Caught on Tape

For avant-garde poets, audio recording was both a breakthrough and a threat.
Abstract collage of two men recording

In the winter of 1965, Allen Ginsberg hit the road in a Volkswagen camper. The trip was a speaking tour, of sorts, as Ginsberg was scheduled to read his poetry in cities all over the West Coast and the Midwest, but it was also an experiment in composition. Ginsberg brought with him a portable Uher tape recorder, then an expensive novelty (bought with $600 given to him by Bob Dylan), and used it to dictate what eventually became part of The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1973). Moving “through a range of shifting American environments,” Lytle Shaw writes in his new book Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research (2018), “Ginsberg could capture his own voice, and make almost instantaneous notations, without having to scrawl in a notebook or type on a typewriter.” He could also record radio transmissions, effortlessly incorporating the transistor buzz of contemporary history into his pocket epic. Here, for instance, is the opening of “Hiway Poesy L.A.–Albuquerque–Texas–Wichita”:

up up and away!
                     we’re off, Thru America—

Heading East to San Berdoo                        
                     as West did, Nathanael,
California Radio Lady’s voice
                     Talking about Viet Cong—
          Oh what a beautiful morning
          Sung for us by Nelson Eddy

Two trailer trucks, Sunkist oranges / bright colored
                     piled over the sides
          rolling on the road
Gray hulk of Mt. Baldy under
          white misted skies
Red Square signs unfold, Texaco Shell
                     Harvey House tilted over the superhighway—

Afternoon Light
                     Children in back of a car
                     with Bubblegum
a flight of birds out of a dry field like mosquitoes

“ … several battalions of U.S. troops in a search and destroy operation in the Coastal plain near Bong Son, 300 mi. Northeast of Saigon. Thus far the fighting has been a series of small clashes. In a related action 25 miles to the South, Korean troops killed 35 Viet Cong near Coastal highway Number One.”

The tape recorder picks up everything: Ginsberg’s lyrical notations of the American landscape, but also the background noise of a “California Radio Lady’s voice,” music by Nelson Eddy (and, a few lines later, The Kinks), a news report detailing carnage in faraway Vietnam. The end result is a kind of automatic parataxis: the poem has the busy, fragmented look of one of Ezra Pound’s cantos, but where Pound needed to stitch together textual quotations “by hand,” as it were, in order to achieve the same effect, Ginsberg lets the machine collect evidence for him. (Some of this ambient data is even meaningful: note the poignant contrast of two coastal highways, one in California, where Ginsberg is traveling, one in Vietnam, where 35 Viet Cong have died.)

Ginsberg was just one of the avant-garde poets and writers who adapted the new medium of tape for their art. Other pioneers included William S. Burroughs, whose “cut-up” texts were often generated via tape-splicing, and Bernadette Mayer, who used a tape recorder to create her books Memory (1975) and Studying Hunger (1976). Such experiments with audio-assisted composition are one sign of what Shaw calls “poetry’s oddly central role within the social life of tape recording” in the 1960s and 70s. He also points to albums released by poets such as Charles Olson, Larry Eigner, and Amiri Baraka, and the importance of local radio stations in linking together networks of like-minded avant-gardists.

But the story is deeper and stranger, because Ginsberg, in 1965, was not only recording himself; he was also being recorded, without his knowledge, by the US government. By the mid-1960s, both the FBI and the CIA had the poet under surveillance, bugging his phones and keeping tabs on his political, literary, and personal activities. Ginsberg, Shaw writes, “had come to the Bureau’s attention first because of his involvement with Cuba,” which he visited in 1965 as a guest of the Cuban government, and had aroused further suspicion on account of his antiwar views, his support for decriminalizing marijuana, and his open homosexuality.

Ginsberg was, in many ways, an exceptional case—few other American poets had anything like his fame and cultural influence in the 1960s—but he was not an anomaly. State intelligence agencies also monitored other writers with links to the New Left and the counterculture, including Burroughs, Ed Sanders, and William Carlos Williams. William Maxwell’s recent F.B. Eyes (2015), constructed from a small mountain of FOIA requests, demonstrates that the FBI was particularly invested in monitoring African American writers, and kept active files on everyone from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, to Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. The agencies, it seems, rarely acted on this intelligence: they amassed torrents of personal data against the day when it might somehow come in handy.

