Robert Duncan, one of the key figures of the San Francisco poetry renaissance of the 1950s in which the Beat Generation surfaced, once said that he didn't believe there was any such thing as a poet. What happened, Duncan said, was that every so often this or that man or woman became, in the process of composing a particular work, the poet. And when the work was done, so was the designation. In other words, the poet was a process one entered, not a title — not a noun but a verb. If one were to give Duncan's idea historical application, one might say that whoever became the poet might come to stand for the particular time in which the designation fell to him or her. In the case of Allen Ginsberg, for instance, who first read "Howl" at the Gallery Six in San Francisco in the mid-fifties, the period would date from that reading into the early sixties, when he published "Kaddish," a work of comparable power. Then, according to my personal chronology, a sort of hand-off took place, and the laurel wreath was passed to Bob Dylan, with Ginsberg's personal blessing.
There was Allen, in fact, among those photographed on the back of the first Dylan album I bought, in the spring of 1965, Bringing It All Back Home. Up to then, the poets I hung out with in New York — and we considered ourselves the standard bearers in all things — didn't give much weight to Dylan. He was a folkie, and a protest singer into the bargain, and our cadre was decisively apolitical. Joy had nothing to do with politics, and joy was what we were trying to create in our work. In fact, it wasn't a poet who alerted me to Bob Dylan's latest album but an actor friend, who brought it over to another friend's apartment, and when I said something casually disparaging about Dylan, he simply put the record on the turn-table and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" erupted over the room. End of story. There was no mistaking it. It was joy. It was the same joy that was just then beginning to be associated with those two new English rock groups, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was resurgent rock-and-roll, but in Dylan it had found an altogether new, bent, American surrealist, Beat Generation lyricism.
Dylan had gone electric at the Newport Folk Festival and been booed by die-hard folkies to the point of tears, but this new album, including songs that he'd sung at Newport, was, from that first song, the one thing he hadn't done before and heretofore evidently couldn't do. It surged through you and made you glad to be alive:
Johnny's in the basement
Mixin up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinkin bout the government...
Look out, kid
It's somethin you did
God knows when
But you're doin it again...
For the rest of Saroyan's piece, click here. And lift a glass to Terence Patrick Winch for sharing. -- DL