#133: PRIVATE LOYALTIES. As identity politics of all kind have become the strained and rancorous stuff of everyday life in America (I’m writing in February, 2018), it was interesting to come upon Tom Clark’s 1980 book The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (Cadmus Editions), an account of a now almost-forgotten brouhaha that still seems to embody in miniature all the dangers and difficulties of group identities. Briefly: Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan-exile Buddhist teacher, had settled in Boulder, Colorado, and had established a variety of teaching centers. At a Hallowe’en party at Trungpa’s Vajrayana Seminary in 1975, the poet W.S. Merwin and his companion Dana Naone had slipped away from the party when the booze started flowing and the clothes started coming off; Merwin had reportedly disconcerted Trungpa more than once by challenging his ideas, and no doubt scented trouble on the way. Several of Trungpa’s students and bodyguards were sent to Merwin’s room, hauled him and Naone out, and forcibly stripped them, despite their resistance and protests (several people got badly cut up). The incident, hushed up at the time, displayed a stubborn tendency not to get forgotten, and became a divisive moment both in the poetry community and in the reception of Trungpa’s teachings. A few years later, some students at Naropa wrote up an investigative report about the event; it got published by a Boulder magazine, whose senior writer was Tom Clark, and this 1980 book was an expansion of that report and the incident’s aftermath. Included on either side of the argument were, among others, Anne Waldmann, Robert Bly, Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg—who at the time was one of the ornaments of Trungpa’s suite and his vociferous defender. One of the many ways in which The Great Naropa Poetry Wars is redolent of the seventies and eighties is the peculiar place of devotion occupied by Ginsberg; his reaction to the situation seemed to me a mixture of hand-wringing and illogic, but he obviously excited an enormous loyalty—as did Trungpa himself. As the incident became known and mythologized, Dinitia Smith wrote, it “became an epitaph for an era, a paradigm of the difference between two kinds of poetry -- between Ginsberg's passionate, declamatory style and Merwin's restrained, Western formalism.” In the process, friendships foundered, people took sides, and acted in varying levels of good and bad faith; private loyalties battled with devotion to truth. Tom Clark’s recounting is intelligent and vivid; some of the humor aimed at the Naropa people is a bit inexpensive, but he gets at the fears and tempers of people in the thick of things, who haven’t the luxury of historic distance. And though Clark is a prolific and accomplished poet, he has a journalist’s instinct for, among other wise paths, following the money. Poetry Wars is a quick, interesting read, and with the squabbles and predicaments of identity politics all around us these days, its lessons are sad, cautionary and pertinent.
top of page
bottom of page