A Memoir of Eric Mottram
Collated by Robert Bank
In the early sixties, Eric Mottram travelled to the United States and met a number of writers, including William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and others. He became friendly with William Burroughs during his time in London. These contacts resulted in three of Mottram’s best-known critical books; William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need (1971, British edition 1977), Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties (1972) and Paul Bowles: Staticity and Terror (1976). These studies did much to help introduce the Beat writers to a wider British audience.
When I say that studying American Literature with Eric changed my life, I mean this in more than the immediately obvious sense that, had I not been his student, I would not now be teaching and writing about American literature and living in the United States…. The following excerpts from 1963 letters home, from Bedford College, tell the story:
“The chap we have for American Lit. is v. keen & excitable & is a most stimulating person….
“I went to a terrific lecture by Mr Mottram on Tuesday evening about William Burroughs. It turns out that he knows Burroughs personally. He… said to everyone that those who wanted to could go over the road to the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ where they would continue discussing Burroughs….
“I asked Mr Mottram if there was anything written about William Burroughs. He said there really wasn’t but that soon he was having a book on him published in America & that as soon as possible he would get me a draft of it to read. I was ‘wild with joy’ — he’s the leading authority on Am. Lit. in Britain…”
…some time ago reading the late Derek Jarman’s first autobiography Dancing Ledge I came across this: “through my tutor Eric Mottram I discovered the existence of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs” (it’s virtually the only reference Jarman makes in his writing to his three years at King’s in the early Sixties).
More generally, investigate the work on technology and law, on music and film, on poetry and prose to see why William Burroughs has described Eric as ‘truly an intellectual citizen of the world’.
From Alive in Parts of this Century: Eric Mottram at 70, North & South Press (1994)
The editor of The British American, Bulletin of the Former Students’ Association of the Institute of United States Studies in the University of London, asked Professor Mottram to write a brief and personal memoir of his early visits to the United States. The informal results appeared in 1989 and 1990. “Live all you can” is a quotation from Henry James’ The Ambassadors.
This is a heavily-abridged version, interwoven with letters from Eric to Jeff Nuttall from “The 60s Collection” and some photographs from various sources.
In July 1960 the State Department, having discovered that I lectured in American Literature and American Studies without having been to the United States, offered me a “Specialist Grant” for travel and study. From July 18 to October 1, I experienced a route worked out in my Washington D.C. hotel on a map supplied by the Grant authorities. When they calculated the mileage and the transport costs — rail, plane and bus — it was only $96 under the finance arranged. This journey became a foundation for subsequent study and later trips, and especially the 1965-6 year as American Council of Learned Societies’ Fellow at New York University…
In 1965 I returned to New York for the third time, for a year initially as American Council of Learned Societies’ Fellow, placed as professor in the English Department of New York University, at Washington Square, in Greenwich Village. I arrived on September 15, and this time Ted Wilentz had found me a small apartment at 19 Jones Street, off West 4th, and a few minutes from the University… I cleared and cleaned the flat, met the rather formidable Teresa next door, and the motherly Italian lady below — who lent me candles during the Great Blackout on November 9: someone had thrown the switch cutting off electricity from Ottawa to Philadelphia. There were reports of riots, looting and prison revolts, but there seemed to be little panic in the eight states affected and thirty million people.
The eminent members of the English Department of the University really drew in this young, inexperienced and unknown Englishman immediately. On one occasion I found the place empty, and then Conor Cruse O’Brien appeared and just took me for an English beer at a hotel on lower Fifth Avenue — he was then the first Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities. Mac Rosenthal’s conversation on modern American Poetry directed my attentions freshly; Philip Harrier took me to the Bolshoi ballet at the Metropolitan Opera on May 5, 1966 — a memorable date indeed; Herbert Weisinger and his wife repeatedly entertained me in their apartment and introduced me to their distinguished guests; and I will only just add the names of John Landgraf, George Winchester Stone, David Greene, Wilfred Gibson, George Hubbell, Gay Wilson Allen and Oscar Cargill. Those lunches with staff members at McSorley’s and the Gran Ticino gave the youngster considerable confidence. Throughout the year I prepared future courses for King’s College and the Institute of United States Studies to come, read widely and reasonably systematically, and wrote most of my contributions for the United States section of the Penguin Companion to Literature — shared with Malcolm Bradbury….
