I’ve long been interested in individual actions—and minimalist instances of resistance—that testify against a seemingly insurmountable power. It’s no wonder, I suppose, that this interest has been revived of late.
As a poet, I have been especially fascinated by the role of refusal: particularly, actions on the part of writers—those whose very material is the language—to use “No” (and silence itself) as a dexterous instrument.
In an article in the Boston Review, I explored several writers’ renunciation of writing as a “not-saying” that “becomes language,” describing how for some poets the removal of themselves for a time from certain modes of production and/or from participation in the so-called publishing industry is not simply a negative (or subtractive) act but an action that offers a positive and proactive means to articulate their convictions.
Even in this small gesture we are reminded, as Paul Celan writes, of “Man as the being who can say ‘No.’”
Over the course of the past century, poets and writers as varied as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amitav Ghosh, Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds, Alice Oswald, Adrienne Rich, and Rabindranath Tagore (to name but a few) have extended this gesture into the arena of awards and ceremonial occasions, using “No” as a decisive means to articulate a rejection of a particular administration’s, nation’s, or organization’s aims.
Jailed as a conscientious objector during WWII, Robert Lowell resurrected the power of “no” on a more minimalist scale when he refused President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 invitation to that year’s White House Festival. The denial of this purported honor afforded him an opportunity to share his “greatest dismay [with] and distrust” of the administration’s foreign policy. In a contemporaneous interview with the Harvard Crimson, Lowell expressed his hope that the rejection would “have some significance.”
Almost 30 years later, Adrienne Rich turned down a 1997 National Medal for the Arts in order to protest racial and economic injustice. In her letter of rejection, she clarifies her refusal:
“I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.
Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored….”
The subsequent administration of President George W. Bush was the subject of similar (and no less vociferous) acts of dissent by such poets as Sam Hamill and Sharon Olds. In response to an invitation from Laura Bush in 2002, Olds described her refusal to “break bread” with an administration that was in violation of the Geneva Convention in the following terms:
“I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness–as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing–against this undeclared and devastating war.
But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.
What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting ‘extraordinary rendition’: flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.”
The above examples are just some of the many ways in which poets have harnessed refusal and allowed absence to have its vocabulary.
Is there, I’ve often wondered, an equivalent gesture for publishers? Can circulation itself be disrupted to articulate a critique?
I found an answer recently in a series of letters, housed in the Woodberry Poetry Room collection, which document the ingenious actions of Carol and Robert Bly, in their role as co-publishers (with William Duffy) of the magazine, The Sixties.
By way of background, I should say that Robert Bly’s activism took myriad forms throughout that decade: like many poets, he toured college campuses reading anti-war poems and took part in—and was arrested during—protests across the country. He was even, apparently, jailed with the renowned activist and pediatric pioneer Dr. Benjamin Spock. As his daughter Mary Bly recalled in a recent email message: “[A] big part of my family lore is that Dad got locked up for protesting the war and found himself in a cell with Dr. Spock, whereupon he promptly asked him for advice about how to make me a better sleeper.”
In his capacity as a translator and publisher, Bly also sought out the works of international poets (particularly Spanish-language authors) to widen the scope of American publishing, and he co-founded with David Ray the organization: American Poets Against the Vietnam War.
And, though (unlike the authors I’ve previously discussed) he did accept the 1968 National Medal for the Arts, he “turned his acceptance speech into an attack on the war, a castigation of institutions–universities, churches, publishing houses—for not acting against it, and finally an act of civil disobedience: as he handed his prize money over to a representation of the draft resistance movement.”
While Robert Bly focused his activism primarily on writing, translating, and publishing poems, his wife Carol Bly saw circulation itself as an additional means to take a stand—and, she did so in the form of the cancellation of subscriptions.
In December 1967, two months after the March on the Pentagon—which included the attempted levitation of the building by Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg & other action poets—and less than two months after 300 Harvard and Radcliffe anti-war demonstrators had “imprison[ed] a job recruiter from the Dow Chemical Corporation in a conference room for seven hours” to protest the company’s production of napalm, Carol Bly sent the following (inimitable) note to Poetry Room curator John Lincoln Sweeney:
Four days later, the Office of the President stepped in (which, as the Poetry Room’s current curator, I can tell you is an unusual move) with a two-page letter defending the university against such claims and denying any nefarious contractual relationship between Harvard and the CIA. On Dec. 8, 1967, William Bentinck-Smith (Assistant to the President) writes to “Mrs. Bly”:
“A copy of your form letter cancelling the Harvard Poetry Room’s subscription to The Sixties magazine has come to my attention.
You put an accusatory mark beside your statement that ‘we are not accepting trade from institutions we know to have money for the CIA or the armed services for research on chemical and germ warfare.’
I will not dispute the Blys’ decision to adopt such a policy which, it seems to me, if carried to its logical conclusion, would effectively isolate them from most activities of American life. But my hackles rise at the unjustness and untruth of the implied allegation against Harvard. Do the Blys not know that Harvard has a general policy of refusing all research of a classified nature in time of peace? that we do not have such research contracts or grants now and that we have not had such contracts or grants since the end of World War II?
Harvard made an intensive investigation of all its contract and grant sources at the time of the revelations about the CIA. It found no evidence of any CIA contracts or grants at Harvard….”
At the end of the letter, after he describes at length the role of scientific and medical research to benefit society, he adds a somewhat hilarious (penny-pinching) addendum:
“Incidentally, you say the library is entitled to a refund of seventy-five cents on the outstanding issue, but you enclose no money, although you stated that it was ‘attached.'”