Narrowcast began as a book about the New American Poetry (a catchall term for the clutch of mid-century avant-gardes represented in Donald Allen’s influential 1960 anthology of the same name) and its relation to audio technology. But “[i]n the course of gathering my materials,” writes Shaw, an English professor at New York University, “I became fascinated and disturbed by something for which I had not been looking: many of the New Left poets I was studying were themselves objects of state audio surveillance, often by the same reel-to-reel tape recorders whose liberatory potential they celebrated.” Shaw began to feel that what he really needed to describe was “a midcentury audio modernism, an ambitious culture of sonic research … pursued by the state and poets alike.” What does it mean for our understanding of literary history that what Shaw calls the “surveillance avant-garde” were spying on poets using the same technologies that poets themselves were using to renovate their poetics? And can these parallel innovations in literature and surveillance teach us anything about each other?


Though Shaw’s political sympathies are clearly with the poets under surveillance and not with the agents investigating them, he’s more interested in aesthetic investigation than moral denunciation. Narrowcast proposes “to take the state’s readers and listeners seriously,” which means “drawing out the implications of their work, situating it in relation to professional discourses of literature and history and to the poetics of research more generally.” This is not as fanciful as it may seem: the people directing these investigations often had literary-critical backgrounds themselves. Top CIA operatives such as William R. Johnson and James Jesus Angleton, for example, were trained in the New Criticism at Yale. In his book Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counterintelligence Officer (1987), Johnson recommends that young recruits check out Cleanth Brooks’s essay “The Language of Paradox,” arguing that “CI [counterintelligence] is the art of paradox.” Angleton, a man who was so paranoid he “believed that Henry Kissinger was a KGB spy and that the Black Panthers were a North Korean front operation,” was also an advocate of literary modernism who corresponded with Pound, E.E. Cummings, and T. S. Eliot. Angleton even makes a brief appearance, years later, in Ginsberg’s “T.S. Eliot Entered My Dreams,” an essay published in 1977: “And yourself … What did you think of the domination of poetics by the CIA?” Ginsberg asks Eliot (by then 12 years dead). “After all, wasn’t Angleton your friend?”

“[Taking] the state’s readers and listeners seriously,” for Shaw, means resisting the paranoid, us-versus-them attitude that’s all too easy to assume when recounting this sordid history. On the phone, Shaw is witty and voluble, eager not only to recapitulate his book’s arguments but to expand and improvise on them as well. “I didn’t want to focus on a classical romantic view of the oppressed New Left,” he tells me. We know that the US government put activists, intellectuals, and writers under surveillance, Shaw says; we’ve known it for decades, and there is a whole scholarly literature devoted to the subject. (See, for instance, Claire Culleton and Karen Leick’s Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920–1950, or Maxwell’s aforementioned F.B. Eyes.) But “rather than tell us things we already know about how fucked-up that is,” he says, “I want to tell us things we don’t know” about how it happened, and what it means.

Poets and government spies, Shaw claims, often confronted similar kinds of technical issues, albeit from different perspectives: one aesthetic, the other evidentiary. What to do with the fact, for instance, that audio recording inevitably captures more than just the lexical content of speech? A recording of a poem is more than just the text, more even than text plus performance: it always encodes a material context, conveying aspects of speakers’ environments, and even their bodies, along with their words. “There was a ‘poetry’ of the refrigerator and the air conditioner,” Shaw writes in Narrowcast, “of the television and the droning radio in the next room; of clothing in movement and steps on stairs; of the gastric system and the throat; of pot and pan clang and shuffling papers.” Poets such as Olson and Eigner, Shaw thinks, worked to incorporate this “extraneous” aural information into their work, insisting on the situated, embodied, and technologically mediated aspect of their poetics. (Eigner, for instance, whose cerebral palsy limited his movements but increased his attention to his immediate physical environment, detailed the sound of aircraft passing over his house as he wrote, or the sound of his parents watching Lawrence Welk in the next room.) According to Shaw, the New American Poets wanted “to study the porosity of their own spaces,” the way other voices, human and nonhuman, impinged on their own.