Jazz experience expanded virtually daily through the WRVR morning broadcasts of Ed Beach — hours and hours of every conceivable artist’s work, discussed with expertise and good humour. The poet and jazz critic and writer, A.B. Spellman, befriended me on a previous visit, while he worked in Ted’s bookstore, and during this year continually lifted me out of ignorance about music and black American life. It was he who took me to hear John Coltrane, in his relatively early period, at the Coronet in Fulton and I met Cecil Taylor, one of the greatest jazz pianists, in his apartment, one memorable evening when the other guests were Paul Blackburn and Lee Baxandall, the distinguished marxist critic. I heard Coltrane again, this time at the Village Gate; the New York Art Quartet at the New School (I was beginning to realize what had happened after Ornette Coleman); Rachid Ali and Jaki Byard at the Dom (Pharoah Sanders sat by but he did not have his sax with him); Mingus’ Octet at the Five Spot; Albert Ayler and Sun Ra at the Astor Theatre (the ESP label was developing its catalogue at this time); the C Sharp Quartet at Slugs (the lead tenor sax was Clarence Sharp…); Marion Brown’s Quintet and Coltrane, with Jimmy Garrison, Rachid Ali and Pharoah Sanders; and a lady then known as Alice McLeod, at the Village Gate, in one programme, and Archie Sepp and Albert Ayler and the groups in another.
Every day, WBAI broadcast fine music and poetry, and most important of all, political and cultural documentary events which deeply challenged establishment American opinion in every field. We have nothing like it in this country, and are unlikely to. I taped some of these and obtained others later in London: reports on operation Headstart, of the Mississippi Poor People’s Cooperative, and other actions within the Civil Rights movement and official responses to it. I still use the tapes in my course at the School of Oriental and African Studies, “The Black Crisis in America 1950 to 1970”. I heard many American poets, A.B. Spellman’s series of black writers, on the spot reports of the Watts riots and the Berkeley free speech protests, Senator Wayne Morse on the Vietnam disgrace — one of the most brilliant speeches I have ever heard — and a hilarious gathering at Ed Sander’s Peace Eye bookstore on the Lower East Side. And I recall one of Dale Minor’s reports from Vietnam which left me so shaken, I walked the night streets to calm down. And then came the reports of the assassination of Malcolm X, AnaÃ¯s Nin reading and talking, and one of Chris Koch’s reports from Vietnam followed by listeners’ phone-in questions and comments: a remarkable American experience.
Now a list of events which contributed to this annus mirabilis.. Through Ted Wilentz, a first meeting of many to come, with Leslie Fiedler, at the Playboy Club of all places, with Jules Feiffer, the major cartoonist of the Sixties. Through Dorothy Massee, another Wilentz friend, I had lunch with Marshall McLuhan at the Limelight in the West Village — which turned into a three hour conversation that prepared for my visit to Toronto in March 1966. McLuhan phoned on March 14 about the broadcast we were to record for the BBC, and on March 21 I flew to Toronto and put up at the Four Seasons Motor Hotel opposite the CBS building we were to record in. That evening, Peter Buitenhuis, of the Toronto University English Department, invited me to hear Walter Blair on Twain’s unpublished manuscripts of the Finn-Sawyer saga — it proved excellent, and so was his conversation afterwards.
