Re: Slinger and the texts of the 60's

m.bibby (
Tue, 17 Sep 1996 15:00:47 -0400

In response to Grant's vigorous defense of *Gunslinger* as 60s text:
First off, I'm rather surprised by the aggressive, even hostile tone of
his response, especially since, as my original post pointed out, I think
*Gunslinger* is great. I was simply interested in Grant's approach to
teaching it and to the question of what its "influence" might be relative
to the other 60s texts discussed on this list. In no way did I mean to
challenge its "legitimacy"--either as an important (not exactly the same
as influential) book of the 60s or as a book worth teaching in an
undergrad class.

On Sun, 15 Sep 1996, Grant Jenkins wrote:

> 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.

Well, of course my original post didn't say one *shouldn't* teach
difficult texts--merely that I've "*hesitated* to teach it primarily
because I think students *do* find it too difficult." (emph added) My point
was simply that I've found it hard to teach this text--not that we should
abandon the teaching of difficult texts. What I strongly object to in
Grant's post is the suggestion that somehow my post was a promotion of
some anti-intellectual line on poetry. It casts me as somehow "against"
"difficult" poetry. Perhaps I'm taking this too personally.

> 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.

This suggests that my original post was arguing for the *exclusion* of
works not properly deemed "popular" and "influential" on the 60s-L
reading list. To quote my original post: "But I also think that *many*
who've been responding to this thread--*and someone correct me if I'm
wrong*--have been citing text that were *widely read and/or culturally
influential in the period.*" (emph added) My (perhaps) overly qualified
sentence and the points that followed it--that it's been *my sense*
(because admittedly I haven't really done research into this) that
*Slinger* was not particularly "popular" and "influential"--implicitly
asked whether I was wrong about this and whether the book *was* more
widely read and/or influential than I've supposed. My point was based on
my understanding that the 60s-L reading list has been concerned with what
was widely read in the period. If this isn't the case, then fine--but if
it is, then I'd like to know more about the readership for *Slinger*
because I honestly didn't know it was very popular. I totally agree that
*Slinger* is a fascinating text--but I question how widely read it was in
the 60s.

Grant's initial post about *Slinger* indicates his own misgivings about
the book's "popularity": "Perhaps this ongoing discussion is focusing on
texts that were more widely read in the 1960's and perhaps more
`influential.'" Perhaps it is: that was why I suggested this in my initial
response to Grant's post. Of course the differences between "popular"
and "influential" may be great--and the terms bear more consideration.

> 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."

I guess my real question about *Gunslinger* was only whether it *was*
popular and influential in the period. But here Grant suggests that if
it was unpopular we shouldn't exclude it from our discussions--fair
enough--but this undercuts his later assertion that in fact it was popular
and influential. Which is it?

> 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?)

Well, of course, my point was not that "experimental" (what does this
term mean, btw?--it's implicitly evaluative--it presupposes that certain
aesthetic practices are stable, standard, normal and that some "experiment"
outside of these norms--but what is the "norm"? whose norm?) art & lit
have no bearing on cultural life. The comparison to Picasso is puzzling,
although I could easily imagine arguing that Picasso's art is a
"household name" (whose house?) as an effect of market forces privileging
certain cultural values to the exclusion of others rather than any
inherent "experimental" value it has.

> 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).

So this is my question: What do you mean by being "immensely popular"
"for its kind"? And doesn't "cult following" contradict the notion of
being "immensely popular"? My initial post's implicit query about the
extent of *Gunslinger*'s popularity was in earnest. I'd like to know
exactly how many people were reading it in its day--where was it most
popular--with which writers? What are the concrete facts of its
readership and reception? Of course, poetic value can't be measured in
numbers--but numbers can tell us a lot about the history of a work's
reception and the material historical facts of canonicity.

> 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.

Cool! But I suppose much the same could be said about any number of
poetic texts from the period. Certainly the dismantling of high/low
distinctions was central to the Black Aesthetic--and such works are also
"difficult" for many white readers by their use of densely coded
vernaculars. Many of Sonia Sanchez's poems challenged *my* white/male
way of reading. And I would venture to guess that a lot more
white folks read Sanchez in the 60s and had their cultural assumptions
challenged--and continue to read and get challenged by Sanchez today--than
have read *Slinger*--which, *of course*, is not an evaluative judgement
on Dorn's poem--it's a descriptive statement about the reception of the

> 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.

Funny, much of this sounds like what I've argued in my just published book
*Hearts and Minds* was going on in activist poetry of the period.
Sounds to me like *Gunslinger* has a lot of affinities with much of the
overtly political poetry of the period. So why make distinctions
between it and other political poetry? In Grant's initial post, he
suggested that our discussion of important 60s books on this list has
given undue importance to the "protest" poetry of the period and has
neglected to consider how Dorn's poem invokes "the very issues,
relations, and world-views that make the Vietnam War and its protests
possible." I sense a troubling dichotomy being established here: there's
all that protest poetry out there, but "artists" like Dorn are dealing
with more "foundational" concepts. The protest poetry is somehow cast as
reactionary, superficial, unreflective--not transformative of "the
reader's mindset." But according to whom? under what conditions?
according to which set of aesthetic values? It's precisely this thinking
that keeps radical poetry out of the anthologies, the literary histories,
and the classrooms--and continues to marginalize the academic world of
poetry criticism from the rest of the world struggling for expression.

Again, my original post wasn't meant to attack Grant, his use of
*Gunslinger* in his classes, the legitimacy of *Gunslinger* as 60s text,
or the validity of discussing *Slinger* on this list. It was merely to
say that I'd like to hear more about the "broader cultural-historical
significance" of the text. Sorry if I unintentionally insulted anyone's
fav poem.

Michael Bibby