With Allen in Arkansas: An Ozark Diary, by John Wood (Friday, May 2, 1969)
October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
Friday, May 2, 1969—Rick Ryan, another one of the poets in the Program, Larry, and I picked up Allen and Peter at the hotel at 10:30. We took them to the Student Union to get breakfast. On the way we looked at Steve Pollard’s tree, which was now blocked off because grass (which could never grow under it because of the shade) was being planted there. [Note: Pollard’s tree had been a cause célèbre. Pollard, a U of A student, had climbed the tree to protest the Vietnam war. Threats were made on his life, and students and faculty rallied in support and kept a day and night vigil around the tree for days. I don’t recall now, these 42 years later, what caused him to come down. I assume the grass planting was done to suggest that Pollard’s protectors had ruined the area under the tree.
As we wandered into the Student Union, we immediately ran into everybody, and everyone was happy to meet Allen and Peter. They got some food and we pushed three large tables together, which weren’t enough, and we all sat down. In a few minutes Allen had met one of the undergraduate poets, Frank Stanford, whom he took a liking to and they conversed at great length about Ozark folk music. He also soon met the SSOC people [Note: Southern Student Organizing Committee, an anti-war organization similar to Students for a Democratic Society] and Steve Pollard.
Allen had to go call his agent—this was an hour or so later—and after that a group of us headed out with him across the campus. We picked up Jim Whitehead, the head of the poetry program, who kept telling Allen he wanted him to come over to his house to see his triplets. Allen humorously responded something about his [illegible] desire to [illegible, possibly “replicate”] himself and that he could see triplets any time and that he wanted to see the Ozarks. It was good fun and we all enjoyed seeing Jim teased by Allen. [One afternoon after I stopped keeping this diary, Allen did go see the triplets. Jim picked Allen, Peter, and me up and drove us over to his house to see them. They were cute and Jim was immensely proud of them, and Allen and Peter said all the appropriate things.]
Then we headed out across the campus, first to where Allen would read, the Science Engineering Auditorium. Everywhere we went people were coming up to meet him—a lovely experience. We looked at the hall and then wandered around the Greek amphitheatre, which we thought would be a better place for it but couldn’t get it.
From there we went to the Art Department. A fine student show was up and Allen and Peter liked it and met one of the artists and talked to her—she was very influenced by Mucha, and Allen gave her the name of a man who would be interested in her work.
As we were leaving one of John Little’s students came up and said John (John is another student in the writing program and had been one of Eudora Welty’s students) wanted Allen to come to his Essay Writing class. Allen had met John earlier that morning and I had also told Allen about John last night, that he was a good friend, one of the Pollard tree setters, and that he had the richest Southern accent of anyone here. We all went to John’s class and Allen talked for a while and read an essay he had written about being in the hospital (still in ms) and it was very funny. But he stopped after a while, because he said he was getting embarrassed because it was, he said, getting too dirty. We (which were Allen, Peter, Larry, Rick, Frank, and I) then left to go for a drive and show Allen a beautiful forest. We headed toward Lake Wedington in the Ozark National Forest. Peter wanted some milk, so we stopped at a country store and bought half gallon of milk and some bananas and we were off again going down the road eating bananas and sharing the milk.
Rick knew where there was a fire tower on a mountain top which had a great view, so that’s where we then went. And the whole time there was great conversation which I’ve forgotten. We climbed the tower and the door at the little room at the top was open. Peter had started first and rushed up the tower. Unbelievably beautiful view, but the little room only held four of us at a time. The room had wires all over the floor and Peter was worried about them for Allen, who walked all over them paying no attention. Finally we just unplugged them, whatever they were, and we enjoyed the view for a long time. At one place the ground rose up like two tits, which all of us noticed. From the tower we could see into Oklahoma and Missouri as well, I believe. I was the first down and it was great looking back up there and seeing Allen’s hair and beard blowing. Then we walked around the area—really impressive place. Lots of [illegible] and a magnificent gulley—very deep, giant blocks of white stone, lichen covered—cut out thousands of years ago by nature. [illegible] was blowing and a woodpecker was pecking away and here we were. We sat for a while on one great stone and looked down at how a whole cliff had been pulled away from itself to form the gulley and one great chunk had just pulled back and was standing alone.
And we were off again going deeper into the forest—talking of yage. Soon we came to a little town, Savoy, that was really only a store, filling station, and a few houses but with the most beautiful stream and falls. Frank had directed us here. We went down to the water, lilac everywhere, gushing over the rocks—and brown leaves were on them, which Peter at first was sure was shit and Allen also thought so, but on closer inspection found it wasn’t—and we watched the water pour off the little falls. Allen and Frank and I wandered off to the store, which was run by an old woman and it had hardly anything in it—cornflakes, Brillo, some canned food, and [illegible]—and mounted arrowheads and [illegible] that she had dug up, but they looked odd because she had shellacked them—and on the counter a poem about not being [illegible] was posted. We got orange drinks and Allen talked to her about the land, etc., and they got on well. And the orange was so good in the heat. She thanked us and we her and left thinking we were probably her first customers in a long time. We took off down the road toward a farm that belonged to the University but finding it was only cattle turned back. Allen talked about his farm, DDT, and the [illegible] of the bald eagle dying because the eagle is at the top of a food chain that gets DDT.
