[Author’s note: The numbered sections reprinted below are taken from a 3000-line poem titled Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), recounting my life from 1965 to 1969, a time when the younger generation began demonstrating against the American invasion of Vietnam and for Black civil rights. These excerpts describe the 1968 upheavals at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student, though spending at that time a Fulbright year in Paris. Earlier in the spring a student uprising in Paris led to a full-scale national strike against De Gaulle’s government, which may have been one of the stimuli for the Columbia demonstrations. Workers’ strikes began at the automotive plants in Nanterre, an industrial town near Paris.]
The plague had spread past hope of remedy.
Discourse volleyed back and forth between
Nanterre and Place Maubert, Défense d’afficher [“post no bills”]
The first restraint to crumble as the walls
Papered over with grievances and slogans,
The wise and ardent icons, Chairman Mao
And Che Guevara. For the first time in decades
The International assumption rang
True. And here was electric news from home:
Columbia had been taken over, shut
Down by the S.D.S. till further notice.
The gray sandstorm of a wire photo
Coalesced around a teenaged striker,
Feet propped on President Kirk’s desk,
Puffing a cigar beneath a Rembrandt portrait.
Not since Berkeley, we thought…. But what about
Our friends—teachers, students, who might be caught
Up in the drama? Telephone parleys,
Expensive, curtailed, picked their way over
A minefield of conflicting sympathies.
Which tipped in favor of the protest once
Guards swept down and cleared the buildings, clubbing
Anyone to slow to dodge. For blood
Is still blood, however urgent the theory
That sheds it….
News from Nanterre: a crackdown no less brutal
Than Columbia’s. And then an echoic
Roar of support from the Quartier Latin.
Students ten thousand vocal marched against
The incarceration of their leaders, state
Repression. The Sorbonne closed its doors.
Shouting matches, harassment, and at last
A pitched battle, which deployed in slow
Motion, a liquid nightmare staged around
Collaged barricades thrown together
From lumber, capsized cars and paving stones.
The C.R.S., black-helmeted, with shields,
Goggles and nightsticks, swarmed from armored trucks,
Advancing through a fusillade of stones.
Protesters, in street clothes, fell down and bled.
Cries. Distant sirens. The faint burn
Of teargas drifted down to the 13th.
When quiet returned, I stealthily threaded
My way up toward the brooding Panthéon
And rue St. Jacques, wondering whether some new
Éducation sentimentale would be hatched
From this unrest. The tower of St. Étienne
Said, “Paris repeats herself, true, but the terms
Differ….” A liberated Odéon
Now featured a round-the-clock debate
Open to whoever could make themselves heard.
Groups or solos seized the platform, held it
Till hounded down by boo’s or Merde!’s: total
Dissent voiced in a total democracy.
(I still can’t get that noise out of my ears.)