Well, I was walking up
hand in hand
toward the Rose Garden
and my old house on Oak Street path ...
Poet Robin Blaser, cofounder (with Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer) of the Berkeley Poetry Renaissance in the 1940s—predecessor to the famed San Francisco Renaissance of a decade later—will give a benefit reading for the Poetry Center at 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, Knuth Hall Theater in the Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University.
Blaser will be honored by Small Press Traffic with a lifetime achievement award. The reading is also a celebration of his books The Holy Forest and The Fire, collected poems and essays, respectively, published last year by UC Press. Admission is $20, $10 students. Information: (415) 338-2227 or www.sfu.edu/poetry.
Blaser, who wrote the poem that opens with the lines above during a visit to Berkeley in 1995, was born in Denver in 1925, and grew up in Blaser, Idaho. He came to Berkeley as a UC student in 1944, staying in the Hotel Durant, then on Channing Way and later at 2520 Ridge Road.
The next year, Jack Spicer, newly arrived from Los Angeles, was brought to Blaser’s apartment as a potential roommate by Spicer’s musician friend Gene Wahl. “He arrived at the door in trench-coat, Hollywood dark glasses, sandals and carrying an umbrella ... his feet were stained purple with treatment for athlete’s foot ... He had a mustache, which disappeared a year later. He stood startingly and threateningly at the door, and I slammed it shut. Only to open it again when I heard his laughter,” Blaser wrote in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, which he edited a decade after Spicer died in 1965.
The next year, Spicer met Robert Duncan, an Oakland native, on the F train coming back from a Wednesday night anarchist meeting in San Francisco, partly presided over by poet Kenneth Rexroth.
“Duncan was the really established one,” Blaser said from the steps of his Vancouver home in a phone interview. “I think Duncan was the one who thought of it as a kind of renaissance. He thought himself as the leader of all this, which annoyed Jack. But it was our renaissance. We were readers, and, joined into that import, had the sense of a movement of some kind.”
The scene around the university and in San Francisco included many students on the G.I. Bill, as well as former conscientious objectors who’d had art and poetry presses in the conscientious objectors camp at Waldport, Ore. The university was the center and it was two teachers in particular who made a difference to the young poets.
Ernst Kantorowicz, author of The King’s Two Bodies, who had been involved with poet Stefan George’s circle in Germany before the Nazi ascension made him a refugee, taught courses in medieval history. “It was taking Kantorowicz’s courses where we really came together,” said Blaser. “It gave us a context, an ability to think historically, to know how large the world is ... fundamental in working against that American thing that works ahistorically and pretends that there isn’t really anything but a kind of progression ... We took everything of his we could get. It even drew Duncan in.”
In 1950, Kantorowicz helped lead a group opposing a loyalty oath at the University of California. When the cause failed, he went to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. “’I’d take you with me—but you’re poets!’ he told us when he left,” Blaser recalled, “and all of us dying to go with him!”
The other teacher was a poet herself, the only woman in the English Department, “Josephine Miles, not to be forgotten ... not interested in the Middle Ages, but more interested in whether you use your own language,” said Blaser. “And Jo Miles agreed with our renaissance movement, which was kind of surprising, as she usually tried to calm things down!”
Off-campus readings and meetings were often held at the home of Janie and Hugh O’Neill, 2029 Hearst, where Robert Duncan lived.
Hugh O’Neill was a correspondent with poet Ezra Pound, incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.—something Jack Spicer remembered in the opening to one of his “Love Poems” in his book, Language (1964): “ ‘To come to the moment of never come back to the moment of hope. Too many buses that are late.’ Hugh O’Neill in our ‘Canto for Ezra Pound.’ The ground still squirming. The ground not fixed as I thought it would be in an adult world ...”
Robert Duncan talked about modern poetry there, and a group met to study Finnegan’s Wake. Blaser commented that it was where his own attachment to Mallarme’s poetry began, and—with readings by Puerto Rican Rosario Jimenez—Spicer’s love of Garcia Lorca’s poems.
In The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, author James Herndon reminisces about playing pinball at the White Horse, “the violent and very obscene Cal rooting section at games” (which Spicer loved) and their show on KPFA, “the Most Educational Folk-Song Program West of the Pecos,” as Spicer would introduce it.
The scene gradually scattered. Blaser went to work at the Widener Library, Harvard. Spicer taught in Minnesota after refusing to sign the loyalty oath, later living briefly in New York, then working at a job Blaser arranged for him at the Boston Public Library.
“There was a strong separation between West and East in those days,” Blaser said. “We didn’t know much about the East. Jack couldn’t find a spot, couldn’t find a community there. Not a square foot. It was the unhappiest I ever saw him. He wouldn’t even dress for it. One day I was walking behind him and saw the snow going down his collar, running down his neck ... It was provincialism, but also a way of protecting the ground where one stood, a defense against not being recognized ... he just didn’t like the style of it.”
By the late ‘50s both Blaser and Spicer were back in San Francisco, integral to the more famous poetry scene there—also known as “The Renaissance” for a while—their poems included in Evergreen Review’s San Francisco issue and in The New American Poetry, both edited by their old friend, Donald Allen. Also ironic was the location of the renowned 6 Gallery reading, where Allen Ginsberg premiered “Howl.” The “6” referred to Jack Spicer and five of his students from the San Francisco Art Institute, who took over an experimental art gallery on Fillmore near Union, which Robert Duncan had helped start. If Blaser and Spicer hadn’t been back East, they might well have been on the roster of readers that fabled night.
“Poetry in San Francisco was built by Jack and Duncan—they wouldn’t have somebody else building it. A lovely thing about San Francisco, that sense of being specially elected,” said Blaser.
Spicer died in 1965. Relations between Duncan and Spicer had been strained; Duncan would also harshly criticize Blaser’s translation of Gerard de Nerval’s “Les Chimeres.” Blaser moved to Vancouver, where he taught at Simon Fraser University, retiring in 1986. The first edition of The Holy Forest, a narrative composed of shorter poems (in the style Spicer called “the serial poem”) was nominated for the prestigious Canadian Governor-General’s Prize. In 2000, Blaser’s libretto for Harrison Birtwhistle’s opera, The Last Supper, addressing the AIDS epidemic, premiered in Berlin and played at Glyndebourne, London and on the BBC.
Photograph by Kenneth Taranta
Poet Robin Blaserin 1993.