This essay attempts to reframe the scholarship on postwar avant-gardist practice by rereading an event some commentators consider the beginning of the academic cooptation of the avant-garde: the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965. Held just after the anthology wars had established the more-notable poets in attendance as the “wild other” of academic verse culture,the event was an effort to stage a collective identity. The essay focuses its account of the conference—and the vast, internally-differentiated avant-garde represented there—through an analysis of Charles Olson's notorious performance. Olson's reading is considered by some a tour de force and by others a drunken ramble. This essay interprets it as an attempt to articulate an institution and contends that its excesses derive from his simultaneously marginal and central positioning as the “boss poet”of a community committed to perpetual emergence. Theories of the avant-garde that figure institutionalization as a necessary and final fall from grace,while perhaps schematically accurate, cannot do justice to the struggle over identity and value that marks every stage in the process of literary evolution. Reading Olson's performance as an effort—in the words of Gertrude Stein—to have contemporaries, this essay seeks to complicate the myth of the aporetic, antisocial avant-garde on a self-destructive quest for the future. Instead, it finds revolutionary impulses coexisting with the project of shoring up one's personal position by creating new institutions. Institutionalization and breakthrough, thus, go hand in hand.

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