Heading back we talked of local words and customs, which Allen was very interested in and local words of other areas we knew about, and he recorded every one of them and their meanings in a notebook. Allen was particularly interested in the word “peckerwood.” On his last day he gave a reporter from The Arkansas Gazette an interview and wanted to use his new word “peckerwood” but got it combined with “rednecks” and called them “peckernecks.”
About 5:15 we got back to Fayetteville. Allen had wanted to go to the Black [E illegible] Week Banquet, as well as the Ozark Opry, but both were at 7:30 and the reading was at 8:00, so neither worked out. We left Allen and Peter at the hotel, and Rick let Larry and me off at Larry’s, and he took me on home. Sandy [Note: my ex-wife and later Larry’s ex-wife] and I ate a light supper and went to the reading with Leon [Stokesbury] at about 7:15. Larry, Rick, and Jim, who was to introduce Allen, picked them up.
We got there about 7:30 and it was absolutely packed. We had to sit in the aisles, which at that time weren’t crowded. The audience was excited, and the excitement could be felt. When Allen entered a high cheer went up and he waved to the crowd. Whitehead walked to the podium and gave the Peace sign—cheers again. The place was really packed now, and there was no room in the aisles. The stage even filled up with people. By the time he started, Allen only had about two square feet around him free. People were everywhere—in the vestibule at the back, outside the back door. It was the largest hall on campus but three times as many people in it were turned away I heard. I was sorry I hadn’t booked the fieldhouse, but we didn’t expect such a crowd, especially with Black E as well as Gabilee, the fraternity carnival going on at the Fairgrounds.
The reading started at 8:00. Jim gave Allen a great introduction and Peter and Allen began with Blake songs—“I went to the garden of love” and others. Then the complete Howl and [illegible] and poem after poem and the “Elegy for Che” in manuscript. People sang with him in Hari Krishna. I had goose bumps on me the whole time. Allen talked about ecology and dedicated a mantra to Pollard, praised the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], spoke of drugs—and read and read until 10:30. It was the greatest reading I’d ever heard. Really moving. At the intermission I managed to introduce some of my students to him. Also at intermission I gave him a string of beads to return the favor. The chants were also quite moving and he looked so happy singing and playing the finger cymbals and with Peter on the harmonium. I wish I could communicate the excitement of the audience. It was beautiful. Also beautiful and exciting was that in the audience was a member of the law faculty here who was Allen’s old roommate from Columbia. So the end was a touching reunion.
After the reading we left (Leon, Frank, Sandy, and me in one car—Larry and Mabel [Larry’s wife at that time] and Peter, Allen, Rick, and Jim in another) to go to a pizza parlor because Allen hadn’t eaten anything much all day. We all got giant pizzas and pitchers and pitchers of beer and talked mainly about poetry. At the pizza place people and people and people came up to meet him—rednecks as well as others—and again we were all really moved. One kid had been kicked out of [illegible] State for having smoked pot and was scared and didn’t know what to do—they had refused to send his transcript on. Allen talked to him, gave him advice, and some addresses, and Jim also gave him the names of people to write to get it worked out. He was very thankful. Another person came up to tell Allen that he was his “hero,” and Allen seemed embarrassed.
Then came the big argument. Allen and Whitehead got into it about prosody. We were all at the tops of our voices—mainly trying to hush Jim so we could hear Allen and what he was saying about Pound and Bunting and about open verse. Jim ended up calling Allen a pedant and it got going again. I thought at least it was a change from the arguments you usually hear about Allen being in. Peter kept trying to find out exactly what Jim was saying and Jim roared on, which isn’t to say anything bad about Jim, for he is a fine man, fine poet, and fine critic, but he does roar. Allen kept trying to say you have to be aware of a totally different approach and look at it through their (those of that approach) comments. Don’t try to impose traditional meter on Olsen. He also talked of Pound and what he was doing with vowel length, saying what if Pound had written “With Usura the line gets thick” instead of “With Usura the line grows thick,” picking up extra vowel sounds which serve to give the metric feel. He talked of Pound’s pronouncing each word so that the vowel could be heard. Jim had said you could look at the poems and not know how they were to be read. Allen said no. But none of this was as bad as it might sound. And we kept ordering pitchers of beers, and things weren’t so bad, but I was a little embarrassed.
About 12:30 we left Peter at the hotel—tired. From there we went over to John Little’s. He had a home up on Mt. Sequoyah overlooking Fayetteville. It was filled with people—people I’d never seen—2 floors—Allen was up and down—everybody wanting to talk to him. I was downstairs most of the time where the beer was. Later Allen came down and said “Well, John Wood” and sat down beside me. Some guy was going off to Europe and wanted Allen to autograph his [illegible] book, the “bible” he said. Allen drew a pretty sunflower—talked with me and Jesse, another poet, about old watches, this and that—and to Susan, a friend going off to Ghana—Peace Corps. About 1:30 he told me he was tired, so I called Rick and he took him back. They stopped for a while at a truck stop where once again everyone came up to meet him. Strange, the power he seemed to have over people.
Saturday, May 3, 1969…
Originally published by “The American Poetry Review”