A Time When Writers Mattered: Aram Saroyan’s Book of Essays Recalls the ’60s


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

For readers of a certain age, Aram Saroyan’s collection of essays that deal in large part with the poets, writers and other cultural phenomena of the 1960s, will evoke nostalgia in more than one sense. Not only are writers such as Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka, Charles Olson and many others gradually fading from cultural memory, but the time when writers actually made a difference seems to have passed as well.

When Alan Ginsberg published his poem “Howl” in 1956 and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in 1957, these works aroused a
widespread response in the culture. There are probably still those who can recall the most famous opening lines of Ginsberg’s most famous poem (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets, looking for an angry fix…”), although it is doubtful there are many who, today, are inspired by Kerouac’s cross-country odyssey to get on a motorcycle and drive coast to coast.

Of course, we have poets and writers now, but their works do not exert the same wide-spread influence. There are too many distractions, and in the age of the Internet, anyone can publish or blog whatever he or she pleases. There are no quality controls.Who is to determine what is well said and what is not? The audience is as fragmented as the number of personal computers and laptops extant. And print, as a medium, according to many observers, is dying.

Saroyan, who is the son of William Saroyan (1905-1981), was born in 1944. He came of age in the ’60s in New York at a time when it was thrilling to pursue being a writer as a vocation. It was possible, then, to eke out a living doing book reviews and other magazine pieces while one worked on the “the great American novel” or one’s poems, and New York was, at the time, home to a plethora of rising talent in many fields.

The Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village was the meeting place for artists such as Willem de Kooning and sculptor Alexander Calder lived just a few blocks away. The ghost of Dylan Thomas still lingered at the White Horse Tavern and in Cambridge, you could run into beat poets Ginsburg and Gregory Corso on Massachusetts Avenue or at the Hays Bick. A few years later, poet Robert Lowell could be spotted dining with his students at the Iruna Restaurant. Out west in San Francisco’s North Beach, the City Lights bookstore, co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, also served as a public mecca for writers and would-be writers.

The last poet to have a public presence in Harvard Square was the Irish bard Seamus Heaney, and he departed for home a few years
ago, abandoning his teaching stint at Harvard.

People no longer congregate in the coffee shops and bars to discuss literature or ideas, and, to some large degree, they no longer buy books in bookstores. They email, they text, they blog. They order books on-line. If there is a community, it is out there in cyberspace, but the time Saroyan is talking about a time when people actually met each other face to face in cheap apartments
or lofts, or the local bistros, and conversed. They went to readings, and yes, there are still readings but the reverberations are faint compared to what they were then.

The audience for a book that discusses California poet and novelist Charles Bukowski or the black poet and dramatist Amiri Baraka (once known as LeRoi Jones) and other poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan has to be a rare breed. Few read Bukowski now. Baraka, who caused a sensation in 1964 with his play, “The Dutchman,” lives in Newark, where he was born, and is still writing, but he is not the household name he was to the cognoscenti two or three decades ago. He gained notoriety again briefly when he published a controversial poem after 9/11 titled, “Who Blew Up America?” The others are read, perhaps, by other
poets or behind the walls of academe.

Hence, there is a certain sense of sadness that comes in perusing these mostly brief essays. It is difficult to think of American voices that truly resonate throughout the culture today. Philip Roth, perhaps. John Updike. And there are writers such as Robert Stone, Tim O’Brien and Michael Hess, who made their mark with works about the VietnamWar. Interestingly, there has yet to be an iconic novel about either the war in Iraq or Afghanistan although these conflicts have produced many works of journalism. No one has done for these wars what Norman Mailer and James Jones did for World War II.
And so Saroyan is immortalizing the culture heroes of his youth with this collection of short pieces. One essay is a tribute to his more famous father who was widely known for his short story, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” and for a handful of novels, most notably, The Time of Your Life, which was made into a film starring James Cagney.

Unlike his father, who was the son of Armenian immigrants, the younger Saroyan has little or nothing to say about his Armenian heritage. Born of a Jewish mother, he counts himself amongst the emerging poets and writers of the New York School, which include Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, to name just a few, and appears, in his concerns, to be totally assimilated.

The essays, many of which were published in small magazines in the 1960s and later, deal with topics such as the significance of Andy Warhol, the works of Ted Berrigan, Charles Mingus, Joan Didion and others. Saroyan is not what one might call obscure. He gives talks at universities, his work is published. But reading through these often perceptive pieces, one wonders — who is listening? Beyond a handful of highly educated readers it’s difficult to imagine that the generation of hip-hop, Blackberry and iPod has the
faintest idea of who or what he is talking about.

David Godine, a Boston publisher known, especially, for the production quality of his books, is brave to send this volume out into the marketplace. It is a valuable record of a now vanished time when it was exciting and even rewarding to be a writer, to be, at least, a minor public figure, who could read his (and it was almost exclusively men who populated this rarified world) poems to an appreciative audience at Cafe le Metro off St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan.

The public cultural mix is lonelier, emptier, thinner and far less interesting now as we hunch up behind our glowing computer screens.

Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age. By Aram Saroyan. David R. Godine. Boston. 192 pp.
2010. ISBN 978-1-56792-396-4