When I first began studying literature seriously in college in the early 1970s, I was drawn to the most openly rebellious voices. I loved the Beat Generation, the Surrealists, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and the poets of the Black Arts Movement like my undergraduate mentor June Jordan. I still love them.
During the period when I was a student, the New Left was at its peak. It was also the era when the movements against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement flourished in the United States. The doctrine of many revolutionaries at that time was that anything less than total revolt was irrelevant and self-defeating: “Ceux qui font des révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau.”—“Those who make revolutions halfway have only dug their own graves.” I first encountered those words of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the French revolutionary from the period of the Terror, when Jean-Luc Godard quoted them in a movie. Godard was my artistic idol at the time. That quote embodied much of what my friends and I were thinking then about politics and art.
But the New Left, with its stir fry of Maoism, Trotskyism, and anarchism, never came close to becoming a majority movement in the United States. Maybe that’s because the U.S. is generally allergic to isms. I came to realize that it was those who make revolutions all the way who only dig their own graves.
But what does all this have to do with literature? Well, the writers who openly declared themselves in revolt against the artistic and political establishment were clearly rebels to my adolescent or post-adolescent mind. Those were the writers whose stances I admired when I began my own literary attempts.
I’m not sure how I came to realize that there were actually many ways to express rebellion, dissent, and innovative ideas in literature, some of them bravely open, and some more subtle.
Maybe it was by reading the work of feminist writers, who often didn’t stand on a soapbox and declare their political viewpoints, writers such as Virginia Woolf. The slogan of the feminist writers of the 1980s, “The personal is political,” leant itself to a more nuanced aesthetic. If even the small moments in life have larger social significance, then a writer doesn’t have to scribble a manifesto to make a strong point. Understanding what is political in a poem by Sharon Olds isn’t like understanding the ideas of Mayakovsky or Amiri Baraka, where the writer is clearly waving a red flag.
Learning what is revolutionary about the more subtle rebels has been a lifelong study for me. In the next couple of blogs, I’ll talk about a couple of the writers where the social change implications of their work have only become clearer to me as I’ve read more.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer