Warren Tallman: “Poets in Vancouver” (1963)


Introduction and Notes by Aaron Vidaver

In light of new interest in the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference and Robert McTavish’s forthcoming film The Line Has Shattered, I’ve reviewed my research from 1997-1999 and started to dig around again. Below is what I believe to be an unpublished essay by Warren Tallman written in the fall after the conference. It was prepared for an international audience (an editorial note in a margin of the typescript asks him to explain who Margaret Avison is: “who’s she? (This to be read by readers in several countries)”) although there is no indication of the venue. Since there are only passing descriptions of the conference in his two books—as “month-long poetry klatsch” (1976: 183) [1973], “month long Götterdämmerung poetry klatsch” (1992: 205) [1985] and “gathering of the Romantic clan” (1992: 230) [1986]—this piece provides a missing account.

Tallman leaves out mention of local skirmishes even though his pre-conference premonition, in a letter to Robert Duncan, that the event would be “the CONCLUSION of the Vancouver phase that began with your evening in the basement (was it December 12) 1959” (4 May 1963) became, in his view, substantiated. After the conference he wrote to Creeley: “The summer was entirely too successful, i.e. created amongst the many drones around here the firm if covert conviction that they mustn’t let that happen again. So Vancouver as new frontier has closed up shop … I stay home and listen to tapes; for which, praise be” (7 December 1963). [1]

Poetry in Vancouver and elsewhere, of course, persisted, and many participants marked the conference not as an ending but a beginning: a “life-defining experience … founding moments in the memory narrative of my life as a reader/writer/critic of contemporary writing” (Butling 2005: 145); “the beginning of my introduction to the society of poets … into the company of poets” (Palmer 1995: 172); “the first time I ever saw a woman [Denise Levertov] hold a whole audience with the magic of her voice” (Marlatt 1991: 101); “mind-boggling to be immersed in those poets and the way they talked, incredible. … When I left Vancouver, I was driving home and I couldn’t stop crying” (Goodell 2009); “of love’s collision with desire begat / in July ’63, and in Vancouver / where and when this book began” (Bromige 1988: 3). And Tallman himself has been credited as the one who “really brought western Canada’s poetry into the international world it now helps to define and keep possible” (Creeley 1994). [2]


“Poets in Vancouver” (Margaret Avison, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Philip Whalen, from July 24 through August 16)

By Warren Tallman

[Warren Tallman fonds Simon Fraser University Special Collections MSC 26 Box 13]

November 1963 and the poetry festival, like the song, is ended. But like the melody, the voices of the poets linger on.

The morning discussions were dominated by Robert Duncan who is the most articulate poet of all. For him articulation is like terra firma, a necessary ground to which he moves for footing as instinctively as most of us move to sidewalks, pathways or porches. When some powerful need or desire compels a man so decisively toward speech his voice is likely to take on qualities of otherness, not because it has been taken over by strangers—although that too is possible—but because years of concentrated exercise build it up into almost another person who is in, then alongside, then out beyond the poet. This strong sense of otherness becomes apparent when Duncan reads. As he warms to the reading an almost Orphic ground sense or swell enters, as though his voice is not so much in the midst of a room as in the midst of a life it knows. When he turns from that life to his own, the Orphic gives way to the more ordinary. The evening that he lectured on his origins as poet, making himself the object of his speech, his voice moved with all those pauses, stops, stammers and explosive starts that we all experience in a world where men are not songs, their bodies not birds. But when Duncan is in his most characteristic form, in full voice motion, a fabled sense that it is moving in realm of a life of its own enters in, and when this happens the words take on the value of that life.

Duncan’s need to be grounded in articulation was matched by Allen Ginsberg’s complementary need to stay grounded in his own self, own “miraculous collage of the body”. Of all the poets, with the possible exception of Charles Olson, Ginsberg was quickest to make himself physically at home, whatever the occasion or group. He went the most places, eastside, westside and all around Vancouver. He sat, crouched cross-legged or stretched out on the most lawns, couches, chairs or floors in the most houses, apartments and pads, even in a kayak. But such was the real power of his physical presence that his shifts in place and circumstance seemed not like shifts at all. More like the Whitman of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, he was so much his own place that Point Grey, East Van, West Van and North Van with all their appurtenances of persons, places and things were what went ebbing and flowing past. Given this extent of physical presence, the exceptional amount of body English—body articulation—he exerted when speaking or reading was inevitable. The Wednesday evening that he read from the Howl and Kaddish volumes he always broke off when the body presence wouldn’t enter into the voice tone. When it did enter, the audience was caught, bowled over into corresponding awareness as though stunned to be so fully reminded of all the ways in which they had emotions, a physical being, presence. And on the Friday evening that he read his more recent poems and the spell weakened he entered into a heroic, arm-swinging, head-swaying, all-out dervish attempt to reassert the physical sway. The lassitude that overtook his voice the last few minutes was the physical lassitude of a body that had momentarily lost its English. But then he walked into the next room where the overflow audience had been listening by loudspeaker, the physical tide turned, returned, and listeners were bowled over again into restored awareness of their own being.

