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Three Generations in the 70’s: Memoir of a Chicago Po-Renaissance

by Bob Holman


1969-71, New York, my “real” job had been to write poems for the commune; now I was adrift from any poetry. I’d steadfastly stayed away from the cocktail party apprenticeship program for poets while a student in the late 60’s at Columbia in NYC. Now, in Chicago, I lived in the basement of the Whole Earth Store (SE corner, Dempster and Chicago, Evanston), spending the days reading all the poetry in the store and ordering more. A wild young poet named Chris Petrakos began dropping by, we gave a reading together, he handed some of my poems off to the poets at The Body Politic which scored me a reading there, and, for the first time, I found myself engaged in a poetry scene.

It was that easy. Far as I can tell, still is. I mean, problematicas abound, hithered and tethered, but generosity prevails. My opinion: compared with the New York hustle and the San Francisco shuffle and the LA muffle, all three scenes which I love (remember me? Poetry Addict!), what Chicago’s got is muscular love. Theory as to why Slam developed in Chicago: because bareknuckle Sandburgian poets refused to allow scene takeover by Performance Artists (yaccch! e’en the redundancy of those words makes me yaccch) as did NY/SF because... the poets were already doing it. But we’re jumping decade here.

Early 70’s Chicago/Body Politic scene and the birth of the Northeastern Poetics Chair: At least three generations were heaving to at this particular poetic Renaissance. One was Paul Carroll, rest in peace, Paul -- he died in 1996, barely a ripple in the fickle literary scene. But Paul Carroll’s Big Table Books was the premier poetry press in the country as far as I was concerned, with a great magazine (Big Table), an anthology that made me drool for love (The Young American Poets) and a series of books to die for, specifically Bill Knott (St. Geraud)’s Corpse and Beans (after DesnosCorps et Biens) and Andrei Codrescu’s License to Carry a Gun. (NOTE FROM YOUR GUIDES: None of the Big Table books are still in print, but it’s still possible to find old copies for sale by searching Alibris or your local used book store. And see the last page of this article for links to browse & buy new books from these poets.)

Ted Berrigan was the honcho, and his new bride Alice Notley the queen. And the only reason was: they were terrific poets! and lived the poet life. We played pool, ate poetry, and partied. Allen Bates had somehow created this position at Northeastern, which the students promptly dubbed the Marijuana Classroom, and Ted had everyone jazzed, inspired, full of poetry, and ears for “Visions of Johanna” and O’Hara. Meanwhile Bill Knott, my hero, lived in a series of apartments until they filled up with cans and books and cigarettes and then moved on.

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