Next day I had a long talk with McLuhan in his office all afternoon — his secretary taking down, and he lying flat on his back on a mattress. Then we visited Harley Parker’s exhibit at the Museum — designed to alert youngsters to a full sense experience of under-sea and sea-shore, through light controls, ozone smells, and a sea-shell implanted ramp, climbing which triggered off a photo-electric cell and a huge film of a wave breaking just above your head. The day’s conversation with McLuhan concluded with him visiting the Four Seasons late into the night — and next day we recorded a discussion for CBS at nine a.m., and then spent the rest of the morning walking and talking. We concluded our sessions at McLuhan’s house, in the company of his son Eric, and with a large TV screen on which McLuhan switched, by remote control as he reclined on a settee, between a performance of The Magic Flute and a life of Beethoven, with no sound at all. The CBS programme was later-broadcast by the BBC, and appeared in the Journal Of Canadian Studies. The conversations probed and changed my cultural studies work, and eventually went into various projects in London, including a conference organized for Goldsmiths’ College in March 1989 cancelled by a sneaky autocrat the day before it was to take place. I also taped an interview with Paul Krassner, the outstanding radical editor of The Realist; but the BBC, who commissioned it, funked broadcasting it…
For my firsthand knowledge of contemporary American poetry, and for my own creative training, the New York poetry scene became primary. I regularly attended the Judson Poets’ Theatre, the first time to see work by Rochelle Owens — she and her husband, the poet and medieval scholar George Economou, became helpful friends to me. Readings at the Metro cafe, the 111 Gallery in St Mark’s Place, the Folklore Centre (where I used to talk to the proprietor Israel Young regularly — it was only round the corner from my flat), and many other places, were regular. I heard and got to know Kenneth Koch, Margaret Randall (still being persecuted for her work in Cuba, and one of its major consequences, El Corno Emplumado, one of the finest poetry magazines of this century), Dick Gallup (who I met happily again years later at the Naropa Foundation in Boulder, Colorado), Joe Brainard, Aram Saroyan, Armand Schwerner, Hubert Selby, Bert Blechman, Carl Solomon, John Ashbery, Kenward Elmslie, Charles Stein, Gilbert Sorrentino, Kirby Congdon, Tram Coombs and Piero Heliczer. Close friends, from whom I also gained a little courage to write myself, included George Dowden and his wife, Grace Paley, Robert Nichols (a squash partner, and endlessly supportive), Ted Berrigan (who called often, and brought poets in), Peter Schjeldahl (whom I met in London earlier), Paul Blackburn, Joel Oppenheimer and Muriel Rukeyser.
One evening, James Laughlin, the poet and great publisher of New Directions books, invited me to dinner with Kenneth Rexroth before his reading at the YMH (in 1971, Jonathan Cape published my Kenneth Rexroth Reader). Of Robert Kelly’s reading at the Metro, the journal says: “a huge man (and a large wife) with a red forked beard and dark reddish hair. He ended with a long unfinished poem, ‘America Against Time’, a major work I should think.” It was a very fine performance — and, as usual with New York readings, the poets’ support was strong — I recall the Dowdens, Jack Micheline, Carol Berge and Paul Blackburn there, and it was my first meeting with Jerome Rothenberg, one of America’s finest cultural scholars and a magnificent poet and performer of poetry (I later wrote a long essay on his work, and we shared a book of conversations in 1984). Kenneth Koch’s talk at the Lubin Auditorium of New York University, “What Poets Want Their Poetry To Be Like”, altered my idea of poetry considerably, and exposed my ignorance of Gertrude Stein through his deft analysis of her “Composition as Explanation”. On March 16, Ted Berrigan invited me to the Free University to hear Sotere Torregian introduce John Ashbery reading and answering questions — partly in celebration of his just published Rivers and Mountains. Three evenings later, Allen Ginsberg gave a fine reading at the New York University Club, next to City Hall. On March 29, I introduced Michael Hamburger, George Macbeth and Christopher Middleton reading their poetry at the Poetry Centre, followed by a stupendous party in Panna Grady’s luxurious apartment at the top of the Dakota building, Park Avenue West — everybody, as they say, was there. Three days later, I introduced Muriel Rukeyser’s superb reading to a very large audience — at the Loeb Center; and that evening I turned up late to the Poetry Society, but Peter Orlovsky found me a bit of floor to sit on — the hall was packed solid. Allen Ginsberg read a little, but his father, Louis, was the main reader, a highly conservative poet….
At the Jewish Museum, Koch’s play The Tinguely Machine Mystery, or The Love Suicides at Kaluka was given one performance, with the audience interspersed with Tinguely’s machine-sculptures, which broke into jerky movement from time to time. The cast included the painters Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard and Niki de Saint Phalle, and the poets Kenward Elmslie, Arnold Weinstein and John Ashbery (in a French sailor costume). Music by Morton Feldman.
