Re: Slinger and the texts of the 60's

Grant Jenkins (
Mon, 16 Sep 1996 09:59:37 -0400

To Michael Bibby and Sixties-L:

Michael, thank you for the note, but I wanted to respond to you through the
list to make sure that the issues you raised get thrown into the mix of
this text discussion. Let me respond to you point by point. Your first
point regarded the difficulty of the mock-epic *Gunslinger* by Ed Dorn:

>I agree with you that *Gunslinger* is an excellent 60s text, and one that
>seems well-suited to your class. I've always hesitated to teach it
>primarily because I think students *do* find it too difficult--but I've
>really only had occasion to teach it to undergrads--I'm not sure how it
>might play at the grad level.

As a matter of fact, I am teaching it to undergrads right now, and, yes,
they think that it is difficult--so do I for that matter. However, I do
not think that this should necessarily be a strike against teaching a text
to anyone, let alone undergrads. My students have responded with
criticism, vigor, and insight to the poem due precisely to the fact that it
is often just on the edge of comprehension, like a psychedelic music video,
sci-fi novel, or "art" film. In fact, one of my students astutely compared
it to *Brazil*. Anyway, it is this very challenge that the text provides
that I think makes it worthy of study, which leads me to your next point:

>But I also think that many who've been responding to this thread--and
>someone correct me if I'm wrong--have been citing texts that were widely
>read and/or culturally influential in the period. My sense of
>*Gunslinger*--and again, correct me if I'm wrong--is that it had some
>influence on the shaping of avant-garde poetic practices of the era, but
>not much else. It's an anomaly of the period--a long poem in the
>Poundian/Zukofsky/Olson tradition but primarily narrative--a genre that
>seems to have had very little purchase in 60s literary culture.

But I think to simply limit a reading list to "popular" or "influential"
texts is to somehow replicate, repeat, and reify some self-defined,
misunderstood perspective on a particular time. What studies of the
Sixties needs now is a little bit of critical distance through which to
question and critique these kinds of tautological constructions of history.
Just because everybody talked about "Love" during the Sixties does not
mean that it was necessarily the decade of "Love." In fact, most of us
would agree that it was a time of great violence as well. But that is
simplistic, reductive logic.

My point is that any discussion or study of literary history should not
exclude a text due to its lack of "popularity" or because of its
"difficulty." Your statement that "it had some influence on the shaping of
avant-garde poetic practices of the era, but not much else" belies a very
pervasive attitude that art and literature, especially if it is
experimental, cannot have an effect on a larger context. (If this is true
then why is Piccaso a household name?) Yes, it is a poem in the Olson
tradition, but it departs from the modernist impulse of Eliot and Pound by
incorporating many artifacts of pop-culture from film to TV to
advertisements. For its kind, this poem was immensely popular. (In fact
it did and still does have a large, cult following which led Duke U Press
to collect the five books into a single edition in 1989). It breaks down
the aristocratic barrier between high and low art, as well as the barrier
of mistrust between science and poetry. Most of all, I think, this
poem--because of its satire and its "difficulty" (which ultimately is a
question of language) challenges many of the cultural assumptions
(especially about drugs) and conventional reading strategies. It
challenges the very way we read in order to define, enact, and cultivate a
new cultural consciousness. This brings me to your last questions:

>I'd be interested in your approach to the poem as 60s text--does it have
>a broader cultural-historical significance I'm missing? How do you teach
>it? How do you approach it as "political poetry" of the period?

This new consciousness that I speak about is the broader cult-historical
significance of the poem. I believe that the poem attempts to affect
cultural and political critique by slowly seducing the reader into an
entirely new interpretive framework, so that, like the main character "i",
we undergo a transformation in subjectivity. For the *Slinger* this
metamorphosis in subjectivity (dissolving of the mind/body dualism, finding
new ways to articulate ideas outside of dominant discourse, opening the
subject ecstatically to the world and community in a very Heideggerian
fashion, throwing off the chains of progress, telos, and materialism) can
induce political and cultural change. Resistance to capitalism (in the
figure of Howard Hughes) and the industrial-military complex (symbolized by
the power plant at Four Corners and Hughes's attack on the Mogollones
tribe) can happen only after the "i"'s of our world dissolve their
complicitous, Western consciousness. Political change begins in the head
and body. The "politics" of the period, then, is not elevated above
questions about subjectivity, form, and culture, but, rather, tied
inextricably to them.

Through its difficulty, I maintain, the *Gunslinger* effectively challenges
long-held constructions of the subject and "sense" itself. In this way, it
creates a new world, a new consciousness through which a life without
end(s), profit, conflict, and "sense" might make sense. In a way, like all
good poems, it was "ahead of its time," but I think that the students of
this generation--more accustomed to fragmentation, shock, the (multi)media,
environmental distruction, and relativism--are beginning to make "sense"
out of this difficult and profound work.

Grant Jenkins
Department of English
University of Notre Dame