Poet is almost too limiting a term to describe Anne Waldman: she seems to be a force of nature! She came from a family steeped in bohemian culture and moved quite easily into the artistic ferment of New York City in the mid-1960s. For many years she organized the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, a series of readings and workshops that brought the influential Beat writers of the earlier decade together with younger writers experimenting with language, with modes of perception, and with new styles of presentation. With Allen Ginsberg, she founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and she was one of the central figures in the movement stressing the dramatic performance of poetry.
When Waldman presents her own poetry in public, her voice becomes an instrument that can move from whisper to scream to spine-tingling howl in the space of a very few syllables. Through it all, she has kept publishing — somewhere over forty books now, and still counting.
She has never written an autobiography, and she has never needed to. In Waldman's passionately intellectual world there are no divisions between the life and the imagination. Still, her recent Vow to Poetry, which gathers together essays, interviews, and poetic manifestos, provides a lot of detail about the life behind this extraordinary body of work.
Waldman tells us in one of her interviews, "I took a vow early on to never give up on poetry or on the poetic community — to serve as a votary to this high and rebellious art." She continues to believe in the quasi-religious role of poetry and articulates it at every moment, as several of the manifestos included here show. She continues to be rebellious, constantly questioning political attitudes. One interviewer tells her that he thinks her "shrillness and inability to draw political distinctions" makes her "marginal and ineffectual." Waldman replies with humor, "How provocative of you! I disagree. I find the government — and most governments, not just ours — demonic."
Though her rants are fun and often funny, Waldman is best when sticking close to her artistic home: when writing about the poets she has known and about their work. There is a short piece in this book describing her last visit with the dying Allen Ginsberg, about the tears they shared when he told her about his impending death. She ends the piece with a poem she composed beside Ginsberg's body, while several Buddhist monks chanted around her. This piece will certainly become part of the mosaic of American literary history. It alone is worth the price of Vow to Poetry.
Waldman reads from her work at the Hatcher Graduate Library on Friday, March 15, as part of a three-day U-M conference celebrating Waldman and her work and influence.