Anne Waldman Autobiography:

Bennington College

Bennington College, then almost completely a women's college, was in many ways a continuation of some of these developing threads for my life, although it carried an onus of exclusivity and one wondered about the label "dilettantism" applied to the place. Nonetheless it was a true harbor from the city, and the faculty expected a maturity, self-discipline, and rigor from its students. I submitted poetry with my application, having been impressed by the accord given to poets on the Bennington faculty. Highly strung, sensitive, creative, and gifted students were the norm. Howard Nemerov was mentor to me, a quirky teacher用articularly of William Blake and Yeats. He often showed up in class rumpled and exhausted after a night with the "muse," pulling a fragile piece of foolscap from his pocket葉he latest poem. He was accessible, human, "troubled," but could always turn an embarrassingly delicate or grievous moment around with his caustic wit. Sympathetically inclined, I think he sensed my vow to poetry as a practice and way of life. We would argue about John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, the Beats用articularly Allen Ginsberg預s he favored a traditional poetry and poetics. I realized then how certain lines might be drawn between the so called academic world of poetry容xemplified by a kind of white male heterosexual angst ("Tamed by Miltown we lie on Mother's bed" is a quintessential line by Robert Lowell) and what I've come to call the "outrider" tradition, characterized by wild mind, spontaneity, a less secure lifestyle, political opposition, experimentation of form, and other unspeakable acts and digressions.

Poets I was drawn to were not products or proprietors of English departments. And as a woman I was increasingly interested in a breakュdown of semantics, grammar, derangement, or deconstruction of solid narrative mindsets and tightjawed preconceptions about writing. These issues seemed close to my own concerns, my own mental grammar and experience. Gertrude Stein's work was smart, amusing, playful, pushed boundaries. I enjoyed the way Tender Buttons moved in time, and the odd juxtaposition, auditory associations Stein pulled off, all with an exceedingly simple, ordinary vocabulary. The vernacular of William Carlos Williams was rich and startling. When I suggested Stein and Ezra Pound be taught seriously at Bennington I was distressed by what I saw as an inexplicable prejudice. Not only disュmissed as "silly," this formidable grande dame with the Picassos, Matisses, and lively salon was the butt of unkind jokes. Pound was an anti-Semite and thereby beyond the pale. It was in some respects a lonely battle. But Bernard Malamud encouraged my curiosities and explorations in modernism and contemporary poetry and my own work as well. The private seminar allowed for an intense give-and-take, critical feedback on creative work. Apprentice formats were extremely rare in other universities and colleges at the time. Thus I felt myself fortunate to come up against real writers, who practiced their art with fury and ambition. Opinionated, egocentric, solipsistic "masters." Teaching was often a passion but secondary to the true practice葉he work. Also it was fascinating to witness firsthand another alternative, albeit somewhat academic and exclusive, community. And to be part of it as well. Stanley Edgar Hyman, married to the eccentric and brilliant Shirley Jackson who dwelled in a kind of dark study on the margins of the campus mandala, taught an exciting "Myth, Ritual, and Literature" class, exposing us to the Dionysian delights of classical Greek drama, dark mysteries of Childe's ballads, and the tender delicacies of youth Parsifal in search of the goblet that would unlock the secrets of life. Hyman challenged my own preconceptions about origins of language and why we make poetry. He brought text down to a primal, psychological level. He himself looked the part of a satyr, heavily bearded, wild gleam in an already mischievous eye. I wondered where to place myself as female. What were my rites of passage, rituals? Envying the freedom of the male protagonist, the male poet, I was still a daughter yet carried a lot of male energy. Was it necessary to inebriate my father and subsequent fathers to steal their secrets? Coax them, seduce them? Or would I be virginal Athena, sprung forth from and forever indebted to Zeus's mind? It was hard to be "girl." I was competitive with men. I wanted their freedom. Yet Emily Dickinson, Stein, Laura Riding, Hilda Doolittle were writers to study, emulate. And I wanted to know more about their lives. How they had loved. How they had made their art. I was starting to feel the torments of intense relationships, and the conflict between so-called life and so-called art. It seemed a struggle to assert the work.

My poetic confidence welled up in spurts. I trusted my ear. Some deeper rhythm in the nervous system demanded attention. Images from dreams demanded attention. And I was in love with poetry. This was my vulnerability, my soft spot. This was where the struggle would occur. In my own head with my own imagination and emotions. Was that the battleground? Outsiders (including the so-called "canon") were demons, distractions from the work I had to do. If you listened to the men, and stayed in love with the classics, you were intimidated, crippled, but if you could hold them at a distance, steal their secrets, look them in the eye you were safe. Could I love a man on equal terms? My reading was inspiring my writing. I was inept but ambitious. I was the best of students without having to really set foot in the classroom, metaphorically speaking. But as I wanted to do this work with other like-minded practitioners of the glorious art, have cohorts who felt as passionately as I did, I formed important alliances with the "guys," many of whom were closer to where I positioned myself. This was particularly true during my last year of college where I had developed and cultivated some correspondence with poets of my own generation and had already travelled out to Berkeley. And where were the women? There were several fine aspiring writers at Bennington and in New York City. Who would be there to hear us? I was sure a time would arrive.

Anne Waldman. "Anne Waldman: 1945-," in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Gale Research Series, Volume 17, 1993: 272-273.