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Eric Mottram on the American literary and cultural scene during 1965-66 while he was the recipient of the American Learned Societies’ award for a year. (begun in the last post and to be continued)
January 2, 1966: Dear Wignesan,
[...9 lines suppressed] One thing I can I’m afraid say for certain: it is highly unlikely that Laughlin will do Bunga Emas [An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature: 1930-1963]: he is blocked with reproducing his past books which turn out to be so excellently judged that reprints are needed. Can I see the Soyinka review? (Much as I hate Peace News’s guts at the moment): contrary to your thought, Tom McGrath did not send a copy, the b---d. He has not replied to my letters either and is hanging on to my Burroughs article when I want it back to try to find a home for it over here. [...4 lines omitted] As for your comment on my own pitiful lack of confidence and hubris, you are not the first to say that, and someone over here said exactly the same thing last week. With which I am tired. But I do see that I am in danger of being left far behind by activating loafers. Your choice of politics or university is so enviable I could weep. It’s probably that my birthday, just ‘celebrated’ makes life hateful. I must make decisions I can’t make about my future career. If only it were as easy as just accepting the jobs offered here. What happens is I don’t think about it and go on writing, thinkong[sic], reading, talking to people. The reception of my TLS piece was decent here - even among Negro writers who saw it. Which is a test. The response to the Stand piece on Williams has yet to come although Roy Fisher wrote me nicely about it. Now I have just finished another marathon on Arthur Miller for next year’s Stratford Theatre Studies. No more commissions now so I must get on with my books. Only a jazz piece to do, but it’s nearly done. You seem to think I lecture etc here - not at all: my fellowship strictly says no lectures except one-shot occasions. So I turn down offers, although I am doing a summer course at Buffalo in July, when my grant technically ends: it’s a very lucrative affair and should be interesting working with postgraduates on American nineteenth century writers. I did one lecture recently on Auden as Ang[l]o-American poet for NYU. Mostly I listen to others, which is good for me. Already a third of my visit gone and I have to book my cabin home this week! Good old tempus. But at least the reading for the Negro article - masses of it which did not go into the final thing - will come in useful. I’ve just read Stepanchev’s American Poetry Since 1945 and it is one of the worst books of criticism I have every[sic] read; fortunately it is short or I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. It claims to be a survey and treats the poets like bits of literary history - and even then has nothing on Koch, O’Hara etc and their crowd (a little and useless on John Ashbery), nothing on McClure, Snyder, Ferlinghetti or Corso or Whalen, and inadequate on Duncan. And Ginsberg treated simply as a ‘popular poet’ who sells well for inexplicable reasons. You’d never guess from this book that the poetry scene is rich and wildly varied: I have been to a number of good readings by a variety of poets and the younger men still come on, as Sandburg might say. The avant-garde theatre too: last night I saw a production of Gertrude Stein’s Play I Play II Play III and Ruth Krauss’s A Beautiful Day - at Judson ‘Poets’ Theatre: both were brilliantly done, with a flair and a certain vigour which I liked very much. The Columbia Contemporary Music Group puts on programmes which would make the Third blush for shameful conservatism and the experimental cinema has two regular theatres for its stuff, much of which is admittedly pretty awful but some of which is really new and realized: mostly in the field of combining film with stage and happening ideas. The new Tulane Drama Review will give you an idea. In painting and sculpture, the pop, op and abstract expressionists and hard edgers are still pouring stuff out. Recently, at the Jewish Museum, they had a show of Tinguely’s mobile sculptures, and Kenneth Koch put on a play which used them - actors in the production included the painters Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard etc. and the writers John Ashbery and Arnold Weinstein. I was lucky enough to get a seat - the performance was oversold many times. So while establishment poetry, theatre, etc. is as businessman-bound as ever it was here, the new thrives as nowhere else. The trouble is that politically America is imperialistically nineteenth century and socially it lives in the past era of charity. As for the integration of Negros - what a joke! Nothing substantial really has happened at all. And yet jazz is greater than ever: the new names - Shepp, Ayler, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders - are unknown in England but soon will be. I heard Mingus the other night and it was just pitiful repetitions of old successes - he seems temporarily to have lost the gift. But at the New School they had the New York Art Quartet in a programme of advanced jazz (tiny audience) which was superb. Incidentally, you would be interested in the Free University over here, set up to counterattack the other universities as a Marxist and progressive evening affair, with lectures on subjects the universities don’t make available. There seems to be a strong case for such a thing in London. For instance, who gives a course there on Marxism and Existentialism - and after all it is here that the crucial enabling beliefs and actions lie, it seems to me too.
Well, enough. Best wishes for everything. Yours sincerely, Eric »
[From Dept. of English, New York University.Letter addressed to 28, Cheniston Gardens, London W.8 and re-directed to 33, Mimosa Street, London S.W.6]
(c) T. Wignesan - Paris, 1990/2017
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