American Cities: How a book of ‘Experiments in Prose’ that washed up on a bench in flooded Paris helped me realize that Chicago is my kind of town

chicago hairy who againFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the Art Institute exhibition Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!: Jim Nutt. “Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good,” 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. © Jim Nutt.

Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text from “Experiments in Prose,”
Edited by Eugene Wildman
Copyright 1969 The Swallow Press, Chicago
Illustrated with images from the Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!, Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute, and Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980

(Editor’s note: In dockside picnics looking out on Lake Michigan while on cross-country train trip pauses, in dreams of ame-soeurs encountered on buses crossing the lake’s glittering sea-like azure expanse, on a Sunday morning jog after an interview for a  news agency position I was offered but didn’t take after my future boss had handed me a press release  announcing a new version of Prozac for dieters and explained “Your role would be to analyze how the news will affect the stock” and I’d thought “No, I’d be more concerned with how the product might affect the dieter” where I ran smack dab into the final leg of the Chicago Marathon and was cheered on by bystanders as if I’d run the whole race, standing before Chagall’s “White Jesus,” a refugee from Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, with its burning synagogues, in the cool halls of the Art Institute near the banks of the Chicago River, peering at a river-boat from the parapet of a bridge named after Hull House’s Jane Addams, contemplating, in a Paris museum, Henry Darger’s epic saga of the Viviane Girls, drawn to accompany a 15,000-page manuscript discovered in Darger’s humble janitor’s quarters in Lincoln Park before it became chic, sipping beers on the mahogany counter of a former speakeasy in the same ‘hood converted to a friend’s living room, whisked back to the train by a brisk autumnal wind while a lone saxophonist breathes life into the canned Debussy piped into a downtown district, seeing African-American workers being shooed away from a private lunch table set up in the publicly-owned Union Station, being held up at a corner outside the station for a police car chase which I soon learn was rigged for a film shoot, and contemplating a  former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who seemed mostly interested in privatizing city services, roads, and schools,  and where the Black population in one of the most segregated cities in the country has dropped by 250,000, aspiring to continue in the spirit of Studs Terkel, and above all inspired by Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make” — a screed which has the sentimental effect of an homage — Chicago has always haunted and hounded me. So I was not at all surprised when, in July 2016, about to cross the flooded Seine, my other favorite body of water, I discovered, on a bench, “Experiments in Prose,” a celebration of the free-spirited Chicago-style design, literature, and activism which flourished in the 1960s produced by former Chicago Review editor Eugene Wildman for the Chi-based Swallow Press, and which opens with: (To read the full story and see more images, click here.)

It’s Cooler by the Lake

chicago cover jpg

(Art from the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago. Artists should not be implicated in the opinions expressed below.)

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In my ongoing quest to understand why Chicago persists in pulling me despite the insupportable levels of car pollution and ingrained segregation, I recently received an unexpected assist from the book exchange box of my Southwestern France village, in the form of “The New American Poetry,” a compendium published by Grove Press in 1960. Edited by Donald M. Allen, the Evergreen Original offers more than 200 poems from 44 poets, including most of the Beats and several notable precursors, with the regrettable omission of Diane DiPrima. I’ve thus been able to read, for the first time not counting a San Francisco public access t.v. spoof in which I interpreted Tiny Tim interpreting several verses, Part One of “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s panoramic tour of the flip side of Eisenhower’s America as seen from the underbelly of the California Zephyr as it races from Oakland to Chicago. Not surprisingly — given the way the bread-crumbs seem to be turning up these days — this particular copy bears the ex-libris of “Robert Eberle, Communication, Redwood Hall, Stanford University,” the man to whom I indirectly owe my first job in journalism. It was Eberle who transformed the mission of the traditional campus PR office from that of shill to legitimate news service. His model was quickly adopted by other universities, so that by the time I got to Princeton, my work study gig at the university’s Communications Office entailed real reporting. I don’t know how Eberle’s copy of “The New American Poetry” made its way across two continents and one ocean to the plastic glass-enclosed shelves outside my local post office, but it was as if, having got me started down this dubious path, he was now pitching in 40 years later to help keep me from hanging up my plume for good by reminding me that, having been spawned by the San Francisco of the Beat Generation, I was standing on some noble shoulders, and had no right to let a little thing like occupational obsolesce make me give up the ghost. Even the (auto)biographical notes at the end of the book evoked this heritage:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Probably was born in New York about 1919 or thereafter. He seems to have been transported into France in swaddling clothes, saw the white mountains of Alsace from a balcony, and returned to the States sometime, years later, to distinguish himself in the upper grades by outstanding achievement in the art of flatulence. After that the record is none too clear. It seems he returned to France during World War II and had some underhand connection with the Free French and the Norwegian Underground. After the War he may have written two unpublishable novels and a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne which should have been titled Histoire du pissoir dans la poésie moderne. It also seems fairly certain that he reached San Francisco overland about 1951, built a bookstore, and began to publish the Pocket Poet Series.” (When last seen, bookstore, publisher, and Ferlinghetti were still promoting alternative literary approaches, the latter having celebrated his 99th birthday by coming out with a new, presumably longer, memoir.)

The book ends with “Prayerwheel / 2,” by David Meltzer, a man my mom dated after she broke up with my dad, and which terminates:

Gone is the giant Bond sign.
Is anything ever gone
to the poet who works up everything
eventually? Somewhere, without mind,
Love begins. The poet begins
to examine the dissolution of Love.
The sea continues. We continue
talking, growing nervous, drinking
too much coffee.

chicago architecture two

From the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago: Peter J. Weber. Prairie School Skyscraper, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective, 1910. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Bertram A. Weber.

And to take us back (by virtual California Zephyr, the fabled Amtrak train) to the Wind-blown City, and the epiphany with which “The New American Poetry” furnished me, here’s how Lew Welch brings his “Chicago Poem” home:

Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gasses and I knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparalleled monstrosity. It
Snuffles on the beach of the Great Lake like a blind, red rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.

You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it,
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.

What I love about this poem is that it’s an assemblage of pinhole views, with the reader invited to fill out the rest of the universe, based on his own experience and how the author’s references resonate with him. And then there’s the vernacular — “I don’t know what you’re going to do about it, But I know what I’m going to do about it” — which smacks of the epoch without being confined to it.

chicago architecture threeAmong the positive additions humans have contributed to the Chicago landscape is its architecture. Above: Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective Looking West, 1985. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Archive of Bertrand Goldberg, a gift from his children through his estate.

Concretely, this poem made me realize that what draws me to Chicago (besides the richness of its literary and artistic legacy) is what the terrain came with — Lake Michigan and the Chicago River — while what subsequent generations of Chicagoans added to the landscape (or what they retained; many of the former architectural marvels have been destroyed or simply left to rot, supplanted by soulless Trump behemoths) is more doubtful.

But given that the Black people whose ancestors helped build Chicago are now being chased out (250,000 of them in recent years, according to data cited by the Chicago Reporter) by the relentless privatization policies of mayor Rahm Emmanuel — echoing the gentrification practices being produced in New Orleans and anticipating those planned for Puerto Rico by what Naomi Klein has called the “disaster capitalists” — do any of us, especially white people who pretend to have a liberal conscience, really have the right to “walk away from it”?

What are you going to do about it? And I?