Another physical spell was cast, by Denise Levertov the evening she read. More noticeably than any of the other poets she had two voices, one when she spoke during the morning discussions another when she read in the evening. Her morning voice was prosaic, more caught up in the tic tac toe of talk than in that inner motion of speech which carries from warmth to an expansion to an unfolding. Nor was she alone in this. The discussion sessions more often than not forced those participating into attempts to define and classify, instances in which they were using speech to take the measure of poetry rather than as the measure. Charles Olson and Philip Whalen soon withdrew from these attempts, Robert Creeley participated resistingly, and all of them felt such discussions the least satisfactory part of the festival. Even Duncan’s voice could catch fire, expand and unfold only at times, most notably during a runaway roots and branches lecture in which the landscape of 20th century poetry began to go off like packages of firecrackers and skyrockets all over the place. There were traces of Levertov’s morning voice in the evening during those intervals when she commented upon her poems. But when she read, when her voice reading became the measure of the evening, it was National Velvet for sure, an exceptionally clear and careful body tone that opened out, as the reading progressed, into a voice tree. The extent to which her reading did become the measure of the evening was revealed at a party afterwards when for several hours was it 30 was it 40 was it 50 persons were clinging and swaying together in exceptionally clear and uncomplicated ways upon a tree of summer and sympathy.

Very early in the festival Robert Creeley emphasized that the morning discussions formed a “context that I distrust with all my nature”, and throughout he was a kind of embattled Alamo in his at times embattled insistence that persons, their speech and their poems be indivisible. Thus when asked, “who are you”, he instantly replied, “I’m right here” and if asked “what is poetry”, his natural response would be to read a poem, the assumption in both cases being that if you reduce water to its component parts there will be nothing left to drink. Because of his extreme emphasis upon speech as its own “sudden mirror” or “pool of darkening water” his transitions from talking to writing to reading what he had written were negligible, different ways of doing the same thing. The night he read lightening flashed about in the sky, thunder rumbled, rain poured, the lights went out and the Alamo was in the dark. Then by candlelight he read poems and a chapter from The Island. The candles were an interesting accompaniment, each minute waver and flicker causing a corresponding waver and flicker at the edge to which the light reached. Let this process work in reverse so that the motions at the edge of things cause the flames to move in response, and you have something like the process by which Creeley writes or speaks. Speech is itself the value and once you start it up the problem is to make it move in strict correspondence to whomever or whatever occupies the areas which surround it. In this sense persons, places and things—remembered or at hand—are like oxygen and if they thin out Creeley’s voice will respond with insistences or resistances or even recessions back to those regions where still waters run. But when there is plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere his voice can flare and flow and fluctuate as freely and unpredictably as the weather was that night. Or imagine a jazz man so tuned in on his audience that he plays them back to themselves without their being particularly aware that what they are hearing is their song.

Much that applies to Creeley also applies to Philip Whalen. His need to avoid categories showed up in his strong penchant for nonsense aphorisms that tended to be droll and somewhat oriental, uttered with prayerfully clasped hands and guru beam on face. His evening reading was in a low key, partly because, having just arrived, he was unfamiliar with the audience and missed a sense that there was oxygen in the air. Consequently his voice was, although not recessive, not flowing and flaring out either. But the low key seemed also to reflect an at once contemplative and deliberate physical presence. Thus when he read, his arms hands legs and feet carried on a curiously separate and slow-motion but synchronized activity: foot tapping chair, arm extended as hand poured water and brought glass to mouth, or touched neck, cheek or ear—all without breaking the flow of the reading. The effect was to locate his speech within the larger complex of actions so that his voice became one part of everything else that was going on, as though in addition to having pitch and tone it also had arms, hands, legs, neck, ears, and a glass of water. Certain of the poems—like Stendhal’s mirror dawdling down a road—seemed capable of walking right on out the door, around the corner and away, to show up later at someone’s door, knock, enter and sit down for a visit.

