Phillip Lopate has been considerate enough to respond to the ULA's challenge with a full-page single-spaced snail letter addressed, "Dear Underground Literary Alliance."
Noteworthy is that Lopate argues not from a position of strength-- that he and his colleagues are good poets who deserve to be on the Miller Hall stage-- but from their own weakness. Further, the scheduled presentation is apparently an unfortunate mistake!
Jason Shinder accidentally happened to get a book contract to put together a "Howl" anthology, and happened to accidentally ask fellow academy writer Lopate to contribute. That neither is in any way a Beat poet wasn't a consideration. "--I have never ever presented myself as a Beat, or an inheritor of the Beat mantle-- quite the contrary," Lopate writes. The refined delicate characters who'll be on the Miller Hall stage celebrating "Howl" turn out to be innocent bystanders! ("Beats? No, we're not Beats, never said we were in any way related to Beats!" they proclaim.)
The culprit must then be book corp Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, for designating a line-up of literary usual suspects to take charge of the anthology-- the Miller Hall event part of the publicity. Which in no way detracts from the purpose of the ULA's counter-reading. It intensifies our purpose, I'd say.
The puppets dancing to the publisher's strings scream to us that they're only helpless puppets!, not responsible for anything-- and so we should let them be.
The latter part of Lopate's letter argues that Allen Ginsberg "willingly ended up in the academy. . . ." What does this have to do with "Howl," first read by the poet back in 1955! Given a choice between a young, rebellious Elvis or the later drugged and bloated version, Lopate makes the wrong selection-- and misses the entire point. His argument to me is a celebration of the Company Man lifestyle which the young Ginsberg rebelled against. (Lopate also takes a shot at Kerouac drinking himself to death, and Neal Cassady dying on railroad tracks: icing on his conformist cake.) Lopate posits only two choices for writers: embrace the System, if you can, or die. He insists that writers like Ginsberg are readily co-opted by the Establishment, "because there isn't enough writing of genius to go around . . . and the Establishment, who are no dumbies, know that."
In fact, members of the Establishment, who are indeed "dumbies," have no idea how many writers of genius are outside their walls, because they're actively hostile to them. Have they read James Nowlan's Security, Frank Walsh's "Reagan's Brain" (its squelching by U of Penn a story in itself), or any number of significant underground works of today? Ginsberg's "Howl" itself is a classic example of Establishment cluelessness. One of the author's own former professors, Lionel Trilling, scorned the work when Ginsberg sent it to him to read. Only AFTER the Beats became a national phenomenon, thanks to sympathetic anarchist critic Kenneth Rexroth and to their own self-promotional abilities-- the excitement THEY THEMSELVES generated-- did the establishment eventually tardily embrace them.
Phillip Lopate, re-read your history! What kind of inaccurate tales do you teach?
Two sentences in the letter stand out above the rest to me. FIRST, when Lopate writes, "Neither is my work 'tame'. . . ."
It's not? I've not encountered an academic writer yet whose work WASN'T tame-- or at least its presentation. But I come from not so narrow a perspective as Phillip Lopate, the mouthpiece of the academy where everything is neat, ordered, polite, predictable, and safe. One can see from the posts on this blog that the underground is a contentious place. Poets battle at open mics and some take who wins or shows best very seriously. Some congenial souls are known to heckle futilely, or, in temper tantrums, publicly destroy another's writing! Contentious but also entertaining-- the kind of contention and entertainment the ULA brings, which the literary world badly needs.
Phillip Lopate, you and your work are very tame. Only by reading against us could you demonstrate otherwise.
SECOND, when Lopate writes, "--writers write in large part to reach out to readers unlike themselves; and it was the genius of Ginsberg to have been able to touch the lives of the 'safe' as well as the alienated, the academics and professionals as well as those hospitalized with shock treatment."
This sentence is a contradiction on two scores. Academy writers like Lopate write ONLY for readers like themselves. It's the essence of the MFA education: creating a built-in audience for whom refined "literary" stories and poems are easily digested. What readers does the Academy of American Poets, sponsor of the event, reach out to? The man on the street? No way! They've taken lifeless academic poetry into their fortress of bureaucracy, in so doing withdrawing it away from the people.
The other contradiction: the Miller Hall event is geared exactly toward the "safe," "the academics and professionals" Lopate mentions-- not toward any other body of people. It's the way of all such presentations. That evening "the alienated" will be reading outside.
"I will not try to compete with you in howling April 17th," Lopate concludes in his letter to the ULA.
No shit! What a terrible surprise.