When I asked Bly’s daughters if the Harvard correspondence was a singular activity, or part of a larger endeavor, Bridget Bly reflected that her mother’s letter to Harvard “would have been only one of many of that kind that she wrote.” She continued:
“While Harvard did have a special place in her heart (some of her uncles and cousins went to school there), she also wrote many letters to the State Department itself, to newspapers, and to anyone else she thought should be prodded about their involvement with covert activities. She was pretty isolated on the farm during those years, but she was a ferocious letter writer and wasn’t afraid to get right to the point…. She felt a sort of righteous anger that so many groups and otherwise admirable organizations would become complicit in US wars abroad.”
According to her daughters, Carol Bly had a healthy and “abiding suspicion of government agencies that worked abroad, mostly the CIA, but also the state department and foreign service. She was well informed about their activities, having cousins in all those agencies, and reading widely.” Mary Bly added: “Mom always seemed to know what the CIA and FBI were up to, and it was never good.”
The Bly’s experience with the CIA was not simply abstract. As Mary recalls, the family was “actively bugged for years.”
Family lore has it that while Carol was on the phone trying to plan Mary’s birthday party, she was prevented from doing so due to “the whooshing on the line.” According to Mary: “She lost her temper and snapped, ‘Get off this line so that I can plan a party for my daughter!’ A sober, very young voice said, ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am,’ and the CIA dropped the surveillance for an hour or so.”
In 1968, The Sixties press published A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War, ed. by Robert Bly and David Ray, using radical inclusion and juxtaposition (of such authors and historical figures as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Creeley, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Walt Whitman, and the “Author of Ecclesiastes”) as well as several articulated retractions as a political strategy. In the booklet’s front-matter, the struck-out reference to “E. E. Cummings” is accompanied by one of my all-time favorite publishers’ notes: “The blacked-out spaces are in mourning for the poems of E. E. Cummings, for which permission was refused by Harcourt Brace.”
According to Bridget Bly, “My mother’s hand is very evident in the inclusion of bits of prose by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering and NYT reporting of the war.” And, no doubt, in the booklet’s dexterous placement of articles on genocide next to graphic descriptions of American use of napalm.
On April 9, 1969, one of the most dramatic actions of the anti-war movement at Harvard occurred when members of the radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) forcibly removed Harvard administrators from University Hall. In the course of doing so, the SDS made six demands of the university, ranging from the banishment of ROTC from campus to “no destruction of black workers’ homes around the Medical School.” Fourteen hours later, according to the Harvard Crimson, “the protests were wrested out of the building by a massive police raid that led to more than 300 arrests, fractured bones and cerebral concussions.”
During the 1969 occupation of University Hall, an analog-era “hacking” of administrative files took place. Michael Ansara—a former SDS organizer and, more recently, founder of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival—recounted in a message to me:
“We exposed a lot about the CIA and Harvard and extensive lies by the Administration. Most of it finally came out when there was an occupation of University Hall and we (specifically a team directed by yours truly) popped open the file cabinets and stole the correspondence within, which showed that the Deans had been lying—just flat out lying—about the accusations made over the previous years and strenuously denied by Dean Ford among many others.”
It is clear that Carol Bly got wind of this “unearthed” information. Within a month, she resumed her vehement correspondence with President Nathan Pusey’s office:
There is no record of a response….
But, poets (and those involved in supporting this art form) are particularly well-equipped for that—trained as we are on patience and solitude and incremental reception, and guided (for the most part) by the worthiness of the action itself. Poets are uniquely suited, therefore, for acts of resistance, since we do not depend on the immediate prospect of success of that Resistance.
For more than 40 years, precipitated by the events in 1969, ROTC was excluded from Harvard. And, some greater transparency did emerge. If slowly.
In a 1986 talk at Harvard University, “CIA and the University,” Robert F. Gates shed light on the evolving relationship between academia and the intelligence agency. “In the summer of 1941,” the transcript of his talk states, “William J. Donovan persuaded President Roosevelt of the need to organize a coordinated foreign intelligence service to inform the government about fast moving world events. He proposed that the service ‘draw on the universities for experts with long foreign experience and specialized knowledge of history, languages, and general conditions of various countries.'” Roosevelt agreed to this concept (one that appears to have focused primarily on the humanities) and the Office of the Coordinator of Information was formed: this office gradually transformed into the OSS and ultimately the CIA (in 1947), which recruited to its ranks “some of the finest scholars in American… many of them from Harvard, Yale and Columbia Universities.”
During the early years of the Cold War, according to Gates, “some of the most noted university professors of the time served on a regular basis as unpaid consultants.” What he calls “the decline in CIA-academia ties” began in the same exact year as the letters I have reprinted above: 1967.
In his introduction to A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War, Robert Bly seconds Donovan’s notion regarding “how indispensable the intellectual community is.” In particular, he commends the poets who “testify by the presence of their bodies on stage” against unjust wars and against, what Walt Whitman called (in the first poem in the booklet), “the filthy Presidentiad.”
CURATOR’S NOTE: I wanted to thank Bridget and Mary Bly for their immense generosity in permitting me to publish these materials and for illuminating their history for me. And, I wanted to encourage any readers who have stories/anecdotes about other similar literary-political actions to feel free to share them in our Comments section below.
- THE LAYING ON OF HANDS: On “Physical Distancing” as an Ethics of the Archive - April 7, 2020
- Fall 2019 Calendar of Events - September 3, 2019
- Announcing the 2019-2020 WPR Creative Fellowship & Grant Recipients - April 23, 2019