By now it must seem that with these notes I am loading the dice so that most of the poets’ attempts to discuss poetry turn up snake eyes with the sevens and elevens reserved for their readings. Which is true enough. The readings as a group were entirely superior to the discussions as a group. But how could it have been otherwise since the readings were the poets’ work and the discussions more nearly like their shop-talk. On the shop-talk side, Margaret Avison was less given to whittling away, more given to the exercise of an exact critical intelligence. She tended to lay back, listen, and then come forward with summarizing insights, as though drawing the several strands of the discussion together. This sure-fingered intelligence also figured in her reading which began by jotting on the board several propositions underlying what she was trying to do. And her poems seem located primarily in sphere of this intelligence—what the quick mind can catch in its ingatherings—in contrast to say Duncan’s which are located in sphere of speech—what the quick tongue can catch in its outgoings. Thus her poems tended to be indwelling songs built up from the breath and inner spirit of thought and reflecting a contained and gleaming liveliness; and his tended to be expansive orchestrations built up from an out-riding spirit of adventure in which “we are part of the creative process, not its goal”.

Which brings on Charles Olson. Remember when Wordsworth cried out:
Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

There is a difficulty in these lines, the slow pacing, hardly suitable for catching up with a god reputed to be “exceedingly variable, readily assuming new shapes”. In the time it takes to maneuver the lines into place, Proteus would likely be another sea and several new shapes away. Only the quick can catch the quick. And Charles Olson is, in the dictionary and not the Hollywood sense of the word, phenomenally fast, bearing as he does the gift of a phenomenal intelligence that can match that can catch the minnows, dolphins and flying fish that are always darting about, rising from, and skimming over the swift currents that are always flowing in the always momentary seas of human life. During a number of his afternoon workshop lectures the chalk seemed to leap across blackboards that seemed to swim and shimmer in its wake. Chalk doesn’t and blackboards won’t, but speech comes closer, having depth, extent and fluidity. And it is this realm of speech as the living metaphor of man that Olson takes for domain. Wordsworth uses speech to cry out after the presence of a god he believes is elsewhere, in some dark backward of time. For Olson speech is the Protean thing, the god itself, in a form of words. When on the last evening of the festival he read the conclusion of his Maximus poems, the locale was neither Gloucester nor Vancouver but his voice, his voice reading, which was its own first-last-everlasting place, like life.

Which is the chief news that emerged from Vancouver this summer. Assuming that our poets are “the antennae of the race” it would seem that we are exiting from an era in which the human voice—whether talking, singing or writing—has been used as a bridge to carry over to some elsewhere where ideas, myths, philosophies and theologies were thought to dwell. And it would seem that we are entering an era in which the voice bridge is recognized as actual dwelling locale, something like Henry James’ “Great Good Place”. Whether it is Duncan’s “torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre”, Creeley’s “I will go on talking forever”, or Ginsberg’s “poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years”, the reversal is the same. Wisdoms, truths, experiences, memories, moralities, realities becomes not end points but food, meat, manure, lending nurture to that living tree of breath called speech. And if you think it isn’t so only imagine what baffled and gasping ghosts in limbo we would all become if the words were taken away and what baffled and gasping ghosts in limbo words would be if the voice were taken away. And what better gathering place for the gods that mortal beauty chases than the voice tree, from which everybody can steal everybody else’s apples, peaches and plums, not to mention cherries, without loss of a single sparrow.


Notes: [1] The “here” and “that” Tallman is referring to are the University of British Columbia English Department and the hiring of Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson to teach the undergraduate course “Poetry Writing and Criticism” for the Summer School. The non-credit panels (which had 118 registrants and the misleading title “Creative Writing Workshop: An Introduction to Contemporary Poetry”) and public readings were offered through the Department of University Extension and were beyond the reach of English Department as was the fourth element of the conference: the informal off-campus parties, readings and discussions at the Tallman, Reid and Wah homes. Although the 48 students in English 410 (not including nine registered auditors) were required to sit in on the Extension events it is incorrect to describe the conference itself as “actually a three-week credit summer course” (Collis 2009). No registration list exists in the archives of the Extension Department but there were at least an additional 70 attendees who were involved in two of the other three components and it is worth trying to figure out who they were. Other confirmed attendees include Ellen Tallman (who should be considered a co-organizer), Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Pauline Butling, Jess Collins, Ian Docherty, Roy Kiyooka, Karen Tallman, Hilda Burton, David Burton, Red Lane, Barbara Joseph, Ida Hodes, Donald Allen, Jonathan Greene, Helen Sonthoff, bill bissett, Charles Stein, Phyllis Webb, Brian Nation and Frank Davey (who, Tallman remarks, “Of the Tish poets he was the only one who passed up the University of British Columbia poetry seminar … although he did attend their evening readings” (27). It should be noted, also, that the Globe and Mail obituary for Robin Blaser makes an error in stating that “In 1963 the Tallmans organized a poetry conference in Vancouver that drew several members of the San Francisco Renaissance, including Blaser and [Jack] Spicer” (Martin 2009). Neither Blaser nor Spicer were present.

