into almost traditional results by a new articulate ethnic identification. The works of James Baldwin (Black interests), Chaim Potok, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth (Jewish interests), are representative. In other novelists, a sense of regional identification lends the stability of location. Larry McMurtry (Texas and the Southwest, Walker Percy (deed mid-South), and William Styron (the old South) are cases in point.
One of the most prolific novelists of the Colophon group is John Updike. In many ways, he is the John O'Hara of this generation, turning his attention to the chronicling of the lives and loves of residents of middle-class white suburbia.
A major literary movement of the period in the Colophon Collection is the Beat Generation. The works of Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg offer good coverage of a group whose stance was more of dis-affiliation, rather than on of protest/reform.
The essay was strong in the 1950-1975 period. The ingredients of swift social change, dramatic divisions on national policy, the break-up of established cultural patterns, the presence of superlatively intelligent and sympathetic minds – all combined to give fertile ground for essays of outstanding character. It is possible in the long run of time that the essay of this period will emerge as the most lasting of all literary contributions. Leslie Fiedler, Larry King, Joan Didion, Larry McMurtry, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe have all made strong contributions.
Beyond the reflections on literary types present in the Colophon Collection, two rather surprising results are apparent: 1) the speed with which a substantial number of writers has been elevated to the level of "established" by the publication of full-scale author bibliographies (two separate ones have been done for James Dickey; some others having separately published bibliographies, are John Updike, Robert Creeley, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, Larry Eigner, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Jack Kerouac, Bernard Malamud, Louis Zukofsky); and 2) the numbers of items which have already been canonized by publication in highly-limited, fine-edition copies. A trinity of examples of such are: Howl by Allen Ginsberg (printed in an edition of 275 copies by Robert Grabhorn and Andrew Hoyem, 1971); Hints to Pilgrims, by James Tate (`50 copies printed on Fabriano and bound in quarter vellum at the Ferguson Press, 1971); The Fudo Trilogy, by Gary Snyder (108 copies designed and printed by Clifford Burke at the Cranium Press, 1973).
And thus the full circle is complete. What started as rebellion becomes in a few years honored orthodoxy.
Read Visionaries and Rebels: American Literature after the Atom Bomb, An Exhibition from the Colophon Collection of Moderns Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Friends of the SMU Libraries. Catalogue by Mary Courtney