by Richard Denner  

When I returned down the Ave the Grail was gone.
                                                    John Oliver Simon

While reading Jack Foley's Visions and Affiliations: a California Literary Timeline of Poets and Poetry 1940-2005, I came across a quote from Donald Allen: "These poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, and their own public." This quote from the introduction to The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 refers to post-WWII poets: to the Beats, to the Black Mountain poets, and to poets of the New York scene who were, then, the avant-garde of American literature. This quote can as well be applied to the poets who began their career in or about 1960 and who now have their own presses, their own tradition, and their own public, a presence which is increasingly becoming an online presence.

I arrived in Berkeley when I was two weeks old, in 1941. I had been born near the town of Santa Clara, at the county hospital, but my adoptive parents resided in Berkeley, and my dad had recently been appointed Assistant Director of Agents for State Farm Insurance. This was Berkeley, but it was not until 1959, when I was a freshman at Cal, did I come into contact with any poets.

Sure, I had memorized a little of Shakespeare at Bret Harte Junior High School in Oakland, and there was a Modern Library Anthology of American Poetry in the library at our home in the hills, but it came to me as a surprise, as I drank my coffee in the Piccolo, that everyone seemed to write poetry, that this was not an uncommon thing. This was an era before writing workshops were prevalent. A few poets held residencies at American colleges and universities, but mainly poets learned their craft outside of the academic curriculum. One might even learn poetry on the street.

Googling "Berkeley street poet" I see that Julia Vinograd is still on deck. She's the Ancient Mariner of Berkeley Street Poets. Simon says, "Julia Vinograd is THE Berkeley street poet. Doug Palmer was the first poet to write poetry for people on the street." In those days, Julia Vinograd was known as The Bubble Lady because she was often seen on Telegraph Avenue blowing bubbles, as she made her way along the street, selling her poems to the public. Doug Palmer was also the editor of Poems Read in the Spirit of Peace and Gladness, which was an anthology that published many of the poets who had attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 and who read at the Wobbly Hall on Minna Street in San Francisco.

The idea for these "profiles" began with Michael Rothenberg asking me to do a feature for Big Bridge on the Berkeley street poets, and I started writing on the ones I knew who climbed up on the window ledges of California Hall on UC campus to eavesdrop on the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference. Paul X and I climbed up at random and found ourselves outside Robert Creeley's workshop —there were a number of these workshops going on each day for two weeks and it was warm and the windows were open, and Creeley was saying, "There is a war; there is not a war," and Duncan said, "Why don't you let those guys come in," and Creeley said, "Sure, why not?" and we hopped in, sat ourselves down and joined the I.W.W. of Poetry.

The majority of the poets I've profiled for the Berkeley poetry scene in the 60s do not live in Berkeley; most were there for only a short period; some only for a moment. The Berkeley I recall and write about is based on my somewhat skewed recollection. But what I want is what I want—I'm a Maoist when it comes to me dictating my desires and I want to try and create a picture of what is was like in Berkeley before the onslaught of Haight-Ashburry hippies and before the media and the Revolution muddied the water a continuation of the Berkeley Renaissance.

Berzerkely is, or was in the 50s and 60s, the Athens of the West—the Berkeley of Baroque music, the Berkeley of Nobel laureates and little old ladies in tennis shoes, of stylish boutiques like Nicole's it had an art gallery where you could buy a Picasso or a Miró—the Berkeley of George Goode's haberdashery, where you could have a bespoken suit cut; of the Cinema Guild & Studio which was run by Pauline Kael and Ed Landberg—a street with tobacco shops and Mom and Pop grocery stores, like the Garden Spot, or the Coop, where Allen Ginsberg had a vision of Walt Whitman among the artichokes—a street that, in those days, supported many and various bookstores. I would bop down the street, get the time from the clock on the campanile by looking into the mirror in the doorway of See's candy store, peer into Creed's Bookstore and salute Big Daddy at his chessboard, check out the marquee on the movie house, buy a pack of Gualoise cigarettes at the Garden Spot, and then cut across the street to the Mediterraneum Café for a shot of espresso.

—O, too surreal—of course, the street needed to be liberated—there is only so much bourgeoisie charm one can stomach before the homeless puke on your shiny shoes, and the street vendors camp on your doorstep, and the unread copies of Marx's Communist Manifesto clog the drains—

These nuances may not mean much to people outside the area, but they are the geological fault lines of Bay Area literary history, and so I extended my street poet piece to include other elements of the decade, the Filthy Speech Movement, the Berkeley Poetry Conference, the Peace and Gladness poets, the Shakespeare & Company readings, the Summer of Love, and the COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Printers) conference and readings, along with profiles of poets whom I term "old Berkeley," poets who have lived in the town for decades, as well as poets I term "outriders," poets who passed through and who touched or had a touch of the Berkeley madness.

In Poetry Flash, I read that there are 5,000 working poets in the Bay Area, and I wondered, "Do they all have jobs?" Crisscrossing the terrain, lately, I have encountered the names of at least 300—the Spartan 300, maybe—and I knew I couldn't profile them all. The poets I've chosen are friends and are an eclectic bunch, as is to be expected when you pick a group of poets to represent Berkeley. I've heard it said that if you remember anything about Berkeley in the 60s, you weren't there, and in interviewing these writers, I found that their memories are indeed sketchy. I figured that if nobody is going to write this stuff down now, it'll never get written.

These poets take us into the vortex of the Berkeley scene and give us the feeling of the street in the 60s, what it was like to drink coffee in the Med or listen to folk music at the Jabberwock, to sniff the dust of the used bookstores and to watch a deal on the street going down. There is ivory tower erudition along with the grizzly funk of the pavement. I'm not trying to put anyone in a pigeonhole or cage any nightingales; it's just that for me, the avenue was the grail, and I want you to taste the flavor of these luminous and pivotal moments.


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