I had briefly met Muriel Rukeyser at Mac Rosenthal’s house at Suffern (upstate)…. Her dedication to poetry and to anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist protest was exemplary to me as to many other people. And it was at her invitation that I met R.H.S. and Helen Lynd and Octavio Paz. On November 19, Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman drove me out to Ridge Road, Rutherford, to see Mrs Floss Williams (I had met her before when Ted took me to visit William Carlos Williams in 1962). She was, as ever, delightfully lively, with an amazing memory, and a fine cook. We called briefly on Bill, Dr Williams’ eldest son — who lit a large cherry-wood fire in his living room — and Paul, a younger son, called in later. The drive home with Denise and Mitchell was nearly as exciting.
Friendships with Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg and Fielding Dawson will have to await a possible other occasion; and the endless parties, where writers gathered….
But the rest of this rather egotistic account will largely take the form of direct journal entries, with a few commentaries, from 1966. First, though, I want to suggest the daily political atmosphere of that year, by listing some of the WBAI broadcasts that keep a stranger in touch with the counter-culture of protest. Nat Hentoff’s New School lecture series, “The New Radicalism”, was continuous and highly informative: A.J. Muste one night introduced Herbert Aptheker, Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden just back from Hanoi; Hubert Selby and others discussed the issues of pornography; an interview with Harvey Matusow, ex-CP member, ex-FBI informer, ex-McCarthy backer; Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech accepting the Freedom Award — the journal reads: “hypocrisy embodied, aided by slyness and cunning — and the clever rhetorician who wrote the speech”; a Theatre of Ideas discussion with Arthur Schlesinger, Staughton Lynd and Michael Waltzer — with demolishing questions and comments from Rukeyser, Mailer, Sontag, Irving Howe and Dwight Macdonald; and a talk-in on LSD with Dr Ralph Metzner, Timothy Leary’s colleague.
January 28 — “… to Al Hansen’s happening at the 3rd Rail Time/Space Theatre on Avenue D, called McLuhan Megillah. I danced in it — somewhat. More important, I met Nam June Paik again” — the first time was at his exhibition, in 1962, of doctored TV sets patrolled by a fantastic robot, who spoke part of a JFK speech every time he halted, and evacuated numbered beans.
February 17 — “Langston Hughes invited me to dinner at Frank’s (125th and St Nicholas) in Harlem.” I had met him cordially in London. I told him I felt a little nervous after the Black Arts experience; he said now’s the time to conquer it. Just as well, since one of the other guests was the distinguished black writer Arna Bontemps.
March 3 — “While having dinner with Ted and Joan Wilentz, Allen Ginsberg arrived, with Peter and Julius Orlovsky, returned from an American tour in a rather spectacular station-wagon — with water, fridge, oven, and so on. Allen played the tape of the long poem he had composed, entering New York and driving to us at Eighth Street — on his new Uher, a beauty, and apparently purchased with help from Bob Dylan, who also helped out with an amplifier for Peter’s guitar.”
April 16 — at Ted’s apartment, my only long conversation with the magnificent poet Frank O’Hara. He died in an accident on Fire Island not long afterwards.
April 17-21 — I stayed in the Quaker House on R Street, Washington, D.C.. Driving along Pennsylvania Avenue with two friends from the U.S. Embassy in London, the Volkswagen was rammed from behind by a taxi. My head want into the windscreen, and the head of the passenger in the rear seat went into the back of mine. The car was crushed and leaked petrol. Apart from being shaken, my head swelled up oddly, and ached slightly the next day. The others were severely and nervously shaken but not injured beyond a bruise or two. But I was soon fit enough for the galleries tour and to visit, once again, my good friend Earle Balch, who was cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in the Hague when I taught at Groningen — an extraordinarily kind and helpful man; it was he who introduced me to Robert Spiller, and also to Van Wyck Brooks.
April 28 — Herbert Weisinger invited me to a conference at Michigan University, East Lansing — the conference seemed to me academically stultifying in the extreme (“Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Modern Novel”, “Relationships in a General Theory of Interpretation”, and so on) — but relieved by the Melville scholar Howard Vincent, to whom — and to his wife Mary — I owe more than I can briefly state. (While an Embassy cultural attaché in Paris, in the early 1960s, he had organized several American literature summer schools at New College, Oxford, in which he invited me to teach — the first time I had ever been asked to such an event.) The flight back to New York was one of those appalling experiences which provoked Herbert Weisinger to coin his saying: “If you have time to spare, travel by air.”
