Edited by Ben Estes and Joel Weishaus

The Song Cave. 244 pages. $20. ISBN 978-1-7340351-7-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

A few words of explanation may be needed before going any further with a review of this book. In 1971 City Lights Books published On the Mesa: An Anthology of Bolinas Writing, edited by Joel Weishaus, and with 128 pages of mostly poetry and some prose by around 17 writers who were then living in and around Bolinas, California. It has long been out-of-print and is now something of a collectors’ item.  For this new 50th Anniversary edition, the book has been expanded to 244 pages and has “more than 65 poems by 19 more authors than were in this geographical area around the time of its (original) publication”. There is also a Preface by Ben Estes outlining how he has expanded the initial selection, and an Afterword by Lytle Shaw which provides what might be called a degree of historical background to how and why Bolinas had been a place for poets to gather.

It isn’t clear how many of the 36 or so poets in the new collection were there at the same time, if they ever were. I suspect not. And the fifty year gap between the old and new anthologies surely suggests that there have been deaths and departures, and perhaps some of the people concerned were only short-term visitors. I’m reminded of those coastal art colonies, so prevalent in the late-19th century and up to the outbreak of the First World War. They often had a hard-core of permanent or semi-permanent artists in residence, but others came in on a short-term basis, especially during the summer months. 

So, even if we said that there were 20 to 25 poets in Bolinas at any one time, they would only make up a small proportion of the inhabitants of the town. I’m not sure just how many people live there now. A glance at the Internet brings up figures that rise as high as 1,600. Were there that many in 1971? A passing reference by Lytle Shaw mentions 500. As for the place itself, it’s an hour or so by car north of San Francisco and situated on the coast in beautiful surroundings. The locals don’t encourage tourists, even to the extent that they have been said to destroy road signs pointing to Bolinas. There doesn’t appear to be any indication about how they reacted in 1971 to an anthology which might have encouraged would-be poets to head for the town. Nor whether the new edition is likely to have any effect. A glance at entries on the internet for Bolinas doesn’t bring up any mention of it now having a thriving community of poets as part of its appeal.

How relevant were the poets in terms of participating in the day-to-day activities and functioning of Bolinas? At some point in the future someone – a sociologist, a literary scholar – might well take on the job of investigating just what the poets did beyond writing poetry. Lytle Shaw says he was drawn to researching Bolinas “not just as an alternative community but as the only instance I could think of where a town was essentially governed by poets”. And elsewhere, he says: “poets in Bolinas sought to create an ecologically sustainable town where anyone could be an agent of news-making”.

It is slightly frustrating not to have detailed information about how long the experiments in a kind of “collective” living where “poetry was the organising feature of daily life in the town” continued, and if it still does in any constructive way. Ben Estes refers to Bolinas as “this very specific place in time (which) stands for a refuge for San Francisco Renaissance and Beat poets and prominent poets of the New York School and Black Mountain College all living and working together, in one place, for a brief period of time”. Again, we need an in-depth social analysis to help us determine exactly what happened and for how long. I ought to add at this point that Kevin Opstedal’s Dreaming as One, which can easily be found on the Internet, does provide a lengthy account of activity in Bolinas between 1967 and 1980. And Beat Scene 51 (Coventry, 2006) devoted most of its pages to an account by Opstedal and reminiscences by some of those who had lived there.

On the Mesa wasn’t meant to offer an account of the social side of what the poets got up to in Bolinas, other than when it was reflected in the poems. And it was, which may be, when reading them now, both an advantage and a disadvantage. If you weren’t there, but wish you had been, you might find them attractive. On the other hand, if you tend to the view that poets ought to be out and about in the wider community, then you may not express much of a response to poems which rely on an awareness of individuals mentioned, or experiences shared by a few friends, to make them meaningful. I too often had the impression that some of the poets had little or no interest in writing for anyone beyond their immediate circle. Bobbie Louise Hawkins in her poem, “Depths and Heights and Sweet Red Melons”, records that “The bottom fell out of the market/over all the plains where melons/weren’t worth the pickings”, but has nothing to say about the  situation other than that “Donald-Gene and me in overalls/got sick day after day walking/the rows eating watermelon hearts”. 

