Poet speaks of history-in-the-making on college campuses

THE BEATNIK GOES ON

September 21, 1992|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

The Beat movement goes on for 53-year-old Ed Sanders, poet, maker of his own musical instruments, classical scholar and translator, author of a book about the Charles Manson murders, and member of the '60s rock group called the Fugs, whose time capsule-worthy songs included "Group Grope." If Mr. Sanders is a Renaissance man, he's a downright quirky one.

When he speaks tonight at the Maryland Institute, College of Art he will no doubt play off those much-mythicized times of the '50s and '60s, but he'd just as soon work today's headlines into a poetic line. Just consider a lecture Mr. Sanders gave in 1975 for the Visiting Spontaneous Poetics Academy of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., in which he defined his mission as follows: "Investigative Poetry: that poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history."

But the history that interests him is history in the making. There's nothing of the nostalgia merchant about him as he performs around the country for the latest generation of college kids.

"The kids don't want to know about the past so much as the present. They want to be useful mammals in a complicated computer world. It's surprising and satisfying not to be asked about the past, but to stay current," Mr. Sanders says during a phone chat from his upstate New York home.

Far from writing off today's students as mouthpieces for Reagan-Bush rhetoric, he senses a shift in their sensibility.

"I have a lot of hope. This generation is a little more inquisitive and willing to take a risk. It's interpreted as a risk today to want to change things, but they have a willingness to change the medical system, for instance, and this generation is also less willing to tout laissez-faire economics than [the people who grew up in the heyday of Reaganomics]. They want more planning and more helping of people. It's a kind of spirit I haven't seen in a long time because the group just before was hypnotized by Ronnie.

"They've all been trained to laugh -- after all, they've seen 20,000 sitcoms on TV -- and now they have to learn how to be serious. They realize that we need a non-polluting economy -- green economics -- and we also need a good health system and personal freedom."

Ed Sanders is an avid culture watcher as the 20th century draws to a close. As his words on the subject shoot forth, one can imagine his notoriously unruly hair flying out even further from his head.

"The fin de siecle gets quite interesting -- look at the end of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries -- and that's why I'm looking forward to a groovy last few years of the 20th century. It comes after a very bloody century, but also one with great things and inventions -- we've had both Georgia O'Keeffe and Hitler.

Asked how the demise of communism fits into his observations, Mr. Sanders says, "I think the collapse of communism will not be seen as the completely momentous thing it has been taken to be. All along [communism] was a paper tiger that the American right wing bolstered up for its own reasons, and these right wing forces will now have street corner urine tests if they can. The possibility of creating a circle of total surveillance is right here.

"The strategists of the Cold War are looking for an enemy, and the environmental movement comes as close as anything. There's also blacks and uppity American Indians and always women, all of whom could be treated like the new communists. The task for the left -- well, we can't call them that any more." He pauses for a moment of definitional reconsideration. "I don't know what the word is for the 'left' any more. . . . The opposite of the right wing must be careful not to let [the right] isolate them as an enemy."

Not surprisingly, Ed Sanders is active in Democratic politics in the town where he has long been established: Woodstock, N.Y. Yes, that Woodstock. He gets a kick out of the fact that although the rock festival was held miles away, unwitting tourists still come tripping through town.

And this Zeitgeist-watcher considers his town an interesting example of how American society is being restructured into "an economy with home-based industries like computer consulting and editing. The electronic workplace marks a genuine shift in the economy. In rural areas many people are working at home in their little houses out in the woods. It's good for the environment. . .

"A lot is going on in the cities, too. The greening of the cities is happening already. Down on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan], people are now growing zucchini where I printed wild minor magazines 20 years ago, and for all I know that is a better use of the land."

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