May 6-8 — The first visit to stay with Ulla and John Dydo on Shelter Island, a marvellous house with huge plate-glass sliding window-doors overlooking Montauk South, with ospreys flying and diving all day, and their curious, apparently loose nests in the woods behind the house. These visits became a basis for the first poem in Shelter Island and the Remaining World, that Turret Books published in 1972.
May 18-21 — Howard Vincent invited me to lecture at Kent State University on power structure in American literature, and hold a seminar on Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym (which became a basis for a contribution to a festschrift volume for Howard’s seventieth birthday in 1975). Things must have gone well, because I was invited back to Kent State several times in the 1960s and 1970s.
Between June 27 and August 7, I worked as visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. But the main turning point there for me was unexpected: the great British poet Basil Bunting was a fellow visitor and lived next door in Clement Hall. We had dinner that first night in a delicatessen which later became our regular place for the weeks to come. But I have written up that experience for the memorial tribute to him in Conjunctions 8 (New York, 1986) — and included his wonderful first performance of ‘Briggflatts’ on June 29. Basil often recalled our happy days at Buffalo — and I certainly remember his conversation as one of the main ways I learned about poetry, apart from everything else in that man’s extraordinary intelligence and variety of experience. But there were also Arnold Stein, Leslie Fiedler — and through Leslie I met the novelist Richard Stern, the critic Marvin Mudrick — and John Barth, who admired Basil a great deal — I remember him playing jazz drums in a group in which Jack Clarke played a portable electronic keyboard. Jack rectified my ignorance of Charles Olson’s work by playing me the Berkeley Reading tape, and others, in his office and talking to me about the man he knew so well. My lectures on 19th Century American literature were well spaced out, so I read voraciously — for the lectures, but also Zukofsky’s poetry, Miller’s The Life of the Mind in America, Paul Metcalf’s Genoa, Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, Bataille’s Death and Sensuality, and Dahlberg’s Can These Bones Live — that started a long process of reading which led to an essay on him, and our memorable meetings in London later.
July 25 — “Classes on Thoreau and Whitman and Moby Dick. Talked with Stephen Rodefer (an excellent poet) about his work. Evening: took Ed Budowsky (owner of the essential bookstore on Maine Street, and editor of Fubbalo, whose first issue contained work by Dorn, Creeley, Wieners, Olson, Levertov, and Corso) to dinner at the Old Port House. Excellent food and lively talk. Before we broke up at 9, he gave me a copy of the Cowell’s book on Ives! I’ve been hunting for it for some time. It was overwhelming to suddenly have it like that.”
By the end of August, and back in New York, it became clear how many of my friends, and how many writers, were deeply disturbed by the South East Asia combats, the brutal responses to the civil rights movement, and the anti-draft protests, and the rest of the State of the Nation. My journal begins to record breakdowns, nervous explosions and career failure. Youngsters were dropping out, getting hooked on drugs, vanishing and escaping to Canada or Sweden. And the intense, humid New York summer did not help. I remember the effect of watching with a group of friends, on September 1, Ed Sanders and Frank O’Hara reading on TV — and it was Frank’s last reading. I had better add now that I had my own crisis towards the end of 1965 — an undermining obsession with inadequacy and talentlessness, partly brought on by the amazing abilities of all the people I began to know, and who expected me to be at least a little as able as they were. So I weltered around in loss of direction, wasted and mistaken living, and the rest. At the time it was hell, but looking back I can see that it was useful, and necessary. By the end of my year, it was better.
The farewell drinks and parties began to pile up dreadfully though, through to the tremendous farewell party the Wilentzes organised on September 5 — at last it was better than I thought possible. There they all were — the Paleys, the Calamandreis (Mauro was the New York correspondent for a Rome newspaper, and a close friend very soon), the Oppenheimers, Bob Nichols, Muriel Rukeyser and her son Bill, the Berrigans, Dick Gallup, Lewis McAdam, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and many more, plus a good few gate-crashers.