[2] While the conference was ignored in Canada (east of the Great Divide) the US reception has been very different: “One might say that among the most crucial ‘texts’ for contemporary poetics is a series of tapes made by Fred Wah during the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963” (Davidson 1981: 111). The panels and readings are seen, south of the border, as primary documents of the New American Poetry and subsequent developments. The audio recordings were digitized from Wah’s masters by Aaron Levy in 2002 and are available online from Slought Foundation. While the complete proceedings have not yet been published transcripts of individual panels, some published, have been prepared. George Butterick’s version of the first morning session of 24 July (to the phrase “try shifting the physical context”) appears in “Contexts of Poetry: With Allen Ginsberg in Vancouver” in Robert Creeley, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971, edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973: 29-41). Shelley Wong prepared drafts of the rest of the session, the evening continuation (which I consider the second session) and the third session of 26 July, all of which are unpublished. Ralph Maud’s transcription of the fourth session on 29 July was published as “On History” in Charles Olson, Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews, volume I, edited by George F. Butterick (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1977: 1-19). My version of the fifth session on 31 July appears as “Polis is Eyes” in my Vancouver, 1963 issue of Minutes of the Charles Olson Society 30 (April 1999): 20-32. Charles Watts prepared a transcript of the one lecture of the conference, by Robert Duncan on the evening of 5 August, as “A Life in Poetry”, published in the Kootenay School of Writing online magazine W 10 (Spring 2005): 89-116. A number of Ralph Maud’s students at Simon Fraser University worked on the eleventh session of 14 August (Katheryn Alexander, Lois Sanford, C.J. Castricano and P.J.K. Gerbrecht), all unpublished, but Maud’s final edit was published as “Duende, Muse, and Angel” in Sulfur 33 (Fall 1993): 83-98. Excerpts from four notebooks and journals appear in OLSON: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives 4 (Fall 1975): George Bowering, “Some Notes from Vancouver” (70-75); Pauline Butling, “Notes from Olson’s classes at Vancouver” (64-69); Clark Coolidge, “Notes taken in classes conducted by Charles Olson at Vancouver, August 1963” (47-53); and Daphne Marlatt, “Excerpts from a Journal” (76-85). A fifth by A. Fredric Franklyn, “Towards print (Excerpts from a journal of the University of British Columbia Seminar)” was published in Trace 51 (Winter 1963-1964): 277-284/294 and his “Letter from Vancouver August 1963” is in El Corno Emplumado 9 (January 1964): 151-152. While many of the original journals were cut up and collaged into “a bizarre thing full of descriptions of the socks that Duncan was wearing on a certain day—a wonderful record” (McLeod 1991: 94) for TISH 21, the journals of Fred Wah and Maria Hindmarch are known to exist. Ginsberg’s journal from Vancouver, in typescript in his archives at Stanford, has not been published.


Appendix: Students and Auditors Registered for English 410

Registered Students (48): Tim Aston, Peter Auxier, Ron Bayes, Sandor Balazsi, George Bowering, David Bromige, Leo Burdak, Antigone Coolidge, Clark Coolidge, Judith Copithorne, David Cull, David Dawson, A. Fredric Franklyn, Larry Goodell, Allen Graves, Rona Haddon, Drummond Hadley, William Hawkins, John Hill, Maria Hindmarch, Robert Hogg, Karen Johnson, Lionel Kearns, Gerrye Kessel, John Keyes, John Killough, Bernice Lever, Helen Luster, Dan McLeod, Roy MacSkimming, Daphne Marlatt, Norman Moser, Michael Palmer, Sam Perry, Rosemary Proust, Jamie Reid, Peg Robertson, Marcella Rumpf, Olga Ruskin, David Schaff, Patricia Smith, Lisa Tree, Merydeth Vague, Edward Van Aelstyn, Linda Wagner, Fred Wah, Richard Watson, Thomas Webster.

Registered Auditors (9): Rosemary Anderson, John Carmichael, Gladys Downes, Tanis Foxall, Blanche Jantzen, Peter Martin, Roger Prentice, Dallas Selman, Marilyn White.


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