But these issues—what to listen for and what to ignore in an audio recording; what counts as text and what context; how (and whether) to separate signal from noise—were of deep concern to the intelligence agencies, too. “[B]ugs don’t separate … ambient sound from speech, lumping airplane hiss, match striking, paper shuffling right along with the Bureau’s preferred domain of self-compromising sentences in the truly confessional mode of lyric poetry,” Shaw writes. In one of his many bravura flights of interpretation, Shaw links the aesthetics of government surveillance to John Stuart Mill’s 1833 essay “What Is Poetry?” which makes a famous distinction between “poetry” and “eloquence.” As Mill writes:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind.

“Following Mill, Agency and Bureau poetry enthusiasts also thought of the ideal utterance both as overheard and as bearing an intimate relation to surveillance and incarceration,” Shaw writes. “They preferred poetry to elocution … because whereas the latter was designed for an audience … the former was poured out unfiltered and thus far more likely to compromise its speaker.” The more conventionally confessional a poet’s expression, the better it was for evidentiary purposes, and the more susceptible it was to the New Critical interpretive paradigms favored by CIA scholars like Johnson and Angleton. But the New American Poets, who were intent on turning away from confessional poetics in their work, sometimes frustrated this desire as surveillance subjects, too. “Bureau spies who wanted the crisp confession of guilt one hears in [Robert Browning’s] ‘My Last Duchess’ were confronted instead with the uncontainable ongoingness of [Olson’s] The Maximus Poems in a frightening array of bugged hippie crash pads. Where exactly to direct one’s attention?”


The remit of Narrowcast extends no further than the late 1970s, by which point, Shaw notes, “a certain phase in American audio culture was over.” For one thing, the technology had grown familiar: the tape recorder, once a novel and radical instrument of creativity, “had become a mundane (and thus invisible) household appliance.” There was also the spectacular public controversy surrounding the Nixon tapes, which made both poets and spies more nervous about the practice of “overall surveillance”: i.e., recording everything, without a clear sense of why it mattered or how it would be used. (Such techniques returned, of course, in the digital era, with the bulk collection of personal data by the NSA after 9/11.)

Poetic trends shifted, too. Within the American avant-garde, the maximalist, data-rich aesthetics of the New American Poetry gave way to the extreme opacity of Language poetry in the late 1960s and early 70s, which, in its eschewal of first-person utterance, was even less adaptable to the “confessional” needs of government investigators. At the same time, poets’ links to active political movements began to weaken, as the radical avant-garde became increasingly absorbed and, arguably, neutralized by the academy. (In her recent book Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, Juliana Spahr argues that the state played a role in this process, too, by infiltrating and sabotaging institutions of “movement literature” such as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School and the Watts Writers Workshop while simultaneously co-opting their aims by supporting “multicultural” reforms of university curricula.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the change of poetry’s role in public culture. What seems most distant about the America that Shaw recalls in Narrowcast is not its paranoia, its political divisions, or its technological dialectic of utopia and dystopia: all of those, mutatis mutandis, are still with us, though certainly the valences have shifted a bit. (Who would have thought in 1965 that state intelligence agencies would be regarded as a progressive bulwark? But here we are.) No, what seems lost, and perhaps irrecoverable, is the sense of threat that poetry poses to the state, the idea that poets and government agents are anything like opponents of equal stature. Even if a poet today approached Ginsberg’s superstar status, it’s hard to believe the government would bother tracking his or her movements. In 2018, it’s possible to be a little nostalgic for the idea that a poet’s activity would even be worth monitoring.

Originally Published: December 10th, 2018

Evan Kindley is the author of Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture (Harvard University Press, 2017). He is a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College and a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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