Of course, the America I have tried to convey in this little memoir was in many ways a special America, but it was undoubtably an important, creative part of the culture. In a small way I did experience the end of these 1960s which are now recognized as a major breakthrough of the counter-culture. That young man I was then was properly grateful. I certainly remain so: those years changed my life.
Postcard dated 25/02/1966 — Transcription
Dear Jeff, I’ve just read your Turret poems and want to tell you the experience was painful and splendid — “Daniel”, “Cruelties”, “a —– ——- ——-“, “Suffer Little Children”, “Suicide Note” — these got into me most. It’s like a plastic cover drawn off something, someone one has thought about and not known, it turns out, really. I hope to hear from you. Write poems first. Eric
Note: the Turret poems would be “Poems I Want to Forget”
Letter dated 12/07/1966 — Transcription
Dept of English
State University of New York
Buffalo. New York 14214
July 12, 1966
Trying to propagate here — your stuff, too: there’s a Student’s Bookshop run by Ed Budowsky which caters but while he’s heard of yours doesn’t have them. So I’ve told him to contact you — OK.? Marowitz did a piece called “Underground Changes” in the Village Voice, and included you as one of ’em — not bad: he seems to grasp something of what you’re doing — a bit about MOM, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you as “an excitably articulate pub-haunting cherubic Welshman” : I suppose you are in one of your transformations. But the rest is good — but part II links you to Trocchi’s Sigma — and, as you know, this I don’t yet dig at all fully, because I’m not with Trocchi’s vagueness. As long as you remain unique and bloody lively — even if Ambit’s Doctor Fu wants to castrate you. And — this is your letter — of you think I was patronizingly avoiding involvement in your poems and kidding myself they don’t apply, you’re wrong, that’s all. I just don’t lay it out for all to see and don’t have the urge to display or the means. Norwich? : Good Luck . Used to be a good theatre there. The Cage is good: is that his real name. Anyway I’m back mid-September in the humiliations and stench of King’s : come and have beer and music. I’ve wild music from NY. to play you. Your life sounds layered with activity these days. I’m doing a summer session for loot and the place seethes with poets — Olson and Wieners not here, as usually, Creeley in the Fall — Intrepid, Niagara Frontier and Fubbalo edited here. But too many academic bandwaggoners around. One of them had the nerve to do Cage’s Nothing as a students’ giggle: I raised dust about this, futilely — What’s the use? But I like the students I have — graduates — and fell happy digging around in the great Americans once again ………………… are great — plenty of grass and trees ro be in and under. Cool nights. Heavy rain storms dramatically coming in from the SW. Basil Bunting’s here, and I’m growing to respect and like him — we are in and out of each other’s pockets, rooming next door, and offices next door, he talking endlessly about his long experiences and friendships. He gave his first reading in the USA here the other day — and the kids are beginning to dig : he is something, solid and clear. He teaches Yeats and Eliot but not, I think, too happily — after all he’s never been this kind of thing before, deliberately. Tony Connor here too, but his poetry’s mostly not for real yet. And we have John Barth and Richard Stern. And my old friend Leslie Fiedler. It’ll be nice till August — then back to New York, prior to taking off for San Francisco briefly. Then back to NY to await the hateful dreaded return to where one is tolerated only. Miserable end, sorry.
Take Care. Eric.
The core memoir “Live All You Can” has been considerably abridged by me. The full account was published in 1992 by Solaris in Twickenham, Middlesex, UK. The 3 quotations by Wendy Stallard Flory, Ken Edwards and Dale Carter are taken from their contributions to Alive In Parts Of This Century: Eric Mottram at 70 as are the black-and-white photographs. This festschrift was published in 1994 by North and South Press in Twickenham and Wakefield, UK. Considerable thanks are due to Peterjon and Yasmin Skelt who between them, edited and published both books.
The letters and postcards are from The 60s Collection in my possession, and the transcriptions were made by me, and checked by Dr. Michael Hrebeniak; neither of us was able to make out the blank areas. The colour snapshot was also taken by me.
All errors are my responsibility alone. Robert Bank.