As with any anthology it’s necessary to move around to find the best bits, those that have survived the passing of the years that inevitably take the edge off most poems. Sometimes it’s the prose that has retained its vigour. The excerpts from Joe Brainard’s journals are entertaining. They are admittedly as full of in-references as some of the poems, but seem able to carry them better, possibly because what we expect of a journal differs from what we want from a poem. I accept that some poems aren’t meant to do more than entertain, but others frequently claim to achieve something beyond that and when they fail to do so, it’s more noticeable than in jottings from a journal.  

Am I being too critical? One commentator is quoted as claiming that the book contains “lost masterpieces” and specifically mentions Anne Waldman’s “Spin Off”, but I can find little in the poem that justifies such extravagant praise.  It seems fragmentary and with little cohesion (not unlike other Bolinas poems), though I accept that without quoting it in full it’s difficult to give substance to my criticism. And it has those little naming of names – Philip Whalen, Don Allen – that the knowing will recognise.  It may have some attributes I can’t see, but it isn’t memorable. And a good poem ought to be, in one way or another.

What is also noticeable about the poems is that few of them show any regard for the world outside the immediate boundaries of the poets’ lives. Yes, they observe certain concerns regarding the environment, but it’s as if the small world they have created for themselves and their immediate families and friends suffices. Does this indicate that they had given up on the wider society, and they see little purpose in commenting on it? Some of the poets may well have had involvements with social and political matters, and determined not to let them creep into their poetry, but it’s hard to believe that’s the case. The biographical details I obtained about Bill Brown do indicate that¸ in his younger days, he had experiences as a sailor and a soldier in the Second World War. They’re not in the poems and prose used in On the Mesa. He obviously preferred to write about the here and now as it was in his days in Bolinas, and slip in the names of friends in the community. But, to be fair, he had published a book about his war experiences, The Way to the Uncle Sam Hotel.

John Thorpe’s “September”, a prose piece, is interesting, both as a record of aspects of life in Bolinas past and present. It isn’t great literature, but it is useful. Another prose piece, Max Crosley’s “Epic Today”, would probably be of value to a sociologist looking into the life of the community. Both Thorpe and Crosley mention problems dealing with Social Services, which might raise a question in some people’s minds – the contradiction in dropping out of a supposedly corrupt society but depending on it for financial assistance.

Aram Saroyan’s poem “Love” has charm, and Jim Carroll’s “The Distances” is worth reading. Older readers may smile nostalgically when they read  Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters” and Richard Brautigan’s oddball little musings. Fifty or so years can’t help but make them seem forever located in a time and place (60s San Francisco), but there are still moments of relevance in what di Prima says, and a kind of winsome charm in Brautigan’s contributions.  I suppose the same can be said for some of the other poems in the anthology, and there is a noticeable absence of the doom and gloom that other poets, not in the Bolinas community, seemed to rely on. It can lay one open to criticism if there is an intense concentration on the local, the immediate, and the personal, but there is no law that requires poets to engage with the wider world and its difficulties.   

It was inevitable that the Bolinas group, commune, colony, call it what you will, would eventually splinter. Poets move on in search of new ideas. They also usually need to work at something or other outside poetry to earn a living. I doubt that many of them, in any case, intended to make Bolinas their permanent home.  It’s instructive to read the Kevin Opstedal account of the Bolinas adventure, Dreaming as One, and find out that drugs, sex and other problems contributed to the collapse of the dream. A history of utopian colonies will show that very few of them survived for any length of time.

Not only poets came to Bolinas. There were musicians, artists, and the inevitable hangers-on and drifters intrinsic to any bohemian scene. Alcohol and drugs played a part in the day-to-day life of many in the community. Clashes of personality, affairs, the unwillingness of some people to do more than follow their own interests, and economic pressures (grants and welfare payments were becoming harder to obtain), all played their part in thinning out the ranks of the Bolinas poets. In the end people had to move back into the mainstream in order to survive.

Had anything worthwhile been achieved in literary terms during the Bolinas years?  Opinions will vary, and I don’t think there was ever a particular method of writing  that might be related to the area (poets arrived from San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere), but as well as the anthology there is a reasonably substantial bibliography of work by Bolinas writers attached to Kevin Opstedal’s survey.