112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Boston’s “Better Dream House”: Introducing the “Occult School”

Robert Dewhurst, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

While studies of literary modernism and magic have tended to focus on high modernist figures, poetic interest in magic and the occult carried forward into proto-postmodern experimental writing communities of midcentury. This paper looks at three central figures of Boston’s “occult school”—John Wieners, Stephen Jonas, and Gerrit Lansing—and traces their investments in magical traditions and techniques as sources for poetry.

Proposal: 

Critical studies of the interaction between literary modernism and traditions of magic and the occult have tended to concentrate on the high modernist canon, as in Leon Surette and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulou’s 1996 volume Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition (essays on Joyce, Pound, and H.D.), or Leigh Wilson’s more recent study Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy, and the Occult (2012; discussions of Joyce and Pound). Necessary as these studies have been in tracing the generative relations between writing, representation, and occult traditions in the early decades of twentieth century, critics have stopped short of tracing magic’s influence on post-1945 experimental writing. This paper supplements the existing discourse on literary modernism and magic, by attending to one particularly “occulted” (pun intended) mid-twentieth-century poetic community: the “Occult School” of Boston, which coalesced between Beacon Hill and Gloucester from approximately 1954–1970.

Formed in the stormy after hours of a memorable poetry recital given by Charles Olson during Hurricane Hazel in September 1954, Boston’s occult school was led by John Wieners, Stephen Jonas, Joe Dunn, Edward Marshall, and Gerrit Lansing, with important cameos made in 1956 by Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer. In 1966, appraising the eclipse of this group by better positioned and more media-ready avant-gardes in New York and San Francisco, Lansing called this group “The School of Boston . . . an occult school, unknown.” The “occult school” poets were united by intensive friendship, affinity for the Boston’s urban underworld (of jazz clubs, queer bars, and rooming houses), and, perhaps most of all, by recherché cultural interests in magic, mysticism, and Western esotericism. The poets of the School of Boston produced three significant small-press projects: Wieners’s “quarterly” Measure (1958–1962), which released a special “Magick” issue in 1958; Lansing’s periodical SET (1961–1964), the only magazine of “the mimeograph revolution” devoted exclusively to the interface between poetry and the occult; and Dunn’s White Rabbit Press (1957–1968), the primary publishing outlet for Spicer’s “Poetry as Magic” workshop participants in San Francisco.

This paper will serve as an introduction to the experimental poetics of Boston’s occult school, and especially to the ways in which the group’s poets invested in magic and occult traditions as sources of information for, and conduits to, poetic composition. In the course of my discussion, I will survey the iconographic Tarot poems of John Wieners; the incantatory vernacular poetics of Stephen Jonas; and the thelematic poetry of Gerrit Lansing.