In this shrinking from, disappearance of the subject, the Carola Letters derive from recognizable antecedents - Ronald Firbank, Jane Bowles, Carl Van Vechten, Ivy Compton-Burnett, James Purdy - largely gay and lesbian artists for whom surface and identity construction were grave and thrilling challenges. Behind them, the entire Surrealist movement. There's a bit of Lewis Carroll and a little Mad Magazine. In that these letters were read aloud as a final assignment - in poetry, no less, a class devoted to "Basic Techniques in Poetry," with a heavy concentration on prosody - the affront to Duncan's authority becomes clearer. If the Carola Letters are poetry, then what isn't poetry? There's a dig at Duncan's concerns in letter 5: Carola, the exotic Italianate name, proves to be the humble American Carol with an added "'a' on the end for vowel strength."
Up to this point, Duncan's camp was largely limited to Names of People and Stein Imitations, wonderful works which aren't terribly funny - they're studied; Duncan's wit, brilliance, erudition and good humor were those, I think, of the ironist. And what of Jack Spicer? Though he was the author of The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming, Spicer was never especially comfortable with camp, and the Kyger-Stanley Carola Letters exhibit exactly the "tea-party first-name business" Spicer decried some years later, when he accused the magazine Open Space of being a "Turkish Bath of the imagination." Though Spicer was highly cognizant of his own propensity to gather intimacy around himself - what Frank O'Hara, around this time, was calling "Personism" - he struck out, perhaps defensively, against all other manifestations of the "in-group mentality."[note 1]
The Letters, as we have them today, end with a final note from Carola herself: "dear childrun: I have gone away to never-never land with peter pan to have a baby because I think it is best for all of us. I shall bring the baby back Monday. And you can all see the baby. And that baby will grow up and have dear sweet babies. And everything will be pure and good. Russell, FIFTY?" This last is a puzzling allusion to Russell FitzGerald's sensational confession, in his private diary, that he had "sucked fifty cocks since Easter." Kyger adds: "Gaggle." Naturally this makes me now wonder if this confession was private, related only to the diary, or a common plaint, or if the Diary of Russell FitzGerald was actually more or less a public document. In any case, "Russell, FIFTY" breaks the fragile shell of the "Carola" narrative to reveal its instability as a poetic form. If the "Carola" material is about anything, it's about how to be young and excited and cool and capable of great awe.
Strange how the actions Russell ascribes to Duncan and Spicer - the way they team up to try to burn the Carola Letters - have become a familiar trope to students of the San Francisco Renaissance. There's another legend that David Meltzer, standing in a living room reading off an endless scroll composed of taped-together sheets of manuscript a la the MS of On the Road, suffered the ultimate indignity when Duncan and Spicer crept up on the carpet and set fire to one end of his masterpiece. This legend has been disputed, but still holds sway anecdotally - why? I wonder if Duncan and Spicer ever conspire to burn the writing of any younger poet, or is this a screen for deeper-seated anxieties? If so, it has the tremendous credibility of the urban legend - people want to believe it. The lit match, the burning paper, express so vividly the poet's fear of being squelched, silenced, ignored, dismissed; taking the shoe to the other foot, we've all suffered through poetry readings where we wished someone's manuscript would burst into flames. Do Duncan and Spicer stand in for one's mother and father, the castrating parents? But Duncan and Spicer weren't middle-aged. They were young themselves. Oh but they must have felt deeply middle-aged in the company of these students, Kyger, Stanley, FitzGerald, Ebbe Borregaard, Joe Dunn, John Wieners, James Alexander, some of them teenagers, none over twenty-five.
In the context of the future careers of Kyger and Stanley, the Carola Letters seem like an aberration. The work of both poets, though often warmly human and emotional, would in future avoid the brittle, camp humor exhibit - an old form outgrown, or abandoned once the "real work" of poetry fell upon them like mantillas of sorrow. Even at the time, the Carola Letters stood outside their normal modes of writing - George Stanley was already the author of the magnificent, often somber Flowers, and Kyger was embarking on the epic drama that became The Tapestry and the Web. Robert Duncan's contemporary memoir As Testimony, his reflections of teaching "Basic Techniques in Poetry," fails to mention the Carola Letters at all. Both Kyger and Stanley became teachers themselves, of exceptional repute, with cadres of devoted students - Kyger at the Naropa Institute, Stanley in Terrace (B.C.). I don't know if either ever set fire to any student manuscripts; I don't know if either have had any students quite as prank-minded, irritating, gifted or independent as they.