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SINCE I could never write poetry, poets have always been romantic heroes for me. And now more than ever. It awes me that poets can survive Watts, Vietnam, and television to write more poems. Not that history has made poetry obsolete: it has merely conspired to outlaw it and made it more elusive.
Survival is the question. Most budding poets soon wilt and retire rather than risking sanity in a quixotic struggle to capture and liberate something in themselves. Those who continue probably have no choice. Ironically, that is the only way they can survive. Meanwhile, aspiring writers are stricken with self-doubt about writing. If, as Pound wrote, "The scientists are in terror/and the European mind stops," they wonder whether they shouldn't feel slightly embarrassed penning verse. Perhaps the class of 1910 could confidently strive for greatness, but the class of 1970 no longer knows what greatness is.
And between 1910 and 1970 the dynamics of reading and writing have changed. Few people read habitually now-movies and T.V. provide a far more effortless escape to fill lonely nights. Reading literature is a form of active self-exploration. Unlike the movies, books demand immense concentration and visual inventiveness. There is a constant interplay between the page and wandering mind of the reader. Often he will look up entirely and lapse into a reverie suggested by the text. People read when they want to be alone with themselves, when they shun the social engineering of the media. In other words, reading is becoming more and more like writing-a rare and hermetic pursuit of individual consciousness, the last abode of the Bourgeois individualist resisting the new tribalism.
But somehow, in between terrifying epiphanies about the death of civilization and the end of art, a few brave souls have had the nerve to put together another issue of the Advocate. That would be charming, almost quaint, if this latest effort were not so good. Romantic heroes they remain. And what better theme for them than their own romance? For, by design or not, almost every piece in the Advocate is really about the young artist confronting a bewildering "modernity" and trying to define it so that it does not exclude him.
A fascinating interview with I.A. Richards opens the issue, and with anecdotes of a pristine Cambridge and Mao's China he poses the tension between nostalgic tradition and contemporary urgency that finds its way into most of the magazine. His sheer good sense and faith in man is refreshing in an age of apocalyptic vision: "What I feel is that if there is a way of doing things which is obviously much better than what anyone else has no offer then, in a bad enough emergency, everyone will jump at it." And he defines what man must do to escape-he must find and learn how to teach "a world position, what's needed for living, a philosophy of religion, how to find things out and the whole works-mental and moral seed for the planet."
OF THE QUESTS for mental and moral seed that follow the most conscious attempt to explore the esthetics of war in Chicago and Asia is Richard Rosen's The Metaphors of a Cultural Radical. Unfortunately, this effort is also the least successful. Rosen's "metaphors" are confused and hackneyed: the revolution is a festival in which we are going to learn how to live a little better and make love to everyone and everything. Rosen is too self-conscious and experiential to be analytic and he doesn't seem to sense the depth of the things he writes about. To say "A growing disenchantment with this country among SoSers as well as Young Americans for Freedom, among a handful of Senators and a small number of administrators tells us that someday the present system is not going to make it anymore" is to say everything and nothing. What does it mean for a system "not to make it" and what are all these people alienated from? The important metaphor are not Rosen's but those in the language of SDS leaflets and Wallace speeches.
Though some of the creative efforts are very fine, notable Warren Perkins' story, "A Celebration," our romantic heroes are really at their best in criticism. There they confront their tradition and are forced to ask, as John Lewis does in a tribute to Conrad Aiken, "Is it we or our tradition that has failed?" Judging from Peggy Rizza's fine review of Anne Sexton's latest book, young poets are finally beginning to cast off the burden of "confessional" poetry. Paired with Miss Rizza's welcome boredom ("you wish she would talk of something else") is Alan Williamson's careful analysis of Lowell's Notebook 1967-8. Like so many other contemporary writers Lowell has moved toward a merging of private and public theme that hinges on a more detached view of the self and more self-involved view of events.
Events have forced the Advocate to change, and, if this issue is any indication, we can celebrate the birth of a new and vital era in its history. Most of the contributions were written by undergraduates (which has not usually been true in the past), and most face the problems of writers and writing in the age of Song My and Woodstock. But after reading it I still wished that some enterprising young. Whitman would unceremoniously burn down the venerable Advocate Building. Though the past that haunts that building is beautiful and moving, and perhaps more so than anything to come, it is over. Its present inhabitants should leave that legacy to the scholars whose critical voyeurism will no doubt make short work of it. In the meantime undergraduate writers need to banish the deadening cloud of fustian and self-importance that inevitably pervades literary-academic communities.
The insistent and honest cultivation of a subversive consciousness is perhaps the only design for escape left us. As John Lewis wrote on his tribute to Aiken, "Perception, erroneous though it may be, is still an act which reaches objects beyond itself." The reaching beyond is a subtle dialectic between the self and the external world through which both remake each other. Hope, frustration, and possibly survival are the stuff of this dramatic interplay.
An enervated age, insecure from the recent death of God and the apparent dissolution of the moral universe, can ill afford to lose the concept of art as total resistance. Who else will defy the helpless clutching at makeshift gods by a society desperately in search of meaning? So you see why they are romantic heroes.
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