Author Post: 1968, A History in Verse

In The Rebel Cafe is a collection of interviews with Ed Sanders, constituting a career biography of Sanders as a writer, musician, and activist. In this blog post, the collection’s editor, Jennie Skerl, explores Sanders’s position as a leading cultural rebel in the 1960s, drawing on the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago as detailed in Sanders’s poem 1968: A History in Verse.

The Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago 7 revived interest in the events in Chicago in August 1968, and the subsequent trial of the organizers of a massive anti-war protest during the Democratic National Convention that brought together cultural rebels (led by the Yippies, or Youth International Party) and political rebels (led by Mobe, the National Mobilzation to End the War in Vietnam).  Those who want to know more about the protest and its cultural context can find a powerful first-hand history in Ed Sanders’s book-length poem:  1968: A History in Verse (Black Sparrow, 1997).  In 1968, Sanders was a leading cultural rebel on the Lower East Side of New York City as a poet, musician, publisher, bookstore owner, and activist.  In the early 1960s, he had been active in the anti-nuclear peace movement, and in the latter part of the decade he opposed the Vietnam War.  In 1968, Sanders was one of the Yippies who planned the “Festival of Life,” a counter-cultural response to the Democratic Party Convention which nominated Hubert Humphrey on a platform to continue the war.  Thus, Sanders was a participant, witness, and later a chronicler of what happened in his book published 29 years later.  As he stated in his introductory note to 1968:

… I strutted through the time-track

Daring to be a part

Of the history

Of the era…

Sanders’s 1968 surveys the entire year in a chronological narrative, or what he calls a  “chrono-flow,” that climaxes in Chicago in August of that year.  The reader is educated in the politics of the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, and the role of the arts in protesting the war.  What happened in Chicago is placed within the broader cultural context of the 1960’s and also the personal context of Sanders’s life that year, his “time-track.”  Furthermore, the history is told in poetic form, an epic in the modernist tradition of Sanders’s mentor Charles Olson, employing a montage of fragments while maintaining an accessible, overarching month-by-month narrative structure and a postmodern mix of historical, autobiographical, narrative, dramatic, documentary, prosy, lyrical, and visual elements.

The main story lines are the conduct of the war, the presidential race within the Democratic party, and the anti-war movement.  Sanders describes U. S. government plots to suppress or disrupt opposition to the war carried out by the FBI, CIA, and ASA (Army Security Agency).  These are linked to the FBI’s attempts to disrupt the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, and to Sanders’s theories about government agencies’ involvement in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.  Historical information about the foregoing, based on research, is complemented by information based on Sanders’s personal experience as a Yippie, musician, and poet.  The story of the Yippies’ founding, their guerrilla theater tactics, and the planning for the Festival of Life in Chicago functions as a counter-cultural parallel to mainstream politics.  As a leader of the satirical folk-rock band, the Fugs, Sanders is able to weave the popular music world into the narrative.  Rock and folk music provided the sound track to the cultural and political revolt of the time and inspired a generation.  As a poet, Sanders is able to draw the poetry community into the story, emphasizing prominent poets who spoke out against the war and refused awards in protest.  Some extended episodes describe mass protests in other countries that reflect a world-wide cultural/political rebellion:  Czechoslovakia, France, Mexico.

The various narratives converge in the events in Chicago on August 25-28, 1968.  Here, Sanders gives a day-by-day account of how a free concert and initially peaceful protests were overwhelmed by violence when police attacked demonstrators and journalists in what was later called a “police riot.”  The violence in the streets penetrated the Democratic party’s convention when police pushed protesters through the Hilton hotel’s ground-level glass window, when tear gas penetrated delegates’ hotel rooms, when Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy set up a first-aid station in his suite, and when a well-known television reporter was punched by a security guard on the convention floor—all shown or reported on television.  These officially recorded events are retold along with Sanders’s personal experience of chaos, fear, and horror in the parks and streets of Chicago every evening as the police violently drove people from city parks because the mayor’s office had denied permits to stay overnight.  Yippie and Mobe leaders attempted to calm the crowds and guide them to safety out of the parks.  Daily conflicts with the police culminated on August 28 when Mobe attempted to lead a peaceful march to the convention, resulting in an orgy of police brutality near the Hilton Hotel.  A stunned television audience watched police clubbing, tear gassing, dragging, and throwing demonstrators who sat in the street chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

As shown in the Netflix film, Nixon won the presidency with a “law and order” campaign, and his attorney general decided to make an example of the Yippies and Mobe organizers; hence, the trial in 1969.  Sanders was not charged but testified for the defense.  He did not write about his 1968 experience until many years later, after he developed a new poetics called “investigative poetry,” in which the poet acts as investigator, historian, and story-teller performing the ancient role of bard, the chronicler of a civilization.